September 2, 2014

Julian Of Norwich: Grounded and Rooted in Love

Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball.  I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be?  And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made.  I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness].  And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it.  And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.

In this Little Thing I saw three properties.  The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.

This is one of the famous images from Julian’s writings, the vision of the smallness of all of creation.  Now, one argument some atheists use is that they can’t believe in the God of the Bible because it and he are too small; now that science has revealed to us the vastness of the universe, the notion that a transcendent entity would care particularly about the doings of some beings on a dust-mote of a world that is utterly insignificant in the scale of things is ridiculous, and the legends of a tribal god who protects his own particular people are just that – the legends of a tribal deity.  In this kind of presentation, it was easy for people ‘back then’ to believe because they had no idea of the real size or importance of things; they all (mediaevals included) believed in a flat earth beneath a dome of sky that was the only thing there was, so naturally they believed the creator deity was intimately involved with it.  The corollary of this argument is that the wonders and marvels of the vast, infinite universe revealed to us by science are more than enough to enthral and fascinate the seeking mind, and no deities need apply.

As C.S. Lewis discusses in his “The Discarded Image”, that’s not necessarily so.  Educated people of the mediaeval world knew the earth was round, had a good idea of geometry, and were perfectly aware that the earth was small in comparison to the stars, while the distances between the earth and the stars were computed to be vast by their standards (an example from the “South English Legendary” says that if you travelled 40 miles per day, you would not reach the stars in 8000 years, a distance of at least 116 million miles).  So Julian was probably as familiar as most people of her time with the notion of the celestial spheres, which is why she would have had a shrewd idea of the relative size of the earth and the heavens.  Note that she says “all that is”, that is, the entire visible creation – this includes the starry heavens as well as the earth beneath.  And it is not some huge, impressive array that a god would naturally be interested in, as our forebears are assumed to have conceived of their place in the universe – it’s a small thing, only as big as a nut, that looks like it would fall apart.

All that preserves it is love.  This is the keystone of Julian’s revelations and what she wishes to pass on to us, her fellow-Christians: God is love, God loves, we are loved.

For this was an high marvel to the soul which was continually shewed in all the Revelations, and was with great diligence beholden, that our Lord God, anent Himself may not forgive, for He may not be wroth: it were impossible.  For this was shewed: that our life is all grounded and rooted in love, and without love we may not live; and therefore to the soul that of His special grace seeth so far into the high, marvellous Goodness of God, and seeth that we are endlessly oned to Him in love, it is the most impossible that may be, that God should be wroth.  For wrath and friendship be two contraries.  For He that wasteth and destroyeth our wrath and maketh us meek and mild – it behoveth needs to be that He [Himself] be ever one in love, meek and mild: which is contrary to wrath.

And so Julian explains one of her showings, that God is not angry with us but merciful and loving.  This is the hardest and simplest part of her message, the thread that runs continuously through all she sees and all she meditates upon, the thing that she herself found difficult to understand; why, if we are sinful beings, does God not justly hold us blameworthy for our failings?

This is part of what she has been meditating on for twenty years, in her ongoing pondering and deepening of understanding:

And because of this great, endless love that God hath to all Mankind, He maketh no disparting in love between the blessed Soul of Christ and the least soul that shall be saved.

Before Luther and his forensic justification (dungheaps covered with snow), Julian sees our human nature in the human nature of Christ, God made Man, and how He redeems us by being the price of our salvation.  And, as He shares our sinful human nature without sin, we are taken up into His sinless nature.  We are justified – but she does not speak of “justification”, or of the legal transaction whereby guilt is assigned to the innocent victim.  It is the Trinitarian love of the creature that saves us.

Neither does Julian except herself from the common run of life:

God brought to my mind that I should sin.  And for pleasance that I had in beholding of Him, I attended not readily to that shewing; and our Lord full  mercifully abode, and gave me grace to attend.  And this shewing I took singularly to myself; but by all the gracious comfort that followeth, as ye shall see, I was learned to take it for all mine even-Christians: all in general and nothing in special: though our Lord shewed me that I should sin, by me alone is understood all.

