Monday, May 08, 2006

A well-anchored lady

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Today is the feast of Dame Julian (c. 1417), an anchoress in Norwich. In his book English Spirituality, Martin Thorton begins his description of Julian of Norwich’s theology in her Revelations of Divine Love with the advisory, "Julian’s theology, like that of St Catherine of Siena, is certainly not to be despised, but it best understood by meditation." Indeed, Julian’s presentation of her visions is rightly seen as the fruit of a lifelong reflection on the love of God revealed in the passion of Christ. Her reflection engages her experience; it is far more than just a mental exercise. In her life, Julian herself experienced suffering, joy, and charity, and these became part of her understanding of God. This taught her that true intimacy transcends the mind, that to know God genuinely is to love him utterly.

Julian of Norwich typifies the English school of spirituality in her sense of balance between the affective and the didactic (feeling and knowledge). She had prayed for an imaginative perception of Christ’s sufferings, for her own sickness to the verge of death, and for three "wounds" of contrition, compassion, and longing for God. At thirty years of age, having suffered illness close to the point of death, Julian experienced a series of revelations (which she calls "showings") given in different modes of perception. She recovered from her sickness, and reflected on these mystic visions which were ultimately showings of God’s love. Spiritual insight is most powerful when experience and theology become synthesized and compliment one another. Mystic visions adrift from dogmatic grounding are essentially meaningless. Julian was well grounded in the teaching of the Church. She spent much of her life thinking and rethinking the meaning of her visions in light of those teachings. It was Julian’s earnest longing for God that sustained her spiritual growth.

In reading through the Revelations, I was particularly struck by three points that Julian realized in her visions. The first is her sense of optimism. Though this may have been part of her personality from the beginning, it seems to be an unexpected part of her showings. Julian sees in the passion of Christ that God is good, and that "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" (SL, Chapter 13). The crucifix is a sign of compassion, and thus a symbol of joy and the cause of Christ’s happiness. This is the context of Julian’s description of Christ as "mother."

The motherhood of God and Christ Julian describes has been a source of controversy, and of recent years, a revival of interest in her Revelations. In part, Julian is simply continuing and expanding the tradition of affective spirituality popularized by Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet even more central is the fact that Julian has a deep appreciation for the idea that all goodness comes from God, for God created and loves all things. Everything that is good shows us something about God. Jesus Christ himself, in taking human nature as the Word made flesh, possessed all the attributes we consider particular to, and the best in, male and female. He exhibited them in his life and ministry.

Julian never forgets that male and female were created in the image and likeness of God. What we might call "feminine virtues"—comfort, tenderness, compassion, nourishing and self-giving, sheltering, protecting, beauty—are all central to Julian’s vision of God and of divine love. If God is the source of all goodness, of all feminine virtues, and measure of all goodness, then it is only fitting that Christ is our Mother.

This optimism in Julian leads to the second point I found striking in her Revelations—Julian’s perspective on sin. For Julian, sin has to be understood in the context of the love of God and our relationship with him. Or, perhaps at this point I could say our relationship with "Her." It is odd to refer to God in the feminine in an orthodox way, especially in this day of feminist theology, amid the necessity of being theologically clear and guarded in our theological language. But the Revelations of Divine Love shows us that while sin hurts our relationship to God, it is of little account in the face of the abundance of God’s love, and her gentle compassion toward her children. The sinner is like the frightened dirty child, who needs the tender embrace and nurture of his mother. Like a mother, God embraces the sinner, tends to his wounds, and comforts and nourishes him.

This image goes against the dominant traditional view of God at the time as a stern judge and the idea that most humans are destined for eternal punishment (or at least a bitter purgatorial fire). Julian struggles to understand this image theologically. Yet she is also resolute in the belief that the one who truly fears God is not "afraid" of God, but joyfully accepts his goodness and mercy. God cannot be ultimately angry with us as sinners, for sin never dilutes the love of God. This reassurance is comforting in the face of our human struggle with sin and the difficulty in trying to live the Christian life. Julian’s appreciation for homeliness and Benedictine stability goes well with her view of sin. It is our focus on the love of God that calms the waters of our long heavenward voyage.

The third point I liked in Julian was her understanding of the Christian life in terms of a relationship. In this, she is an exemplar of the English school of spirituality, avoiding the legalistic mindset of many Roman Catholic writers. What God earnestly desires from humanity in general, and with each person individually, is an intimate and loving relationship. Sometimes even religion can get in the way of this. The Revelations put things back in perspective. The meaning of all the structures, ritual, art, and other things associated with the Church is the love of God. Julian came to realize that the meaning of all her showings was the love of God. The one message that held Julian in an ecstatic trance for hours was the simple sentiment "I love you."

As a believer and as a priest, certain that God is showing himself in my life and ministry, despite my clouded vision, I find in these points of Julian’s Revelations a good deal of encouragement. Julian is a good reminder of God’s fundamental goodness, his love which overcomes all sin, and his interest in personal relationships. I am glad that Julian never seemed to feel that these showings were intended for her alone. They were always meant to be shared for the edification of others. In priestly ministry, my vision of God in doctrinal knowledge and spiritual experience is not a private matter. The message of God’s love is both for me and a message to be imparted through me. God’s love is great enough to be both plural and personal. It can never be only one or the other.

I also appreciate two further facts about Julian’s own character. Since saints are models of the Christian life for others to follow, it is only appropriate that we should also take inspiration from her own behavior as well as the visions she handed on to us (though as a humble saint, I’m sure Julian would hear nothing of the sort).

First, Julian is able to express herself freely. For example, her words about the motherhood of Christ may have precedents in the Bible and the writings of other saints, yet none develop them to the extent that Julian does. There is no fear in the Revelations of being unreserved in language, yet neither does she come off as being imprudent. It is but another indication of Julian’s optimism. She has faith that the Church’s teachings are true, and she equally has faith that religious experience is meaningful. Julian does not divorce the two. She can be free to speak her mind because her thought is fully digested; she does not speak rashly. Her religious experience is synthesized with dogmatic truth.

Second, Julian’s optimism in the face of uncertainty gives her a certain confidence in the struggle of faith. Julian is a model of living faith, hope, and charity. This confidence in God means that she is willing to acknowledge that she doesn’t have all the answers. Some things are hard to understand. Some things just don’t make sense. Uncertainty need not be indicative of a deficient faith. Rather, it can manifest hope and trust in God. A certain lack of understanding is to be expected along the way of growing in the Christian life. Perhaps, in God’s providence, they are placed there for our benefit—to help keep open what Lady Julian would call the saving wound of an earnest longing for God.
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The residence of Lady Julian, anchored to the parish Church of St Julian in Norwich, England.

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