More in Heaven: Wisdom from Julian of Norwich

God wants us to know that this beloved soul was preciously knitted to him in its making, by a knot so subtle and so tight that it is united in God.

This bit of wisdom comes from Julian of Norwich, a Catholic mystic whose birthday is celebrated today, on November 8. I’d like to share a bit about her life, experiences, and writings in order to expose others to this woman, who has become one of my favorite saints and spiritual guides.

A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, "Revelations of Divine Love"
A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, “Revelations of Divine Love”

Julian actually is not a saint, at least not for Roman Catholics. That’s because so little is known about her life, aside from her writings. We don’t even know her name; she is called ‘Julian’ because she lived in a small structure attached to the St. Julian church in Norwich, England, during the latter part of her life. Born around 1342, she lived through political upheaval on behalf of the poor (and the subsequent repression at the hands of conservative, and often Church-related, forces) and plague that wiped out large portions of the population. She likely lived an ordinary life—as a married woman, beguine (itinerant religious sister), or cloistered nun—before she moved to the secluded life of an anchoress, which involved a life dedicated to prayer and the sacraments. Scholars today suggest that she may have moved there in order to write about her mystical experiences without risking backlash from church authorities.

At the age of thirty, Julian became deathly ill, and upon her deathbed received sixteen revelations or “showings,” as she called them, of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. She recovered fully and lived for many more years, during which time she wrote two texts describing and expounding upon the meanings of her revelations. She wrote the “short text” shortly after the revelations, and the “long text” at least thirty years later. The difference in length indicates that in the intervening years Julian had uncovered considerable additional meaning from the visions. Her writing indicates that she was a very learned woman, and had a strong understanding of Catholic theology and how her own visions reflected (or conflicted with) orthodox belief. Julian became known as a spiritual authority in England, and we do know that people visited her seeking advice.

Julian’s combined texts, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known book written by a woman in the English language (Middle English). But it only became well known within the last century, when it was translated to modern English. Some have called Julian a “woman of our day” because of the incredible way her writing and understanding of God can speak to the modern reader today.

Catholics celebrate her “feast day” on May 13, when her showings ended and she returned to health.

Instead of trying to summarize the massive amount of Julian’s spiritual wisdom, I’d like to share a few themes and reflections, with the hopes that readers will feel compelled to pick up Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, which is not a difficult read.

Closeness to God

As illustrated in the quote above, Julian understood God as incredibly close to her, as inseparable. All mystics, no matter their religious tradition, somehow achieve union with God in this life.

“He is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us.”

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

She understood God’s incarnation in Jesus to be a validation of humanity, an indication of his desire to be in union with us. It was not a rejection of human weakness or sin, but a desire to be a part of it—to suffer with us—and raise us out of it. Many of her showings were of Jesus’ brutalized body on the cross.

Often mystics feel the need to reject completely the mortal, physical world. But, in good Christian fashion, Julian claims that our mortal bodies are not a stumbling block for our communion with God, but actually the means through which God reaches us—through the divine-human being, Jesus!

God as Mother

Julian also speaks of Jesus as “Mother.” This might seem shocking, given that we as Christians tend to talk about two-thirds of the Godhead (the Father and the Son) in masculine terms. Julian is not alone in using feminine language to describe God, but regardless it is striking for any reader. She understands God’s mercy and active participation in our lives—particularly creating, “birthing,” and taking on human form—as a motherly quality.

It’s also important to note, as I have in other writing, that the word for mercy in Hebrew comes from the word, “womb.” It is unclear if Julian would have been aware of this linguistic connection, but it is interesting to note that in all three monotheistic religions, mercy is perceived as something inherently motherly and physical. As an imam I know once said, mercy is about “feeling for another person deep in your gut, in your bowels.”

God’s will

Religious people often talk about “God’s will.” It’s a tough thing to understand, and something I’ve thought about a lot. How do I know I’m following God’s will for me? What is ‘God’s will’?

Julian answers the question quite simply. The will is not a laid-out set of events that a person must follow in order to please God. Rather:

“It is his will and plan that we hang on to [the Blessed friend, Jesus], and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean is all the same to his love. He wants us never to run away from him, whether things are going well or ill.”

