Spring 1992, Vol.44 No. 1, pp. 37-47
Julian of Norwich and the Enigma of Divine Revelation
Divine love clarifies and unifies our relationship to God.
John Noffsinger, Ph.D. is chair of the English department at Norfolk Academy in Norfolk, VA.
ON May 13, 1373 Julian of Norwich was graced with a series of visitations from God in the form of sixteen visions. Shortly after these revelations, or "showings" as Julian referred to them, she wrote a description of them as well as a brief analysis of their content. Almost twenty years later, still puzzling over the nature and meaning of these signs, she expanded her original work and wrote an extended treatment of the revelations, her search leading her to an exploration of the nature of the soul, the mystery of the soul's relationship to God, the problem of sin, and the nature of divine love. (This later work is the so-called "long text," the subject of most modern editions of her writings.)(1)
That day in May of 1373 transformed Julian's life. While she remained an anchoress and spiritual counselor in Norwich, much of the rest of her life was devoted to deciphering the cryptic meaning behind this experience of divine revelation. Interpreting the visions is made even more difficult by the complexity of her experience of the visitations, for Julian informs us that she was aware of three modes of perception. She received the showings "by bodily vision and by words formed in my understanding and by spiritual vision" (192). "Bodily yision" implies sensory perception of physical reality, while "words formed in my understanding" consists of words "dictated" to Julian interiorly. The last mode of understanding spiritual vision -- is what we might term "insight" or an immediate, intuitive understanding of significance.
In her work Julian describes some visions with disarmingly simple and vivid prose -- Christ crowned with thorns, for example, or the discoloration of his face. Other visions are more abstract or philosophical -- the thirteenth revelation, for example, which declares our need to value the works of God. While Julian had all sixteen visions consecutively, sometimes their spiritual significance was the fruit of years of brooding. All three modes interweave in the Showings to suggest how extraordinarily rich was. the totality of her spiritual experience.
While some measure of religious import is embedded within the visions, liberating this meaning is difficult. The anchoress spent years of her life trying to interpret the message encrypted in these enigmatic utterances. In the Showings Julian sets herself the task of recovering an experience of God that was momentary yet whose mark on her life was ineradicable. At the deepest level what seems to be left after the visions depart is not a fully articulable meaning but rather wonder, the faint trace of God's visitation.
As the Showings make clear, Julian's visions are an expression of the realizable, felt presence of God. Having had the visitations to some extent forces her to spend time clarifying her sense of what this experience of divinity is like. When we encounter God, according to Julian, our proper attitude is one of "reverent fear" before the awe-inspiring majesty of divine power. This is not simply a subjective or mental state but a spontaneous response to the objective reality of God's presence.(2)
But we do not experience God solely as a being outside ourselves; we also perceive divine reality to exist within. Julian begins with a traditional theological model in her discussion of the nature and relationship of body and soul. God created our bodies from "the slime of the earth, which is matter mixed and gathered from all bodily things" (284). The creation of our souls, however, is attributable to nothing except divine spirit (and this creation is hence literally "inspiration.") The theological consequence of this act of creation is that "man's soul is kept whole" (284) -- that is, divine reality underpins the very fact of our humanity and unites us to God, defined by Julian as "substantial uncreated nature" (284). Realizing the true (i.e., divine) nature of our being is simultaneously an act of "creating God." God is thus not only creator but is also continually created, given form, and realized through the instrumentality of humanity. Julian comments that Godwants us to know that this beloved soul was preciously knitted to him in its making, by a knot so subtle and so mighty that it is united in God. In this uniting it is made endlessly holy. (284)The consequence of this divine union is that humans provide the locus for the continual coming-into-being of God; this human expression of the energy of the godhead confirms our identity and existence as co-creators of sacred reality.Our soul is created to be God's dwelling place, and the dwelling of our soul is God, who is uncreated. It is a great understanding to see and know inwardly that God, who is our Creator, dwells in our soul, and it is a far greater understanding to see and know inwardly that our soul, which is created, dwells in God in substance, of which substance, through God, we are what we are. And I saw no difference between God and our substance, but, as it were, all God; and still 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. (285)The divine part of our being -- our soul -- realizes the nature of God through a metaphysical correspondence or a kind of cosmic resonance that is set in motion when we encounter this Presence. But not only does our soul share divinity in being created by God; we also create God out of the divine nature of our souls. Because of the congruity between divinity and humanity, we "shape" the creation of God in the course of realizing our humanity.
