A devotional reading of Julian of Norwich

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I've been reading Julian of Norwich's "Revelations of Divine Love". Julian was a mystic who lived ca. 1342-1413 and in deathly sickness dictated several visions she had of Christ's love and suffering. Her writings are so rich on so many levels, I am sure I will come back to them again and again. This was my favorite reading since the Didache (which I think should be canonized). I immediately connected with Julian's heart, and recognized in her my own experiences with God. I find it pretty amazing that although centuries separate us, I can see in her my own experiences and longings. Since Julian's writings are of a very intimate and personal nature, I wanted to respond to them here both personally and devotionally.

The text begins with her longing for God, and pursuit of intimacy. Echoing Augustine's "Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee," she writes, "No soul is rested till it is made nought as to all things that are made" (Ch 5). Reading this made me recall a vision I had several years ago:

I stood on a vast expanse and heard God declare,
"This is the foundation your life is built on."
Suddenly the ground split at my feet and I found myself standing at the edge of a cliff staring into the abyss.
"That was the part of your life based on your own religion and philosophy."
the voice thundered. The ground split again hurdling another portion of the ground into the nothingness
"This was built on your friends and family."
Blow by blow, my foundation was demolished until I found myself teetering on a narrow beam,
"This is the part of your life your have built on me."

This vision of my foundation "coming to naught" launched me into what I later found was called "the dark night of the soul" where God seems utterly absent and by facing ones own darkness, you come into a deeper intimacy with God. I think in her sickness and visions of Christ's sufferings Julian was on a similar journey. She recognizes that our suffering is not always the consequence of us doing something wrong, but can even come from doing something right.
"God willeth that we know that He keepeth us even alike secure in woe and in weal. And for profit of man’s soul, a man is sometime left to himself; although sin is not always the cause" (Ch 40).
God does not leave us in our darkness. I was always taught to fear missing God's will. But like Julian I have learned that I cannot escape God's love. It will find me in my darkness, it will search me out in Hell. This understanding of God's sovereign unrelenting love gives me an incredible freedom to risk. That's a rocky journey at times, and Julian describes the back and forth of this pursuit "I saw Him, and sought Him; and I had Him, I wanted Him" (Ch 10). again echoing Augustine's “ I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace”. Yet even as we thirst for God, God also thirsts for us; as we pursue, we are at the same time pursued,
"The same desire and thirst that He had upon the Cross.. the same hath He yet... For as verily as there is a property in God of ruth and pity, so verily there is a property in God of thirst and longing" (Ch 31).
As she grows closer to Jesus, she next begins to share in his pain "How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer?" (Ch 17), and out of that com-passion that she begins to care for the things that Jesus does, taking on his heart for the lost. Julian thus begins to ask questions of suffering and injustice. Why do people suffer? What of those who in their grief are torn from faith, and are crushed in hope?
"There be deeds evil done in our sight, and so great harms taken, that it seemeth to us that it were impossible that ever it should come to good end. And upon this we look, sorrowing and mourning therefor, so that we cannot resign us unto the blissful beholding of God as we should do" (Ch 32).
She next turns to ask how there can ever be justice when people are suffering in Hell?
"One point of our Faith is that many creatures shall be... condemned to hell without end, as Holy Church teacheth me to believe. And all this standing, methought it was impossible that all manner of things should be well" (Ch 32).
I found myself in my pursuit of God led to these same questions of suffering, injustice and Hell. On one occasion I told Jesus that I did not want to be in heaven when people I love were suffering in Hell. I saw myself marching defiantly out of heaven and down into Hades, but to my surprise when I got there I saw Christ on his knees, ministering to those in chains. He turned to me and said "I was wondering when you were going to get here." I realized then that in even in my protest, God had not so much followed me into my sufferings, as I followed him into his. Julian writes,
"Every man’s sorrow and desolation He saw, and sorrowed for Kindness and love...For as long as He was passible He suffered for us and sorrowed for us; and now He is uprisen and no more passible, yet He suffereth with us" (Ch 20).
The answer she receives from God to these questions of suffering is a theme repeated throughout the revelations
"All shall be made well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well". (Chapters 27, 31, 32, 34, 63, 63, and 68).
She cannot explain how, and even says that it seems impossible, God simply tells her to trust, because He can do the impossible. What she does know is that we are to join Christ in his passion here which manifests itself in com-passion.
"Thus was our Lord Jesus made-naught for us; and all we stand in this manner made-naught with Him" (Ch18).
This is not a glorification of suffering, but the cost of love. Julia describes the beautiful way that Christ expresses his love for us in his cross. Jesus says to Julian that he would have suffered for her again and again if it had been needful, so great is his love for us.
"It is a joy and bliss and endless pleasing to me that ever I suffered Passion for thee. And this is the bliss of Christ’s works, and thus he signifieth where He saith in that same Shewing: we be His bliss, we be His meed, we be His worship, we be His crown" (Ch 31).
We are not called to a holiness of separation, but a holiness of entering into the ugliness and brokenness of the world,
"When we give our intent to love and meekness, by the working of mercy and grace we are made all fair and clean..." (Ch 40).

This is how we are sanctified, through the cross. Jesus shows us a way to combat evil, through the way of overcoming it with good. The law of mercy triumphs over the law of sin and death, the law of an eye for an eye.
"...For Christ Himself is the ground of all the laws of Christian men, and He taught us to do good against ill..." (Ch 40).
This is not the command of a distant God in heaven, but the call of the one who came to serve and gave his life, and bids us to come and join him in his compassion, to take up our cross and follow.
"...Here may we see that He is Himself this charity, and doeth to us as He teacheth us to do. For He willeth that we be like Him in wholeness of endless love to ourself and to our even-Christians" (Ch 40).
The end goal of this is not suffering, but to end suffering. All will be made well, and all matter of things will be made well.

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At 4:53 PM, Blogger Alex Gong said...

thanks for your words, very uplifting. peace be with you.

At 2:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That really blessed me. I read the book just a few months ago and I loved it. From time to time I still take it from the shelve and read a few words from it that minister to me. Thanks for sharing this.

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