Following God’s will simply means clinging to Jesus, trusting him and following him wherever he takes us. Some wisdom from a Carmelite nun and friend of mine, Jean Alice, helps, I think, to expound upon what Julian means:

“I think the concept of God’s will becomes a stumbling block in people’s lives. They get the image of a person, who has a will, and ‘this is what I want you to do, and if you don’t do it you’re going to suffer and suffer and suffer.’ Whereas if you see God’s will as simply Love that follows us…we maybe make a bad choice here but that Love comes right at us with other choices.”

Following God’s will simply means following Love, following Jesus There is not one “plan” but an infinite number of opportunities to choose love, no matter what decisions we’ve made in the past. Conforming to the plan of God means choosing love in every circumstance.

For me, this conception of God’s will in very comforting, and it allows me to be more at ease with the uncertainty of the future. There’s not the worry of messing up or missing out on God’s plan, because I can conform to it everyday, in big and small ways, by discerning where Love is and how to respond to it. 

Sin as “blindness”

Julian’s insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy is especially evident in her conception of sin. I wrote a paper about this for my college course on “Medieval Women Mystics,” and I’ll attempt to summarize the ideas here.

In one of Julian's visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.
In one of Julian’s visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.

Julian illustrates a beautiful parable for her readers, in which she re-writes the Fall. Instead of the human person (Adam) deliberately trying to disobey God out of pride, Julian paints an image of a lord and his servant, who runs off joyfully to do the work of his master. He tries his best, but falls into a ditch and thrashes around in the mud, upset by his own failure and so distracted by it that he fails to see that his lord is right beside him, wanting to help him up. The servant’s failure does not induce in the lord a desire to punish him; he can clearly see how much the servant wants to do good. Rather, recognizing that it was simply distractions and missteps that led the servant to turn away, the lord is moved with compassion and brings the servant even closer to himself.

For Julian, sin is about blindness, not seeing God when he is right there:

“Man… falls into sin through naiveté and ignorance. He is weak and foolish in himself, and also his will is overpowered in the time when he is assailed and in sorrow and woe. And the cause is blindness, because he does not see God; for if he saw God continually, he would have no harmful feelings nor any kind of prompting, nor sorrowing which is conducive to sin.”  (emphasis mine)

Thus, for Julian, moving away from sin to union with God is about a shift in perception and awareness, not a shift in being.  We are always with God—or he is always with us; the problem, Julian says, is that we fail to recognize that.

“My sin,” Julian says, “will not impede the operation of his goodness.” Her insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy was radical for her time, when many of the religious voices around her claimed that the plague was a punishment for people’s sin.

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

Encouragement for the journey

Though Julian lived in a time wrought with violence, death, and sickness, she was extremely hopeful, constantly writing about experiencing joy and bliss despite suffering. She is probably best known for her line, “[God revealed to me that] all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” This is the core of Christian truth: that in the end, Love wins. Julian’s reminder can be helpful to all of us, no matter our life circumstances.

Julian also praises the constant search for God, and encourages us to keep praying, keep seeking. Our desire to pray and know God comes from God himself!: “Our Lord God is the foundation of our beseeching.”

Julian’s revelations remind us that union with God will not only occur at the end of time, when we are perfectly unified and meet him “face to face.” They also tell us that we can get a taste of that eventual full communion, right here, and right now.

“God wants us to understand and to believe that we are more truly in heaven than on earth.”

Examples of empathetic journalism

This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.”  This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written.  During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.

“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”

I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism.  For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy.  As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories.  Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too.  Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.

Nick Kristof

This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:

“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”

He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it.  You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.

I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade.  Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often.  By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.

Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here.  If you want to hear more, listen to the program!  He talks about…

…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.

…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.

…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.

You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.

Al-Jazeera English

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.”  Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict.  Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission.  AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.

One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched.  One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin.  Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions.  Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.

Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic

She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset.  Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation.  It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said.  I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.

If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it.  You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.

City Stories

This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis.  Along with another co-

Teaching camera basics

counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders.  As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.

I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer.  You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link.  Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”

Storyboarding

I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices.  (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)

Final quotes for thought

“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that.  And as a reporter, I understand it.  I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little.  Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves.  If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction

“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian.  She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.

Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.