During the past months and weeks, the global level of fear has risen alarmingly. Fear has been driving hundreds of thousands of refugees to risk dangerous passages by sea and land to escape the horrors of war, hunger, and persecution. Bombings in Paris, Beirut, and Bamako, Mali, and so many other cities evoke painful memories of 9/11. It seems that every day the level of "terror alert" rises in our minds, the police and military presence increase, and yet we feel less and less secure.
Some react to this state of emergency with great courage, refusing to be intimidated. They choose to go on living their lives as usual, riding subways, going to museums and theatres, sports arenas and restaurants, and even doing their Christmas shopping in large crowds. Others have become paralyzed by fear that the next act of terrorism will be at their church or synagogue or place of work or the mall. Still others spew forth harsh words that label every foreigner and refugee a potential threat to national security.
In Julian's fourteenth century there were plenty of terrors to be afraid of: the ongoing war with France, the constant threat of sabotage by sea and land, the return of marauding soldiers, outbreaks of disease that decimated the livestock, recurring crop failures resulting in famines, and last but not least, cycle after cycle of the Great Plague that struck without warning, killing its victims often within the same day or week.
Julian identifies four common types of “dread” or great fear. The first is dread of "afray,” that is, fear of sudden attack or the sound of alarm, “that comes to man suddenly through frailty [vulnerability].” This fear arises in an instant at the all-too-common “hue and cry” for help, the smell of smoke, the frantic ringing of church bells. As we now know, this elemental and instinctive fear triggers the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. Julian sees that this fear can sometimes be of benefit, for it helps to purge human beings of their self-reliant arrogance, as does the experience of bodily sickness or any other pain that
is not sinful. “For all such pains help man, if they be patiently received.”
Interestingly, for Julian the second most common fear is that of physical or spiritual pain “whereby man is stirred and awakened from the sleep of sinne.” While Julian acknowledges that human beings may indeed be shaken out of their sinful habits by meditating on the imminence of death, the pains of purgatory, and the fires of hell, she also knows from her own experience what tortures these thoughts can inflict upon sensitive souls. Still, given her deeply religious culture, she admits that, in some cases, the fear of damnation could lead the soul to throw itself on the mercy and consolation of God. “And thus this dread helps us as an approach [to God], and enables us to have contrition by the blissful touching of the holy ghost."
The third fear Julian identifies is “doubtful dread,” or doubting fear as to the completeness of God’s forgiveness, which, as Julian has described, can seduce the soul into despair. God wants to transform this dread “into love by true knowing of love” and by the working of grace: "For it may never please our lord that his servants doubt his goodness.”
The Only "Rightful" Fear
Finally, Julian comes to the fourth fear, which is very different
from all other fears. It is “reverent dread,” what we might term,
“holy awe.” She insists that this is the only fear the Lord wants us to have, because it is very gentle and lacks any hint of terror. It is inextricably linked to love.
Love and [reverent] dread are brothers, and they are rooted in us by the goodness of our maker, and they shall never be taken from us without end.
According to Julian's theology, in our essential human nature, the soul remains in eternal reverence of its Creator, and by grace, the soul remains in awe at the gift of its salvation. We are made to love and we are made to fear God in a most holy way. Julian affirms that it belongs to God’s Lordship and
Fatherhood to be thus feared, as it belongs to his Goodness (the
Holy Spirit) to be totally loved. And so it is proper to his servants both to fear and love him. And though reverent fear and love are two separate properties in us, neither one may be present without the other. “And therefore, I am seker, that he who loves, he dreads, though he feels it but little."
Julian concludes that any other fears, worries, terrors, or doubts
that the mind presents to itself, even though they might appear disguised as “holy” fears, are definitely not so. These impostors can be differentiated in a very simple way:
That dread that makes us hastily flee from all that is not good and fall into our lord’s breast, as the child in the mother’s bosom, with all our intention and with all our mind—knowing our feebleness and our great need, knowing his everlasting goodness and his blissful love, only seeking into him for salvation, clinging to him with seker [secure] trust—that dread that induces this werking in us, it is natural and gracious and good and true. And all that is contrarious to this, either
it is wrong, or it is mixed with wrong.
Julian advises her readers (as she must have advised those who
came to her anchorage window for spiritual guidance) to know all the types of dread so as to be able to separate them in their minds, choose “reverent dread,” and refuse all other fears. In the Short Text, she was very explicit as to how to discern holy fear from its enemy, like differentiating a good angel from the devil appearing as an angel of light. She testifies that the more often that "reverent awe" is felt, the more it softens and comforts the soul and gives it immeasurable rest and peace, whereas false fear “travails and tempestes and troubles.” Christ himself taught: “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16). Julian’s remedy is “to know them both, and refuse the wrong [kind of dread].” The reverent fear of God that we have in this life “by the gracious werking of the holy ghost” is the same reverence we will experience in heaven: “gentle, courteous, fully delectable.”
