A chance visit to Julian's cell, and an overwhelming feeling of being enfolded in its calm, loving spirit, led to a desire to know her better, which culminated in my writing my novel
Margaret Coles, author, writes "I was in Norwich for an interview with Anglia Television and took the opportunity to visit the Cathedral. As I turned to leave my eye was drawn by a leaflet on a table near the entrance. I picked up the leaflet and read about Julian. My curiosity was aroused: a woman writer, like me, but one who was a solitary and lived six hundred years ago. There was a map of the route to St Julian's Church, some ten minutes' walk away. I had time to spare before my train back to London, so I decided to visit Julian's cell.
I was caught up and held by the spirit of the place. I sensed an invitation to be rested and healed. I took one of the little stools stacked near the door, sat on it and closed my eyes. Breathing slowly, and observing the inflowing and outflowing of my breath, I meditated for several minutes. A sense of elation welled up within me. I felt ecstatic, flooded with joy. I suddenly wanted to know the woman whose spirit was imprinted on the place. On my way out of the church I saw a table upon which were copies of Enfolded In Love, a selection of readings from Revelations of Divine Love. I put my payment in the collection box and took my copy.
Two weeks later, out of the blue, a friend invited me to accompany him on a day out in Norwich, where he had a business meeting. It was his first such invitation; an extraordinary coincidence (though Julian says nothing happens by chance). That day I spent three hours in the Julian Centre's extensive library.
The more I read about Julian the more she fascinated me. Whilst the Church was preaching sin, punishment and purgatory, Julian was writing of a God who is never angry and who looks upon his beloved children with a compassionate understanding, "with pity, not with blame". What she was writing would have been considered heresy. I was astonished by her daring and courage.
Julian lived under the absolute authority, both spiritual and temporal, of Henry Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich. Known as the "Battling Bishop", he was a brutal man and a clever politician who had the gift of turning even dire circumstances to his advantage. Under Despenser's nose, Julian pondered the meaning of her visions and wrote her masterpiece.
Julian knew full well the risk she was taking. From her cell, with its window onto the world, she could smell the burning flesh of heretics being put to death at nearby Mousehold Heath. She risked her life for a piece of writing. As a journalist, that intrigued me.
I realised that Julian's loving, optimistic theology had much to offer to the modern world. It cuts through the confusion and doubt that many feel about religion. The "wrathful God who loves you" has been an unconvincing prospect for so many, especially those who have had "religion" rammed down their throats as children. One could say that God has had a bad press.
The truth, as revealed by Julian, became a story that I had to tell. I needed to do it in a way that would draw in people who knew nothing about her, including those who would be put off by the idea of a "spiritual" or "religious" book. I decided to write a novel. The Greening would be a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, combining two love stories and a detective story and with a surprise final twist.
I had no intention of "watering down" Julian's messages; quite the reverse. If I could engage readers in an entertaining story which worked on its own merits as a piece of literature, it would then be possible to gradually feed in Julian's teachings quite naturally, as they found their place in the lives of my characters. I was already becoming deeply immersed in Julian, but this was not nearly enough. I needed to do in-depth research (something I love doing), applying the rigorous standards of good journalism, to learn from the experts and understand Julian's world.
Covid has challenged us in ways we could never have foreseen, but Julian's world, viewed from her little window, to which people came for comfort, reassurance and guidance, was harsher than we can imagine. When she was born England was at war with France. She lived through at least two plague pandemics and an epidemic of Mad Cow Disease, which caused widespread starvation. And yet, she made sense of life. She found meaning.
I set my story in Fleet Street, where I was working at the time, portraying the atmosphere of a tough environment and a buzzy newsroom. My main character, Joanna, is an ethical journalist (yes, there are plenty of those in Fleet Street, I can assure you!) who is being put under pressure to compromise her principles. At this moment of crisis Joanna chances upon the journal of the mysterious Anna Leigh. She is moved by Anna's compelling confessional about her life-changing encounter with Julian. Joanna, in turn, becomes captivated by Julian and reminded of her own neglected ambition to pursue the truth at all costs.
