In the Eighth Revelation, Julian saw Christ’s face on the cross utterly transformed from all suffering into radiant joy. It was as if Julian herself had died, letting go of her assumptions about earthly reality and the inevitability of death. Her mind was privileged to glimpse the glory of Christ’s reality in the bliss of heaven, where sorrow and suffering do not exist. Immediately, Julian became “completely merry” – that is, bubbling over with joy.
"I understood that we are now, in our lord’s intention, on his cross with him in our pains and in our passion, dying. And we, willfully abiding on the same cross, with his help and his grace, into the last point, suddenly he shall change his countenance toward us, and we shall be with him in heaven. Between that one [the pain on the cross] and that other [being in heaven] shall all be one time, and then shall all be brought into joy. And this is what he meant in this showing: 'Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?' And we shall be fully blessed."
By the sheer suddenness Julian suggests what a holy death might be like: one moment in pain, the next in bliss. She understands that not only has Christ overcome the fiend through suffering, he has eradicated the mighty grip of death altogether: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).
Right now, according to Julian’s understanding, we abide in the reality of the cross; we are living existentially within the passion of Christ, “in our pains and in our passion, dying.” In fact, when we look at the cross (and the pain that is all around us), we “see” what sin really looks like by the terrible suffering it causes. We also recognize in Christ’s sufferings what our own suffering feels like. Yet Julian envisions that, at the last moment of our lives, suddenly Christ will “change his countenance toward us, and we shall be with him in heaven.” By this she means that Christ will instantaneously convert all our suffering into joy—simply by transforming our mind’s ability to perceive him!
Julian insists that between the time of suffering and the time of joy will be “all one time”; that is, in medieval terms, no time at all. So great is the glory of the transformed Christ that Julian imagines that if he were to reveal his blissful countenance to each one of us, here and now, there would be no suffering on earth that could cause us grief; rather, everything would be pure joy and bliss. But he must show us now the countenance of his passion because, until we are purified and sanctified by the catalyst of suffering, we will not be able to “see” his blessed face. Therefore, we are still in great distress and labor with him for our salvation.
Julian is convinced that we are Christ’s own children for whom he has labored long and hard, like a woman enduring a painful childbirth, in order to overcome our mental and emotional fiends and give us new life. Therefore, he is personally responsible for us, like a good parent who will never give up on his child. This is a theme which Julian develops at length in her theology of the Motherhood of God.
"And for this little pain that we suffer here, we shall have a high, endless knowing in God, which we might never have without that pain. And the harder our pains have been with him on his cross, the more shall our honor be with him in his kingdom."
With great understanding, Julian is only too aware that the reality of Christ’s triumph over each individual’s death, and the soul’s liberation into resurrected bliss, is yet to be made manifest in each person’s experience. Meanwhile, the length of days and nights of suffering persists and the large stone that keeps us walled up in our minds and bodies seems too big and heavy ever to be rolled back. Death seems so final, for ourselves and for those we love. Nevertheless, Julian bears that, in no time at all, we will experience that the great stone of our suffering and death has already been rolled back . . . indeed, pulverized. It will be no more. Darkness has been obliterated by the resurrected light of Jesus Christ. And for “this little pain that we suffer here” (no matter how devastating it may be for us to endure right now), we shall bask forever in the radiance of his Holy Face.
Let us hold onto this vision of divine joy that Julian offers us, so that even amidst our present sufferings and fears, we may be full of hope that Christ has already overcome every type of evil . . . and all that we suffer in union with Christ shall be turned into incomparable joy.
NOTE: Excerpt above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf
What strengthens us in times of extreme trial and tribulation? For Julian of Norwich, it is faith, and faith alone. Why? Because faith enables us to know our true origin, our true reality, and our true destination. In other words, who we truly are. Hence, faith enables us to believe that the Holy Spirit dwelling within us will overcome all obstacles. Julian realizes that not only faith but all virtues come from the Spirit, and that without the Spirit’s gifts no one receives any virtue. Faith, in fact, is the most exalted kind of wisdom or understanding. As Julian writes: “For faith is nothing else but a right understanding with true belief and secure trust within our being, that we are in God and he is in us, which we cannot see.”
Julian does not lay out doctrines (though she never denies that faith involves believing what the church teaches). Her concentration here is different. For her, faith is the secure trust that, within the ground of our being, the soul is in God and God is in the soul. It is an inspired understanding of all she discusses in her Revelations about our creation and redemption which, because of the blindness caused by our misdeeds, we are obviously unable to experience directly.
Faith is precisely the spiritual insight that enables us to “know” what we cannot comprehend by human reasoning alone. Faith is essential to our self-awareness. While sin has deprived humanity of the ability to “see” God, faith appears as inner vision. As St. Paul has written: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, italics added). If we dare to believe, faith (along with all the other virtues that God grants the soul) “works great things in us.” It is actually Christ who does the monumental work of mercy in the soul at all times, constantly reconciling us to himself. By his divine activity we are made able to see and understand more and more, through the gifts and virtues of the Holy Spirit. Julian identifies this inner working of the Lord as that which enables us to become “Christ’s children and Christian in living.” It is always and ever Christ’s work in our souls, not our own. Julian affirms that Christ is our way, continually leading us and teaching us by his laws. He delights in this work, as does his Father.
