One of the things that strikes me so much about Julian of Norwich is how she seems to have avoided the trap of spiritual consumerism that so many of us fall into when we have peak religious experiences, of wanting to repeat the excitement and the highs rather than being grateful for what God has given us. As far as we know, Julian neither sought nor experienced any further visions after her illness of 1373, but she spent the next few decades of her life contemplating that experience. And yet, we do see a bit of this spirit of acquisitiveness come out in the midst of her second vision, and how she handles it is, I think, instructive for the rest of us.
The second vision was a rather horrid one, showing the abuse Christ experienced from the soldiers and crowds, and a vivid portrayal of his face at various stages of bleeding and death. About this, Julian writes:
This I saw bodily, frighteningly, and dimly, and I wanted more of the light of day, to have seen it more clearly. And I was answered in my reason: If God wishes to show you more, he will be your light; you need none but him. (Ch 10)*
Here we have an admission of some dissatisfaction with her vision; as graphic as it was, she wished she could have seen it all more clearly. But her wish was “answered in her reason:” If God wanted her to see more, God would not only have given more more light by which to see, but would have been that light. (As a side note, I love how precise Julian was in her thinking. Already she’s taken care to distinguish what she sees ‘bodily’ (the sixteen visions), what she sees ‘spiritually’ (for example, the hazelnut), and now, what she experiences ‘in her reason’. And tomorrow we’ll see some examples of how she thinks in numbered lists. I personally find these glimpses into her personality rather charming — it’s a rare treat in medieval writing!) She continues:
For it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial; and through this belief he makes us always to gain more grace, for God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted. (Ch 10)
What she seems to be saying is that any glimpse of God is worth having and rejoicing in, no matter how partial it seems to us. And moreover, that glimpse inspires us to seek God more fully, since it leaves us unsatisfied. The dissatisfaction is, therefore, part of the point of the revelation. She concludes: “The soul’s constant search pleases God greatly. For it cannot do more than seek, suffer and trust…. And so I was taught that seeking is as good as contemplating…” (Ch 10).
Towards the end of book, in Chapter 83, Julian returns to the image of God as our guiding and revealing light. There she writes: “This light is measured with discretion, and it is present to us in our need in the night. The light is the cause of our life, the night is the cause of our pain and all our woe …” (Ch 83). There’s something beautiful about this idea of God’s revealing light being “measured with discretion.” It reminds me of the language about food in the Lord’s Prayer. There we pray not for constant feasting, but for “our daily bread,” sustenance enough for today. As much as I’d love to see the whole picture of what God is about in my life, I think there’s great wisdom and faith her in praying instead for “our daily light” — not the whole picture but enough for today, enough to see the next step before us. If I’d known at seventeen what my life what the next twenty-five years of my life would be like, I’m not sure I’d have signed on. I’m glad I didn’t know how things would go because each weird step along the way was beautiful and important, and my life has been more than the sum of where its parts have brought me.
Not seeing as much as we’d like to see when it comes to God’s work in us may not be fun, but I think Julian has got it right. God will show us what we need to see; and if we haven’t seen it, then we don’t need it. That hurts a little to think about, and yet it’s true. It takes trust not to be able to see as much as we’d like. But the flip-side is also true. We don’t need to worry if we can’t see more — if we haven’t seen God as fully as we’d like to, or if what God is about in our life is murky, that means that God doesn’t expect us to. And so there is also great consolation in this teaching: What a relief it is to know that seeking is just as good in God’s eyes as seeing.
I hope we can all take this to heart this Lent, and trust God to give us light for today.
* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.
7 thoughts on “Our Daily Light”
Hi Mathew, I’ve especially enjoyed your posts about Julian of Norwich. I have a book ”Revelations of Divine Love”. Edited by Grace Warrack, from both the Paris and the Sloane editions. Haven’t completely read it. It requires the right frame of mind! Verna Macdonald. ( Mary’s Mom). .
Cragan an Fhithich firstname.lastname@example.org
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