One of the Beatitudes that we have most trouble with is: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5). In some versions, “meek” is translated as “gentle” or “humble.” Either way, in an age when women continue to fight for their rights to equal pay and promotion for equal work and achievement, laborers strike for fair working conditions, and people of every age, race, and economic level demand to be treated with dignity, equality, and opportunity, the words “meekness” and “humility” seem like throwbacks to a darker age of repression, submission, sexism, and racism.
Humility will get you nowhere, right?
Wrong. At least Julian of Norwich thinks so. And not because she wasn’t a brave, oustpoken woman of her own time – risking censure, excommunication, imprisonment, or death for daring to write in the vernacular about theological and moral issues. Julian is keenly aware that true humility is the foundation of all true self-respect. But humility must be “true” and not “false.”
What’s the difference?
True humility acknowledges that our personal dignity is given to us by our Creator. We are created in the “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26-27). Therefore, we are noble creatures, worthy of being treated with the utmost respect. Our value does not come from who our parents were, where we were born, what kind of education we received, what kind of work we do, how much money we earn, how successful we become, but from who we are as individuals. Each one of us is a unique and irreplaceable “image of God,” even when we make wrong choices and sin. Julian insists that within each one of us is a “godly will” that can never completely assent to sin.
Thus, all our strivings for better education, greater opportunities, self-respect, financial security, creativity, a measure of success, loving relationships, and personal satisfaction – “the pursuit of happiness” – derive from our innate rights as children of God.
At the same time, true humility acknowledges our utter dependence on God for every breath, every heartbeat, every aspect of the functioning of our body and mind. We are born to recognize – and rejoice in! -- our essential need for God. We believe this need is not only for the gift of life itself, but extends to the daily graces we count on to become loving, compassionate human beings, to make a contribution to society, to bear with setbacks and suffering, and -- when we sin – to feel ourselves forgiven by God and given the strength to begin again. This recognition is not slavish; it is an “empowering” humility. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom 8:31)
False humility, on the other hand, is a lie.
“When we doubt God’s love for us under the guise of our unworthiness to be loved, it is a terrible temptation . . . even though it may not be numbered among the better-known seven deadly sins. Julian admits that self-doubt arises because, no matter how much we try to amend our lives, some of us look into our souls and see only our failings . . . Julian includes herself among those who feel such sorrow and shame that the soul is left barren of any spiritual consolation. And the worst thing of all is that such souls think this self-inflicted misery is the virtue of humility, whereas it is a state of wretchedness that alienates good people from God and leads souls into despair.” (See page 572 of Julian’s Gospel.)
For of all the properties of the blissful trinity, it is God’s will that we have the most secureness and delight in love. For love makes might and wisdom very humble to us. For just as by the courtesy of God he forgets our sin from the moment that we repent, exactly so he wills that we forget our sin, as regards our unskillfull heaviness and our doubtful dreads.
So true humility affirms our rightful freedom and dignity as children of a loving God, while false humility makes our minds fearful and slavish, dragging us down into the depths of despair over our sins. Yes, we must feel deeply sorry for wrongdoing and promise to make amends in whatever way we can. But we must also trust that "in falling and in rising we are ever preciously kept in one love." (See page 586 of Julian's Gospel.)
So the humble are blessed precisely because they know how much they need God, and how much they are continually loved and forgiven and healed by God. And as God’s true images, they shall inherit the "new" earth in the eternal kingdom of heaven.
In reading the interview with Pope Francis in America
Magazine last week, I was struck again and again by the similarities between what the Pope was saying, and what Julian of Norwich wrote over 600 years ago. I even wondered if the Pope had been reading Julian!
But of course, what both Julian and the Pope are proclaiming is the very gospel message of Jesus Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself, do not judge, forgive your enemies…Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and search for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted…for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matt 5:1-12). “The people of God” are the very people the Pope is welcoming with open arms and an open heart, and the very evencristens for whom Julian wrote her Revelations.
During the eleven hours of her mystical experiences of Christ on the cross, Julian states emphatically that she never saw him “wroth.” The Old English word wroth meant intense anger and moral indignation. Indeed, wroth was considered to be an attribute of God -- an aspect of his righteousness through which his Divine Justice and eternal glory were revealed.
Yet Julian became profoundly aware that even though sin was the cause of all Christ’s pain and suffering and death, he showed “no manner of blame to me, nor to none that shall be saved.” In fact, Julian was convinced that “it would be a great unkindness to me to blame or wonder at God for my sin, since he does not blame me for sin.”
The Pope, too, spoke of being a “sinner” – that is the first term he used to characterize himself. But he knows he is a sinner “saved by grace.” And this is the constant theme of Julian of Norwich: that we, as blind, foolish, and "contrarious" human beings, make wrong choices, go down self-destructive paths, even get lost sometimes. We are all, in big ways and small, fallen from grace (and for this Julian says that we should be sorrowful and repentant, but never despairing). Yet we are also all redeemed by grace and for this we should be exultant, even amidst our earthly sufferings. And this is because of God’s unconditional love and tender care for every sinner.
At no point in her writings does Julian deny God’s right to judge us. She simply recounts what she saw and heard and understood in her Revelations: that God shows only tenderness and pity --
not blame -- toward those who have fallen from grace. Over and over again, in one way or another, Julian writes that those who turn to God humbly, like little children running to their
Mother because they’ve gotten themselves “all dirty,” will surely be forgiven and feel the graced effects of God’s tender mercy.
Nor does Julian ever deny the terrible effects of sin in our lives. She understood that God’s “suffrance” of human sin and evil must be seen as a blessing for which we should be supremely
grateful (because if God crushed us for every bad deed we commit, which one of us could survive?). On the contrary, by God’s tolerance of both sin and its negative consequences, God shows “his marvelous meekness and mildness.” Instead
of wrath, he offers divine mercy; instead of punishment, the grace to endure our sufferings. In this way, God enables human beings to triumph over evil.
For Julian, the rock-solid foundation of her theology is that God is rightfullehede, that is, righteousness and goodness. She sees with crystal clarity that righteousness means that the good which God does “may not be better done than it is.” All his
works were ordained to be performed perfectly, since the very beginning, “by his high power, his high wisdom, his high goodness.” And just as God ordains all things for the best, so God never stops working to bring all things (including us!)
Likewise, the Pope made it clear that “There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.”
This should give us great hope.
P.S. By a fortuitous grace of timing, my publisher, Orbis Books, was running a side ad in America Magazine for Julian’s Gospel at the exact same time that the Pope’s Interview appeared -- and on the very same page (see above). I like to imagine that the Pope was smiling at the Woman in the Wimple from the fourteenth century. And that she was smiling back at him with warmest approval.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.