Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be a gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
Jesus, saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni . . . (King James, John 20: 15 – 16)
On this first Tuesday morning after Easter Weekend, we offer a tribute to an angel, Julia Burns (1957 – 2021). Many family members, friends, and patients see her this way. When Julia speaks about angels in the clip above, she clearly doesn’t connect herself with the subject.
Julia was a psychiatrist, writer, artist, musician, and wife (Andy) & mother of three (Andrew, Owen, and Wilton). She became a Praxis Circle Contributor with her interview on September 22, 2017 in her home in Chapel Hill, NC. Julia was incredibly brave to do the interview.
We went to her, in part, because she clearly believed God is real and very much present here with us. She had an extensive, sophisticated knowledge of religion, generally, as well as Christianity and the Bible in particular. She believed God worked in our lives every second of every day, that God hears our prayers, and that God responds in grace (though often not as we would like).
Such basic ideas held around the world by billions and for thousands of years are under constant attack today. It makes little sense, except as a political power play. Christians must learn to respond effectively and vigorously.
Years before our interview of Julia, doctors had diagnosed an extremely aggressive breast cancer. The worst kind. I’ll never forget her telling me as we (my wife, Beth, and I) got into our car in front of her house in Chapel Hill to head back home to Richmond that she had up to two years to live. No more.
And yet, when we interviewed her afterwards, she had been totally cancer-free for approximately three years. The deadly cancer was no longer detected at all in her body. In the interview she attributes her miraculous success to medical science and, far more important, to her faith. She was certain of that and remained so for the rest of her life.
That said, Julia would raise Cain with God concerning the pain, misery, and suffering He allows in this world as an omnipotent being. Nonetheless, she never gave up on Him, her loved ones, or herself. One meets very few Julia Burnses during one’s life.
Her life was a study in grace.
You know of “renaissance men” who are famous, like Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, or John Paul II? Well, there are also renaissance men and women who, though not technically famous, do perhaps more good being among us and who are equally extraordinary. In many ways they make the world go round.
In fact, Andy (an investment banker and money manager) and Julia Burns were a couple just like this. No tribute to Julia would be complete without Andy. As it turned out, Andy himself developed cancer in late 2019 and predeceased Julia less than a year later.
Full disclosure: Andy was one of my best friends. We worked together continuously in four different professional associations involving finance between 1982 and 2020. Andy and Julia were roughly the same age as Beth and I, and we both had two boys and a girl. Our boys overlapped at a boys boarding school in Virginia. We stayed in touch and visited whether the Burnses lived in North Carolina (where Julia grew up), Virginia (where we live), or New York (where Andy grew up).
Perhaps due to stress from Andy’s cancer situation, who knows, in early 2020 Julia’s cancer returned, and she fought it successfully a second time for the next two years, extending her life again beyond expectation.
Andy and Julia had many friends who think about them every day and will do so indefinitely. You just had to know them to understand. As “moderns,” it’s hard to believe they would leave us at such young ages. We’re at a loss without their world class friendships and insights. Yes, we all have friends like that, and they’re unique to us. It helps make life so worth living.
Andy and Julia appear below in the early 1980’s in Winston-Salem, NC. Their entire family is in the picture to the right. Please notice the Hamilton College logo in the background. The picture was taken the day Andy received Hamilton’s Alumni Volunteer of the Year Award, just before cancer stuck him, too.
Andy would not want us to mention the volunteer award, but he wouldn’t mind me linking you to the video he narrated about Albert Prettyman, the man who brought ice hockey to Hamilton College, his alma mater. Andy loved his hometown Clinton in Upstate New York, where Hamilton is located. Andy remembered Albert Prettyman as perhaps only a hometown boy could, and in 2017 he helped lead Hamilton and Clinton in recognizing 100 years of hockey, since Prettyman organized the sport across the area. Then, good times continued afterward when Clinton township entered and won the annual national competition to bring a NHL (National Hockey League) game to its local arena. All very big stuff in any small American town.
Like Julia, Andy was a beautiful person, a unifier. One cannot miss the similarity between the coach that the town and college honored and Andy himself. He was an excellent writer, as well, and we featured one of his opinions concerning finance here.
Now back to Julia.
As mentioned, Julia was a dedicated wife, mother, psychiatrist, and counselor. As a child psychiatrist, she wrestled with God bitterly and mightily over the extent of child abuse rampant in the world. She would tell you freely it nearly brought her down in the late 1990’s. The world’s often hidden level of evil toward the most vulnerable, the unborn and our children, influenced her sanity then for a brief time, until she rallied with her faith. She resolved going forward not to argue much with God about the givens. Instead, she invested her energy in making the world more “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Years later, Julia wrote a book (see Amazon link) about this experience presented here, and she dedicated it to the children she counseled. She speaks about them early in our interview linked on her Personal Page. (See at top.) Constantly involved in medical and psychological research, Julia developed into a kind of female Dr. Jordan Peterson, before anyone knew his name. She was not a speaker to vast crowds, but rather a broad-based scientific and theological thinker. Indeed, Julia understood archetypical hierarchies well before Dr. Peterson made them famous.