Anna's journal, which forms part of the narrative of The Greening, ends abruptly, at a point where she has suffered a crisis of her own, leaving no clues. Joanna's journalistic instincts are aroused. What happened to Anna? The sudden breaking off of her narrative suggests some trauma. Joanna needs to know if Anna was helped in any meaningful way by her attempts to assimilate Julian's teachings into her life. Julian promises that, despite the pain and sorrow we endure, life can have purpose and meaning. Did that promise hold good for Anna?
Employing her journalistic skills, Joanna sets out to search for Anna, but can find no trace of her. Joanna's conscience is tested and she is put in danger when confronted by a terrible choice. Does she save her career by smearing a whistleblower who has exposed a government scandal in which her lover may be implicated?
As Joanna's need grows to look ever deeper into Julian's teaching and search out the solace she craves, Julian's words reach out across the centuries, challenging her to put at risk everything she holds dear.
As the years unfold, through joy and sorrow, Joanna's life changes, at first subtly. She moves from news reporting to cover human rights and commits to writing stories in which she believes, even if others do not. I illustrated this with my experience of writing about East Timor, which at that time was illegally and brutally occupied by Indonesia.
Joanna is doing excellent work, but she is not at peace. Her curiosity about the mysterious Anna never leaves her; nor does the question she has longed to ask her: did Julian's promise hold good?
It took me fifteen years to write The Greening. What kept me going through all those years was a deepening appreciation of Julian and her example of staying on the story and reporting faithfully, even when her intellect was challenged. How could she reconcile "Sin shall be a glory" with the Church’s and her own recognition of sin as evil? Ultimately she could not, but she did not try to manipulate the facts into a neat conclusion. Rather, she held the two opposites in tension, accepting that which could not be reconciled. In journalistic terms, she did not fudge the facts to fit the story.
Julian's most famous words, "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well" are no facile platitude. They have an intrinsic ring of truth and invite us into an understanding and acceptance that we cannot know everything here and now - and that's alright because God has it all in hand. Julian's words of reassurance have given comfort to so many and will continue to do so.
The title The Greening was inspired by Hildegard of Bingen's use of the word "viriditas", which has been translated as "greenness" and "the greening power of the Divine". Later I gave Joanna the line: "I had chosen Julian's path and in her footsteps I must proceed upon the journey of the spirit and the greening of my soul."
I am enormously grateful for the much-valued help, support and reassurance I received from many Friends of Julian as well as from mediaeval historians and others. In particular, I must mention Brian Thorne, former chairman of the Friends, Fr Robert Llewelyn, Sister Elizabeth Obbard and Sister Benedicta Ward, all of whom were extremely generous with their time. I am very grateful for Brian's endorsement of The Greening and for that of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. I must also pay tribute to the many authors whose translations of Revelations of Divine Love opened my eyes to the beauty and meaning of Julian's words."
More information about The Greening can be found by clicking here.
The Greening can be purchased by clicking here, and elsewhere.
Margaret Coles is a writer, journalist, playwright and broadcaster. She was a television and radio reporter and presenter at the BBC, where she worked on the flagship news programme Today, The World At One, PM, Woman’s Hour and Newsnight. At the World Service she read the news, presented current affairs, science and arts programmes and adapted plays for the Drama Department. Subsequently she was for several years a business columnist at The Sunday Times.
Margaret began her career as an actress. Her stage plays include Senghenydd, the story of Britain’s biggest mining disaster, first performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, and The Queen’s Fool - about a young Elizabeth I and her woman fool - co-written with Susan Evans and first performed at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells.
She also has a media consultancy, specialising in charities and animal rights, lectures journalism students, gives talks at conferences and business clubs and runs Creative Writing and Storytelling Workshops.