In her discussion of the Thirteenth Revelation, Julian of Norwich reiterates that the three wounds that she had long ago desired (contrition, compassion, and true longing for God) are the spiritual “medicines” by which the illness of sinful souls will be healed. The scourges and lashings of sin will be seen by God not as shameful wounds, but, like Christ’s own wounds, as honors. Julian makes very clear that when we are “punished” here on earth with sorrow and suffering it is not because of God’s “wrath” but as the inevitable result of our personal and collective sinfulness. And God will not allow us to lose one degree of spiritual value from what we must bear, for God sees sin not as a cause for casting us out but “as sorrow and pains to his lovers, in whom he assigns no blame for love.”
The mede [reward] we shall receive shall not be little, but it shall be high, glorious and honorable. And so shall all shame turn to honor and to more joy. For our courteous lord does not want his servants to despair for often falling nor for grievous falling. For our falling does not hinder him from loving us. Peace and love are ever in us, being and working. But we are not always in peace and in love.
The reward for bearing our earthly suffering patiently will not be slight; it will be the vision of God in the company of the saints, all of whom (except Saint Mary, Christ’s mother) have undergone the same scourge of personal sin. Julian urges us to consider this, especially when we fall, even through grievous wrongdoing. For she is convinced that Christ does not want us to sink into self-loathing and excessive remorse and debilitating penances (all of which were prescribed medieval practices for those who would combat sin) lest we torture our souls and remain in a state of continual mental and physical anguish. To her great credit, Julian never suggests self-inflicted suffering as the most effective way to purification. Such harsh methods dispel peace and can seriously warp our love. Rather, Julian urges that we give Christ complete freedom to work in us, by keeping our souls in peacefulness and in love.
But he wills we take heed thus: that he is the ground of all our whole life in love, he is our everlasting keeper [protector], and mightily defends us against all our enemies that are extremely dangerous and terribly fierce towards us. And our mede is so much greater if we give him occasion [to love and heal us] by our falling.
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. He 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 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 sin. And furthermore, he touches us most intimately, and shows us our sin 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 foul,” we think (indeed, we assume) that “God is wroth with us for our sin.” 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, 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.
Let us take Christ’s words into our own hearts and meditate on them often. And may they bring us peace and comfort in the midst of spiritual or emotional turmoil. Blessings to all
NOTE: Excerpts 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
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.