Eyes in Front

One of the biggest recurring themes in Julian of Norwich’s writings is the idea that God is so much bigger than anything that might try to stand in the way of God’s aims that we don’t need to worry about them. All we are asked to do is to trust that, when all is said and done, “all will be well and all will be well and every manner of thing will be well.”* This has two very practical consequences for Christian spirituality that I’d like to focus on today, which unite around the idea of keeping your ’eyes in front.’

The first side of this is that we would do well to train ourselves to be content with what has been revealed to us. The rest is Mystery and is not for us to know. As Julian puts it, only by not worrying about what God is about “shall we … be well satisfied both with what he conceals and what he reveals. For I saw truly in our Lord’s intention that the more we busy ourselves in that or anything else, the further we shall be from knowing” (Ch 33). It is so easy for us to get distracted by things that really aren’t ours to know. A great example of this is anything to do with ‘the End Times’ in Christianity. Hundreds of books have been written about it, entire denominations have been formed and have split over details about it, and thousands of people have claimed to have solved the riddle about it in the Scriptures. But none of this has actually contributed to anything good, true, or beautiful in the world. It’s just time, energy, attention, and money wasted on something that is not only unknowable, but which Jesus himself explicitly said isn’t for us to worry about. It’s easy to pick on such folk, but in our own ways, we all do a similar type of thing in our own lives, wondering where God might be leading us, wondering why God has brought us to the circumstances we’re in, or what God’s plan is for us. But none of these are answerable questions, and even if they were, I’m not sure they’d be profitable questions to to have answered. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why our lives are the way they are, because they are the lives we’ve been given to lead. We are not called to understand them, but simply to live them — as faithfully as we can.

The second side of this amounts to the wonderful monastic saying I bring out every Lent: Keep your eyes on your own plate. It is so very common, and it seems increasingly so, for Christians to spend far more time looking around at what other people are doing, pointing fingers, or even trying to control what other people can and can’t do, than they do looking within. But the corollary to being called to live our own life as faithfully as we can is that we are only called to live our life and no one else’s. While there is certainly room for gentle and loving correction within a community of faith, for the most part, our neighbour’s spiritual health is none of our business. Julian has some of the most helpful language around this that I’ve seen. She writes:

The soul which wants to be in rest should, when other men’s sins come to mind, flee that as the pain of hell, seeking from God help against it. For the contemplation of other men’s sins makes as it were a thick mist before the soul’s eye, and during that time we cannot see the beauty of God, unless we can contemplate them with contrition with him, with compassion on him, and with holy desires to God for him. For without this it harasses and troubles and hinders the soul which contemplates them; for I understand this in the revelation of God’s compassion. (Ch 76)

To unpack this a bit, she says: First, don’t think about other people’s sins — in fact flee those thoughts as if they were hell itself. Second, if you do find yourself stuck thinking about them, pray to God for strength not to. Not only are these none of your business, but thinking about them can become obsessive and counterproductive, acting to hide God’s goodness from you. Third, the only time when you should let yourself think on other people’s sins is when you can do it with genuine compassion and love. There is no room for righteous indignation, no room for disgust, or any other dehumanizing attitude or tendency. If you can’t think about someone else’s sin with compassion being your first feeling, then it’s not for you to think about. Julian later concludes: “I was taught that I ought to see my own sin and not other men’s, unless it may be for the comfort and help of my fellow Christians. (Ch 79). We’re getting back into the question of the fruit something bears. And when it comes to thinking about the spiritual state of anyone other than yourself, that fruit is generally going to be bad.

If getting distracted in either of these ways is so unhelpful, why are we all so prone to do it? Because it’s easy, and so much more fun than paying attention to what’s right in front of us in our own lives. Wondering about some glorious future God may be planning for us or working through an intellectual puzzle (especially a theological one) is a great distraction from living the life right in front of us. And it’s certainly much more fun to point out our neighbour’s sin than it is to do the hard work of repentance ourselves. We need to see things things for the unhelpful distractions that they are and get on with the business of faithfulness here and now.

So then, as we continue our Lenten adventure, let’s do so with a renewed commitment to set aside both our pet puzzles and our finger-pointing and do the hard work of introspection, prayer, and repentance required in our own lives, and to take the next right step, no matter what the future may have in store. Amen.


* 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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