The Taser's Edge

See, I Dudley Do Write.
April 8, 2008, 7:01 am
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Contemplation of the Crucified:

Resistance to Evil in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love


            In the thirteenth vision in the longer text of Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich records Jesus’ declaration to her—“Sin is befitting, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”[1]  Outside of their context, Julian’s words are at the very least problematic and, at the worst, deeply offensive in their open conflict with visible reality.   At the bottom of any criticism is this question: How can this vision of a mystic be of any help to people who are living real lives and experiencing real suffering today?  How can a vision of “all shall be well” yield anything but a passive quietism in the face of all the injustices being perpetrated by human beings against other human beings?  And yet Julian does seek to offer real hope to believers.  This essay will discuss and analyze Julian’s understanding of sin and suffering, lay out her hopeful vision for the future, and sort out the various critiques which may be levied against this hope, ultimately seeking to discover how Julian can offer a present means of resistance against suffering and evil.

            The first necessary step is a definition of terms.  If “Sin is befitting,” then what is sin?  Speaking of all her visions, Julian writes, “But I did not see sin; for I believe that it has no substance nor portion of being.”[2]  Julian envisions a God who holds utter sovereignty, who has made and “does all things, no matter how small,” yet she is certain that this God is not responsible for sin.[3]  Like St. Augustine and many other Christian theologians who had come before her, Julian defines sin as a privation of the good, a non-being.  When God is understood as pure Being, then sin defined as non-being can have no relation to that God. 

            In this same section Julian provides a more comprehensive definition of sin: “With this bare word ‘sin’ our Lord brought to my mind the whole extent of all that is not good.”[4]  Sin for Julian is synonymous with evil, the “all that is not good” which stands in opposition to Christ’s promise that “all shall be well.”  While a citizen of the intervening centuries might claim to have personally experienced far greater horrors than Julian herself pictured, her claim that the Lord brought the vision to her mind is a claim to authority and to timelessness.   Furthermore the point of her statement is not to speak of such evil, but to shape her definition of sin so that even sin speaks to the good.

            Even when Julian writes of sin, she segues to speaking of Christ within the same sentence: “With this bare word ‘sin’ our Lord brought to my mind…the shameful scorn and humiliation that he bore…and all the pains and sufferings of all his creatures.”[5]  It is here that Julian makes the connection between sin and suffering, a complex relationship in her theology.  Sin is an invisible non-being, yet it is made visible in the world through suffering, “nor could [sin] be recognized were it not for the suffering it causes.”[6]  In the course of Julian’s work we see that suffering is the evidence of sin, the effect of sin, and sin itself (because sin has been made synonymous with the concept of evil).[7]

            To return to this essay’s originating quotation, Jesus has told Julian that “Sin is befitting.”[8]  Having defined ‘sin,’ it is now necessary to define ‘befitting.’  Julian is certain that God could not have caused sin, but she wonders why God did not prevent the sin that he surely knew would arise, in order to maintain relationship with human beings.  Julian describes herself as helpless in her obsession with the problem of sin in the world, and scolds herself, writing of her questions, “I had often wondered [about the problem of sin] before now in my folly” and “I ought certainly to have abandoned these thoughts, but nevertheless I grieved and sorrowed over the question with no reason or judgment.”[9]

            Julian’s self-admonishments are unnecessary, for Jesus answers Julian’s questions, although the answer only brings further mystery: “It is true that sin is the cause of all this suffering, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”[10]  The mystery of why God allowed the first sin will remain to be revealed in Heaven, but Julian is given some clues.[11]  “Sin is befitting”—the Fall has been brought under God’s sovereign rule and plan—because God provides a much more abounding grace in order to rescue humanity from sin.  Julian writes, “It appears to me that there is a deed which the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done.  And he wants us to know this.”[12]  Julian takes Christ at his word that “all shall be well” despite all the evidence that nothing is well in the world.[13]  Yet Julian believes that the hope for this final healing of all things is a gift of God, so that humans will be able to rejoice in God and have peace in their mortal lives by living in hope.