SELF KNOWLEDGE, GOD KNOWLEDGE
Throughout her meditative explorations in the Showings, Julian ponders further such theological concerns as the nature of the soul, the nature of God, and the connection between them. If God is in fact the divine ground of our being, both physical and spiritual, then by "knowing" our souls we should come closer to a knowledge of God. For Julian a reciprocity exists between the human and divine worlds so that self-knowledge both presupposes and preordains a knowledge of God. One consequence of this insight is that the path toward spiritual perfection lies not in rejecting the human condition but in embracing it, forby the leading through grace of the Holy Spirit we shall know them [soul and God] both in one; whether we are moved to know God or our soul, either motion is good and true. (288)Julian is suggesting here the possibility of achieving a unified consciousness, one not split between the false dichotomies of human and divine or body and soul. It i's a startling voice indeed that boldly proclaims:our sensuality is founded in nature, in mercy, and in grace, and this foundation enables us to receive gifts which lead us to endless life. For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end. (287)But a serpent lurks in this potential paradise, for we obviously find ourselves in a world in which we perceive a split between self or soul and God. Julian comments that "though the soul may be always like God in nature and in substance restored by grace, it is often unlike him in condition, through sin on man's part" (258). Two phenomena are in operation here. One, grace, emanates from God and the other, sin, blocks the possibility of receiving God's presence or realizing the divine ground of our being. The unrealized potential of the soul is to be united to God, but our sinful human condition prevents our ability to do this. When grace is operative, however, and our souls are with humility ready to receive it, the "substance" of our souls is restored, and we perceive the true (i.e., sacred) nature of our humanity. Faith helps us recover the divine ground of our being and assures us that with self-knowledge comes knowledge of the infinite mystery of divine presence: "When we know and see, truly and clearly, what our self is, then we shall truly and clearly see and know our Lord God in the fullness of joy" (258).
Julian uses the metaphor of spiritual thirst to examine this search for self-knowledge, for God, and, somewhat surprisingly, for God's desire to become known to us. For Julian the paradox of encountering divine presence is that while God wishes to be known, our knowledge is partial and fragmentary. How can such an elusive God be known? According to Julian:It is God's will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial; and through this belief he makes us always to gain more grace, for God wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted. (194)Although our experience suggests only a fleeting encounter with divine presence, faith leads us to desire a more unconstrained and continual experience of God. While, on the one hand, Julian posits a God who "wishes to be seen, and . . . wishes to be sought;" on the other she makes it clear that it is the nature of God to elude our sincerest attempt to achieve full awareness of divinity.
Because our experience of God, as manifested in Julian's visions, is fleeting and fragmentary, we are left with a yearning for more complete knowledge. But this quest itself, irrespective of its outcome, contains meaning. One of Julian's visions teaches her that "the soul's constant search pleases God greatly. For it cannot do more than seek, suffer, and trust" (195). Out of God's will to be known and our own desire to encounter God arises a gap, one that can only be closed by what Julian calls "grace": "It is God's will that we seek on until we see him for it is through this that he will show himself to us, of his special grace, when it is his will" (195). While our desire for divine encounter is infinite in its longing, the object of this desire only reveals itself, if at all, "when it is his will." Longing in and of itself is no guarantor that we will encounter the presence of God.
SURRENDER TO GOD
Julian ultimately suggests that the function of the soul is to "surrender" itself to God in the quest for divine presence. This surrender can take one of two forms: "seeking" or "contemplating":It is God's will that we receive three things from him as gifts as we seek. The first is that we seek willingly and diligently without sloth, as that may be with his grace, joyfully and happily, without unreasonable depression and useless sorrow. The second is that we wait for him steadfastly, out of love for him, without rumbling and contending against him, to the end of our lives, for that will last only for a time. The third is that we have great trust in him, out of complete and true faith, for it is his will that we know that he will appear, suddenly and blessedly, to all his lovers. For he works in secret, and he will be perceived, and his appearing will be very sudden. And he wants to be trusted, for he is very accessible, familiar and courteous, blessed may he be. (196)Julian here counsels patience, diligence, and trust. She has faith that God will be revealed, but the "accessibility" of God is dependent on our own expectancy and readiness of soul.