Julian recalls the Ninth Revelation, in which she saw Christ bear all who are members of his Mystical Body into heaven, where he presents them to his Father, who receives these souls thankfully and then graciously returns them to his Son. “Which gift and working is joy to the Father, and bliss to the Son, and liking to the Holy Ghost.” Of all the things that we are obliged to do in this life, we must give God the greatest pleasure by rejoicing in this joy. "And notwithstanding all our feeling, woe or wele, God wills we understand and believe that we are more truly in heaven than on earth.” What an astounding statement! Julian is certain that, because Christ has already saved us and incorporated us into his Mystical Body, our true lives are not here, in our mortal bodies, but in the joyful embrace of the Trinity. For Julian, we are more spiritual than fleshly, more at home in heaven than on earth.
She further describes faith as arising from “the natural love of our soul” for what is good, and from “the clear light of our reason,” which enables us to think and inform the will in order to make good decisions, as well as from the “steadfast memory” that we have of God in our creation. We might consider faith as a sacred remembrance that never forgets where we have come from: God. It is a spiritual homesickness that longs to return where it belongs. Finally, Julian states that at the precise moment that “our soul is breathed into our body in which we are made sensual,” immediately mercy and grace begin to work, “taking care of us and keeping us with pity and love.” By means of this work, the Holy Spirit nurtures in us the hope that our physical nature will “come again up above and be united to our substance” within the virtue of Jesus Christ and be
brought to complete fulfillment.
Rather than allowing ourselves to become cast down by the great crises we are living through right now, let us lift up our minds to the reality of divine light that we carry within us, even through our darkest days. Let us keep this light of faith burning in our hearts, in ardent trust that Christ IS at work in every aspect of our lives. And let us be on fire with faith that through the power of Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection, he is bringing forth a magnificent love, healing, and transformation beyond anything we could possibly imagine!
NOTE: Excerpt above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf
Some of you may wonder why I entitled my podcast series on the Revelations of Julian of Norwich: Life, Love, & Light. The answer is simple. I love this trilogy! They are Julian’s own words to describe her understanding of the Blessed Trinity. Near the very end of her Revelations, she tells us:
I had a partial touching, sight, and feeling of three properties of God, in which the strength and effect of all the revelations stand. And it was seen in every showing . . . The properties are these: life, love, and light. In life is marvelous intimacy, in love is gentle courtesy, and in light is endless being.
By God’s “life,” Julian means his familiarity, gentleness, and enduring closeness to us in the ground of our being, out of which he will never come. By God’s “love,” she understands his all-embracing and courteous care for our souls. And by God’s “light,” she sees his everlasting Being that will never change or alter its expression toward us. She recognized this trinity of properties as the one goodness of God, to which her mind wanted to be united and her heart wanted to cleave “with all its powers.” She marveled at the sweet feeling of unity she gained from realizing that our human reason exists in God. She appreciated, with much greater depth after many years of contemplation, that this reason “is the highest gift that we have received, and it is grounded in nature” – our human nature.
In addition to our reason, she writes:
Our faith is a light, naturally coming from our endless day that is our father, God; in which light our mother, Christ, and our good lord, the holy ghost, lead us in this mortal life . . . And at the end of woe, suddenly our eye shall be opened, and in clearness of sight our light shall be full, which light is God our maker, father and holy ghost in Christ Jesus our savior. Thus I saw and understood that our faith is our light in our night, which light is God, our endless day.
Julian further identifies the source of our light as none other than “charity” or spiritual love, which is measured out as is most profitable to us, according to the wisdom of God. The light of divine love is never allowed to be quite bright enough for us to be able to see our salvation clearly, nor is the heavenly light kept completely hidden from us, but it is enough light in which to live and work productively, thereby earning “the honorable thanks of God.”
Thus charity keeps us in faith and in hope, and faith and hope lead us in love. And at the end alle shalle be love.
Julian was also shown three ways of understanding this light of love: uncreated love (which is divine love), created love (which is the soul within divine love), and love given (which is the virtue of love). This gift of love that is bequeathed to us through the working of grace enables us to “love God for himself, and our self in God, and all that God loves, for the sake of God.” Julian marveled greatly at this virtue of love because she realized that even though we live foolishly and blindly here on earth, yet God always beholds our efforts to lead lives of love. And he takes great joy in our good deeds. Julian reiterates that the best way we can please God is by wisely and truly believing that we please him, and “to rejoice with him and in him.”
