Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is a wonderful and important record for a number of reasons. As I trust you’ve seen throughout this series, it reveals Julian not only as a visionary mystic, but also as a theologian of profound insight. But her writing is also remarkable for its openness and frankness about the psychological and cognitive dimensions of her experiences, so that we know more about her as a human person than practically anyone else in the Middle Ages, despite the lack of biographical material available. Today I’d like to look at one particularly revealing passage, where she discusses her doubt about her visions and God’s response to it. I think you’ll agree that her processing of her experience is very relatable (even if the experiences themselves aren’t!) and that God’s response is one that is broadly applicable to our own lives of faith.
After discussing the last of her visions, she writes of her return to lucidity:
[O]n the same day that it was revealed, when the vision had passed, like a wretch I denied it, and openly said that I had been raving. Then our Lord Jesus in his mercy would not allow it to perish, but he revealed it all again in my soul, more completely in the blessed light of his precious love, saying these words most powerfully and most meekly: Know it well now, it was no hallucination which you saw today, as if he had said: Because the vision had passed away from you, you lost it, and you did not know how our you were not able to keep it. But know it now, that is, now that you see it.
This was said not only for that one occasion, but so as to found on this my faith, where he goes on to say: But accept it and believe it and hold firmly to it, and comfort yourself with it and trust in it, and you will not be overcome. (Ch 70)*
What is Julian’s first response to her vision, which, you will remember, was one of the deepest desires of her heart and for which she prayed intently? Denial: ‘It didn’t happen. It wasn’t true. It was nothing but a feverish, raving hallucination.’ I find this so relatable. As much as we may long for God to act in our lives, that doesn’t mean we’re prepared for God actually doing so.
But the response Julian received to her denial is informative. Six simple instructions (or perhaps five instructions and one result of them) that are helpful in all the life of faith — with certain caveats that I’ll talk about a bit later:
- Accept it: Don’t deny what God has done, but receive it as a gift.
- Believe it: Receive it as being true.
- Hold firmly to it: Receive it as your own and don’t easily let go of it.
- Comfort yourself with it: Receive it as a source of consolation and joy.
- Trust in it: Receive it as evidence that God is faithful and trustworthy.
- You will not be overcome: Receive it in this way and you’ll be able to remain faithful no matter what life throws at you.
Now, I think this is really succinct and helpful advice for how to handle our doubt in the life of faith generally. But, the Scriptures are very clear that not everything that seems to be a movement of the Holy Spirit is true. So, before we accept any particular revelation, we need to add the critical step of discernment of spirits. And once again, the criterion Christ tells us we are to use in discernment is the fruit which something bears. If a vision or any other spiritual experience makes us anxious, angry, ungracious, unmerciful on the one hand, or licentious and out of control on the other, then it is not of God and we are not to accept it. But, if — as is so clearly the case with Julian’s visions — it produces the good fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then we can be confident that we can receive it as God instructed Julian.
And so, with this discernment step added into the mix, we can be confident in receiving what God has done. As she concludes:
Accept it, he means to fix it faithfully in our hearts; for he wants it to abide with us in faith to the end of our lives and afterwords, in fullness of joy, wishing us always to have faithful trust in his blessed promises, knowing his goodness, for our faith is opposed in various ways by our own blindness and our spiritual enemies, internal and external. (Ch 71)
There will always be opposition in the life of faith, whether internal or external. But God remains with us and the consolations we receive along the way, no matter how intense or how subtle, are wonderful provisions within all of it.
* 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 “Six Words of Faith”
People so often believe that people in the medieval era were all superstitious and incapable of rational thought. Julian’s first reaction is to assume she was hallucinating due to her illness, just like probably anyone in any era would, but her reaction doesn’t match the modern medieval stereotype at all.
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