The Soul as a Citadel

As an urbanite and amateur urbanist, I’ve always loved the image in the Scriptures of the heavenly New Jerusalem, the city of God, to describe God’s work and our participation in it. Unsurprisingly, it’s an image that has been popular among mystics over the centuries as well, most memorably St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), whose Interior Castle remains a spiritual classic to this day. Today I’d like to look at how Julian of Norwich uses this image in the sixty-eighth chapter of her Revelations of Divine Love.

In the midst of the sixteenth and final revelation, which she received the day after the worst of her illness subsided, Julian saw the following:

And then our good Lord opened my spiritual eye, and showed me my soul in the midst of my heart. I saw the soul as wide as if it were an endless citadel and also as if it were a blessed kingdom, and from the state which I saw in it, I understood that it is a fine city. In the midst of that city sits our Lord Jesus, true God and true man, a handsome person and tall, highest bishop, most awesome king, most honourable lord. (Ch 68)*

We see here that the heavenly city, the seat of God’s kingdom, is in fact our own soul, described here as “a fine city,” “an endless citadel and … blessed kingdom.” This city is governed, in the religious, political, and social orders, by Christ himself, and his place there, “he will nevermore vacate, for in us is his home of homes and his everlasting dwelling” (Ch 68).

This image draws on Psalm 48, which similarly imagines God’s presence with the people as a city (in this case, the literal city of Jerusalem):

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.
Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defence. …
Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers, consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God,
our God for ever and ever. He will be our guide for ever.
(Psalm 48.1-3, 12-114)

The New Testament picks up on this image but applies it to our own lives: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, cf. 1 Cor 6.19, 2 Cor 1.22, 2 Cor 4.6). We are God’s “home of homes and everlasting dwelling.”

Julian spends much of the chapter working through the consequences of the metaphor. If Jesus lives in our soul, or heart, as its bishop, king, and lord, it is his love that is “the greatest light and the brightest shining” (Ch 68). With my well-known love of the image of God and light, it’s no surprise that this really resonates with me. As I like to say, if Epiphany is the season of God’s shining light into the world, Lent is the season when that same light is shone into our hearts.

As Julian contemplates all this, she comes to two main conclusions. The first is that the image is one of significant consolation (in her words, it “was a delectable sight and a restful showing”) and was therefore worthy of lasting contemplation. This is that journey of self-discovery that opens us up to the knowledge of God and the quest to know God that leads us to better understand ourselves that Julian previously talked about, and which St. Teresa would expand on at great length a hundred years later. On this point, Julian concludes: “to contemplate it while we are here is most pleasing to God and very great profit to us. And this makes the soul which so contemplates like to him who is contemplated, and unites it in rest and peace” (Ch 68). This is Christian mysticism par excellence. The mystical contemplation of God is not about having experiences, but about being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

And second, the main takeaway is that, unlike any earthly city, God will never be moved from the citadel of the heart:

And these words: You will not be overcome, were said very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say: You will not be troubled, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted; but he said: You will not be overcome. (Ch 68)

There will be trouble in this life. There will be times of grief and sorrow, times of loss, anxiety and anguish. But God will not abandon the citadel, neither will the enemy ever take it by force. It will not be overcome. What a stirring and inspiring thought.

So then, as we round into the homestretch of Lent this year, let’s remember that our soul is God’s rightful home of homes, and that, no matter what life may throw at us, that citadel of the soul is impregnable and will not be overcome. God is with us. And always will be.


* 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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