For as truly as we shall be in the bliss of God without end, praising and thanking him, as truly have we been in the foresight of God, loved and known in his endless purpose from without beginning, in which uncreated love he created us. In the same love he keeps us, and never suffers us to be hurt by which our bliss might be lessened. And therefore when the final judgment is given, and we are all brought up above, then shall we clearly see in God the secrets which now are hidden from us.
We will not understand how it is that each soul is given plenteous grace to rise again after every fall, or how even the most hardened sinners are converted into saints, until at last we come up to heaven and see in God’s eyes the hidden mystery of the magnificent process of salvation. But we can be sure of one thing: we will see that all has been done by God to perfection. This will be the Great Deed.
And then shall none of us be moved to say in any thing:
“Lord, if it had been thus, it would have been well.” But we shall all say with one voice: "Lord, blessed may thou be, because it is thus, it is well. And now we see truly that every thing is done as it was thine ordinance to do, before any thing was made.”
Let us take these reflections by Julian of life, love, and light into our hearts -- to strengthen our faith, encourage our hope, and deepen our love. That we might become bearers of God's own light, love, and light to our dark and saddened world!
NOTE: Excerpt above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf
"Julian of Norwich expresses herself in a woman’s voice that sounds decidedly different from the exclusively male voices in which she would have been accustomed to hearing the gospel proclaimed. Her voice is not that of a celibate cleric, nor a canon law expert, nor an ecclesiastical judge. Nor does her writing have a monastic tone to it. Julian’s book is full of a distinctly feminine sensitivity, along with incisive, analytical reasoning, rich imagery, and down-to-earth common sense. It is neither a treatise nor a catechism, nor is it a systematic guide to the spiritual life, yet it is full of rich teachings on prayer, the practice of faith, hope, and love, as well as personal advice on how to deal with one’s own sense of sinfulness, recurring depression, life’s suffering, and the fear of death.
Julian employs a circular, rather than a strictly linear, method of examining and interpreting Christian truths. She chooses favorite themes, words, and phrases, and returns to them again and again, layering them each time with ever-deeper meaning. This circularity does not in any way undermine her ability to analyze, argue, and categorize her teachings in a rational, linear mode when she so chooses. She allows intuition to inspire her logic and rational explanations to support her mystical insights. Throughout, her moral angst drives her to probe relentlessly, to dare to make astounding theological leaps of thought and faith, but she has no desire merely to be clever, to impress, or to compete with the authoritative reasoning of the scholastics or the didactic sermons of the churchmen. In fact, she cuts through theological hair-splitting and well-accepted religious attitudes, “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12), revealing the hidden marrow of meaning. As Thomas Merton wrote of her in the twentieth century:
Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older . . . I think that Julian of Norwich is with [John Henry, Cardinal] Newman the greatest English theologian. She is really that. For she reasons from her experience of the substantial center of the great Christian mystery of Redemption. She gives her experience and her deductions, clearly, separating the two. And the experience is of course nothing merely subjective. It is the objective mystery of Christ as apprehended by her, with the mind and formation of a fourteenth-century English woman.
Besides being a mystical theologian, Julian is willing to reveal her own inner battles, to admit her personal failings as well as her deeply felt longings. . . . Julian may not tell us a lot of intimate details about her day-to-day life, but she does much more: she opens and entrusts to us her mind and heart. She discloses her mighty struggle to integrate her faith in the God she has been taught to believe in with the God of her mystical Revelations. She confronts her confusion head-on. One might even say she writes the first-ever spiritual autobiography in English.
Julian addresses the reader directly. She wants each of us to see as she saw, to hear as she heard, to understand as she came to understand. She speaks as a daughter, wife, mother, and concerned friend on every page of her work. . . . She is, by turns, frankly emotional and searingly self-critical, profoundly tempted by doubt and buoyed up by hope. Julian’s pressing questions are not limited to her time; they resonate in every age. They are the same metaphysical questions we keep asking, over and over again. Julian’s asking of these questions, our questions, and her way of telling us how the Lord answered them, reveal a woman passionately concerned about the salvation and ultimate happiness of people she dearly loved. She also shows herself to be a woman of deep prayer, extraordinary faith, and prophetic powers. Julian grows on us. For every man or woman, young or old, believer or skeptic, Julian has a gift. It is the gift of her questing spirit, her daring conviction. It is the gift of her personal witness to Christ’s immense and incomparable compassion. Julian’s Revelations were not written just for the evencristens of her time. Hers is a timeless gospel, composed over six hundred years ago, by one woman for all women and all men who long for the assurance of a love that can never fail."
I sincerely hope that you will draw close to the wisdom of Julian of Norwich by listening to my weekly Life, Love, & Light podcast series on this website that goes in-depth to explore her sixteen Revelations. I also examine how each Revelation is directly relevant to the very plague and protests, sufferings and fears, struggles and hopes of our own time. There is a Guided Meditation at the end of each podcast for you to make your own. May Julian bless you all abundantly!
