In popular imagination, Medieval Christianity is generally seen as having been obsessed with sin and shame and the avoidance thereof. So far, however, our study of Julian of Norwich’s writings has shown a rather shocking absence of this theme. She certainly takes sin itself seriously, but next to the grandeur of God, it is “no thing” (Ch 11); and while we can understand sin through the pain that it causes (Ch 27), it cannot hinder God’s purposes and so God “will make all things well” (Ch 31).* Today, we’ll see a further implication of this truth that Julian sees with respect to God’s goodness and grace: So great is the power of God to make all things good and to turn even the worst things towards salvation and joy, that there can be no shame attached to sin whatsoever.
Everything in this teaching is grounded in the immeasurable grace of God. Once again here, Julian shows that the Reformation stereotypes about medieval Catholic spirituality weren’t exactly true. There is no hint of any kind of ‘works righteousness’ here. In Julian’s own words, “And this is the highest joy that the soul understood, that God himself will do it, and I shall do nothing at all but sin; and my sin will not impede the operation of his goodness” (Ch 36). This is ‘salvation by grace’ if every I have encountered it! Human life in this world is so compromised that it seems like “I shall do nothing at all but sin” — a feeling many of us can related to, especially in this time when we are seeing just how entangled we all are in fundamentally unjust and destructive systems; it’s enough to create a kind of ethical paralysis in which it feels we cannot do anything without in some way doing harm. But be this as it may, Julian is convinced that all of our sin “will not impede the operation of [God’s] goodness.” A couple of chapters later she picks up again on this theme, and in fact doubles down on it, writing:
And God showed that sin will be no shame, but honour to man, for just as there is indeed a corresponding pain for every sin, just so love gives to the same soul a bliss for every sin. … [T]he more grievous are the sins, so will they be rewarded with various joys in heaven to reward the victories over them, to the degree in which the sin may have been painful and sorrowful to the soul on earth.” (Ch 38)
To prove her rather shocking claim, she then recounts saints of every age whose lives were marked by great sins and yet who are remembered for the work of grace that God accomplished in them: David’s murderous lust for Bathsheba, Peter’s denial of Jesus, Paul’s persecution of the Church, and so on. She concludes: “[T]hey and their sins are known to the Church on earth, and this is no shame to them, but everything is turned to their honour” (Ch 38). This is an incredible statement about God’s grace, but it’s pretty counter-cultural to us right now. As much as we need to insist on a culture of accountability in the Church and society in which the needs of sin’s victims are addressed (and, I am convinced this is properly included in what Julian means by ‘the victories over’ grievous sins), the focus of Julian’s attention (and indeed, for the most part, the Christian tradition’s attention) is on the wonderful gracious gift of forgiveness offered to everyone. When repentance is real and, rather than being just an empty apology, bears fruit in a changed life and restored relationships, that is cause for wondrous celebration indeed.
When she returns to the theme late in her writing, Julian states:
We are liable through our feebleness and our folly to fall, and we are able through the mercy and the grace of the Holy Spirit to rise to greater joy. And if our enemy gains anything from us by our falling, which is his delight, he loses many times more in our rising by our charity and our meekness. (Ch 77)
Here we see yet again, Julian’s complete confidence that no matter how much bad our sins may engender in the world, God’s grace is so much greater that the damage will feel like nothing in comparison. She adds:
The remedy [to our sin] is that our Lord is with us, protecting us and leading us into the fullness of joy; for our Lord intends this to be an endless joy, that he who will be our bliss when we are there is our protector whilst we are here, our way and our heaven in true love and faithful trust. (Ch 77)
So then, where does this leave us? Sin is an unavoidable reality of life in our world. And that sin has real consequences, both for us and for others. We have to take this seriously, for we will be judged by the fruit our life produces. And yet, it’s also true that we are often placed in situations where there is no ‘good’ ethical decision; we are caught up in systems over which we have no control and little influence. And so it’s helpful, I would say necessary even, to remember that we do believe as Christians that God is still so much bigger than any of this. There is no need to feel ashamed or to be reduced to analysis paralysis. God is bigger than all of this. And God is love. And so we are loved. That is the foundation of everything. We can confess our sins, confident in God’s forgiveness, and do what we can, no matter how small, to make amends and limit the impact of our actions in the world.
* 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.
One thought on “No Shame in Sin”