God and the Soul
In the Fourteenth Revelation, Julian writes:
And thus I understood that man’s soul is made of nothing. That is to say, it is created, but of nothing that is made, as thus: when God would make man’s body, he took the slime of the earth, which is a matter mixed and gathered from all bodily things, and thereof he made man’s body. But to the making of man’s soul he would take nothing at all, but made it. And thus is the [created] nature rightfully made united to the maker who is essential nature uncreated, that is God. And therefore it is that there may nor shall be truly nothing at all between God and man’s soul.
What is the soul that God creates? According to the Genesis story of creation, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gn 1:26). Since God has no body, the image and the likeness must be a spiritual reality created out of nothing. The idea of a soul connects the human inseparably to the divine, since it is precisely the soul that is made in the image and likeness of God. Since nothing at all can exist between God and the soul, Julian sees that, in the boundless love of God, the human soul is led and protected, from the moment of its creation, “and never shall be lost.” And this is the essential meaning of the extended Fourteenth Revelation. “For he wills that we know that our soul is a life; which life, of his goodness and his grace, shall last in heaven without end, loving him, thanking him, praising him.” And just as the soul will live forever, so “we were treasured in God and hidden, known and loved from without beginning.”
Here we sense that the scriptural parable of the treasure hidden in a field for which a man will sell everything he owns in order to buy that field is suddenly reversed. We are the “treasure” hidden in the ground of God’s love from all eternity. We are the food the Lord desires above all things. We are the reason God will sacrifice his only begotten Son to “buy back” our souls from the grip of evil.
Wherefore, he wills that we know that the noblest thing that he ever made is mankind, and the fullest substance and the highest virtue is the blessed soul of Christ. And furthermore, he wills we know that this dearworthy soul was preciously knit to him in its making. Which knot is so subtle and so mighty that it is oned into God, in which oneing it is made endlessly holy. Furthermore, he wills we know that all the souls that shall be saved in heaven without end are knit in this knot, and oned in this oneing, and made holy in this holiness.
Julian, like every theologian, struggled to find words worthy of characterizing the nature of Christ’s human soul. She chose the word, “substance,” to describe that aspect of Christ’s soul that was most closely knit to God “in its making.” Substance, as adopted from Aristotelian metaphysics by St. Thomas Aquinas, defines “what a thing is” in its own right, that is, its nature, such as a man, a dog, a tree, a rock. Substance is distinguished from the accidents of nature that can only exist in something else, such as quantity, quality, relation, time, place, and so forth. Julian was not a trained philosopher, but that does not mean she did not learn from university clerics who were. While we may think of substance as being something solid and “substantial,” the word in medieval times carried no intrinsic connection with physical mass having matter, weight, dimension, extension, mobility. It was a metaphysical concept. Julian uses substance to mean non-material essence: that which makes something to be what it is. Since Christ, as Man, is the most perfect of all human beings, Julian extols his human soul as the “fullest substance and the highest virtue.” Moreover, Christ’s human substance was knit so intricately and so firmly into Divine Essence that it was made eternally holy.
Then Julian makes a stunning leap: she extends this understanding of Christ’s substance to include all of sanctified humanity. “All the souls that shall be saved in heaven without end are knitted in this knot, and oned in this oneing and made holy in this holiness.” We are partakers in Christ’s holy human substance. It is our essential nature as well. It is the primal definition of our being. The divine act of creation makes every one of us exist and sustains us in existence. Without this unceasing creativity, we simply would not be at all. And because our human substance is designed on the pattern of Divine Reality, it is unstained by sin. “Substance” is Julian’s term for what we are created to be: the perfect image and likeness of God, according to the prototype of Jesus Christ.
Julian goes even further. She dares to suggest that because of God’s endless love for humanity, God does not make any distinction between “the blessed soul of Christ and the least soul that shall be saved.”
For it is very easy to believe and trust that the wonning [home] of the blessed soul of Christ is very high in the glorious godhead. And truly, as I understood in our lord’s meaning, where the blessed soul of Christ is, there is the substance of all the souls that shall be saved by Christ. Highly ought we to enjoy that God wonneth [lives] in our soul, and much more highly ought we to enjoy that our soul wonneth in God.
Julian is certain that just as Christ’s soul dwells high in the eternal Godhead, so every soul that is saved dwells there within him. (She uses the lovely Middle English word, wonneth, which implies the intimacy of dwelling in a home.) She attests that it is an exalted understanding to see and know mystically that the Creator lives in the soul. But it is an even more exalted understanding to see and know that the created soul, in its very home. By this substantial union with Christ in God, “we are what we are.” And in this lies the unfathomable dignity of human personhood. Julian attempts to describe this indwelling of God and the soul:
And I saw no difference between God and our substance, but as it were all God. And yet my understanding accepted that our substance is in God; that is to say, that God is God and our substance is a creature in God.
While Julian is stretching the identity of God and the soul to the nth degree, she is extremely careful not to fall into a nondualist notion that God and the soul are the same substance without any distinction; that is, all one soul. Julian clearly distinguishes between God’s uncreated substance (Divine Essence) and the human soul’s created substance (human essence). She is mindful never to gloss over this crucial theological distinction, even in a mystical sense. Nonetheless, Julian admits that in her deep state of contemplation it was difficult for her to differentiate between God and the human soul.
For the almighty truth of the trinity is our father, for he made us and keeps us in himself. And the deep wisdom of the trinity is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed. And the high goodness of the trinity is our lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us. We are enclosed in the father, and we are enclosed in the son, and we are enclosed in the holy ghost. And the father is enclosed in us, the son is enclosed in us, and the holy ghost is enclosed in us: all might, all wisdom, and all goodness; one God, one lord.
The sheer majesty of Julian’s rhythmic phrases conveys her conviction that this sublime mutual indwelling is real. She became so absorbed in God that she experienced the truth of the Trinity as our own Father; the wisdom of the Trinity as our own Mother (an extraordinary statement that presages her theological reflections on the Motherhood of God); and the goodness of the Trinity as the Lord himself, in whom “we are enclosed and he in us.” She stresses again and again how intimately “enclosed” we are within Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This echoes her earlier experience of Christ as “our clothing, that for love wraps us and winds about us, embraces us and wholly encloses us, hanging about us for tender love, that he may never leave us.” And, at the same time, she bears witness that Trinity is “enclosed” within us. We carry the divine imprint of Trinity within our souls. Christ himself said to his disciples: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4).
For Julian, this oneing of God and the soul is never indistinguishable identification. She is not the type of mystic who seeks to dissolve differences between Creator and created. Nevertheless, for Julian, this union of God and the soul is a mystical intimacy beyond description.
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf
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All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.