And therein I conceived a soft dread.  And to this our Lord answered: I keep thee full surely. This word was said with more love and secureness and spiritual keeping than I can or may tell.  For as it was shewed that (I) should sin, right so was the comfort shewed: secureness and keeping for all mine even-Christians.

So even a visionary consoled by the sight of Christ is not going to be exempt from human failings.  Why?  Because sin is nothing in itself, what matters is the pain that results from sin, and the pain is caused by the breaking of the relationship between ourselves and God.

We suffer the pains of causing harm to ourselves and to the one who loves us.  He suffers that pain for love of us.  Pain and suffering do not always come through sin, Julian tells us (and so the idea that all suffering is a direct consequence of punishment for sin is rebuked).  But God permits, for His own purposes, those He loves to have some suffering in their life in order to break them of self-will and attachment to earthly affections.  And other suffering comes because of the natural course of life; bereavement, illness, loss in all its forms – this is fruitful when we make use of it, to unify it with the passion of Christ, and to endure it patiently not because we think it will win us merit, but because life is short, eternity is forever, and the bliss of union with God will make all our earthly suffering like an eyeblink to be forgotten.

Julian is not telling us all “Give up everything and run to become a cloistered contemplative!”  She is saying “I was shown these things and I tell them to you for your help.”  She knew sickness and pain and the everyday travails of life.  Her world was no less complex and difficult a place than our present world; war, plague, economic uncertainty, political upheaval, personal loss – she lived not in a sheltered, unworldly separation from secular life (either before or after become an anchorite) but in the everyday struggle between the demands of earning a living and trying to make sense of the faith you learned as a child and hear preached every Sunday.

Comments

  1. I am enjoying reading about Julian of Norwich. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  2. All the posts in this series have been great, and have really piqued my interest to read more of Julian.

    It’s mind-boggling that such an ancient and beautiful vision about God’s love has kind of got lost amid all the other stuff that’s being preached today (fire and brimstone, prosperity and self-help Christianity, Charismatic gifts, right-wing politics, left-wing politics, complementarianism, …)

    • It’s the message that has always been there, but as you say, it slips between the cracks when we’re preaching God’s wrath to try and steer the sheep back on the right path, the various culture wars, the latest fads in both spiritual and secular life, when we try to map out the sure-fire way to get to heaven on our own terms and without too much discomfort…

      We occasionally need to be hit over the head again with “Creation is not from necessity but from love, dummies!”

    • I largely agree with your sentiment, Rafel. Though without fire and brimstone preaching, you have no personal and immediate need for Jesus.

      • Maybe. But sometimes there is personal guilt that becomes a burden to us. This reminds me of Pilgrim and his burden that he sought to remove. And that burden is more powerful in its effect than any emotional burden placed on us by the emotion of the moment. (although not always…)

        • Pat…so true…but don’t forget that Pilgrim didn’t feel his burden until Evangelist preached to him: “Flee from the wrath that is to come!”

      • A Muslim woman has been coming into the food pantry at my church for several months now. As with all the people who come in, we ask her if she has any prayer needs; she’s shared them, and we’ve prayed with her for them. Two weeks ago, she came in and the first words out of her mouth were, “Jesus answers prayers!” And as she was leaving, she said, “I know Jesus loves me.” This, with no fire and brimstone preaching, just through a sharing of food and prayer.

        Praise to our gracious and merciful God, and Jesus our Lord and Savior.

      • I see your point. My need for Jesus is more pressing when I realize how much I reject God’s love than when I ponder that I should be good in order to avoid God’s punishment (which I inescapably deserve, anyway).

        For me, accepting and trying to return a tiny speck of God’s love is a more powerful incentive than fearing God’s wrath.

  3. “…why does God not hold us for our failings?”

