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.
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.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.