Over the past two days we’ve been looking at Julian’s unique take on sin: first how God is able to turn everything bad to our ultimate benefit, and second, how sin is ‘no thing’, leading her assertion that “all will be well and all will be well and every manner of thing will be well” (Ch 27).* In her framework sin can only be known through the pain that it causes, pain which itself alerts us to the problem and causes us to stop doing wrong. It stands to reason then that, to Julian’s mind, spiritual pain is not necessarily a bad thing. Today I’d like to explore this idea more.
Julian describes her seventh vision like this:
And after this he revealed a supreme spiritual delight in my soul. In this delight I was filled full of everlasting surety, powerfully secured without any painful fear. This sensation was so welcome and so spiritual that I was wholly at peace, at ease and at rest, so that there was nothing upon earth which could have afflicted me. This lasted only for a time, and then I was changed, and abandoned to myself, oppressed and weary of my life, and ruing myself, so that I hardly had the patience to go on living. I felt that there was no ease or comfort for me except faith, hope and love, and truly I felt very little of this. …In the time of joy I could have said with St. Paul: Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ; and in the pain I could have said with St. Peter: Lord, save me, I am perishing. (Ch 15)
This experience shattered a lot of the common pieties around the relationship between spirituality and the experiences of consolation and desolation. To this day there is still a common feeling that, when we are experiencing consolations — experiences of joy and confidence and blessing — we must be doing something right in life; and if we are experiencing desolation — feelings of abandonment or depression — we must be doing something wrong. But Julian’s experience showed her once and for all that this is a false idea. She reflects:
God wishes us to know that he keeps us safe all the time, in sorrow and in joy; and sometimes a man is left to himself for the profit of his soul, although his sin is not always the cause. For in this time I committed no sin for which I ought to have been left to myself, for it was so sudden. Nor did I deserve these feelings of joy, but our Lord gives it freely when he wills, and sometimes he allows us to be in sorrow, and both are one love. (Ch 15)
In other words, these periods of pain and periods of joy having nothing to do with us, but are just facts of human existence. If this is true for our psychological states, this is also true for the pain of sin too. Contemplating the vexing question of why even those most committed to following Christ still sin, Julian had this to say:
If there be any such liver on earth, who is continually protected from falling, I do not know, for it was not revealed to me. But this was revealed, that in falling and in rising we are always preciously protected in one love. For we do not fall in the sight of God, and we do not stand in our own sight; and both these are true, as I see it, but the contemplating of our Lord God is the higher truth. (Ch 82)
This makes sense in light of what she has to say about sin more generally: that it is ‘necessary’ because the pain it causes reminds us of our finitude and therefore causes us to be humble. In the helpful terms of depth psychology, we could say that sin is helpful inasmuch as being aware of it pops the bubble of ego inflation. Such awareness is good, but it is not the ‘higher truth’, which is the remembrance that no matter what we are always held in God’s love:
For the higher contemplation keeps us in spiritual joy and true delight in God; the other, which is the lower contemplation, keeps us in fear, and makes us ashamed of ourselves. But our good Lord always wants us to remain much more in the contemplation of the higher, and not to forsake the knowledge of the lower, until the time that we are brought up above, where we shall have our Lord Jesus for our reward, and be filled full of joy and bliss without end. (Ch 82)
What do we make of all this? Simply put: If we are experiencing a period of joy and consolation, we are loved. If we are experiencing a period of desolation, abandonment, and suffering, we are still loved. If we are sinning — breaking faith with others and causing them pain — or if we are being sinned against, we are still loved. This does not in any way lessen the reality of our experience of suffering or the consequences of our sins; those experiences are real. But those experiences do not impact who we are in relationship to God. It is all one love, one love that keeps and sustains us. And ultimately this is why Julian could say that “all shall be well.”
* 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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