Julian of Norwich and metaphors of the Divine [archive]

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT RATIONALFAITHS.COM ON MARCH 16, 2019.

This is the full text of Chapter VI of the “long text” version of Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich, c. 1373. Julian was a 14th century English anchoress who, at the age of 30, experienced a series of visions of the Divine that she spent the rest of her life pondering and interpreting. Scholars have argued that this book is the first written by a woman in the English language. 

In the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 31:3 teaches that God “speaketh unto men [and women!] according to their language, unto their understanding.” Julian’s written revelations are rich in metaphorical language that she uses to try to convey in imperfect language the ineffable experiences that she had. What do Julian’s metaphors reveal of the nature of Divine Love? Why does it matter what metaphors we use to understand God and God’s love?

Julian’s text is in normal type, while my comments are in italics.

THIS Shewing was made to learn our soul wisely to cleave to the Goodness of God.

And in that time the custom of our praying was brought to mind: how we use for lack of understanding and knowing of Love, to take many means [whereby to beseech Him].

Barry Windeatt translates “means” as “intermediaries” here: praying by the cross, the Saints, by Mary, etc. as explained further below.

Then saw I truly that it is more worship to God, and more very delight, that we faithfully pray to Himself of His Goodness and cleave thereunto by His Grace, with true understanding, and steadfast by love, than if we took all the means that heart can think. For if we took all these means, it is too little, and not full worship to God: but in His Goodness is all the whole, and there faileth right nought.

Perhaps we could paraphrase Julian’s words this way: while using “means” [intermediaries] to access God, it is more spiritually mature (“more worship to God”) to access him directly without the aid of intermediaries. In other words, it’s good to pray to God through the Saints or through symbols like the cross, but it’s better to pray directly to God without going through these intermediaries.

While Julian may have had in mind praying by means of the Saints and the Virgin Mary, what other other “intermediaries” or “means” are there through which we may be in the habit of accessing and communicating with God? Could these include our theologies? Our religions? Our rituals? Our religious ideologies? Our political ideologies? Our conceptions of God and God’s nature?

For this, as I shall tell, came to my mind in the same time: We pray to God for [the sake of] His holy flesh and His precious blood, His holy Passion, His dearworthy death and wounds: and all the blessed kindness, the endless life that we have of all this, is His Goodness. And we pray Him for [the sake of] His sweet Mother’s love that Him bare; and all the help we have of her is of His Goodness. And we pray by His holy Cross that he died on, and all the virtue and the help that we have of the Cross, it is of His Goodness. And on the same wise, all the help that we have of special saints and all the blessed Company of Heaven, the dearworthy love and endless friendship that we have of them, it is of His Goodness. For God of His Goodness hath ordained means to help us, full fair and many: of which the chief and principal mean is the blessed nature that He took of the Maid, with all the means that go afore and come after which belong to our redemption and to endless salvation. Wherefore it pleaseth Him that we seek Him and worship through means, understanding that He is the Goodness of all.

“Wherefore it pleaseth Him that we seek Him and worship through means, understanding that He is the Goodness of all.” Perhaps Julian is trying to tell us that even if the way we access God and understand God is a metaphorical “means” or “intermediary,” that’s okay. God speaks to us in our language (read: culture, symbols, religions, doctrines, theologies, metaphors, paradigms, etc.) so that we can understand, because that is the most effective way to communicate with us given the physical realities of our brains and the nature of consciousness. In Julian’s time and culture, this included the cross, Mary, and the Saints. What is the parallel “language” that we speak today that are the “means” by which we understand and conceptualize God? Are these the “intermediaries” of our day? How can we best take advantage of these intermediaries to help us come closer to God?

For the Goodness of God is the highest prayer, and it cometh down to the lowest part of our need. It quickeneth our soul and bringeth it on life, and maketh it for to waxen in grace and virtue. It is nearest in nature; and readiest in grace: for it is the same grace that the soul seeketh, and ever shall seek till we know verily that He hath us all in Himself enclosed.

“He hath us all in Himself enclosed.” How can the metaphor of being “enclosed” in God help us better understand the nature of our relationship with God?

For He hath no despite of that He hath made, nor hath He any disdain to serve us at the simplest office that to our body belongeth in nature, for love of the soul that He hath made to His own likeness.

How could God ever despite or disdain any of us? Or any of God’s creations? One of the most consistent themes in Julian’s revelations is the unconditional and absolute love and joy that God has for all of God’s creations.

For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed. Yea, and more homely: for all these may waste and wear away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole; and more near to us, without any likeness; for truly our Lover desireth that our soul cleave to Him with all its might, and that we be evermore cleaving to His Goodness. For of all things that heart may think, this pleaseth most God, and soonest speedeth [the soul].

What kind of language do we use to describe God? Common metaphors in contemporary Christianity include “Lord” or “King” or “Master.” Here, Julian says that God is our “Lover” who desires that our souls “cleave” unto God’s. How could our relationship with God change if we more often thought of God as our “Lover” than of our “King” or “Master”?

For our soul is so specially loved of Him that is highest, that it overpasseth the knowing of all creatures: that is to say, there is no creature that is made that may [fully] know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly our Maker loveth us. And therefore we may with grace and His help stand in spiritual beholding, with everlasting marvel of this high, overpassing, inestimable Love that Almighty God hath to us of His Goodness. And therefore we may ask of our Lover with reverence all that we will.

For our natural Will is to have God, and the Good Will of God is to have us; and we may never cease from willing nor from longing till we have Him in fullness of joy: and then may we no more desire.

For He willeth that we be occupied in knowing and loving till the time that we shall be fulfilled in Heaven; and therefore was this lesson of Love shewed, with all that followeth, as ye shall see. For the strength and the Ground of all was shewed in the First Sight. For of all things the beholding and the loving of the Maker maketh the soul to seem less in his own sight, and most filleth him with reverent dread and true meekness; with plenty of charity to his even-Christians.

God’s will is that we love God, the first commandment, and that we have charity toward “even-Christians,” or more inclusively, toward all humankind, the second commandment. What powerful language Julian uses to try to capture the essence of what she experienced.

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