As we approach Good Friday, let us reflect on the extraordinary visions of Christ on the cross described by Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love. Watching Christ die over many hours, Julian experiences his agony in her own body, with true compassion for her savior. She literally suffers with him. Julian declares that “in all this time of Christ’s presence, I felt no pain but for Christ’s pain.” It must have been a great deal worse than anything she had ever experienced in her life, even during her own seven days of near-dying.
Julian becomes acutely conscious that all the pain of her life -- and of everyone’s life -- is united with the pain of Christ on the cross. And this is because, in becoming human, Christ took on all manner of pain as his own (Heb 2:9–18). Therefore, “when he was in pain, we were in pain” with him. She might have added: “When we were in pain, he was in pain.” St. Paul even dared to write that “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
Julian also realizes that not only “all his true lovers,” but “all creatures” shared in the agony of Christ’s dying. This inextricable connection between the inner life of human beings and the state of the natural world had long been perceived. St. Paul was convinced that the physical earth as well as its creatures are involved in the great struggle of salvation: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22–23). Julian believes that all earth’s creatures naturally recognized the Lord, “in whom all their virtues stand.” Thus when the Lord died, it behooved creatures out of kindness to die with him, “in as much as they might, for sorrow of his pains.” She certainly understood that, when Christ took on all flesh in himself and “failed,” his entire creation failed with him, animals as well as humans, out of “sorrow for his pains.” Even “they who knew him not suffered for failing of all manner of comfort.” And here Julian bears witness to a profound truth: that the fates of humankind and the entire creation are intimately connected.
Julian admits that the torture of seeing and feeling Christ’s pains, in some measure, made her want to look away from the cross on which she had been focused since the First Revelation. She longed to fly up to heaven (she had already enjoyed a mystical vision of the heavenly banquet). She wanted to have all this suffering be finished (as we do, too). “In this time I would have looked from the cross, and I dared not, for I knew well that as long as I beheld the cross, I was seker and safe. Therefore, I would not assent to put my soul in peril, for beside the cross was no sekernesse, only ugliness of fiends.” She was convinced that only by keeping her eyes focused on the crucifixion, like the “other women” at the foot of the cross, would there be security and safety from her inner demons:
“For I had rather have been in that pain till domesday, than have come to heaven otherwise than by him. For I know well that he that bound me so sorely, he should unbind me when he would. Thus was I taught to choose Jesus for my heaven, whom I saw only in pain at that time. I wanted no other heaven than Jesus, who shall be my bliss when I come there. And this has ever been a comfort to me, that I chose Jesus to be my heaven, by his grace, in all this time of passion and sorrow. And that has been a teaching to me, that I should evermore do so, to choose Jesus only for my heaven in wele and in woe.”
Julian does not want to desert Christ and leave him alone, as the disciples did, by looking away from the harshness of his sufferings, even for a single moment. She desires no heavenly vision that is without Jesus and, paradoxically, to be with Jesus, even in his terrible suffering on earth, becomes heaven for her. In Julian’s mind, this is a major turning point. Earlier, she had longed to be out of her own suffering and go quickly to heaven. Now she understands that there is no way to reach that exalted place except through a share in the sufferings of Christ and through the transformation of the soul that this compassion and surrender effects. By bearing her own suffering in faith and patience, Julian realizes she will finally be like him who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). And by electing to remain focused on the suffering Christ, she also chooses to go on living on earth, no matter how painful, and uncertain, and long it might be, rather than giving in to the blessed release of death. By this emphatic decision “to choose Jesus for my heaven,” Julian also registers her willingness to stay with Mary and the “other women” at the foot of the cross on Calvary and with the evencristens beside her bed, fingering their rosary beads and praying on her behalf. If Christ wants her here, here she will stay. When he wants her to go, she will be willing to go.
This choice releases something in Julian at which she had still been grasping, even in the self-noughting process of watching the passion unfold; namely, her great desire for heaven. She finds lasting comfort in the fact that she has been able, by the power of grace, to endure “all this time of passion and sorrow.” And she affirms that this was an important life teaching for her: “to choose Jesus only for my heaven in wele and in woe.”
Julian continues to reflect on “the height and the nobility of the glorious godhead” of Jesus Christ and on “the preciousness and tenderness of the blissful body which are together oned.” She also considers how much human beings (like herself) are loath to undergo pain. But Christ was not. He was willing to suffer for the sins of every person ever created. And Christ saw and sorrowed for every person’s “desolation and anguish,” out of “kindness and love.” “Beholding all this by his grace,” Julian realizes that the love Christ has for souls was so strong that he willfully chose suffering “with great desire, and patiently suffered it with great joy.” This is an astounding insight that cuts through and completely transforms Julian’s personal pain at watching Christ suffer. She is convinced that any soul that is “touched by grace” in watching Christ’s passion shall see that his pain surpasses all human pains, that is, all those pains that “shall be turned into everlasting joy by virtue of Christ’s passion.”
This Holy Week, may we not turn away from the cross of Christ. May we allow it to do its work in us of making Christ’s presence more real for us with every breath. May we cling to the love of God manifested in Christ on the cross and not succumb to the darkness of terror or despair because we know Christ is already – even now – turning our most desperate inner struggle, our darkest nights, into an emerging dawn of salvation. May we choose, like Julian, not to avoid or escape the process, however painful and slow it may be. May we wish only to be more intimately united to Christ as he is with us. And may we pray never, ever to abandon him at the foot of his cross. Or our own.
Soon, in her Revelations, Julian will experience a glorious transformation of Christ’s sufferings into ecstatic joy. Every Calvary leads to the empty tomb and the glory of Resurrection. Alleluia!
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
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.