Please Note: The excerpt quoted above is from the Introduction to my book,
Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich
(Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
Today, May 8th, is Julian’s Feast Day—the day she received her Revelations of Divine Love from Christ on the cross. Let us pause to thank her for her presence in our lives and for her exquisite writings. And let us listen to what Julian is telling us in this challenging time of the Coronavirus: to live our whole life in love with Christ!
But he wills we take heed thus: that he is the ground of all our whole life in love, he is our everlasting protector, and mightily defends us against all our enemies that are extremely dangerous and terribly fierce towards us.
This theme of Christ as “the ground of our whole life in love” colors and highlights every aspect of Julian’s theology. Christ is not the unapproachable “other,” the distant God-man whose anger must be appeased by every extreme means possible. He is, in a very real sense, what we are, in our flesh and blood and bones, having taken on the fullness of our human nature, save sin, in order to help us combat the suffering of temptation and guilt, and to show his sublime peace and love. Christ knows exactly how our minds work, what our failings and compulsions are, and longs to teach us how to reorient our attitudes and desires toward the highest good. And he has endured every possible physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual agony we go through. This is the Christ Julian knows to be at the foundation, the very ground, of our being. This is where the “godly will” resides, that never completely wills sin: in our Christ-redeemed nature.
And this is the supreme friendship of our courteous lord, that he keeps us so tenderly while we are in our sinne. And furthermore, he touches us most intimately, and shows us our sinne by the sweet light of mercy and grace.
Julian is convinced that even when we are in the midst of harming ourselves or others, and seem to be abandoning God, he does not abandon us. Instead, he whispers in our heart and mind, moves our conscience to feel remorse, and leads us to ask forgiveness, guiding us by his own “sweet light of mercy and grace.” However, Julian is acutely aware that when we sin, “we see ourself so foule,” that we think (indeed, we assume) that “God is wroth with us for our sinne.” Here, Julian is describing her own sense of personal guilt, with a keen understanding that Christians persistently harbor a wrong view of God as being wrathful.
She explains that though we may remain convinced that God must be angry at us while we are in sin, it is precisely his ever-present mercy and grace which enable us to turn back to him, confess our failure, and ask forgiveness. Christ gathers us up like his prodigal son (or daughter) and encloses us in the royal robe (the restored innocence of our baptism), calls his servants to kill the fatted calf and prepare a banquet (the Eucharist), and invites all the saints to join in the celebration: “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk 15:32). What Julian is describing here is not only the parable of the prodigal son, but also the never-ending story of the exorbitant love of the prodigal Father.
And then our courteous lord shows himself to the soul merrily and with the happiest possible expression, with friendly welcoming, as if it had been in pain and in prison, saying thus: “My dear darling, I am glad that thou art come to me. In all thy woe I have ever been with thee, and now see for yourself my love, and let us be oned in bliss.” Thus are sins forgiven by grace and mercy, and our soul honorably received in joy, exactly as it shall be when it comes into heaven, as often as it comes back to God by the gracious working of the holy ghost and the power of Christ’s passion.
In contemplating Christ’s mercy and grace in never leaving us alone, even in our sin and suffering, Julian understands how “all manner of thing” is already being prepared for us in heaven, “by the great goodness of God.” This is so true that, whenever we feel ourselves “in peace and in charity, we are truly safe.” And we are, by implication, already saved.
Julian reports exceptionally intimate terms in this passage, such as “My dear darling” and let us “be oned in bliss,” more often employed between earthly lovers than between the sinful soul and God. She remembers the depth of personal feeling Christ showed her as he conveyed this Revelation about sin. He was not only joyous, friendly, welcoming; he was also deeply loving and all-embracing. His ardent desire for unity is that of a lover for the beloved, not in a sexual sense, but in that of complete spiritual oneing. Just hearing words like these spoken by Christ in one’s heart would be enough to convince the soul of his unconditional love.
During this time of global pandemic, fear, anxiety, and isolation, let us open our hearts to the Lord who longs to forgive, heal, reassure, and comfort us so tenderly. Let us trust “mightily” (as Julian would say) that nothing can separate us from the loving care of God—not sickness, sadness, or the loss of those we love. On the contrary, Christ is completely “in with us” in all our suffering, constantly strengthening us to bear our cross. All he asks is that we turn to him and ask for help. Then he will embrace us and tell us: “My dear darling, I am glad that thou art come to me. In all thy woe I have ever been with thee, and now see for yourself my love, and let us be oned in bliss.”
