Unhindering the Soul
Anyone hoping to discover fresh ways of contemplating the human condition during Lent should try reading the reflections of Julian of Norwich, the 14th Century Christian mystic, says Paul Millward
Little is known of the woman who, it is believed, took on the name of the church of St Julian in Norwich, where she incarcerated herself for life as an anchoress. What we do know is that her withdrawal to St Julian’s church happened after she underwent a life-threatening illness at the age of 30, during which she received 16 mystical revelations in the form of visions of the crucified Christ. She dedicated the rest of her life to prayer, meditation, writing and receiving, through a window in her cell, the many visitors who came seeking her guidance and comfort.
After 20 years of reflection on the visions that had changed her life, Julian produced The Revelations of Divine Love, the first book known to have been written by a woman in the English language. In these medieval writings, Julian presents a form of Christianity that blends uncannily well with the modern mind, a mind informed by psychological concepts and a preoccupation with spiritual growth and wholeness.
One of her focal points is on the concept of sin; she is keen to rid of its negative power. According to Julian, God attaches no blame to us for our falling into sin. Moreover, God makes no distinction between our state of glory in heaven and our condition of sin on earth, but continues to love and protect our souls equally in both conditions. Julian has come to believe that sin has no substance, and is not a tangible entity in itself – all that God has created is good and therefore cannot have sin within its being: “I saw not sin; for I believe it has no manner of essence nor any portion of being.” Rather sin is an absence, an absence of good.
Julian makes a clear distinction between doing and being, such that our behaviour is not necessarily a reflection of our true nature. For Julian, the essence of our being is “one-ed” to God, consistently pure and innocent, protected and enfolded in God’s love. It has a “divine will that never consents to sin, nor ever will”, regardless of what we actually do. We can live in peace with this apparent paradox, acknowledging to God that we continue to fall into sin, but relieved of the guilt this can cause, freeing us to enjoy God’s love unhindered.
This is not to say that sin has no consequences; indeed Julian declares: “Adam’s sin was the most harm that was ever done, until the world’s end” – and that all our suffering is caused by sin. What her visions reveal to her however, is that we can transcend our worldly pain, safe in the knowledge that our suffering has a greater purpose in God’s plan for mankind; this will lead to an eternal joy beyond our current imagination:
That when we come up and receive the sweet reward which grace has created for us,
Then we shall thank and bless our Lord, endlessly rejoicing that we ever suffered woe.
And that shall be because of an attribute of blessed love that we shall discover in God – which
We might never have known without woe going before.
Central to God’s plan to lead us into these higher realms of love and bliss is the death of Christ on the cross. As we prepare for Easter this Lent, and reflect upon the monumental sadness of the crucifixion, Julian offers an alternative perspective, recording these words of Jesus spoken to her:
It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered the Passion for thee; and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.
The depth of God’s love for every person renders any inclination we might have to look to the sins of others as breaking our connection to God:
To consider the sins of other people will produce a thick film over the eyes of our soul, and prevent us for the time being from seeing the ‘fair beauty of the Lord’ – unless, that is, we look at them contrite along with the sinner, being sorry with and for him, and yearning over him for God. Without this it can only harm, disturb, and hinder the soul who considers them. I gathered all this from the revelation about compassion…This blessed friend is Jesus; it is his will and plan that we hang on to him, and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean is all the same to his love.
Julian’s longing is to lift us from what she calls our spiritual blindness to glimpse our true nature and purpose in God, freeing us to enjoy a more fulfilling life, in relationship both with God and with other people:
Thus I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning… And in this love he has done all his work, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlasting…
Paul Millward is a freelance writer and journalist specialising in the interface between history and contemporary social issues
This article was published in the February 2013 edition of Reform.