One might say Julia walked with God (a Jordan Peterson Biblical theme) every step of her life. To quote a recent book on Dr. Peterson shown in the picture at bottom:
To be a hero is not to be perfect. No one now walking on earth has achieved the perfection of heaven. And yet, notes Peterson, “if you’re aligned with God, and you pay attention to the divine injunction, then you can operate in the midst of chaos, tyranny, and deception, and flourish.” (page 62, Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life)
Julia accomplished this with smashing success. What was her secret? That’s easy: She loved Jesus Christ as much as she could throughout her life. And as far as I could tell, she rarely, if ever, allowed her focus to turn from Him. Hell or high water? She would choose high water. With humility, she followed the First and Great Commandments. She was an evangelical Trinitarian who strived to leave other idols aside.
After completing her book on child abuse, Julia wrote a second book (again, see Amazon link) on her experience with cancer. I recommend it to anyone whose life is so threatened. It speaks from the heart in simple ways. She teaches how to face death with courage, forgiveness, mercy, love, and hope. To the end, Julia followed her own advice; it’s taken from the Bible.
At her request, from January to May 2021, Julia and I met over Zoom on various Sundays for an hour to discuss successive chapters of John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent (1991) by Susan Muto. St. John of the Cross was a 16th Century Spanish Catholic priest and mystic, a Carmelite with admirers like John Paul II. The book is a commentary on St. John’s famous poem, “The Dark Night.” It contemplates how to approach God from this world via faith. It’s that priceless time together that has given me the confidence and, in a sense, permission, to write this tribute.
To the extent anyone can judge such a thing, I would say Julia was brilliant. If you didn’t know Julia or think her form of Christianity is simplistic, you would be wrong. Julia was proud of being a Southern woman, considering it a supreme gift. She never lost her roots for a second; also, she believed it was a supreme gift. And yet, she was not necessarily a conventional thinker; she explored all avenues of thought accessible across religions perceived as relevant. And with patient permission she increasingly applied spirituality in her extensive counseling to adults, because that was what often worked the best.
If you’re interested in Julia’s religious views, I would suggest watching her videos JB-33 to JB-37 in her Full Interview linked at the “Personal Page” button at top.
It’s important to note Julia avoided ideology, whether intentional or not. (As far as I can tell, it’s purely coincidental that Jordan Peterson thinks that’s a good idea. See Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, the chapter entitled “Rule VI – Abandon Ideology,” 2021.) She believed love was the answer. With this in mind, she tried to meet everyone where she found them, family member, friend, or patient. In fact, she says in her PC interview this was a foundation to her counseling.
I admitted during our Zoom sessions last year to being at best a so-so reader of St. John of the Cross because of my belief we’re here to make this sometimes beautiful world better. There would be plenty of time for each of us in the next world when that happens. Kindly, Julia tended to agree, though her mind was moving elsewhere as the weeks passed, as winter moved into spring. Clearly, she felt blessed for every second God had given her with the family and friends she loved.
By total coincidence, the last time Beth and I saw Julia alive was on a Sunday morning in early November, 2021 at her evangelical church in Chapel Hill. I had been attending a college reunion. She asked us to meet her at her church before we drove home to Richmond, and we had a full hour together during the service.
It was a beautiful fall day; just like her funeral service less than a month later in Salter Path, NC (Morehead Beach) at St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church. (That’s St. Francis’ stained glass anchor cross above.) In fact, December 4 was the perfect day Julia had ordered up. Her spirit was present everywhere, and all knew it. To those attending, her message of Southern-style glory, renewed faith, and resurrection is a life-long gift we’ll always treasure.
I will end here by quoting a famous scene from Anton Chekov’s short story, “Gooseberries” (1898). It provides the title to the book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021) by George Saunders, just finished this afternoon, Easter Sunday. My oldest son, Reilly, recommended it. (Before ending I should also mention that my daughter Molly, a middle school counselor, did a summer internship with Julia while in graduate school at UNC-CH.)
Dr. Saunders is an English professor at Syracuse University in Upstate New York, not far from Clinton. His book features famous short stores by 19th Century Russian authors (Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, and Tolstoy), where he comments on themes and offers a crash course in creative writing. As a writer, Julia would have certainly loved A Swim in a Pond. (In the quote below, a feminine pronoun is substituted for the masculine ones in the story.):
She came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting her arms out wide; she raised waves on which white Lillies swayed. She swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept diving, trying to touch bottom. “By God,” she kept repeating delightedly, “by God!” She swam to the mill, spoke to [strangers] there, and turned back in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing her face to the rain. [Her friends] were already dressed and ready to leave, but she kept on swimming and diving. “By God!” she kept exclaiming. “Lord, have mercy on me.” (page 315)
Last but far from least, the video clip below is from Julia’s funeral service. You’ll be glad to know the musician visible through the crowd to the left facing the congregation (and playing a mandolin) is her oldest son, Andrew.
We hope you had a Happy Easter. He and she are risen.