Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Complete Julian of Norwich

Edited by Fr. John-Julian, 450 pages, Paraclete Press.

"For this is the reason why we are not fully at ease in heart and soul: because here we seek rest in these things that are so little, in which there is no rest, and we recognize not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for He is the true rest," writes Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in her Revelations.

As editor Fr. John Julian points out in the Introduction, Julian of Norwich was a theological optimist living in a century of great upheaval – starvation, plague, the 100 Years War, and, closer to home, the assassination of a king and archbishop.

She experienced a series of mystical revelations as an anchorite (a solitary individual living in a room attached to a parish church), and thus became quite well known and sought out by all sorts of people for her guidance.

The late medieval Church preached endlessly about sin and damnation, and how hard it was to enter heaven. While Julian never rejected that theology, she did believe that her showings revealed a merciful God who could never be wrathful. God is love, and “all shall be well,” Jesus showed her. She often compared the preaching of the Church on sinfulness, necessary to awaken people to their fallen nature, with the grace and love she experienced from God directly or through His Son.

Like her medieval counterparts, Julian focused on Jesus' Passion and strongly wished to share physically in that suffering. Physical and emotional affliction were redemptive because they made one share in Christ's pain.

Julian also writes of the spiritual pain which she wished for herself: "I conceived a mighty desire to receive three wounds while I was alive; that is to say, the wound of true contrition, the wound of kind compassion, and the wound of wish-filled yearning for God."

Like countless other fourteenth-century mystics, the Revelations represents the turn towards the individual. As Europe was urbanizing, Christians became less attached to the sacramental work of the Church (though the sacraments were still vital) and searched for an inner connection with Jesus. They became preoccupied with their inner state. Experts at diagnosing psychological and spiritual conditions, they believed in the complete interaction of the spiritual and physical world.

Given the medieval Church's preoccupation with hell and sin, Julian's theology is jarring. She emphasizes the joy of knowing God, who is motherly love and fatherly grace. No doubt, she connects with readers interested in more feminine imagery of God. Showing how consistent Catholic spirituality can be, her keen psychology previews not only St. Teresa of Avila's notions of the soul's relationship with God, but also St. Therese de Lisieux' practice of the Little Way.

Julian's deep belief in the unity of the human soul with God assured her of divine love rather than wrath: "[B]etween God and our soul is neither anger nor forgiveness.... For our soul is so completely one-ed to God by His own goodness, that there can be absolutely nothing at all separating God and soul." Herein lies the heart of Julian's optimistic theology.

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