The theme of sin and temptation to sin runs all through today’s Sunday readings. There’s the story of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden from Genesis, Paul’s reflections on the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin, and the Gospel reading features the temptation of Jesus in the desert. As one might expect from a medieval monastic writer, the theme of sin, and protecting oneself against temptation, also features prominently in Julian of Norwich’s writings. And so, let’s spend a few minutes this morning looking at what she has to say about it, and what wisdom she might have for us about this difficult topic.
The greatest weapon we have in fighting temptation is having a better story than the one tempting us. The story of how Jesus manages his temptation in the desert is a great example of this: The Devil (or Satan – neither are proper nouns in the Scriptures, but refer to the role as deceiver or twister-of-facts) comes to Jesus with attractive but twisted stories: ‘You’re so powerful, there’s no need for you to be hungry’; ‘Jump from the tower and see how much your Father loves you’; ‘For the low low price of bowing down to me, you can rule the world…’ But Jesus comes back with better, truer stories, stories about what’s really important, about trusting in love and not testing it, about fidelity and faith.
Julian too relies on this tactic to face temptation, but the story that she uses is the example of Christ and his Passion. She reveals her intention to use this tactic early on: “It seemed to me that I might well be tempted by devils, by God’s permission and with his protection, before I would die” (Ch 4).* But:
With this sight of his blessed Passion, with the divinity which I saw in my understanding, I knew well that this was strength enough for me, yes, and for all living creatures who were to be saved, against all the devils of hell and against all their spiritual enemies. (Ch 4)
There are two things about this right off the bat that we would be wise to remember and emulate. First is that she fully expects temptation to come. So many of us today expect perfection of ourselves and only blessings from God. And so we are taken by surprise when we experience temptation and get angry at ourselves or God when we fall for it. But this wise nun knows better. As long as we live we will be tempted to stray from the path before us. We should never be surprised by this. But neither are we to take it so seriously that we can’t cope with either temptation or with our sins that so often follow temptation, both big and small. The way of Jesus, which is the way of the Cross, is the best weapon we have against both temptation itself and despair when it gets the better of us.
So strong a weapon is the Cross for those who follow its ways that the devil becomes a laughingstock. Later, during her fifth revelation, a simple vision of Christ, she hears the words in her soul, “with this the fiend is overcome” (Ch 13). The Passion, she continues, “is the devil’s sorrow, and he is put to terrible shame, for everything which God permits him to do turns to joy for us and to pain and shame for him” (Ch 13). Then, she begins to laugh and encourages all the faithful to do the same. Regardless of what mechanism Julian was envisioning for ‘how’ the Cross worked (in a long book all about the Passion, she is largely silent as to atonement theories, though we do get a glimpse later about how she understands the work of the Cross), what is important here is just how small, weak, and impotent the devil is here as compared to God and God’s activity in Jesus. Despite being towards the end of the Medieval period, Julian shows none of the fear and awe of the devil as ‘the King of Hell’ that was so characteristic of Early Modern spirituality (that remains today in some of the traditions that Early Modern Christianity sparked). This is far more the image of the devil as a dangerous but bumbling and always losing foe we see in early Christianity. And, theologically and spiritually speaking, it’s the right image. There’s no need to be overly concerned with the devil or his workings, because he’s already lost; and any victory he might win, whether in our lives or in the wider world, has no bearing on the ultimate outcome of things. God is so so much bigger and greater. Good is so much more powerful than evil. That’s important for us to remember in a world where it so often seems like goodness is powerless in the face of evil. “We may laugh,” Julian would remind us, “to comfort ourselves and rejoice in God, because the devil is overcome” (Ch 13). And not only is he overcome, but God turns everything the devil throws at us to our benefit: “all the woe and tribulation which he has caused [the faithful] will be changed into the increase of their eternal joy. And all the pain and sorrow that he wanted to bring them will go forever with him to hell” (Ch 13).
Later on, seeing just how powerful, effective, and beautiful the way of the Cross truly is, she goes so far as to say that no other way of attaining heavenly reward could be so good or sweet as to be worthy of the name of ‘salvation’:
I would rather have remained in that pain until Judgment Day than have come to heaven any other way than by him. … So I was taught to choose Jesus for my heaven … No other heaven was pleasing to me than Jesus, who will be my bliss when I am there. And this has always been a comfort to me, that I chose Jesus by his grace to be my heaven in all this time of suffering and of sorrow. And that has taught me that I should always do so, to choose only Jesus to be my heaven, in well-being and in woe. (Ch 19)
Such was the nature of her reflections on these things before she faced her own temptations. But that comes soon enough. During her sixteenth and final vision, the devil appeared to her to tempt her. She describes it as like the sound of two people “conducting a confused debate,” close enough to be distracting but too far away to hear what they’re saying, as a mockery of prayer (Ch 69). But in her temptation, she writes, “our good Lord gave me grace to trust greatly in him, and to comfort my soul by speaking words aloud, as I should have done to another person who was so belaboured” (Ch 69). And so, encouraged and strengthened in this way, she continues:
I set my eyes on the same cross in which I had seen comfort before, my tongue to speaking of Christ’s Passion and repeating the faith of Holy Church, and my heart to clinging to God with all my trust and strength … (Ch 70)
And so, Julian’s earlier reflections on temptation were proven to be genuine. Fixing her eyes on Christ and his Passion allowed her to withstand temptation when the moment came and to refuse despair — Just as Jesus fixing his eyes on the truth of his identity and relationship with God and the world had allowed him to withstand the rather different temptations he faced in the wilderness.
The best way to counter a false narrative is with a better narrative. And it doesn’t matter whether we are being tempted by our bellies, our greed, our libido, our righteous indignation, or our feelings of loneliness or despair. The stories the twister-of-truth — in whatever guise he comes — tells us will always be alluring, with just enough truth to catch our attention and enough gratification to keep it. The way to counter those stories is to tell a better one. And for those of us who follow Jesus, there is no better story than his story: the story of God’s humility, God’s openhearted welcome, and God’s vulnerability — the story that culminated in the Cross.
* 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.
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