May Julian bless you abundantly on this, her very special day! And please join us in making “A Virtual Retreat with Julian of Norwich”—in the Life, Love, & Light podcasts: https://lifelovelight.buzzsprout.com/
Note: Quotations and excerpts above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books, 2013). Copyright © by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
I want to wish you all the blessings of Easter hope, and joy, and peace even -- and most especially -- in this time of coronavirus. We may feel isolated from our loved ones, unable to attend church liturgies in person, and anxious about health, loss of jobs and income, and the difficulty of getting food. But in spite of our fears, we venture in our hearts with the women to the tomb and find it empty of death. We hear the words: "He is not here; he has risen!" The fact that Christ is risen means that all our sufferings, all our mourning and weeping, all our deaths are not the whole story. There is always the reality that Christ is alive within us, working through every circumstance in our lives to bring us closer to himself and into his own eternal glory. Christ's resurrection is our certainty that our ultimate destination is eternal life, not death.
As many of you know, Julian of Norwich experienced Revelations of the great sufferings of Christ on the cross. Then, in a moment of transformation, Christ’s face changed from suffering to exquisite joy. Julian became “completely merrie” as she calls it; giddy with elation! Then Christ spoke to her: “Art thou well satisfied that I suffered for thee? . . . It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered my passion for thee. And if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.” Do we ever think about how much Christ wanted to suffer for us?
As a young girl, Julian of Norwich had sought the “mind of the passion,” by which she meant a deeper compassion in her own mind and heart for Christ’s sufferings and death. She had never expected to hear Christ reveal to her his own mind about why he suffered. From this locution, she became acutely aware that he endured his passion to convince her of his love and of his great compassion for her sufferings. The realization is heart-stopping. What Julian is telling her readers is that everything we suffer is not a loss, not pointless, and will never be forgotten by Christ. He considers our trials and agonies as part of his own. He took them on, even as he took on our flesh and blood. Christ’s suffering became, in a very real sense, his initiation into what human beings endure. And Julian understood that because of Christ’s stupendous sacrifice on the cross, every physical pain, every emotional loss, every spiritual torture, whether small or great, becomes part of the process of our salvation.
In fact, the only existential “mind of the passion” that we can have is through our personal sufferings. Our pain-filled lives, even more than our meditations on the passion, are our truest union with Christ on the cross. And Christ, by suffering within us and for us, radically changes the very meaning of human suffering from incomprehensible tragedy to transformation in glory.
By asking, “Art thou well satisfied that I suffered for thee?” Christ was forcing Julian to examine how completely she accepted his sacrifice on the cross. He was saying to her, in effect: “Are you finally convinced that I loved you this much?” It took Julian years to fully appreciate the magnitude of Christ’s gift and the depth of his compassion, much less to be able to accept it with all her heart.
During this Easter season, let us meditate on how much Christ longs to show us his love. Allow him to reassure us that all our sufferings, like his own, will be turned into joy. Perhaps that will give us courage to endure this pandemic with a measure of patience and foresight. We might even be able to give thanks in advance for the great work of salvation that the Lord is accomplishing in us all. Happy Easter!
Note: Quotations above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
It is one week before Good Friday. Let us take time to reflect on the description that Julian of Norwich records of Christ’s sufferings on the cross, as seen in her Revelations. These are without parallel in medieval literature—or any literature for that matter. In the Second Revelation, Julian writes:
And after this, I saw with bodily sight in the face of the crucifix that hung before me, in which I beheld continually a part of his passion: contempt, spitting, soiling, and buffeting, and many exhausting pains, more than I can tell, and often changing of color.
Again in the Fourth Revelation, Julian describes:
And after this I saw, beholding the body plenteously bleeding in semblance of the scourging, as thus: the fair skin was broken very deep into the tender flesh, with sharp smitings all about the sweet body. The hot blood ran out so plenteously that there was neither skin nor wound, but as it were all blood. And when it came to where it should have fallen down, there it vanished.
Julian envisions the outpouring of Christ’s blood on the cross as “plenteous” and “precious,” because it is the boundless blood of the Son of God. It is also “our own nature” because it is very human blood, just like ours. And as precious as it is, so is it plenteous, sufficient to cleanse every and all sin, if only humankind will allow itself to be purified by it.
Behold and see the virtue of this precious plenty of his dearworthy blood! It descended down into hell and burst their bonds and delivered them, all who were there who belong to the court of heaven. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood overflows all the earth, and is ready to wash all creatures of sinne who are of good will, have been, and shall be. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood ascends up into heaven in the blessed body of our lord Jesus Christ, and there is in him, bleeding, praying for us to the father, and is and shall be as long as we need.
In the Seventh Revelation, Julian records Christ’s final agony: After this, Christ showed a part of his passion near his dying. I saw the sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying; and afterward more deadly pale, weakening; and then [it] turned more deadly into blue; and afterward more brown blue, as the flesh turned more deeply dead. For his passion showed to me most explicitly in his blessed face, and especially in his lips, there I saw these four colors—those lips that were before fresh and ruddy, lively and pleasing to my sight. This was a terrible change, to see this deep dying. And also the nose withered together and dried, to my sight, and the sweet body waxed brown and black, all changed and turned out from the fair, fresh, and lively color of himself into dry dying.