One of Julian's greatest strengths lies in her willingness to confront such difficult theological issues as the nature of the soul. Another one of her theological preoccupations is the question of sin and its personal and metaphysical manifestations in pain and suffering. The paradox of Christian belief -- the coexistence of a just and loving God with a world containing great suffering -- is in fact the subject of Julian's first revelation, in which she receives a vivid image of the crucified Christ. After a graphic depiction of "the red blood running down from under the crown, hot and flowing freely and copiously, a living stream;" Julian seems inexplicably filled "full of the greatest joy" (181). All of Julian's discussions of suffering and her attempts to find meaning in the pain of the human condition must be viewed in this context of the archetype of the suffering Christ. Julian even defines "sin" in terms that link humanity with the Passion of Christ:In this naked word "sin," our Lord brought generally to my mind all which is not good, and the shameful contempt and the direst tribulation which he endured for us in this life, and his death and all his pains, and the passions, spiritual and bodily, of all his creatures. (225)HUMAN SUFFERING
For Julian, Christ is both the symbol of human suffering and the sign of divine triumph over suffering. The meaning Julian derives from her first visitation is not that humans are destined to suffer (though we are), but more important that we have been given a sign through the Passion of Christ that we will ultimately triumph over the frailties of the flesh:For [God] does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve us in the simplest natural functions of our body, for love of the soul which he created in his own likeness. For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. (186)But the philosophical problem still remains. If, as Julian insists, God resides in us and is "present in all things" (197), how can this goodness share divine space with the presence of evil? Julian states the difficulty of the case with characteristic directness:Our Lord God . . . is at the center of everything, and he does everything. And I was certain that he does no sin; and here I was certain that sin is no deed, for in all this sin was not shown to me . . . . For a man regards some deeds as well done and some as evil, and our Lord does not regard them so, for everything which exists in nature is of God's creation, so that everything which is done has the property of being God's doing. (197-198).Julian seems to imply here the heterodox view that sin has no reality whatsoever, the acts we label "evil" being merely products of our faulty perception. But a still, small voice within Julian is troubled by this explanation, this act of abolishing sin by linguistic fiat. Inspired both by humility and by curiosity, she presents an argument for the reality of sin from the human perspective:It seemed to me that if there had been no sin, we should all have been pure and as like our Lord as he created us. And so in my folly before this time I often wondered why, through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me that all would have been well. (224)The answer she receives to this childlike query is enigmatic but reassuring: "Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well" (225).
Julian, however, is not quite ready to let go her persistent questioning. After contemplating this reassurance, she again asks "with very great fear: Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?" (227) Again she receives a measure of condolence: "You will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well . . . . Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fullness of joy" (232).
But Julian will not relent. Despite these supernatural comforts (the latter reassurance being consolation in the form of resignation to Divine Mystery), Julian is still troubled by certain aspects of the faith:Our faith is founded on God's word, and it belongs to our faith that we believe that God's word will be preserved in all things. And one article of our faith is that many creatures will be damned, such as the angels who fell out of heaven because of pride, who now are devils, and many men upon earth who die out of the faith of Holy Church, that is to say those who are pagans and many who have received baptism and who live unchristian lives and so die out of God's love. All these will be eternally condemned to hell, as Holy Church teaches me to believe. And all this being so, it seemed to me that it was impossible that every kind of thing should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time. And to this I had no other answer as a revelation for our Lord except this: What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well. (233)GOD'S LOVE TRANSCENDS OUR SIN
Besides the untroubled voice of divine reassurance, what reality could possibly lift the weight of sin? According to Julian it is the supreme sign of the reality of God: the unfathomable mystery of love. It must be remembered that Julian herself calls the showings a "revelation of love," and the glory of reading her work is that we come away not with a sense of the affliction of sin but with the possibilities of transcending sin through the power of love. Julian establishes an intimate connection between the two when she states:God showed that sin will be no shame, but honour to man, for just as there is indeed a corresponding pain for every sin, just so love gives to the same soul a bliss for every sin. (242)To answer Julian's earlier troubling question, then, sin is necessary so that we can become, in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, "instruments of love in the hands of God." Because God is "endless supreme truth, endless supreme wisdom, [and] endless supreme love uncreated" (256), Julian suggests we have a divinely ordained imperative to actualize on a human level the 'divine potentialities we attribute to God. Love connects the inherent affinities between the human and divine worlds. The theme of love in fact provides a leitmotif throughout the Showings. Julian asserts that we are "bound to [God] in love" (309) and that "our life is all founded in love, and without love we cannot live" (263). Moreover, she implies that even our salvation is in part "this-worldly," for "we cannot be blessedly saved until we are truly in peace and in love, for that is our salvation" (264).
One final question remains, however, and it is one Julian returns to with wonder at the end of her work. In an extraordinarily moving passage Julian presents to us the fruit of her years of pondering and reflection:And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never, know different, without end. (342)"In my end;" says T.S. Eliot, "is my beginning." As Eliot echoes the spirit of Julian of Norwich, so does Julian reciprocate by "arriving where we started, and [knowing] the place for the first time."(3) Thus Julian ends where she began, with a "revelation of love." The mystery of the showings is finally revealed to be no less than the mystery of love itself, a reality vouchsafed to Julian as both human and divine.
Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). This edition is the most authoritative and scholarly modern translation, reprinting with extensive critical apparatus both the short and long texts. All citations in this essay are to the Paulist Press edition of Julian's work.
Julian's experience perfectly exemplifies the category of "numinous dread" analyzed by the German scholar Rudolf Otto, who sees "awe" as one component of the mysterium tremendum. See Otto's Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige).
Both Eliot quotations are from the Four Quartets, the first from "East Coker" and the second from "Little Gidding." But compare Eliot's "All shall be well, and/All manner of thing shall be well," also from "Little Gidding."
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