Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich didn’t see sin, and the pain and suffering which accompany it, as a problem which could be solved theologically.  For her, sin is an existential state of ignorance, which humanity can escape from by arriving at a greater knowledge of God.  This knowledge can be obtained not only by casting one’s eyes up to the heavens, but also by looking within.  In our own souls we find a duality, Adam and Christ, both servants (270, 292).  Adam falls into the briar patch and flails around in agony, unaware that God is looking on in compassion.  Christ is forever aware of God’s inward presence, and turns away from the thorns.

The briar patch is part of creation, and Julian understands creation to be very small: “this little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness (183).”  Our spiritual movement cannot be towards this tiny hazelnut of created things, but towards the great expansiveness of God.  Yet God does not neglect creation because of its smallness.  In fact, God has sent us out to cultivate creation, and to return with the fruits of our labors.  When we go out as servants to do God’s bidding, we carry our duality with us.  We as Christ are sent out to gather food for our Lord, we as Adam fall into the briar patch (273-5, 279).

The agony of the briar patch deceives us into believing in its own importance.  It hinders us in our longing for God (224).  “We contemplate this and sorrow and mourn for it so that we cannot rest in the blessed contemplation of God as we ought to do (232).”  Our tendency to place sin in opposition to God creates a false dichotomy.  Sin becomes another God, an idol which we wail against and accuse.  If we turn our desire and will from this false idol, it loses all power over us (229).

Prayer begins this process of turning from sin to God, from our inner Adam to our inner Christ.  To truly pray, we must trust God, and this trust is already a movement away from the briar patch (251).  True prayer is an unveiling of our own existence in God.  “Behold and see that I have done all this before your prayer, and now you are, and you pray to me (252).”  When we pray rightly, we turn from the Adam within us to the Christ within us.  “Prayer is a witness that the soul wills as God wills, and it eases the conscience and fits man for grace (253).”

Human purpose resides not in the briar patch, but in the contemplation of God.  This is the food which we return with to our Lord.  We understand that Christ, not Adam, is our true nature.  “For God is endless supreme truth, endless supreme wisdom, endless supreme love uncreated; and a man’s soul is a creature in God which has the same properties created.  And always it does what it was created for; it sees God and it contemplates God and it loves God (256).”  This is the totality of human purpose.

Julian of Norwich.   Showings.  Colledge, Edmund and Walsh, James, trans.  Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1978.

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