The greater Christ’s dehydration, the more acute his suffering became. Drying was, in Julian’s eyes, the source of his unquenchable thirst, both physical and spiritual. . . . As gruesome as Julian’s depiction of Christ’s physical sufferings may seem to us, it is still not as detailed as that offered by modern doctors and medical examiners who have studied the physical process of death by crucifixion. These experts provide a long list of the tortures and affronts to Christ’s body, which I recount in Julian’s Gospel.
In the Eighth Revelation, Julian is led into a realistic vision of the terrible dying of Jesus Christ. And thus I saw our Lord Jesus growing weaker a long time. For the oneing with the godhead gave strength to the manhood for love to suffer more than all men might suffer. . . . No tongue may tell, or heart fully think, the pains that our savior suffered for us, taking into account the worthiness of the highest, worshipful king and the shameful, pitiless and painful death. For he that is highest and worthiest was fullest noughted and most utterly despised.
Julian fully expects to see Jesus die on the cross in front of her:
And I looked for the departing of life with all my might and expected to have seen the body completely dead. But I saw him not so. And just in that same time that it seemed to me, by all appearances, that his life might no longer last, and the showing of the end must needs be near--suddenly, as I beheld the same cross, his face changed into a joyful expression. The changing of his blissful countenance changed mine, and I was as glad and merry as it was possible to be. Then our Lord brought this merrily to mind: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?” And I was completely merry.
Julian waited and waited, but Christ did not die as in the gospels . . . Instead, as Julian looked steadily into the cross, Christ’s face was transformed before her eyes. His countenance looked so exquisitely joyful that it caused Julian’s own expression to change. Suddenly, she became “glad and merry,” implying happy, cheerful, ebullient, almost giddy . . . as if she had never had a pain in the world. And the locution that spoke within her mind in that moment was equally startling: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?”
In that instant, Julian experienced the radical changeability of even the worst suffering. . . . Historically, we know Christ did not escape death. He really “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” on the cross (Jn 19:30). His side was really pierced with a soldier’s lance (Jn 19:34). He really was taken down from the cross and wrapped “in a linen cloth”; his body really was laid “in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (Lk 23:53, Mk 15:46).
However, Julian’s unique gospel account of Christ’s passion and sudden transformation is based on a lifelike vision happening before her eyes. Moment by moment, her mind has been inspired by grace to experience the sensory images, the words, the vivid impressions, the intellectual understanding, and the emotional reactions. Like the images we project and perceive every moment of our lives, none of these mental images is absolute and unchanging. Therefore, every situation, every emotion, can (and does) change eventually. For Julian, in a mysterious and wonderful way, the image changed in an instant.
In this astounding transformation, Julian’s mind leapt into eternity. . . . It was as if Julian herself had died, letting go of all her assumptions about earthly reality and the inevitability of death. Her mind was privileged to glimpse the glory of Christ’s reality in the bliss of heaven, where sorrow and suffering do not exist.
I understood that we are now, in our lord’s intention, on his cross with him in our pains and in our passion, dying. And we, willfully abiding on the same cross, with his help and his grace, into the last point, suddenly he shall change his countenance toward us, and we shall be with him in heaven. Between that one [the pain on the cross] and that other [being in heaven] shall all be one time, and then shall all be brought into joy. And this is what he meant in this showing: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?” And we shall be fully blessed.
As we accompany Christ during Holy Week—"in our pains and in our passion, dying” during this agonizing time of pandemic—let us take heart that the cross of Good Friday always leads to the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. And every form of dying—no matter how fearful it may seem to us right now—prepares us for the certain joy of resurrected life that nothing can ever take away. Like Julian, may our Good Friday “mourning” be turned “into dancing” (Ps 30:11) as we become “glad and merry” with Easter gratitude!
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts quoted above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013, by Veronica Mary Rolf.
The world is full of fear. The unseen coronavirus is not only affecting our bodies, but stirring up the dreaded virus of fear and panic within our minds. The disease has “gone viral” in unexpected ways. Many of us are forced to work from home, cut off from coworkers and social contacts. Students are taking their classes online and forbidden to play sports with their friends. We are prevented from attending churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques for fear of contamination. We can’t go to the movies, theatre, concerts, sports events, museums, libraries, even stores. We are warned to stay six feet away from another person. Not to hug, kiss, or shake hands. We are advised to self-quarantine, even if we don’t feel sick or haven’t been near anyone who might be sick. We feel isolated, anxious, perhaps even frustrated at our own helplessness.
What would Julian of Norwich say about all this? She would look at us with great compassion as we pour out our concerns. She would tell us that she thoroughly understands. During the four deadly outbreaks of plague in her own fourteenth century, Julian witnessed inconceivable suffering, unspeakable loss. She knows the fear. The anxiety. The daily threat of infection and sickness; the possibility of death. And yet . . . she chose to turn her own suffering and loss into prayer; her own sense of isolation and frustration into an ever deepening relationship with her Lord and her fellow human beings. When she was granted an extraordinary vision of Christ’s passion on the cross, Julian sought refuge to all her questions, doubts, and fears:
“I cried inwardly with all my might, seeking into God for help, meaning thus: ‘Ah, lord Jesus, king of bliss, how shall I be eased? Who shall tell me and teach me what I need to know, if I may not at this time see it in thee?’”