            While Julian’s hope seems neat and tidy as a theological theory, critics may question whether Julian fully understands the depth of suffering that human beings have endured within even the past 100 years, atrocities which would likely be unimaginable had they not happened.  After Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, is it possible to believe that all shall be well?  The problem with such a critique, however, is that it soon degenerates into a sadomasochistic contest—“My suffering is worse than your suffering.”  Critics who are truly concerned with the victims of suffering cannot attack Julian on these grounds.  Julian even writes, as if to counter such arguments, “deeds are done which appear so evil to us and people suffer such terrible evils that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them.”[14]  Life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries surely carried plenty of hazards and horrible sights.

            On a more personal level, all of Julian’s visions were received through her own experience of suffering, while she was in a near-death state.  Some will counter that Julian prayed to enter such a state, and they will be right.  Before she begins writing of her vision, Julian writes, “I longed eagerly to be on my death-bed…that I might myself believe I was dying and that everyone who saw me might believe the same, for I wanted no hopes of earthly life.  I longed to have in this sickness every kind of suffering both of body and soul that I should experience if I died, with all the terror and turmoil of the fiends, except for actually giving up the ghost.” [15]  Julian wishes to know all manner of suffering in her own body.  She not only wants to think she is dying, but she wants others to think that she is dying (an odd brand of arrogance?).  Julian even wants to experience demonic oppression (“the fiends”).  How does such a woman dare to offer anything to those who suffer entirely against their wills?  How is her prayer not entirely offensive to them?

            For some, perhaps the prayer which seeks suffering can do nothing but offend, but this is certainly not Julian’s intention.  She does not wish to suffer out of any sense of enjoyment of the experience of suffering in itself.  When she writes of wanting others to think that she is dying, she does not seek to suffer in order to gain attention for herself.  And when she hopes for demonic attack, it is not so that she can one day brag that she overcame the Devil.  Julian is not trying to “out-suffer” the world’s sufferers.  All of her desires to suffer are part of her desire to know Christ better.  She wants to join with Christ in his suffering and thus be identified with him more deeply, to appreciate better Christ’s love toward her and thus learn to love him better—“he was willing to become a mortal man for love, so I wanted to suffer with him.”[16]  Julian’s hope is not to pay Christ back for the salvation that he won for her, but to share in his suffering.  She readily admits that the pain that she suffered is nothing compared to his.

            Christ’s suffering is for Julian the sum of all possible suffering.  In the ninth revelation, Christ tells her, “If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.”[17]  Julian understands him to mean not that he would suffer more if it were required of him, but that if there were any more suffering to be experienced in all the earth, then he would experience it on behalf of humankind.  She writes, “I watched very carefully to see how often he would die if he could, and truly the number of times passed my understanding and senses by so much that my reason neither would nor could comprehend it.”[18]  Julian is overwhelmed that Christ’s love for humanity is so abounding that he would suffer and die many times over if it were possible.  As for her so for him, all of his suffering and dying is not because Julian’s God enjoys pain, but because her Savior’s love for humankind far overwhelms the pain that he suffered to free humankind.

            The key to understanding Julian is to understand her vision as profoundly Christocentric.  As Julian suffers with Christ and becomes identified with his wounded body, he invites her into his heart through his wounded side.  The picture is striking—access to the heart of God is found by entering through Christ’s wounds.  Christians must bow their heads in order enter Christ by way of his suffering: “with a glad face, our Lord looked into his side, and gazed, rejoicing; and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side.  And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place which was large enough for all mankind who shall be saved to rest there in peace and love.”[19]  The description of this place within Christ’s heart— “a beautiful and delightful place…to rest in peace and love”— is a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom which can only be accessed via the gaping wounds of Christ through which his loving gaze invites his people.  Christ rejoices as believers enter into his wounds.

            Perhaps the greatest critique of Julian’s Trinitarian vision of all things being made well is that it seems to leave nothing well until God initiates a rescue of Creation in some far-off future.  Critics may rightly question the use of a distantly fulfilled eschatology to people who are suffering today.  Moreover, when the object of hope is so distant and so dependent on the work of God, there is no reason for believers to do anything but huddle together; ignore the world, its people, and their suffering; and wait for God to act.   Another several generations of Christians could live and die in insular communities if Christ should decide not to return for another two millennia scarred by human greed and violence.  If we accept Julian’s vision that God shall make all things well, then why should we do anything, and what is the purpose of life in the meantime?

