In May, I had the immense pleasure of hosting a virtual roundtable discussion on Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer’s new book, Anchorhold: Corresponding with Revelations of Divine Love. The discussion participants included myself, Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer, Chris Trott, Joanne Epp, and Val Neufeld. The following article is an edited transcription of our (much lengthier!) discussion.
– Sara Krahn, Editor of Rupert’s Land News
RLN: I would like to start by extending a huge and heartfelt welcome to Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer for taking the time to chat with us about her beautiful new book, Anchorhold: Corresponding with Revelations of Divine Love. Kirsten, you are no stranger to all of us here and you are the reason we are all here, as your life and work have overlapped with the life of each participant here, be it through your preaching, writing, counseling, or friendship. Our panel of participants, however, might be less known to each other, so I would like each participant to say just a bit about themselves, their name, their vocation, and their relationship to Kirsten.
Chris: I am the Warden of St John’s College in Winnipeg and an Associate Professor in the Native Studies Department teaching Inuit studies. I met Kirsten a number of years ago when we worked on some projects on theological education in the Diocese together. Julian of Norwich is one of my favourite Christian writers and I was very excited when I found out that Kirsten was writing on the Revelations. I am an unregenerate academic and I fear my questions look more like a doctoral examination than a conversation.
Val: I am 57—mother of two kids in their 20’s. I work as a therapist and have done so for the past almost 30 years. I also come from a family of pilots and at 50 I also got my license and a few times every year my husband and I will deliver aircraft to various parts of the world for a mission organization. I am a friend of Kirsten’s—we share a love of our work in counseling and for the Word of God. I feel so very honoured to have read through her book in manuscript form. I was given it to edit and all I did was underline the so many words that moved and delighted me.
Joanne: I and my family have attended St. Margaret’s for 20 years, and I’ve been sub- organist for about 10 years (I think). I am a poet (my second book will be out in a few weeks). I came to this book because of Kirsten, having listened to her preach and lead worship at St. Margaret’s, and having heard a little about this book from her as she was working on it.
RLN: Welcome everyone and thank you for being here. Alright, so let’s get right into it. Kirsten, we are here to discuss your book, Anchorhold: Corresponding with Revelations of Divine Love, which is a series of letters that you write to the 14th century anchoress Julian of Norwich. Now, before we get into the meat of your letters, we need to know a couple of things just for context, namely: Who is Julian of Norwich? And, why did you choose her as your spiritual teacher?
Kirsten: So, who is Julian of Norwich is a really good question. Very little is actually known about her. We do know that she was an anchoress and also that she was a theologian. She was someone who knew what it was to understand the physical body in the presence of Christ, and the motherhood of God in unique ways. Within her life she experienced the Black Plague, which wiped out at least a third of the population in Norwich. She was also a mystic who had only one vision. Many of the mystics in the medieval era were people who saw multiple visions, but she only had one, and that was the revelation of Christ’s face on the cross as enlivened and speaking to her in 16 shewings. She was not actually in the anchorhold when she had the vision. She was 30 years old, and it is possible that she was married and had young children. I don’t know whether that’s true. But I do know that she was not necessarily a nun and that she had a familial life. She probably went into the anchorhold when she was in her mid-late 40’s, and she lived till about 74 years old. If you are an anchorite, you are sealed into a small room. In Julian’s case, the room was attached to a church in the middle of the city. There is actually a funeral service said for you when you enter an anchorhold because it is meant to be your entombment, your enfolding in Christ. So that was how Julian lived the last 20 or so years of her life. Anchorites were keepers of the church, but they also gave advice to the city dwellers. People came and asked for counsel and guidance from the anchorite who lived at the centre of the city and was present before God and praying for them. I should also say that I intentionally encountered Julian in and through her text. My teacher is the Revelations of Divine Love, not a character whose name is Julian of Norwich. Part of what I’m doing in my letters is reclaiming a kind of reading, an approach to a text which is amateur, meaning full of love. You can actually fall in love with a text and give yourself to learn it through that love.