In answer, she was shown a short, vivid, parable of a lord who had a servant who is sent out and rushed to do his Lord’s will out of great love. Then he falls headlong into a ditch. He suffers “very great soreness,” perhaps injuring his legs, his arms, his back, his head. He groans and moans and wallows in the muddy ditch, writhing in pain. And because he is in such agony, he cannot rise up and get out of the narrow confinement. He is incapable of extricating himself from his position.
He experiences seven great pains. The first was the severe physical bruising he suffered from the actual fall, which caused him great injury all over his body. The second was the sheer heaviness and clumsiness of his body lying in the ditch, as if dead, unable to escape from the mud and stench and offal. The third was the terrible weakness, both physical and emotional, that followed on these two. The fourth was that he became so confused and blind in his reasoning powers and so stunned in his thinking, that he had “almost,” writes Julian, “forgotten his own love” for his lord. The fifth was that he was unable to rise from his pit of agony. The sixth was the most excruciating pain of all: that he was convinced he lay in this pitiful condition all alone, with no one to come to his aid and to comfort him. Julian looks all around the scene as it appears in her imagination and cannot find anyone to help him, neither “far nor near, neither high nor low.” The seventh pain was that the ditch in which he lay “was a long, hard, and grievous” place in which to be trapped. The ditch was so tight and narrow that he could not budge. It was a terrible confinement.
Julian’s reaction to this painful drama was to marvel at the servant’s “meekness” and patience in suffering so much woe. She looked carefully at the scene, trying to discover if she could detect in the servant “any defect, or if the lord could assign to him any manner of blame.” She wanted to know if he was guilty of some dire fault that had precipitated his fall. What could it be? But she could discover none at all.
"For only his good will and his great desire were the cause of his falling. And he was as unhateful and as good inwardly as he was when he stood before his lord, ready to do his will. And rightly thus continually did his loving lord very tenderly behold him, and now with a double expression."
Julian’s understanding was led deeper, into a more spiritual perception of the lord’s facial expression. And there she saw the lord “highly enjoy” the honorable and reverential restoring to which “he will and must bring his servant by his plenteous grace.” She further understood that she had to hold both levels of meaning, the outward and the inward, in her mind at the same time.
"Then said this courteous lord, meaning: 'Lo, my beloved servant, what harm and trouble he hath had and taken in my service for my love—yea, and out of his good will! Is it not reasonable that I reward him for his fright and his dread, his hurt and his maiming, and all his woe? And not only this, but is it not my responsibility to give him a gift that is better for him and more honorable than his own health should have been? Otherwise, it seems to me I did him no honor.'”
Julian acknowledges that with these words, “an inward ghostly showing of the lord’s meaning” descended into her soul. She understood that yes, because of the lord’s great goodness and his own high stature, “his dearworthy servant, whom he loved so much, should be highly and blissfully rewarded without end, above that which he should have been if he had not fallen.” And his falling and all the woe he suffered would be turned into “high, transcendent honor and endless bliss.” It simply had to be so.
It took Julian twenty years to fully decipher the puzzle of the parable. It was only when she realized that Christ was indeed the Servant who ran from heaven to earth to do his Father’s will, then fell into the deadly ditch of suffering on the cross, and lay in the narrow confinement of the tomb, that it became clear to her: Jesus himself is in the ditch of suffering along with us! He knows every fear, every worry, every pain – precisely because he, too, experienced it.
When God looks at us, God sees his own Son, the Suffering Servant (Is 53:1–12), and will stop at nothing to pull us out of the ditch of our pain in order to bring us into eternal peace and joy. Julian realized from the parable that we are God’s most precious creatures. And, like Christ, we merit eternal bliss. God eternally anticipates the good ending of our life story. For God, it is only the beginning.
So even as we endure our fears and sufferings right now, let us embrace the golden opportunity to set aside some of our “self-quarantine time” at home—20-30 minutes morning and night—to sit quietly in meditation, gently breathing in the Lord’s loving presence and breathing out divine love to heal and comfort the world. If we do so, we will transcend “social distancing” and discover a “spiritual intimacy” that is beyond any we have ever experienced. And we will feel we are truly able to help our loved ones as well as those around the globe for whom we feel such compassion. Like Julian, we will see that sitting in silence and stillness to behold the divine dimension at work especially in this time of crisis, will allay our own fears . . . and give profound meaning to whatever we must undergo. “Alle shalle be wele” precisely because God is love.
