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.”

Empty plane seats

This post goes along well with my last post “Returning to the river,” in that it expands on the importance of trusting in the divineness of our own imaginations.

On each of my three flights to Amman during January, I had an empty seat next to me.  This made the plane rides relaxing and enjoyable, but not simply because I could stretch out and didn’t have to squeeze by someone on my way to the bathroom…

~~~

Before I left for Amman, I was concerned about how I would transition, how I would feel navigating a new home alone.  Because I am so close with my family and friends and talk to them often, I was uncomfortable with the thought that my contact with loved-ones would be less frequent, and that I’d feel more isolated.

But then the most basic and yet profound thought struck me over the head: I won’t be alone.

This idea seems unsurprising.  Of course, God is with me and is in everything I encounter (I’ve talked about that much in recent posts).  But this insight was different.  I realized that I not only can find Jesus in the people and places around me, but I can find the person of Jesus—the physical, social, emotional human being—around me as well.  I can picture Jesus doing everything with me.  I can talk to him, be held by him, and share my excitement, anxiety, and sadness with him.

This understanding brought me so much peace, and my concerns seemed to slip away.  Navigating this journey would be so much easier, since I had someone doing it with me.  Though I didn’t know yet what life in Amman would be like, I had already started imagining Jesus there with me.

I prayed this prayer the night before I left for Amman:

Dear God,
Help me let you be my companion.
Walk with me in the streets.
Sit and drink tea.
Lay down next to me as I read your book.
I know I don’t need to ask; you’re already there.
Just give me a wave in the face if I forget you’re with me*.
Amen

(*This is a reference to “On Religion,” an excerpt of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.)

The day of my departure to Amman arrived, and I boarded the plane in Indianapolis to Toronto to find that the seat next to me was empty.  When I sat down on my London-bound plane, the chair beside me was again unoccupied.  And a third time, when I boarded for Amman, the seat next to me wasn’t filled.

But I quickly realized that these seats weren’t empty—someone was sitting there.  It was like God the Father had booked the seat for his Son.

I imagined Jesus there, next to me.  Barely able to contain my excitement after speaking in Arabic with one of the Canadian flight attendants, I gave Jesus a fist bump.  In an airport bathroom, I looked over at him as we washed our hands.  (Apparently Jesus is the only man allowed in the women’s restroom.) When I went to sleep and stretched across the seat, I rested my head on his lap.  Jesus’ presence tempered my anxiousness and brought comfort.

For me, one of the many beauties of Christianity is the way it embraces the physical, human, and historical world.  The person of Jesus inhabited time and space many years ago, a fact that allows us to bring him into this world again.  (It’s hard for me to explain my understanding of this fully.  It’s a combination of personal revelation and Church theology I’ve learned.  I need to do more reading on this in order to better articulate the more visceral understanding I have.)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve often found Jesus beside me, participating in my life.  He lounges on my host sister’s bed as I write this post, or squeezes in on the couch with my host family while we watch Arab Idol.  When I start feeling sad or uncomfortable or nervous here, I realize it’s because I haven’t been bringing Jesus into the picture.

A few weekends back, Jesus sat with me for a long time on the mountain where John the Baptist was executed.  I looked over, up the hill a bit to where he was sitting, and when we made eye contact, he scooted across the edge of the cliff down to where I was. I could hear the gravel pulling on his clothes as he shifted down the hill.  I remembered the Bible passage in which Jesus sits alone after hearing the news of John’s death, and I felt like we were experiencing that moment again together.  He didn’t have to be alone in that pain, just as I never have to be alone either.

Mukawir, the mountain on which John the Baptist was executed.

What do I call moments like this, I’ve wondered, when I see so clearly my Lord with me?

I think they are visions.

That may seem like a gutsy thing to claim.  Heck, I’m not Moses or Juan Diego, who saw God in a bush or Mary on a rosy hilltop.

But I think claiming to see visions isn’t the scary—or outright crazy—thing it initially seems to be.

During the last several years, a few friends of mine have told me they had visions, and I completely believed that they had.  But I wondered how they came to them? I thought, how could I ever receive a vision?, as if visions are things that come to us from the outside.  As if we have no control over the images that are presented before our eyes by God.

But from my own experiences, imagining Jesus with me, I understand now that visions don’t come from without.  They come from within, from inside our own hearts and minds.

Ignatius vision of Jesus at La Storta.

Mystics like Teresa of Avila (whose name I took at my Confirmation), Ignatius, and Rumi didn’t receive external images, ones imposed on them from the outside.  They simply trusted their imaginations, and realized that God was in the images and the stories they created.

When I think back on my own visions, it feels like the line between God’s work and my own has been blurred, and I know that’s because God’s divinity resides in me.  My creation is His, and His is mine.  I can trust these images and find meaning in them. I can intentionally bring Jesus into a situation, but that doesn’t make his presence any less holy.

~~~

All around—in the crowded coffee shop, inside the dry cleaners in my neighborhood, and on the crumbling, terraced hills of Jordan—empty seats are reserved, waiting for me—for us—to fill them up.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling