The world is full of fear. The unseen coronavirus is not only affecting our bodies, but stirring up the dreaded virus of fear and panic within our minds. The disease has “gone viral” in unexpected ways. Many of us are forced to work from home, cut off from coworkers and social contacts. Students are taking their classes online and forbidden to play sports with their friends. We are prevented from attending churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques for fear of contamination. We can’t go to the movies, theatre, concerts, sports events, museums, libraries, even stores. We are warned to stay six feet away from another person. Not to hug, kiss, or shake hands. We are advised to self-quarantine, even if we don’t feel sick or haven’t been near anyone who might be sick. We feel isolated, anxious, perhaps even frustrated at our own helplessness.
What would Julian of Norwich say about all this? She would look at us with great compassion as we pour out our concerns. She would tell us that she thoroughly understands. During the four deadly outbreaks of plague in her own fourteenth century, Julian witnessed inconceivable suffering, unspeakable loss. She knows the fear. The anxiety. The daily threat of infection and sickness; the possibility of death. And yet . . . she chose to turn her own suffering and loss into prayer; her own sense of isolation and frustration into an ever deepening relationship with her Lord and her fellow human beings. When she was granted an extraordinary vision of Christ’s passion on the cross, Julian sought refuge to all her questions, doubts, and fears:
“I cried inwardly with all my might, seeking into God for help, meaning thus: ‘Ah, lord Jesus, king of bliss, how shall I be eased? Who shall tell me and teach me what I need to know, if I may not at this time see it in thee?’”
In answer, she was shown a short, vivid, parable of a lord who had a servant who is sent out and rushed to do his Lord’s will out of great love. Then he falls headlong into a ditch. He suffers “very great soreness,” perhaps injuring his legs, his arms, his back, his head. He groans and moans and wallows in the muddy ditch, writhing in pain. And because he is in such agony, he cannot rise up and get out of the narrow confinement. He is incapable of extricating himself from his position.
He experiences seven great pains. The first was the severe physical bruising he suffered from the actual fall, which caused him great injury all over his body. The second was the sheer heaviness and clumsiness of his body lying in the ditch, as if dead, unable to escape from the mud and stench and offal. The third was the terrible weakness, both physical and emotional, that followed on these two. The fourth was that he became so confused and blind in his reasoning powers and so stunned in his thinking, that he had “almost,” writes Julian, “forgotten his own love” for his lord. The fifth was that he was unable to rise from his pit of agony. The sixth was the most excruciating pain of all: that he was convinced he lay in this pitiful condition all alone, with no one to come to his aid and to comfort him. Julian looks all around the scene as it appears in her imagination and cannot find anyone to help him, neither “far nor near, neither high nor low.” The seventh pain was that the ditch in which he lay “was a long, hard, and grievous” place in which to be trapped. The ditch was so tight and narrow that he could not budge. It was a terrible confinement.
Julian’s reaction to this painful drama was to marvel at the servant’s “meekness” and patience in suffering so much woe. She looked carefully at the scene, trying to discover if she could detect in the servant “any defect, or if the lord could assign to him any manner of blame.” She wanted to know if he was guilty of some dire fault that had precipitated his fall. What could it be? But she could discover none at all.
"For only his good will and his great desire were the cause of his falling. And he was as unhateful and as good inwardly as he was when he stood before his lord, ready to do his will. And rightly thus continually did his loving lord very tenderly behold him, and now with a double expression."
Julian’s understanding was led deeper, into a more spiritual perception of the lord’s facial expression. And there she saw the lord “highly enjoy” the honorable and reverential restoring to which “he will and must bring his servant by his plenteous grace.” She further understood that she had to hold both levels of meaning, the outward and the inward, in her mind at the same time.
"Then said this courteous lord, meaning: 'Lo, my beloved servant, what harm and trouble he hath had and taken in my service for my love—yea, and out of his good will! Is it not reasonable that I reward him for his fright and his dread, his hurt and his maiming, and all his woe? And not only this, but is it not my responsibility to give him a gift that is better for him and more honorable than his own health should have been? Otherwise, it seems to me I did him no honor.'”
Julian acknowledges that with these words, “an inward ghostly showing of the lord’s meaning” descended into her soul. She understood that yes, because of the lord’s great goodness and his own high stature, “his dearworthy servant, whom he loved so much, should be highly and blissfully rewarded without end, above that which he should have been if he had not fallen.” And his falling and all the woe he suffered would be turned into “high, transcendent honor and endless bliss.” It simply had to be so.
It took Julian twenty years to fully decipher the puzzle of the parable. It was only when she realized that Christ was indeed the Servant who ran from heaven to earth to do his Father’s will, then fell into the deadly ditch of suffering on the cross, and lay in the narrow confinement of the tomb, that it became clear to her: Jesus himself is in the ditch of suffering along with us! He knows every fear, every worry, every pain – precisely because he, too, experienced it.
When God looks at us, God sees his own Son, the Suffering Servant (Is 53:1–12), and will stop at nothing to pull us out of the ditch of our pain in order to bring us into eternal peace and joy. Julian realized from the parable that we are God’s most precious creatures. And, like Christ, we merit eternal bliss. God eternally anticipates the good ending of our life story. For God, it is only the beginning.
So even as we endure our fears and sufferings right now, let us embrace the golden opportunity to set aside some of our “self-quarantine time” at home—20-30 minutes morning and night—to sit quietly in meditation, gently breathing in the Lord’s loving presence and breathing out divine love to heal and comfort the world. If we do so, we will transcend “social distancing” and discover a “spiritual intimacy” that is beyond any we have ever experienced. And we will feel we are truly able to help our loved ones as well as those around the globe for whom we feel such compassion. Like Julian, we will see that sitting in silence and stillness to behold the divine dimension at work especially in this time of crisis, will allay our own fears . . . and give profound meaning to whatever we must undergo. “Alle shalle be wele” precisely because God is love.
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved.
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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.