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
At the beginning of her account of the Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich explains that she already had some feeling for the passion of Christ, but she wanted to experience more, “by the grace of God.” She longed to be like Mary Magdalene and the other women whom she described as “Christ’s lovers,” standing at the foot of the cross, so that she “could have seen bodily the passion that our lord suffered for me, that I might have suffered with him as others did that loved him.”
And therefore I desired a bodily sight, wherein I might have more knowing [greater understanding] of the bodily pains of our savior, and of the compassion of our lady [Christ’s mother] and of all his true lovers that were living at that time and saw his pains. For I would have been one of them and have suffered with them.
Surely Julian did not make such a request because she thought she deserved a vision for being devout. She was quick to add that she never asked for another shewing (her word for a visionary experience) until she would see God at her death, for she believed firmly she would be saved by God’s mercy. She simply wanted to have a physical sight of Christ on the cross in order to share his sufferings more intimately and to love him more deeply. She was convinced that after such a bodily vision she would have a truer understanding of and sympathy for all that the Lord had endured for our sins. This was “the mind of the passion” Julian longed for: to undergo in some measure what Mary Magdalene and the other “true lovers” of Christ saw, heard, and felt at the crucifixion. In other words, like so many of us, she didn’t just want theoretical knowledge; she craved real experience. . . .
In Julian’s fourteenth century, meditation manuals proliferated, not only for parish priests and cloistered nuns and monks, but also for the laity. They urged the faithful to enter deeply into the scenes of Christ’s passion and death through imagination and recollection. . . . All these manuals were designed to arouse in the soul a deep repentance for sin, a profound identification with the sufferings of Christ on the cross, and a burning desire to devote one’s life to God. . . . As a result of this practice of “affective devotion” every true Christian, like the early martyrs, was supposed to be ready to suffer anything and everything in imitation of Christ—even death.
Meditating on Julian’s Revelations of her visions and locutions from Christ on the cross is a grace-filled way to enter into the sufferings of Jesus during this Lenten season. With Julian, we, too, might ask for “the mind of Christ” in order to understand what he suffered for us and why he did it. Then we may receive the extraordinary understanding that Jesus gave to Julian:
“It is a joy, a bliss, an endless liking to me that ever I suffered my passion for thee. And if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.”
Think of it! Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to suffer even more for us than he did on the cross. Like a mother who is willing to suffer anything for her child, Christ our Mother wants us to know he will do anything to free us from our self-destructive mental patterns, our deliberate misdeeds, our human tendency to self-loathing, depression, even despair, and our lack of trust in divine love! Christ on the cross longs to help us carry our own crosses in loving union with him, if only we are willing to be still and silent enough to experience the depths of his love in the practice of meditation. Can we not commit to spending quiet time every single day during this Lenten season to contemplate what Christ endured for our salvation? And to thank him for loving us so much? What a Lenten resolution that would be!
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from "An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich" (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
Across six centuries, the voice of Julian of Norwich speaks to us about love. She communicates personally, as if she were very much with us here and now. Even more than theological explanations, we all hunger for love. Our hearts yearn for someone we can trust absolutely—divine love that can never fail. Julian reveals this love because, like Mary Magdalene, she experienced it firsthand. Julian tells us about her mystical visions of Christ’s love on the cross and how that love totally transformed her life. Unlike other medieval mystics (who may appear sometimes too extreme, too ascetic, or too intellectual for our postmodern taste), Julian comes across as a flesh and blood woman, thoroughly sympathetic to our human condition. And in heartfelt terms she expresses her profound awareness of God who became human like us, suffered, died, and was transformed into glory.
Why is Julian so appealing today? I think because she is totally vulnerable and transparently honest, without any guile. She is “homely”; in medieval terms, that means down-to-earth, familiar, and easily accessible. She is keenly aware of her spiritual brokenness and longs to be healed. So do we. She experiences great suffering of body, mind, and soul. So do we. She has moments of doubt. So do we. She seeks answers to age-old questions. So do we. Then, at a critical turning point in her revelations, she is overwhelmed by joy and “gramercy” (great thanks) for the graces she is receiving. We, too, are suddenly granted graces and filled to overflowing with gratitude. Sometimes, we even experience our own divine revelations.
Again and again, Julian reassures each one of us that we are loved by God, unconditionally. In her writings, we hear Christ telling us, just as he told Julian: “I love you and you love me, and our love shall never be separated in two” (58:13-14.307). Indeed, Julian’s teachings have greatly endeared her to Christians and non-Christians alike. Everyone can relate to her as a spiritual mentor because we sense that, even though she lived and wrote six hundred years ago, Julian the mystic, the seeker, and the theologian is very much “a woman for all seasons.” Julian’s voice of prophetic hope, speaking to us from the fourteenth century, is one that we in the twenty-first century desperately need to hear.
As we approach St. Valentine's Day and hear a wide range of talk about human love, let us turn to Julian's Revelations to learn about unconditional divine love. Then we may begin to fathom what real love is all about.
PLEASE NOTE: The excerpt above is from "An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich" (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.