About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.
The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.
I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.
But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.
In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”