Julian of Norwich never knew a world without war. The tortured fourteenth century was the time of the Hundred Years’ War with France, which actually lasted even longer (1337–1453), claiming over three million lives. Like Julian, we, too, are threatened by the impending reality of war: inconceivable suffering, brutality, religious persecution, hordes of refugees driven from their homes and country, wide-spread destruction, and a mounting death toll. How are we to find peace in the midst of war?
Throughout her Revelations, Julian reveals her deep conflict between the realities of life around her and the deep contemplative call that arose within her. Her struggle was not only theological, it was deeply spiritual. She had seen so many evil deeds and atrocities committed in her lifetime; she had heard countless stories about the brutalities of war; she knew about the excommunication and damning of heretics; she remembered those who had died unshriven [without having confessed and received pardon for their sins] during the plagues. She could not shy away from confronting the dichotomy between the unconditional love of Christ towards sinners and the harsh, judgmental condemnations of sinners that she had heard preached from the pulpit. It became essential to her peace of mind to know if sinners are really judged and condemned by the higher judgment of God as they are by the lower judgment of the church.
And notwithstanding all this, 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.
In spite of the evil in the world, Julian firmly believed that God was all-loving and all-merciful towards sinners. And she had a wise view of the blindness and corruptibility of human beings. I understood thus: Man is changeable in this life, and by frailty and ignorance falls into sin. He is powerless and foolish in himself, and also his will is corrupted at this time [by sin]. He is in turmoil and in sorrow and woe. And the cause is blindness, for he does not see God. For if he saw God continually, he would have no mischievous feeling, nor no manner of stirring, nor sorrowing that inclines to sin.
While Julian admits our common experience of changeability, frailty, and ignorance in this life, she knows that it is not the full picture because it does not take into account “the great desire that the soul hath to see God.” This leads her to reflect on the divine work of mercy that the Holy Spirit is forever accomplishing in us, dwelling in our soul, securely keeping us, bringing us to a greater peace, making us more obedient, more pliant, and reconciling us to God whenever we become angry.
Still we may ask: Where does all the hatred and evil in our world come from? Julian responds: For I saw no wrath but on humanity’s part, and that God forgives in us. For wrath is nothing else but a rebelliousness and a contrariousness to peace and to love. And either it comes from failure of strength, or from failure of wisdom, or from failure of goodness, which failing is not in God but is on our own part. For we by sin and wretchedness have in us a wrath and a continuing contrariousness to peace and to love, and that he showed very often in his loving expression of compassion and pity.
Julian understands that God intervenes in our own wrathfulness and contrariousness to show us mercy: “For the ground of mercy is in love, and the working of mercy is our protection in love.” Yet sometimes God’s work of mercy also allows us to fall, within limits, which feels like dying. But in that dying, we realize all the more truly that God is our life. “Our falling is dreadful, our falling is shameful, and our dying is sorrowful. But yet in all this the sweet eye of pity and love never departs from us, nor does the working of mercy ever cease.” Julian beheld the property of mercy and the property of grace as working together in the super-abundance of Christ’s compassion and love. Mercy belongs to “motherhood in tender love” and grace belongs to “royal lordship in the same love,” like two devoted parents who function in perfect harmony. “And grace works with mercy,” raising us up from our misdeeds and even rewarding us (eternally surpassing what our love and our service could possibly deserve), showing us the “plenteous largess of God’s royal lordship in his marvelous courtesy.” This divine mercy and grace are poured out on us “to slake and waste our wrath.” In other words, far from being wrathful toward us, or punishing us, God helps us let go of our own self-hatred and anger [towards our enemies], and teaches us to forgive one another. Julian realizes that if God were to be “wroth a touch”—that is, angry even for a little while—“we should neither have life, nor place, nor being.” We would be wiped out of existence!
Have we ever taken time to consider this? God’s unconditional love is a much more demanding belief than divine wrathfulness. The realization that we are always loved, no matter what, is such an overwhelming experience that it humbles and purifies the soul more perfectly than any shame or punishment ever could. We begin to understand, like Julian, that Christ hung on the cross not because God’s wrath had to be appeased, but because God’s love had to be revealed.
For this was shown: that our life is all grounded and rooted in love, and without love we may not live. And therefore, to the soul that because of his special grace sees so deeply into the high, marvelous goodness of God, and sees that we are endlessly oned to him in love, it is the most unpossible that may be that God should be wrath.
In an age of violence and war (not unlike the fourteenth century), Julian shows us the way toward contemplative peace. In a time of rampant prejudice and religious persecution, Julian inspires us to non-judgmental acceptance and universal compassion. In a world of deadly diseases and ecological disasters, Julian teaches us how to endure suffering in patience and trust that Christ is working to transform every cross into resurrected glory. In a generation of doubt, cynicism, and disbelief, Julian offers a radiant vision of faith and hope—not in ourselves, but in the Lord who creates us, loves us, and will never, ever abandon us.
PLEASE NOTE: Translations from the Middle English and excerpts above are from my book, An Explorer’s Guide to Julian of Norwich (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2018). Available from the Publisher and Amazon worldwide: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0830850880?
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.