As we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, Julian of Norwich has a word for us. In her first Revelation, she states that every man and woman who “desires to live contemplatively” must desire “to nought all things that are made in order to have the love of God that is unmade.”
What does Julian mean by nought? The word was not known before the twelfth century, when it meant, literally, “nothing” (like zero). In medieval mystical literature, noughting implied the deliberate letting go of attachment to self, as well as the renunciation of worldly goods and concerns, in order to attain a deeper spiritual union with the divine. Noughting was considered the essential way of purgation, before illumination and spiritual union with God could be achieved. Does Julian’s idea of noughting mean that we must turn our backs on those we love and cherish, give up everything we enjoy doing, cease working to realize our dreams, and cut ourselves off from the world? Not at all. But Julian does imply that unless we attend to our spiritual lives, we will never find true happiness.
Julian was well aware that in her fourteenth century Norwich (as in our twenty-first century world) people were consumed by “things,” myopically focused on success, often indulgent in pleasures and violent in disagreement. She considered that “they who are occupied willfully in earthly business and evermore seek worldly wellbeing, are not completely at ease in heart and soul” because “they love and seek here rest in this thing [like the hazelnut] that is so little, where no rest is. And know not God who is all mighty, all wise, and all good.” In other words, she saw that we become so consumed by demands and desires that we can miss the point of our lives!
The sense in which Julian uses nought implies a self-denial, a turning away from human selfishness and its obsession with finite, ever-changing, always-decaying goods that can distract the soul from seeking the infinite, unchangeable, and everlasting good. In modern terms, we could say noughting involves a negation of self-centeredness in order to become more focused on the “other,” an absolutely necessary component of learning to love. For Julian, it means letting go of the unnecessary in order to focus on the one thing needful.
Is Julian speaking to us? Perhaps she is. What if this Lenten season we committed ourselves to seeking rest in God more than in “things”? What if we dedicated time every day for silent meditation, rather than escaping into activities that cannot satisfy the deepest needs of our heart? What if we examined our thoughts and actions every morning and evening in order to see just how addicted we have become to emails and iPhones, gossip and criticism, even jealousy and outbursts of anger? What if we sincerely decided to nought a bad habit by letting go of it a little more each day, turning it over to God, and allowing grace to replace it with a more positive type of behavior? What if we went out of our way to please someone else instead of ourselves? What if we “gave up” a bit of our self-centeredness and really focused on another’s needs? What if we stopped talking and really listened, not only to each other, but to God?
Julian assures us that only God is “true rest.” Perhaps this Lent we could practice resting in God. Perhaps we might let go of worry and fear. Perhaps we could create more inner silence simply to “be still” with the Lord. Perhaps we might consider less “needing” and more noughting.
PLEASE NOTE: The quotations above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.