            Thankfully Julian’s mysticism leaves her as bound to the hurting world as to Christ.  She strongly holds to her belief that God will make all things well, but she is not content to assume that the experience of Christian life in the world is one of sitting politely in a waiting room, just passing time until God shows up to heal every pain.  Rather Julian’s vision offers those who suffer a means of active resistance.  She calls all Christians to contemplation of the Crucified.

            In chapter 19 of the long text, Julian models this particular type of contemplation.  As she lay on her bed in sickness, Julian fastened her eyes on the crucifix before her.  She writes, “At this point I wanted to look up from the cross, but I dared not…for beside the cross there was no safety but the horror of fiends.  Then a suggestion came from my reason…’Look up to his father in heaven’…I answered inwardly with all the strength of my soul, ‘No, I cannot, for you are my heaven.’”[20]  The crucifix is the only proper aim for Julian’s eyes.  Not only is there no hope outside of the cross, but all else is demonic.  Although Julian often speaks of the use of reason in a good light, here it misleads her, because it asks her to look away from the Crucified—this is no empty cross.  Her soul answers, speaking to Christ, “[Y]ou are my heaven.”

            The problem for Julian is not the experience of suffering in itself, but rather the fact that suffering stops us from finding “peace in the blessed contemplation of God.”[21]  We are distracted in so many ways, and our hope is undercut by the presence of evil in the world, made so visible by suffering.  Julian’s vision of hope in which “all shall be made well” can seem far off and unreachable, especially to those who are being brought to despair by what they have suffered.  Hope and help are needed.  For us all, Julian offers a means of resistance by which we are able to reframe the experience of suffering and indeed of living in the world.  To fasten one’s eyes on the crucified Christ (not just the empty cross) is to be bound to Christ in his suffering, to be bound to him in hope for resurrection and healing, and to be bound to him in a love for all people which is found only by entering into his heart through his wounded side.

            What makes this a useful means of resistance?  Contemplation of the Crucified proclaims that we are united with our loving God by God’s choice to suffer with us, and that the Kingdom of Heaven is entered only by means of a spear-pierced side.  Contemplation of the Crucified takes seriously the pain and suffering experienced by all people, even and especially the most oppressed among us.  Contemplation of the Crucified recognizes that suffering is a great evil completely without meaning unless it is translated by the crucified flesh of Christ.  Contemplation of the Crucified claims that in that identification of our suffering with Christ’s suffering, there is hope.    We are united with God through suffering and only through suffering.  Our only hope is in that union.

[1]Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Shearing (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 79.

[2]Ibid., 79.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Julian, Revelations, 79.

[5] Ibid., 79.  Emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., 79.

[7] A.C. Spearing complicates this relationship further in his footnote 19 for the short text, found on page 182.  Spearing writes, “Julian uses the word payne to mean both ‘suffering’ and ‘punishment’ (the two senses are not clearly distinguished in Middle English).  Translation is difficult, because for Julian sin is both suffering and its own punishment.”

[8] Julian, Revelations, 79.

[9] Julian, Revelations, 79.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 80.  Here Julian writes of this final revelation of why God allowed sin, “I saw a marvelous great mystery hidden in God, a mystery which he will make openly known to us in heaven; in which knowledge we shall truly see the reason why he allowed sin to exist; and seeing this we shall rejoice eternally in our God.”  Yet Julian later provides further insight herself when she presents the parable of the Lord and the Servant in chapter 51, in which Adam (and all humanity with him) falls because of his good intention to serve God.

[12] Ibid., 85.

[13] Ibid., 86.  Julian describes God’s eschatological healing of all things by likening it to Creation.  Both Creation and future re-Creation are ex nihilo, “for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity will make well all that is not well.”

[14] Julian, Revelations, 85.

[15] Ibid., 43.

[16] Julian, Revelations, 45.

[17] Ibid., 73.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Julian, Revelations, 76.

[20] Julian, Revelations, 69.

[21] Ibid., 85.

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