Anna Harris, a Laidlaw Scholar at the University of St Andrews, on her research "The afterlife of the writings of Julian of Norwich" and her leadership journey.
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
When I first started to research these words back in 2019, I had little idea of the significance they would come to take on in the following year of turmoil. Julian of Norwich, too, was writing and thinking in a time of plague and her insistence that things will be okay has taken on greater resonance for many in the age of Covid19. My research has centred primarily around the way we read Julian’s work. How this text has had practical, real world impact throughout time, and how it has been continually used and applied to a myriad of situations throughout history.
At the heart of Revelations of Divine Love is a radical way of reimagining the dynamic of the relationship between humans and ‘God’. This powerful notion of a relationship with God that is almost maternal has become resonant in understanding human relationships with the natural and, perhaps, divine world. Furthermore, Julian’s characterisation of God in feminine terms became a symbol of women’s empowerment in times of suffrage. Today, the assertion that even in times of immense struggle, our relationship to the divine is ultimately overwhelmingly positive has taken on a greater significance as an assertion that, at its core, the relationship between humanity and the natural world is overwhelmingly positive where the world around us isn’t set up against us as an adversary.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
My passion for Julian of Norwich came before my passion for research. In school I read Revelations of Divine Love for the first time, and I was bowled over by what I saw as a radically eco-feminist framing of the human relationship with ‘God’. Once I arrived at University, I discovered an intense passion for uncovering and analysing new meanings in text. This developed into my desire to research and analyse a text I had loved for so long in order to rediscover and reconsider what meaning it could be harbouring and how others had uncovered and used meaning within the text throughout history.
I am not an overly religious person, and what has always drawn me to Julian of Norwich is the text's unapologetic assertion that what it speaks is the truth. I was fascinated by the level of authority asserted by women mystics from around the time Julian was writing. In such a patriarchal space, the authority these women alleged was defiant and, perhaps, because of this, often radical.
Since starting the Laidlaw Scholarship, I have found myself relying heavily on my leadership skills all the time. The most important thing that Laidlaw has taught me is that leadership starts with myself. The ability to reflect, consider, and change my decisions for the better is a skill that has developed exponentially throughout my time in the programme. Furthermore, I am inspired by the way that good leadership can create positive change and I have used my leadership skills to become a mentor for a programme that helps support Sixth Form students on their journey to university.
As a young carer, leadership has always been a part of my life, but Laidlaw has helped me to maximise that potential and refine my approach to challenging situations. One of the most important skills I have developed is the ability to think critically in challenging situations in order to find solutions. I now take my leadership skills into every aspect of my life, as being a good leader is always about being a good team member. I manage the student radio station, support other students as a C.V. and Careers Information Adviser, and I’m also excited to take these skills into the working world when I graduate this year. Strong leadership skills make me better at all these endeavours and I hope make the impact of the work I do greater too.
Top leadership tips
⚡️ Listen. You can’t be a good leader if you don’t know what your team needs and you can’t know what your team needs if you don’t listen. When we think about leadership, we too often think of jumping straight into action, but taking time to listen, reflect, and integrate makes our actions far more impactful.
⚡️ Speak up. The best leadership comes from platforming causes and ideas you believe in. Using your voice to enact change is one of the most important ways in which you can lead and helps you to build a community founded on empowerment.
⚡️ Reflect. Progress halts when we stop thinking about our actions. Leadership situations are often intense and high stakes. If you take time to reflect before you act you can get further in the long run.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar means being a part of an amazing community of like-minded people. I’ve made great friends through attending the conference last year and I have heard about so many inspirational projects. I applied for the scholarship because I wanted to research a text that I loved - what I discovered was a way to turn passion into productivity and how to make pushing for a better world a part of my day to day life. That’s invaluable.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
Recently, I’ve really admired the work of so many female leaders as they guide us through the pandemic. From Jacinda Ardern to Nicola Sturgeon, the common theme seems to be honesty and a genuine desire to get through a difficult situation together without political gain. I really admire the way both of them have really owned their responsibility as leaders and are prepared to make difficult decisions and accept the consequences - even if that doesn't mean universal praise!
Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create:
I believe in a future which is sustainable and full of equal opportunity. I hope to be a part of that by making personal choices and changes which put the planet first and empower others. I believe that there is no sustainable future which isn’t equitable, and that there is no equitable future which isn’t sustainable. These issues go hand in hand and my role is to use my privilege and my leadership skills to push hard for social mobility and sustainable change.
📺 Film recommendation: Emma. (2020) - this is the ultimate lockdown comfort watch
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Because the Night - Patti Smith
📚 My top book recommendation: Revelations of Divine Love - Julian of Norwich. But for something lighter: Persuasion - Jane Austen
🎧 Podcast obsession: No Such Thing as a Fish - the easiest way to sound a lot cleverer than you are!
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I moved back to St Andrews this week for the start of term and the drive back up to Scotland made me remember how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful part of the world.
Check out St Andrews’ student radio station STAR, which is all about platforming and amplifying the student voice.
Follow Anna on Instagram: @anna_rose99