In the Fifth Revelation, Julian of Norwich tells us how fiercely we must cling to the fact of our salvation:
But in God may be no wrath, as to my sight. For our good lord—endlessly having regard to his own worship and to the profit of all them that shall be saved—with might and right he withstands the demons who out of malice and wickedness busy themselves to counteract and go against God’s will (emphasis added).
Julian’s conviction that there is “no wrath” in God is a powerful theme that she will develop throughout her text. For Julian, this revelation was a colossal breakthrough. She had grown up hearing preachers threaten that the wrath of God would send a person to hell for a curse. The Old English word wrath connotes intense anger and moral indignation. Wrath was also a biblical metaphor used to express divine hatred of sin. In theological terms, wrathfulness was considered an attribute of God and an expression of divine justice.
However, in recording her visionary experiences, Julian will insist that she never saw the Savior “wrathful.” Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not stretch out his arms to be crucified, suffer excruciating pain, shed his blood, and die an ignoble death because he was angry. On the contrary, the Son of God hung on the cross in obedience to his Father’s will in order to effect the ultimate salvation of the whole world. Christ did not die to punish us, but to save us from ourselves and the powers of evil. Everything he ever did, he did out of love. If we want to know what divine “wrath” looks like, we have only to contemplate the figure of Christ hanging on the cross, as Julian did. It is the true image of God giving everything to save humanity from itself.
Far from accusing us, Julian sees that our good Lord withstands “with might and right” all the demons that could possibly harm or destroy us. He fights for us against our frailty, our temptations, our bad habits. Even in our sinfulness, he does not condemn us any more than he condemned the woman taken in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) or Peter after his betrayal (Jn 21:15-17). Instead of wrathfulness, the Lord repeatedly offers mercy. He counsels us gently but firmly: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). He urges more daring faith, greater hope, and the loving service of our lives.
Julian knew well that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). In her theology, she will carry that truth to its fullest implication: God cannot stop loving us because that’s who God is. Unlike the anthropomorphic image of a highly volatile God—loving us when we are obedient, then becoming “wroth” and punishing us when we disobey, then relenting and taking pity on us—Julian’s understanding of divine love is that it is eternally constant; it does not change. It is we humans who are changeable. We accept or reject or simply ignore God’s love. But God never ceases loving and protecting us, even in our misdeeds.
The way we view God is really up to us. If we are open and receptive to divine love and willing to share that love with each other, then we will surely recognize God as the wellspring and fulfillment of every love. If, on the other hand, we fail to love God and each other, if we are unjust, unkind, unforgiving, and unfaithful, eventually we become guilt-ridden. Then what do we do? We get angry with ourselves and project that anger onto God: “God must be angry with me. God is a wrathful God.” What a terrible injustice to God!
It may take a long time for us to outgrow our age-old projections of God as changeable, vindictive, and wrathful. Those of us who were terrified as children by the threat of God’s punishment may still be struggling to do so. Julian’s Revelations will help us. In fact, she sees that Christ scorns Satan’s evil designs on us, utterly deriding their (lack of) power. Christ wants us to do the same. This realization was so liberating for Julian, it made her laugh out loud.
Also I saw our lord scorn his [Satan’s] malice and nought his unmight, and he wills that we do so. For this sight, I laughed mightily, and that made them laugh who were about me, and their laughing was a pleasure to me.
It may be difficult to think of laughing at the overwhelming “malice and might” of evil that we see devastating our world right now. But still, with Julian, we may cling to hope that the Lord is always “at work,” especially in times of war and extreme suffering, persecution, imprisonment, fear, and loneliness. He took it all on himself on the cross and he will transform it all into his glorious resurrection. And ours.
PLEASE NOTE: Translations from the Middle English and excerpts above are from my book, An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich (IVP Academic Press) © Copyright by Veronica Mary Rolf. Available from the Publisher and Amazon worldwide.
I’ve recently returned from the 20th Anniversary Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, where I spoke in the Harrison Institute Auditorium at the University of Virginia about my book, Julian’s Gospel. I was delighted to discover that even with the many book events going on simultaneously every day(over 200 authors are represented and some 20,000 attend the Festival), public interest in a fourteenth century English mystic pulled in three times the audience of most Festival book events. The hunger for "spiritual food" is alive and well in the land!
Indeed, Julian’s Revelations about the unconditional love of Christ on the Cross seemed to be a major shock for many. The questions and comments showed that people are really concerned about guilt they’ve been carrying since their childhood and teenage years. Many grew up imbued with threats and fears of damnation by preachers and teachers, just as Julian must have been. And audience members seemed to hear the message of Christ’s compassion and unconditional love anew -- through Julian’s voice.
Throughout her vivid experience of Christ suffering and dying on the cross, Julian of Norwich never once sees him wroth. That Old English word wroth connotes intense anger and moral indignation. Wroth was considered an attribute of God, an aspect of his righteousness through which he shows his Divine Justice and eternal glory.
But Julian writes: “But in God may be no wrath, as to my sight.” And again: “… I saw truthfully that our lord was never wroth nor never shall be. For he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is peace. And his might, his wisdom, his charity, and his unity do not permit him to be wroth. For I saw truly that it is against the property of his might to be wroth, and against the property of his wisdom, and against the property of his goodness. God is that goodness that may not be wroth, for God is nothing but goodness.”
We may wonder if Julian is stepping out on a theological limb here, in spite of her desire to remain a faithful daughter of Holy Church. But she is not. She is only stating, in no uncertain terms, what theology has ever taught and what she, personally, had experienced: that God is unchangeable and loving. He cannot have “mood swings” or exhibit raw emotions as human beings do. He does not wax pleased with the soul one minute and furious the next, like a volatile parent. God is not and can never be angry with us, even though we are sinners.
The biblical allusions to God’s anger flaring out (and they are legion, from the Psalms, to the Book of Job, to the Book of Revelation) are metaphorical devices to drive home to humankind the gravity of its sinful deeds that defy God’s unchanging goodness. These depictions of the divine as wrothful are human projections of how we assume God must “feel” towards us -- like an angry parent -- when we, ourselves, are appalled and ashamed by our own misdeeds.
Julian comes to understand that it is we who are angry because we make wrong choices and then have to suffer the inevitable consequences of those grave misdeeds. And then we project God as being wrothful. Sometimes we even lash out and blame God for all we have to suffer as a result of our sins.
Instead of being angry at us, Christ withstands “with might and right” all that is against his Father’s will, but he does not condemn anyone in wroth, any more than he condemned the woman taken in adultery (Jn 8:1–11). And Julian sees that Christ doesn't blame us for our sinful deeds, either. As in the four canonical gospels, Christ repeatedly counsels repentance, faith, and the amendment of one’s life.
Julian may not have known the theology of God’s unchangeable existence until she began to ask doctrinal questions of educated clerics in the time period after her Revelations. However, like all true mystics, she knew what she had experienced. And throughout her vision of the sufferings of Christ on the cross, she never saw him angry.
He did not suffer in fury against a humanity that made him undergo such a cruel death. He endured his passion in unconditional love, without a single moment of condemnation.
In fact, if we want to see what God’s supposed wroth looks like, we have only to contemplate the image of Christ hanging on the cross. It is the true image of God giving everything he is to save humanity from itself.
When you take time to meditate on it, God’s unconditional love becomes much more overwhelming for the soul to realize and to accept than his supposed wroth. Always to be loved, in spite of everything, is a concept so vast and humbling as to defy human comprehension. Yet that is what Christ hangs on a cross to show us: even if we crucify him, he will still love us.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.