And thus we shall in love be homely and near to God, and we shall in reverent dread be gentle and courteous towards God, and both in one manner, the same. We should desire then of our lord God to fear him reverently and to love him humbly and to trust in him mightily. For when we fear him reverently and love him humbly, our trust is never in vain. For the more that we trust and the mightier, the more we please and worship our lord in whom we trust. And if we fail in this reverent fear and humble love, as God forbid we should, our trust will soon be misruled for that time. And therefore we need greatly to pray to our lord of grace, that we may have this reverent fear and humble love by his gift, in heart and in werk, for without this no man may please God.
In no uncertain terms, Julian is advising us not to go about in fear of what might happen but rather to concentrate all our energies on loving and trusting God "mightily" in all that we think and do and say. In God's love for us is our truest security and most reliable protection. And in our reverent fear of God -- and only God -- is our courage to live in freedom.
May we give abundant thanks for our many blessings this Thanksgiving and let go our "wrongful" fears as Julian would have us do. Let us celebrate not in fear but in love and gratitude and joyful fellowship. Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends!
PLEASE NOTE: Quotations above are from Chapter Twenty-four of Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013, 2014), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author.
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.
At the beginning of her Fourteenth Revelation, Julian was given clear directives by Christ about prayer: first, that we should pray “rightfully” and second, that we should pray “with seker trust.” By “rightfully” Julian understood that prayer must be offered in the right way; that is, wholeheartedly, persistently, even courageously - but always submitting our petitions to God with the humble proviso that God’s will be done, not our own. This she would have learned from childhood.
It is in the second characteristic of prayer, however, that Julian reveals a more startling dimension - concerning “seker trust.” Her use of the Middle English word seker, sekerly, sekernesse throughout her text implies not only “security” but also absolute certainty - even a sense of joyful relief in being able to let go of all doubt and fear. She writes:
“And all this our lord brought suddenly to my mind, and showed these words and said: “I am the ground of thy beseeching [in prayer]. First it is my will that thou have it, and next I make thee to will it, and next I make thee to beseech it—and thou beseechest it! How should it then be that thou shouldst not have thy beseeching?”
Here, the Lord’s Revelation to Julian turns upside down any idea we might have that our prayer is initiated in any way by us! He identifies himself as the inspiration and foundation of all prayer. First, in his great goodness, Christ wills to give us some grace . . then he makes us conscious of a desire for it . . . next, he nourishes our desire to enter into prayer in order to beseech it . . . And then, we actually do “beseech” it in prayer.
Finally, Christ asks Julian (and us): “How could it then be that you would not receive what you were beseeching me for?” (since it was Christ himself who conceived the grace he wanted to give us in the first place!).
Of course, in this Revelation, Christ encourages Julian (and all of us) to pray only for that which will be best for our lives and the lives of those for whom we pray. But it is essential to our “seker trust” that we realize true prayer is not initiated by us, but is already a response to the urging of the Holy Spirit. Thus, our prayers could never, in any way, cause graces and gifts to come to us from God. God’s own goodness is the endless ground of
every good thing he ever wishes to give us. In fact, even before we pray, God is waiting to give.
Julian experienced “a mighty comfort” in receiving this divine illumination and so should we!
Prayer of Thanksgiving
In addition to petitionary prayer, Julian stresses the prayer of thanksgiving which is “a true, inward knowing” about exactly where all our blessings come from. Julian also understands thanksgiving as a dedication of all our energies to the good work
that the Lord directs us to do in our lives, “rejoicing and thanking inwardly.” Here, Julian shows us the great importance of rejoicing in - and thanking God for - all the good works we are able to do. Such prayers of thanksgiving enlarge our capacity for making ever greater effort and receiving even greater joy of heart.
Times of Trouble
Of course, at other times, when the heart feels barren and the thought of prayer has no appeal for us, or else when we are enduring trials or temptations, then prayer, according to Julian,
makes us want “to cry aloud to our Lord” in sheer desperation. At such times, Julian admits that prayer is hard (and so is “seker trust”). But Julian assures us that the strength of the Lord’s own word will enter and enliven our hearts, giving us the grace to pray more peacefully and once again to rejoice in God. She adds: “This is a very lovely thanking in his sight.”
Season of Thanksgiving
During this Season of Thanksgiving, Julian’s heartfelt words remind us that all the good that has ever come to us in our lives – people we love, talents we develop and enjoy, rewarding work we are able to do, experiences we have cherished – every one has a divine dimension, not just a human one. God is the direct source of all that is good in our lives.
And further, if we can try to be thankful even for those people and events that have caused us pain or hurt (but have somehow helped us learn and grow into the individuals we are today), then, according to Julian, God will reward us “with honors” in heaven. And for that, we will be thankful at the eternal
Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.