Humility: True and False
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.
Making Julian’s Revelations "Relevant"
Whenever I lead a Retreat with Julian of Norwich, I am invariably asked: "How do we apply what Julian tells us about God in the fourteenth century to our vastly different lives in the twenty-first century?”
Julian tells us that God loves us unconditionally – that God is not angry with us, even for our grave sins, but has pity and compassion on us for what we must inevitably suffer as a result of our misdeeds. She affirms again and again in her Revelations that she never saw Christ on the cross “wroth” – or full of anger. On the contrary, she envisioned Christ full of longing to forgive us with a boundless abundance of mercy, and to heal us with his overflowing grace.
The Real Problem
The real problem is not the six hundred and forty years between
Julian’s Revelations in 1373 and our reading them in 2013. The message of divine love is the same in every age. The real problem is our post-modern lack of daring to believe.
Why do we hold back our total commitment to faith, yet we so want to “hear” the gospel and ache to “believe” what it’s telling us? What are the deep spiritual and emotional scars we carry that somehow prevent us from allowing God to love us unconditionally? Why are we so reluctant to give ourselves
totally to a divine love relationship? Are we afraid of what God might ask of us? Or are we even more afraid of living as Julian is convinced we should live: as “resurrection people” – already sure of our salvation?
It is not God who set limits on love. We do. And that, perhaps, is the most important gift Julian has to give us: encouraging us to live our lives enfolded in God’s love -- experiencing God as our very clothing, our truest skin. And she urges us repeatedly to live totally secure in God’s love (one of her favorite Middle English words is seker) – and to trust that we are always one of God’s most precious beloved.
Lo! how I loved Thee!
“Lo! how I loved thee!” Christ spoke to Julian during her vision of him dying on the cross. And Julian insists that everything Christ said or revealed to her was meant equally for her evencristens, her fellow Christians . . . indeed, for everyone ever created. So, “Lo! how I loved thee!” is exactly what Christ speaks to each and every one of us. We just don’t allow ourselves the time and stillness to hear it. Or the total trust of a child to believe it.
All of Julian’s teachings on prayer, on the transforming value of every suffering borne in patience, on the tender Motherhood of God, and on God’s unfathomable but very immediate love, mercy and grace, are meant to enable us to make the leap – the childlike jump! – into the arms of God who is both Father
This attitude of what Julian calls homely intimacy did not come easily for her. By her own testimony, she had many doubts, persistent questions, and a deep awareness of her own sinfulness. She also admits to being slothful or lazy about her prayer life at times. And yet the Revelations she received from Christ on the cross convinced her that God is not the God of wrath and retribution, but the God of unimaginable love and complete forgiveness. We simply have to dare to believe that this is so.
And that would make Julian’s Revelations more relevant than anything else.
Julian and the Pope
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.
Why are we fascinated by mystics?
Whether we’re Christian or non-Christian, religious or agnostic, we tend to find mystics intriguing. What is it about them that attracts us?
I think the answer lies in what we sorely miss from fast-paced and often-superficial relationships in contemporary life – and perhaps even from the practice of some organized religions: that is, a personal, intimate, and unquestionably clear experience of Divine Presence.
Make no mistake, mystics were ordinary people, just like us. They had to deal with all the stresses and crises of their own
lives – and all the trivia – just as we do. But what they experienced of the divine dimension went way beyond what we would call “normal,” or even possible. They saw and heard what we have not . . .they understood truth in ways that scientists and scholars and ordinary folk do not . . . and they were changed forever by their mystical experiences.
In turn, mystics changed the world. Perhaps, that's what makes them so fascinating.
What exactly IS mystical experience?
In a general sense, mystical experience is a profound interaction with a transcendent Reality that far surpasses ordinary ways of knowing or perceiving.
It is spontaneous, unbidden, and completely passive – without human effort or intervention.
It is immediately experienced as coming from a divine source. Thus, whatever is revealed bears the conviction of proceeding from divine authority.
Mystical revelation provides illumination about the nature of God, or truth, or love, or life, or death, or eternity, or some aspect of religious belief that the recipient could not have conceived of by him/herself.
It may also answer burning questions, heal spiritual wounds, even inspire a total conversion to a new way of life.
Sometimes the mystical experience is so transcendent and overwhelming, the mystic is unable to describe it in words.
Yet the mystic is often led to try to convey the import of the revelation in prose or poetry.
Whatever the experience is, it is indelible and therefore,
unforgettable to the recipient.
It produces a surpassing joy and sublime peace that totally alters the subject’s mindset. It may also evoke a sense of ecstatic, blissful unity with the divine.
How does the mystical encounter take place?
It may be “seen” or “heard” exteriorly – as a thoroughly convincing and undeniable vision and/or voice speaking directly to the recipient.
Or it may be experienced interiorly – as a vivid imaginative
apparition, "a still, small voice," or a sudden flash of purely intellectual illumination without any associated image or sound.
In any case, the vision provides clarity, not confusion; incontestable certitude, not doubt.
If words are heard, they are heard in the mystic’s own language and are completely understandable and vitally empowering. The full import of their meaning, however, may only unfold over a longer period of time with prayerful examination.
The mystical experience may be demanding in what it asks, cautionary in what it warns against, consoling in what it reveals, enlightening in what it teaches, prophetic in what it predicts. It may be conveyed by symbolism that has to be deciphered long after the experience, or specify action that takes an entire lifetime. But it is always a very precise and personal directive.
In terms of Christian mystics, it is considered essential that the mystical revelations do not contradict revealed truth or dogmas of the faith. Otherwise, such experiences might be coming from self-delusion and lead to heresy.
In every way, the Revelations of Divine Love experienced by Julian of Norwich fulfill these positive criteria of mystical experience. And, unlike some mystics who may seem to us extreme or even incomprehensible in their mystical writings, Julian’s humble and vivid way of recounting her revelations makes her one of the most accessible - and most appealing -
of all mystics.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.