Julian of Norwich makes a compelling argument that sin can never thwart God’s ultimate saving intent and is therefore ‘no thing’. But it’s still a pervasive force in the world — a force that brings nothing but pain. And since we are generally averse to pain as a species, and since the people most directly impacted by our sins are the people we love most, we have to wonder, ‘Why?’ Why does sin exist? Where does it come from? And why do we perpetuate it, even when our intentions are good? Today I’d like to look at what Julian has to say about this intriguing question.
This line of reflection is first sparked when she comes to understand a paradox: On the one hand, everyone sins, but on the other, “in every soul which will be saved there is a godly will which never assents to sin and never will” (Ch 37).* This is the insight that will later form the third type of knowledge that we looked on in Sunday’s post. But it’s new to her at this point. If we are, at our core, aligned with God and opposed to sin, that means that sin must be something peripheral to us. Seeing how God’s mercy and grace are born out of God’s love, she concludes that “all our travail is because love is lacking on our side” (Ch 37). Sin from this perspective is a lack of love, in all of the spheres Jesus mentions in his summary of the Law: a failure to love God and a failure to love our neighbour, and even a failure to love our true self.
Later, Julian approaches the topic from a different angle. She writes:
Man is changeable in this life, and falls into sin through naivete and ignorance. He is weak and foolish in himself, and also his will is overpowered in the time when he is assailed and in sorrow and woe. And the cause is blindness, because he does not see God; for if he saw God continually, he would have no harmful feelings, nor any kind of prompting, no sorrowing which is conducive to sin. (Ch 47)
Here, sin comes from naivete and ignorance, weakness and folly, that leave us unable to withstand temptation — both that which comes from outside us (when we are ‘assailed’) and those that come from within (when we are ‘in sorrow and we’ and susceptible to doing what’s easiest). All of these things, she claims, ultimately stem from a kind of God-blindness. If only we could see God continually, we would not sin, we would not break faith in our relationships. It’s most likely that Julian is talking about experiences of consolation and closeness with God here, but it the same principle applies throughout life, I think. Our God-blindness causes us not to see the image of God in the people around us (and in ourselves), it impairs us from seeing the world as God sees it, and it keeps us from correctly seeing how God is truly present in the world (cf., Paul’s argument in Romans 1.18-32, where he considers all sin to flow out of idolatry, mistaking the created for the Creator).
And still in all this I contemplated in this revelation by God that this kind of vision of him cannot persist in this life … And therefore we often fail to perceive him, and presently we fall back upon ourselves, and then we find that we feel nothing at all but the opposition that is in ourselves, and that comes from the old root of our first sin, with all that follows from our own persistence; and in this we are belaboured and tempted with the feeling of sin and of pain in many different ways, spiritually and bodily, as is known to us in this life. (Ch 47)
As wonderful as it would be if we could be constantly aware of God’s presence, the realities of finite life make this impossible. We are distracted from it by our genuine physical and psychological needs. If we are hungry, especially consistently so, our mind is reasonably distracted by our need to find food. Likewise, if we are lonely, it is reasonable that we would fail to see God with us, as we feel deeply that “It is not good for the mortal to be alone” (Genesis 2.18). Add on to these distractions the impact of living in a world where the impacts of sin discolour every relationship and interaction — from abuse and neglect to hyper-attachment and jealousy and everything in between — and it’s easy to see how we would become even more blind to God and the essential love that is at the heart of things. Sin is a machine that runs on a feedback loop that is almost impossible to break, and the further along we are in it, the blinder we become to God, the more talking about love seems like a fairy tale.
And so, from this blindness and a want of love, the human condition is trapped in a never-ending cycle of being hurt and hurting others, of not showing up as we should, of, in a word, sin.
Of course all of this needs to be placed within the bigger context of Julian’s teaching. We’ve already seen how insignificant she thinks it all is as compared to God’s love, and of how she is convinced that God will turn every sin into a greater blessing, and that God’s good and gracious intention for the world can never be thwarted so that “all will be well and all will be well and every manner of thing will be well.”
So then, today let’s try an exercise. Let’s try to keep our eyes fixed on God in every situation of our day, and when we fail to do so (and we will), let’s notice why and how it happened. And then let’s respond with as much love as we can muster, and throw a stone — no matter how tiny — into the sin machine, and disrupt the cycle, even if we can’t break it. Yet. And in all this, let’s trust that God is bigger than the mess of our day and will ‘work all things to good’.
* 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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