Peace in the Midst of Uncertainty
“no creature that is made that can know
how much and how sweetly and how tenderly
our Creator loves us”
— Julian of Norwich
Given the daunting economic, social, political, and religious challenges of today and the fierce divisions and demeaning actions sometimes accompanying these challenges, this seems to be a good time to remember the contemplative wisdom of Lady Julian of Norwich. Like us, she knew about the trials and tribulations of life during a turbulent time of disorienting changes. She managed to survive three rounds of the plague that killed almost half of the population of Norwich. She lived through a long, extensive war, famine and serious economic challenges, peasant uprisings, and deep religious divisions. Lollards were thrown in a fire pit for their beliefs and historians believe she could hear their screams in the seclusion of her anchorite cell.
In the midst of this challenging 14th century life in England, Julian received 16 gifted “showings” as she lay close to death at the age of 30. After her amazing recovery, she wrote the short text of Revelations of Divine Love and after prayerfully pondering and inwardly digesting her graced insights for almost 20 years, she wrote the long text. Her testimony to God’s intimate, abiding love in both texts is consistent with the voices of many theologians down through the ages, but her powerful sense of “how sweetly and how tenderly our Creator loves us” offers us a fresh expression of this ancient theological perspective. In her writings, she gently and persistently turns our attention, and hopefully our hearts, back to the faithful compassion of God who “delights without end” in us and “wishes us to be mightily comforted and strengthened” in the midst of everything.
In Revelations of Divine Love, she does not pretend to have clear and final answers to the baffling mystery of undeserved suffering or a fail-proof plan for avoiding personal and communal sin. Nor does she have a step-by-step process for dealing with the difficult and confusing losses that can frustrate and disappoint us as we weave our way through the many challenges of life alone and together.
What she does offer, however, is a contemplative grounding that can steady and strengthen us as we struggle through the hard realities that sometimes make their unwanted way into our personal and communal lives. In her writings she shares her journey of falling more and more in love with God and reveals her profound gratitude for the spiritual insights she was graced to experience and inwardly digest. She humbly shares with us her lived experience of holy encounters prayerfully pondered against the backdrop of the daily liturgies in the church she called home.
At the same time, she offers us a way of being uncertain in a time of uncertainty without being overly anxious and inappropriately fearful. She offers us perspective and points us to the possibilities for peace, hope, and love in the midst of frustrating doubt, unsettling confusion, and unexpected suffering. She consistently shifts our focus from the external realities of our lives to the possibilities for inner freedom that can come from communion and union with a good and loving God.
So how does she do this? There are several ways to answer this question and several ways to understand the subtle, complex and paradoxical theology of Lady Julian, but what seems foundational are her deep trust in both the vast, awesome goodness and the tender, intimate love of the Holy One. She has a profound trust in the goodness of God who loved creation into being and “created everything for love.” She says that God created all that is made in “this love without beginning” and God continues to hold creation in this love without end.
Moreover, she has confidence that tightly woven in the fabric of this enduring goodness is the intimate, respectful, nurturing love God has for each of our souls. She invites us to continually turn to our comforting mother, Christ, with “love longing” and to keep our focus on God’s mercy and grace because “the sweet eye of pity and of love never departs from us, and the working of mercy ceases not.” She tells us that “we do not suffer alone” but in the loving sight of “our good Lord” who “enwraps us, holds us, and all encloses us because of His tender love” for each of us. She assures us that God yearns for our inner transformation and patiently desires to “one” us to this abiding Love. She says that God longs to give us comfort, strength, peace and even “bliss” in both life and death.
Julian does not minimize the trials and tribulations, the “woe,” of life and she does not suggest that turning to God will free us from pain and suffering. In fact, she says that God respectfully helps us be more aware of our sins and that as we become more aware of our own weaknesses and failings, our blindness and ignorance, we will suffer because we begin to realize how far we can be from the loving goodness that is God. She invites us to open ourselves to God’s revelation of our sins but also adds that God does not want us to dwell too long on them with “unreasonable sorrow.” She even suggests that the depth of our sinfulness may be hidden from us by “our courteous Lord” who with mercy and grace will only reveal it to us as we are ready and able to bear it.
Julian does not offer glib answers to the mystery of suffering in life. She is obviously concerned about the pain and suffering of others, but her focus as an anchorite is more on being aware of blindness and ignorance and opening ourselves to holy transformation than on actively changing the unjust structures and dehumanizing systems of her day. She is clear, however, that only blaming others is not the answer. She warns that beholding the sins of others makes “a thick mist before the eye of the soul, and we cannot for the time see the beauty of God” unless, she helpfully adds, we can also notice their contrition, see them with compassion, and hold them before God. Rather, she reminds us again and again how beloved each of our souls are to God and how lovingly close God is to each of us. She reminds us that we are constantly seen with loving respect and hopeful desires by our good and patient God. In her writings we can see this awareness grow and deepen into a profound trust that it was God’s desire that everyone “be transformed and one-ed to Him in love as He is to us.”
Julian was deeply moved by the suffering of Christ on the cross and saw this sacrifice as a central sign of God’s great love as well as a sign that, even in the midst of pain and betrayal, there can be the joy and love of a “glad giver.” She believed that understanding his sacrifice could “make our souls very pliant and very gentle, and restore us to health most gently in the course of time.” She was able to hold in creative tension the reality of pain and sin and the power and love of God because she so trusted God’s loving goodness and God’s desire to bring us all to fullness of life.
Thus, Julian can live with the mystery of suffering even though she does not know how to reconcile it with the power, goodness, and love of God. She trusts that ultimately God will “make well all that is not well” in a “great Deed” that for now remains a secret. In the meantime, she can live peacefully with the uncertainty of mystery, not-knowing, and un-reconciled differences. She shows us that it is possible to experience peace, hope, and love even though we don’t know and understand why life unfolds in the painful, confusing, disorienting way it does at times.
Perhaps it is not an accident that Julian’s writings have re-emerged after 600 years of relative silence. Hopefully they can touch our spiritual hearts and give us the courage and strength we need to live in and from Holy Love in our own confusing, turbulent times.
All quotes taken from A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, translated and appointed for daily reading by Father John Julian, OJN