Julian of Norwich: speaking from an age of plague to an age of pandemic

Julian of Norwich has long been a soul friend of mine. Over the last couple of months I’ve had several conversations with friends who’ve been discovering her wisdom and finding it enriching through this time. At first glance we might wonder what a 14th century anchorite can say to us today, but a little deeper exploration reveals much. If we think the impact of Covid on life has been dramatic and raising big questions about how we live, where is a loving God is in relation to all the suffering, how do we handle the greater uncertainly and struggles in life, then we find we are in good company with her.

All Shall be Well?

The 14th century saw the black death kill about 50% of the population of England and Europe, not long before her time of writing. Social structures were being challenged, life was very fragile and seemingly very cheap. She is given a series of revelations which speak of God in relation to humanity, of God’s love and presence. While they deeply affirm Julian’s understanding of God as a God of love and goodness, she is still left with big questions about the purpose and meaning of sin and suffering. She takes these questions deep into prayer. Twenty years later she writes about what has emerged from this prayerful wrestling with God, in  ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. Why do we humans have to suffer because of our human fallen/sinful/imperfect nature? God answers her saying ‘Sin is behovely (necessary)’ implying that it is a necessary part of how God holds reality – that it is within God’s love and grace. She goes on to describe how she comes to understand that our sins are ‘badges of glory’ they are the evidence of God’s gracious work in us. So the oft quoted ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’ are not easy words from a superficial comforter, but words that come from the crucified God to her, of the hope that is. 

The Impact of the Pandemic

The pandemic has aroused all kinds of uncertainties and anxieties for the world in 2020. Many of the normalities of life have been pulled from under us, whether its health, employment, social interaction etc. Of course its not only the pandemic that has caused this, but it has played a signficant part in stirring up conscious and unconscious reactions of anxieties and fears, suspicions and denials. There has been an interesting contrasting growth in both mis/dis information about covid, its causes, its challenges and ways of controlling it and in the raising of issues of social justice (black lives matter) and ethics in public life. The heightened awarenesses and denials all speak of deeper questions of our humanity – where is our truth, where is our peace, does God have any relevance to this?

God’s Gaze

What Julian is so striking in helping us with is to see how it is that God looks upon us. We can be so preoccupied about how we think we are to God and how bad we might feel about ourselves that we fail to engage with the most important perspective on ourselves – God’s. In a striking passage in which she explores the implication of a parable of a master and servant she describes the gaze of God as looking ‘with pity, not with blame’. Here she gets to the crux of our human fallenness – that our suffering because of our fallen nature, our sin or weakness never gets in the way of God’s gaze. She recognises we may be blinded by our condition to this reality, but invites us to dare to perceive the true gaze that is upon us, and to live from that.

We are Christ’s Crown

She draws out some extraordinary perceptions of how, when looking at things from God’s point of view there is an utterly different reality – one that is almost too good to be true.

“[The Father] rewards his Son, Jesus Christ…Therefore we are his, not only through our redemption but also by his Father’s courteous gift. We are his bliss, we are his reward, we are his honour, we are his crown. And this was a singular wonder and a most delectable contemplation, that we are his crown.”

Now there is something to ponder – how we are God’s reward to his son, Christ’s honour and crown. In Julian’s understanding this is not because of our faith or our holiness, but because we in our humanity provide the opportunity for Christ’s glory to be seen in the work of transformation. We are valuable to God and Christ in our brokenness, neediness, sinfulness. What an antidote this is to the all pervasive self-critical and judgmental voice that prevents us from receiving this truth.  Ponder yourself, in all your humanity, as Christ’s crown. Dare to believe his grace is enough for this to be true. Where does that speak to the disturbances the pandemic has brought to your life?

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