When I was a kid, I’d watch a lot of home renovation shows on television. And while it was always played up for the camera, I loved the moments when they’d pull back some ugly old carpeting to discover beautiful hardwood floors underneath, or when their concern about rot or termites would be revealed to be unfounded and they’d joyfully proclaim that the bones of the house — what made it what it was and revealed its potential for the future — were solid, strong, and good. I found myself thinking of this as I was reading the long section in Julian of Norwich about how small our sin is compared to God’s love, and how God’s “love and peace dwell in us,” even if we don’t always dwell in them. It seems that, no matter how rotten we may see ourselves, God looks at us and sees that our bones are good; in comparison to what we are deep down, our sins are nothing more than dirty old carpet or wood-paneling in a downstairs den. Today I’d like to look at a couple more places where Julian discusses what we are deep down and how God relates to it.
Prayer unites the soul to God, for though the soul may be always like God in nature and in substance restored by grace, it is often unlike him in condition, through sin on man’s part. Then prayer is a witness that the soul wills as God wills, and it eases the conscience and fits man for grace. (Ch 43)*
What she’s saying here is that the working of prayer, of relating to God, is a manner of ‘like knowing like.’ Prayer can unite us to God because “the soul [is] always like God in nature.” Sin may distort it so are “unlike him in condition,” but that doesn’t undermine our essential, inherent, primordial godlikeness. This is not a strange teaching on Julian’s part, but rather it hearkens back to the creation stories in Genesis, in which humanity, male and female, is created in the image and likeness of God, and called to represent that image within the created world. While sin may distort that image, it does not erase it, and, as the New Testament teaches, Jesus — “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1.3) — restores it fully and makes it available for us to live into as we follow him and become united to him. A couple chapters later, Julian goes even further, arguing that God never judges us on our present condition, but on those natural capacities of our essential humanity, saying: “God judges us in our natural substance, which is always kept one in him, whole and safe, without end; and this judgment is out of his justice” (Ch 45). Again we have the understanding that God’s mercy is not opposed to God’s justice, but rather that God’s justice is mercy, that justice demands not that we are punished, but that God have compassion on us.
I don’t want to belabour this point, but I think it’s a really important one — and one that was lost to some extent in the Reformation traditions, such that so much of the Christianity that arose out of the Early Modern period was driven by an image of a fundamentally angry and retributive God. And we are still living with the consequences of this belief today. But Julian’s perspective is the biblical one. There may be divine wrath at an unjust world, but the God whom Jesus reveals always transforms that wrath into compassionate action, not retribution.
When God looks at us, God does not see us as wretched, miserable sinners; God sees who we were created to be and who we are in our most human places, those places where the image and likeness of God remain, where “love and peace dwell in us,” and where “we are “always like God in nature.” Compared to those strong bones, our sin is as superficial as ugly wallpaper.
What a beautiful and hopeful teaching this is. May we all take it to heart and look at not just ourselves, but at all those around us too, with this same loving heart of compassion.
* 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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