Seeking and Beholding
Today, May 8th, is the Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, the day on which her Revelations of Divine Love took place in 1373. Let us consider these words Julian wrote in the Second Revelation: “And thus I saw him and sought him, and I had him and wanted him. And this is and should be our common working in this life, as to my sight.” Julian advises us that we are ever to be seeking (longing for) and seeing (experiencing, finding) God, and then seeking once more. Here Julian seems to be echoing Christ’s words: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8; Lk 11:9-10). What Julian realizes is that even the human impulse to ask, to search, and to knock is the gift of God’s own goodness.
For [God] wills that we believe that we see him continually, though we think that it be but little, and in this belief he makes us evermore to gain grace. For he will be seen, and he will be sought, and he will be waited for and he will be trusted.
Julian teaches us that God wants to be seen in every circumstance. (The more difficult it is, the more crucial it becomes that we seek his presence within it.) God wants to be sought, so that our hearts remain open and receptive to divine help. God wants to be waited for, in patience and in hope. Most of all, God wants to be trusted! Julian understands that the continual seeking of the soul is very pleasing to God, and the “finding of God” fills the soul with incomparable joy.
For [the soul] may do no more than seek, suffer, and trust. . . . The seeking with faith, hope and charity pleases our lord, and the finding pleases the soul, and fulfills it with joy.
However, you may object: It is one thing to “seek” God in every love, happiness, creative work, achievement, and birth. But how are we supposed to “seek” God in every disappointment, betrayal, illness, tragedy, or death? At such times, the soul feels completely alone and abandoned. Our faith becomes sorely tested. Where is God in suffering? Yet Julian is insistent that we must continue to seek and walk by faith through the longest days and darkest nights. She assures us that even though we may think our faith is “but little” and fragile, nevertheless through the daily practice of believing in God’s abiding presence, we will gain great grace to endure the tough times. Julian considers this blind “seeking” of God every bit as necessary as enlightened “seeing.” She is certain that, eventually, God will reveal himself and teach the soul
how to experience the deep comfort of divine presence in contemplation. This “beholding” is the highest honor and reverence human beings can give to God, and extremely profitable to all souls, producing the greatest humility and virtue, “with the grace and leading of the holy ghost.”
For a soul that fastens itself only onto God with great trust, either in seeking or in beholding, it is the most worship that that soul may do, as to my sight.”
Julian understands two kinds of divine working from this revelation: seeking and beholding. Both are gifts of God. Seeking is what is given to all of us to do, through the teachings of holy church. Beholding (or mystical contemplation), on the other hand, is given more rarely, directly by God. Julian further defines three ways of seeking. First, we must seek willfully and faithfully, without growing lazy in our efforts. We must seek “gladly and merrily, without unskillful heaviness and vain sorrow,” because these are self-indulgent moods that can undermine the spiritual life. Second, the true seeker abides in God steadfastly, without “grumbling and striving against him.” This is a wonderfully apt description of the complaints and disobedience that obstruct the flow of grace. The third way of seeking is that “we trust in [God] mightily, with full, secure faith.” Julian is certain that these three ways of seeking will bear abundant fruit in beholding. Then God will suddenly reveal his presence when the soul is least expecting it.
For it is his will that we know that he shall appear suddenly and blissfully to all his lovers. For his working is private, and he wants to be perceived, and his appearing shall be very sudden. And he wants to be believed, for he is very pleasant, homely, and courteous. Blessed may he be!
What difference would it make in our lives if we really sought Jesus within all our experiences? Not just the joyous ones, but the suffering ones, too. Even if people reject us and hurt us; even if events in our lives are painful; what if we chose to trust that the Divine Master is working from deep within the suffering in order to transform it? What if we dared to believe, like Julian, that our fastening onto God with secure trust, “whether in seeking or in beholding,” gives God the greatest possible worship? Would it not make all the difference in how we deal with our problems? Would it not give meaning to our suffering? And might it not change our mental attitude from that of “victim” to a “loving companion” of Christ on the cross?
On Julian's Feast Day, let us dedicate ourselves, as she did, to seeking and beholding, trusting and believing, perceiving and rejoicing that God is at work in every circumstance of our daily lives. Then we will come to understand that nothing we experience is ordinary; rather, everything is capable of being transformed by divine grace. Thus everything has the power to become a personal revelation of the Risen Lord. May Julian bless you abundantly. And Happy Mother’s Day!
PLEASE NOTE: Translations from the Middle English and excerpts above are from my book, An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018), © Copyright by Veronica Mary Rolf. Available from the Publisher and Amazon worldwide:
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.