The first time I encountered Julian’s Revelations was in a Theology Survey course. I read one page of her, which was the motherhood of God page. And what shocked me was that she spoke so pungently of motherhood and used the pronoun ‘he’ for Christ. There wasn’t this feminist agenda, but there was a seeing of the motherhood of Christ, and this was revolutionary to me. Then, I studied Charles Williams in my master’s degree and I read the whole of her for the first time. And I thought: she is a theologian. She uses what Christ has given her—a vision—and a liveliness in her body to describe her found theological insights. And this astounded me. But, as I say in the beginning of the book, I may have loved her ideas but I didn’t love her way of being. I was not ready to follow her way of being. Over the next ten years, though, I slowly began to turn. I had left St. Margaret’s because I needed to go quiet and attend to matters in my personal life. And at one point, after a period of rest, I saw Julian’s text on my shelf, and I took down her book and read the first letter; I immediately wanted to write her a letter. This was the moment I knew what I was going to do.
RLN: Wow, thank you Kirsten. What a wonderful introduction to Julian and your book. There is an immense amount of material to unpack in this book, and I imagine we will have quite a breadth of questions. To get us started, I thought we could look at the first and second chapters, where you unpack Julian’s interpretation of her own bodily sickness, which she understands as a “gift” from God that has pointed her towards a longing for Christ. I would like to open up the discussion to our participants.
Chris: I have a question here, and it’s one that I’ve had for a very long time stemming from Christian mysticism. Julian spends time talking about her sickness, and clearly, she sees her sickness as the vehicle for her encounter with Christ. The part that I picked up on is that you also enter into your experience there—your emotional and physical sickness—and you seem to apply a kind of parallelism between you and Julian. That’s the way I read it anyway. I’m also aware of the long Christian tradition that as we follow in the footsteps of Christ we have to follow in Christ’s suffering in order to enter that deeper relationship to God. And I have to tell you, Kirsten, what do you do with someone like me who has never experienced that kind of deep sickness unto death. Does that mean that we can’t enter into that deep relationship with Christ? There is almost an implication there! Is that kind of sickness and suffering really necessary for this process?
Kirsten: I think it was necessary for Julian of Norwich to experience a sickness unto death to perceive Christ’s love in the way that she did. But I think it was necessary because it was given to her to long for it, and she, therefore, engaged her longing and her experience. I think the key here is not so much the suffering as it is that she engaged her life. I think the danger is to preclude suffering in the danger of our life. I think we will not experience the fullness of God if we refuse the life we are given. And I think that is the temptation of all of us. It is to not express the longing, the suffering, and the joys that we have been given in life. What I see in Julian is that she fully lived in that she was given—the longing for suffering—in order to enter into the passion. And she knew that it was a holy longing, and not some sick tendency to suffer. She was willing to take the risk of it. A risk that many of us are not willing to take, and therefore are not willing to receive the suffering that comes with the risk.
Chris: In fact, in some ways, you are saying that the suffering might distract us.
Kirsten: Yes! It does! We want to run from pain and suffering! But a large part of embracing suffering is how we come into it.
Chris: Right. I think what you’re saying to me is that I’m being distracted by the notion of “sickness unto death” and not asking the question of the whole life that surrounds that suffering.
Kirsten: I think so. I’m also saying that we are all distracted by suffering. I would say you are right to bring up the issue of suffering because it is often the reason we are not able to fully engage our lives.
Val: You have this great line, Kirsten, where you write that “we come to our vocations when we come to nothing and you’re so sick that you have no power or control or pretense.” I just think that’s a beautiful line, and I hear that what you’re talking about is the longings we have within us. Would you say that when we come to our vocations we come to our longings?
Kirsten: Yes, and I think I’m going to say the opposite thing from what I just said, which is that suffering can be a remarkably good teacher. That absolute vulnerability of sickness can open up that gate of finding your vocation, and freedom in it. You’ve hit transparency to God. I think that for those who suffer, and who are undone, it might be easier to enter into one’s life and vocation.
Joanne: You make a comment on page 48 where you say: “When my suffering comes within the cross, my pain can be displaced within his pain and opens up to the world’s pain in love.” Can you say a bit more about what that means to have your own suffering come within the cross?
Kirsten: Julian makes a huge point that she chooses the crucified Christ as her heaven. In a sense, she almost refuses to look up to heaven—to be relieved from it. I think she does that because it is her vocation, and in so doing she is relieved of her pain because she is so focused on his pain. Christ’s pain displaces Julian’s pain experientially, and that happens right at the beginning of the narrative. There is this moment where she is in great pain and dying, and as soon as the revelations begin the pain disappears. I think that part of what is going on in the narrative arch is this illustration that when you enter in, you are not just entering into a symbol, but a reality. Julian has moved from being alive to herself to alive in him. So, I think what I mean when I say that my pain comes into the cross is that when I enter into this absoluteness or “all-ness,” my concrete experience becomes enfolded within Christ’s experience. And in that process, the compassion that Christ has for me is opened to others in love. In brief, this is the theological insight that I was working through and trying so hard to understand through Julian’s text. But the experiential piece is that when we are broken open and our suffering is no longer making us implode, it will make us expand. And this is witnessed by both the saints and those who have suffered profoundly. What they have experienced is no longer killing them, but rather giving them a life to share with others.
