Giving up or Giving Over?
As we approach Ash Wednesday and start another Lenten Season, we may ask: “What shall we do?” We may feel we have already endured a whole year of Lent – sacrificing peace of mind and body during a plague of sickness, fear, enforced isolation, economic uncertainty, and the loss of loved ones. We have been deprived of our freedom to go to work, to see our families, to give and receive affection, to socialize, to travel. What more is there to give up?
But Lent is not only about giving up. It’s about re-orienting the focus of our lives. It’s about “letting go” of so much we cling to for support (and that cannot satisfy) and “giving over” our entire selves to God. In the First Revelation, Julian of Norwich reflected on what she called “noughting” (that is, self-denial), not in a morbid sense, but in order to open the heart wide to receive the boundless love God wishes to pour into us.
Of this each man and woman needs to have knowing who desires to live contemplatively, that [s]he desires to nought all things that are made in order to have the love of God that is unmade. For this is the reason why they who are occupied willfully in earthly business, and evermore seek worldly wellbeing, are not completely at ease in heart and in soul: for they love and seek here rest in this thing [like the hazelnut she saw in the palm of her hand] that is so little, where there is no rest within, and know not God, who is all mighty, all wise, and all good. For he is true rest.
Julian discerns that all creation, even in its most awesome beauty, is only the size of a hazelnut in the sight of God. She realizes that the very “littleness” of the hazelnut (i.e., the world) shows us it is necessary to nought everything that is made “in order to have the love of God that is unmade.” Only God is great enough to satisfy our soul’s deepest desire.
What does Julian mean by this word, nought? In medieval mystical literature, noughting implied the deliberate letting go of the attachment to self, as well as the renunciation of worldly goods and concerns, in order to attain a deeper spiritual union with the divine. Noughting was the essential way of purgation, before illumination and spiritual union with God could be achieved. The sense in which Julian uses the word implies a self-denial, a turning away from human selfishness and its obsession with finite, ever-changing, always-decaying goods that can distract the soul from seeking the infinite, unchangeable, and everlasting good. In modern terms, we could say noughting involves a negation of self-centeredness in order to become more focused on the “other,” an absolutely necessary component of learning to love. For Julian, it means letting go of the unnecessary in order to focus on the one thing necessary (Lk 10:42).
Julian knew her bustling, materialistic, and competitive city of Norwich only too well. It is possible that much of that same restless activity had driven her own life, out of necessity. We must also consider that, at this point in her Revelations, Julian still believes she is about to die. She is lamenting that she has not done enough to know God in this life. Her mind is straining to try to figure out why her imagination perceived a hazelnut at this critical moment. What is its portent? Could it be to inspire her to hand over to God “all that is made,” all that she has ever loved in this life, as well as her own body and soul, before she dies? One thing she knows for sure: at the point of death, she cannot allow herself to be bound to earth by ties of attachment, or responsibility, even human love. She must dare to become noughted, utterly stripped of all she holds dear, like Christ on the cross.
Julian’s tone, in writing about the essential noughting of the spiritual life, is never disparaging, but always gentle and encouraging. She tells the reader that God “wills” to be known, and “enjoys that we rest ourselves in him.” She adds that the Lord derives very great pleasure from an innocent soul that comes to him “nakedly, plainly, and homely [that is, intimately, as at home].” This is the kind of noughting Julian means: dropping every distraction and becoming a little child again, rushing into the arms of its loving parent and resting there: “for this is the natural yearning of the soul by the touching of the holy ghost, as by the understanding that I have in this shewing.”
Inspired by this meditation, Julian pours out all her heart’s longing in prayer: God, of thy goodness give me thyself. For thou art enough to me, and I may ask nothing that is less that may be full worship to thee. And if I ask anything that is less, ever will I be wanting. But only in thee do I have all.
Julian is sure that this petition is most comforting to the soul and completely in union with the will of Our Lord. She also tells us that the ultimate gift of God’s goodness, for which she prays, extends to all his creatures and all his holy works, and will continually surpass itself for eternity. Then she writes: “For he is eternity, and he has made us only for himself and restored us by his precious passion, and ever protects us in his blessed love. And all this is of his goodness.” In noughting herself, Julian anticipates receiving, in exchange, the boundless love of God.
With Julian, let us consider noughting or “letting go” everything we cling to, clutch at, or count on for security or momentary comfort and dropping into the sublime care of God during this Lenten Season. If we dare to find “true rest” in the abyss of Divine Love, through daily contemplation and self-service, we will experience a Lent of fullness and peace—not “giving up” but “giving in” to whatever Divine Goodness wishes to accomplish in and through our lives. And then we may make Julian’s beautiful prayer our very own.
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.