    I cannot pretend to understand the vast mercy and love of the Lord….I know exactly what I DESERVE, and it is not this Grace by any logical standard. The only thing in my experience that shows a shadow of this never-ending love is the love of a mother for her child, especially when that child is hurt or in need. If an earthly parent would gladly die to save her child, doesn’t that give us a glimpse of the sort of Love that had our Father send his only Child to die for US?

    And let me add my thanks to you for this series, Martha! I have been reading and re-reading each installment, but have been unusually “quiet” because I am so overwhelmed by all this that I don’t have much to add most days!!!

    • “…I don’t have much to add most days!!!”

      Not true. This is one of the most valuable and thought-provoking responses I’ve read here in quite a while.

  4. It would appear that Julian has equated the wrath of God = God is unloving. Yet she also recognizes that His love puts to waste our own selfishness, ofttimes through suffering. What if wrath is something other than our own notion of rage?
    In wrath, you can stab me with a knife, and destroy me. Or, if you are my oncologist, and you have wrath at my cancer, you can cut me with a scalpel and remove the malignancy… An act of great love towards me.
    I don’t see wrath of God and friendship of God as mutually exclusive. Wayne Jacobsen defined God’s wrath (paraphrasing here) as the full weight of God’s being brought against that which would destroy the object of His affection.

    • It’s complicated, in that Julian breaks up her sixteen visions into discrete parts, fairly short parts, but packs a lot into each.

      She expected to see visions of Hell and Purgatory and the punishment of sinners and God’s anger and warnings about what would befall us if we didn’t stick to the straight and narrow; instead she got visions of the Passion of Christ Crucified; that He suffered greatly; that the Trinity in love acceded to this suffering for our sake; that our sin and our falling is viewed with pity and compassion, not anger waiting to smite us.

      She found that there was no anger in God, only forgiveness, but she also warns that people should not be lulled by this into thinking “Well, if I sin, that’s no big deal then”.

      “But yet here I wondered and marvelled with all the diligence of my soul, saying thus within me: Good Lord, I see Thee that art very Truth; and I know in truth that we sin grievously every day and be much blameworthy; and I may neither leave the knowing of Thy truth, nor do I see Thee shew to us any manner of blame. How may this be? For I knew by the common teaching of Holy Church and by mine own feeling, that the blame of our sin continually hangeth upon us, from the first man unto the time that we come up unto heaven: then was this my marvel that I saw our Lord God shewing to us no more blame than if we were as clean and as holy as Angels be in heaven. And between these two contraries my reason was greatly travailed through my blindness, and could have no rest for dread that His blessed presence should pass from my sight and I be left in unknowing how He beholdeth us in our sin. For either behoved me to see in God that sin was all done away, or else me behoved to see in God how He seeth it, whereby I might truly know how it belongeth to me to see sin, and the manner of our blame. My longing endured, Him continually beholding;— and yet I could have no patience for great straits and perplexity, thinking: If I take it thus that we be no sinners and not blameworthy, it seemeth as I should err and fail of knowing of this truth; and if it be so that we be sinners and blameworthy,— Good Lord, how may it then be that I cannot see this true thing in Thee, which art my God, my Maker, in whom I desire to see all truths?

      Julian found this very hard to understand, and she was given a vision of a Lord and his Servant, which to my mind is reminiscent of Matthew 21:33 (the parable of the landowner and his tenants), which both incorporated the Fall of Adam and the Incarnation, and this was how the reconciliation of man’s sinfulness and God’s pity might be.

    • “I don’t see wrath of God and friendship of God as mutually exclusive.”

      Neither does Scripture. The biblical narrative regarding God’s wrath is pretty simple. God becomes angry at sin (and deals with it in various ways) throughout the Old Testament – even as his plan for salvation unfolds. God’s wrath is satisified through Jesus’ sacrifice, but he still gets angry at those who reject Christ’s perfect offering. God unleashes his full wrath at the end of the age.

  5. Christiane says:

    “And, as He shares our sinful human nature without sin, we are taken up into His sinless nature.”

    this is something that many evangelical people don’t seem to see in the mystery of the Incarnation, I’m afraid.