Chris: So, this is almost the opposite of much of the contemporary talk of faith healing, which is very individual. The idea is that healing flows from Christ to you and then it’s done. What you’re saying is precisely the opposite of that.
Joanne: There’s one point in the book where you address Julian saying I’m still far behind you yet. And, I think, I’m still far behind you in reading her and in working out some of these things. Especially on the idea of suffering and being open to the experience of others, and to others’ suffering. You have mentioned that in some experiences, suffering can be unhelpful. But, and maybe it’s not even fair to ask, how do we pray for others then? How do we love them, when a friend is suffering? What did Julian point you toward?
Kirsten: Well, that is a big question. I had an experience that shook me when I was working on letter ten, which is a doozy. It goes into Aquinas’ suffering and trying to understand how it functions. I had worked at this letter four times, and then one day, finally I was triumphant. I had been sitting on my porch when at that moment a woman I love walked up the sidewalk weeping, saying her sister who was eight months pregnant had just learned that she had miscarried. And it all came undone. Because it all comes undone. And there is nothing to say. But there is a staying that Julian has expanded in me. A silent staying and a place which is the foot of the cross. That’s all I got. But I think that what Julian showed me is that you can have a place where you can be with the suffering, a place that is big enough to hold it.
Chris: I was going to ask you about prayer in this book, as so much medieval literature is a manual on prayer. I admit, one of my misreadings of Julian is that I was looking for a manual on prayer, and it’s not there. That’s not what her book is about, or what your book is about. How do you find prayer coming out of this “sitting at the foot of the cross” that Julian talks about?
Kirsten: Well, the word that came to me was adherence. You get stuck closer to Christ. You get to adhere to the will. The whole purpose of prayer is that it changes the inside of one’s being to be more pliable to the will, to be freer within the will. Prayer seems to make for freedom. It enters into space, which is the breadth and the love of God. The act of prayer is the constant coming into Christ’s presence and being undone and expanded and enclosed, so that all of that can make a life.
Joanne: There was something I found really helpful that Julian says about prayer, near chapter seven, that you can pray for something wholeheartedly but without staking your life of faith on a particular outcome. First of all, I think that is very helpful to those who fear that their faith is not enough. I’m thinking about someone I knew years ago who prayed for healing and it didn’t happen and that leads to some serious doubts. But this is reassuring on that count. Although still very hard to do.
Val: I just think of that story you told, Kirsten, of the young woman walking up. You felt like you had it all together, and then she walks up and you hear this story, and you were silenced. It brought you to nothing. And I wonder if in profound suffering the best thing is silence.
Joanne: I also find that the way the book is written – the letters and ongoing conversation – was more absorbing than if you were simply writing in the third person about it. It’s very intimate. It’s like we’re reading along with you and struggling to understand Julian as you do.
Kirsten: This was important to me. I live best in conversation and relationship. It was exactly my desire of this book to be writing two ways, to be writing towards her and towards the reader so that we are in a conversation that opens and therefore that we can all do the work and be invited into our own work.
RLN: I just want to take a step back here and ask the broader question in closing: How is Julian’s theology good news for us today, in our current state of isolation and loneliness?
Kirsten: I think the good news is that your life can be found in a small enclosure because it is always wrapped in Christ. The enclosed-ness of our lives right now is not the end of our life but the beginning of our life. The loneliness that encounters us is not fruitless, but the beginning, the opening, the invitation. Julian does not necessarily offer us comfort that makes us feel better, but it offers us comfort that our life is here. There is enough of life to be enclosed, and therefore to be free. Julian knew this deeply, as she wasn’t just locked down for a year, but for 20 years. And yet her life makes the five of us sit here and talk in ways that are enlivening. She has given a true gift 650 years later. This time of quiet and solitude does not have to be deadening but could be the beginning of life.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a counselor and writer based in Winnipeg. She is part of St. Margaret’s Anglican where she served for a long time as a pastor. To learn more about her work visit the Anchorhold.
Copies of Anchorhold: Revelations of Divine Love can be ordered through Kirsten’s blog, or purchased wherever books are sold.