Julian and Physical Pain
Julian of Norwich was only too familiar with physical pain. She suffered for a week in bed in excruciating pain from an unnamed illness and became paralyzed from the waist down. She longed for release to go to heaven; yet she also wanted to live in order to love and serve the Lord longer here on earth: It was because I would have lived to have loved God better and for a longer time, that I might, by the grace of that living, have more knowing and loving of God in the bliss of heaven. For it seemed to me that all that time that I had lived here so little and so short a time in comparison with that endless bliss. I thought: “Good lord, may my living no longer be to thy worship?” And I understood in my reason and by the feeling of my pains that I should die, and I assented fully with all the will of my heart to be at God’s will.
Julian lay awake all through the seventh night because she couldn’t sleep with the intense level of pain. After this the other part of my body began to die, as to my feeling. My hands fell down on either side, and also for lack of power my head settled down on one side. The most pain that I felt was shortness of breath and failing of life. Then I thought truly to have been at the point of death. She believed that during the process of dying, fiends lay in wait to tempt the soul to sin mortally and then drag it down into hell. She knew she needed to be on her guard, alert, awake, praying and surrendering to God’s will constantly.
And in this moment, suddenly all my pain was taken away from me and I was completely whole, and especially in the upper part of my body, as ever I was before or after. I marveled at this change, for it seemed to me that it was a private working of God, and not of nature. But the physical healing did not bring spiritual peace, what she describes as “full ease,” to her. Julian still did not think she would live. In fact, the sudden easing of all her pain and immobility felt like a bitter disappointment. After having suffered so much, her heart longed to be delivered from the trials of this world forever. She was ready to die.
And suddenly it came to my mind that I should desire the second wound of our lord’s gift and of his grace: that he would fill my body with the mind and feeling of his blessed passion, as I had prayed before. For I would that his pains were my pains, with compassion and afterward longing for God. Thus I thought I might, with his grace, have his wounds that I had desired before. . . . With him I desired to suffer, living in my mortal body, as God would give me grace. It was precisely then that all her pains disappeared and Julian saw the body of Christ on the crucifix before her appear alive and bleeding profusely. And so began her Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, during which time she felt no pains but Christ’s pains. And these she experienced very deeply.
Julian also witnessed Christ's transformation of suffering on the cross: 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 expression 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. What an instantaneous transformation of pain into glorious joy! Indeed, Julian saw a vision of the Resurrected Christ on the cross.
So many of us have suffered from acute or chronic pain at some point in our lives. Physical pain and the resultant sleep-deprivation, surgeries and their long aftermath, as well as a life-threatening illness have the power to pull the mind down into a dark and dangerous place. We enter a dark tunnel and cannot see the light. We cannot sense divine presence in the pain. Sometimes we feel abandoned by God to our pain, even with God’s love being revealed in all those who care for us. We are convinced we must face the pain alone, hour after hour, day and night. We may feel we will suffer like this for the rest of our lives. And perhaps we will. We may question if we’re being purified. And perhaps we are. We may ask why we cannot feel God’s love encircling and holding us in our pain, why we can’t focus our minds to meditate or pray, except to cry out for help in the words of a psalm or to finger a rosary in desperation. Sometimes, we can only question: “Lord, how do I get out of this pain?’
This can be a dangerous time. Extreme pain and exhaustion can lead us to question God’s love and constant protection. We may be plagued with doubts at the very moment we need so desperately to believe. These are the demons that we must be on our guard against, as Julian was.
Teilhard de Chardin prayed: O God grant that I may understand that it is You (providing only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within Yourself.* But when we are in the thrall of pain we cannot experience that hidden process. All we can do is beg for strength to bear it, for release, and for some sign of divine presence. Because that is the worst pain: to feel that the suffering of pain is separating us from divine love.
But must we feel separated? At some point, we may begin to desire, like Julian, that our splinter of pain be united to Christ’s vast suffering on the cross that draws in the pain of the entire world. We may join him there through our pain and begin to experience his pain more deeply within ourselves. We may offer our pain for all those throughout the world who suffer pain of any kind. And then we may begin to feel our pain has a purpose: to unite us more deeply to Christ’s own love and compassion for all who suffer. In the Spirit of Christ, we may gently breathe in the suffering of others as best we can and allow Christ to suffuse that terrible pain with his own divine light; and then we may gently breathe out Christ’s own light, and love, and healing to all who suffer, including ourselves. Hard as it may be, then we may be able to surrender, like Julian – not to the pain, but to whatever work the Lord wants to do in us through our suffering for the sake of others: Be it done unto me according to they will.
In the Parable of the Lord and the Servant, Julian described a servant who ran off eagerly to do the will of his master and fell into a ditch, where he suffered great misery: And in all this, the most misfortune that I saw him in was his lack of comfort. For he could not turn his face to look up on his loving lord, who was very near to him, in whom is complete comfort. But like a man that was full feeble and unwise at the time, he concentrated on his feelings and enduring in woe. In which woe he suffered seven great pains. Julian observed that the servant was trapped in the narrow ditch, face down in the muck, in great pain and unable to turn over. He could not even raise his head to look up and see that the Lord was standing over him, ready to give him all the comfort he needed. The servant, thinking he was all alone, became weaker from his pains and emotionally distraught over all he had to suffer. He focused on his negative feelings and on how he was going to last through his agony. Julian identified seven pains that grieved him most severely. 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. . . . 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.
Indeed, these seven pains also describe Julian’s own pain when she felt trapped in physical suffering, paralyzed, unable to breathe, and thought she was dying. They may also describe our own experience of pain. We, too, sometimes feel trapped by physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual pain. We, too, forget how much we love and are loved by our Lord. But if we surrender to the divine working within us – even in the darkest night of bodily and mental pain -- and if we make blind acts of faith that Christ IS with us in our pain, then the same pains that drag us down can lift us up. Eventually, we may experience a sense of Christ's presence in our pain. This is what happened to Julian. It was in her own total surrender to her pain that she became able to envision Christ’s pain as well as his glorious transformation of pain in resurrection. May Julian help us to do so, too!
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
*Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, (Harper & Brothers, NY:1960), 62.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.