On Spiritual Sickness

Overall, Julian of Norwich’s theology and spirituality are remarkably positive. She filters everything through the greatness of God’s love, which creates, sustains, and provides for all things and against which sin can be “no deed” (Ch 11). But God’s goodness and love are no excuse for complacency. There are still things that can get us off course and allow us to do a lot of damage and cause a lot of pain to ourselves and others in the process. Today I’d like to see how Julian talks about two of these, which she called “two kinds of sickness” (Ch 73).*

She writes: “God showed two kinds of sickness that we have. One is impatience and sloth, because we bear our labour and our pain heavily. The other is despair or doubtful fear” (Ch 73). These particular problems afflict the faithful — or at least those of us who try to be faithful — as much as those who don’t care, and we need to be on the guard for them:

I am speaking of such men and women as for the love of God hate sin and dispose themselves to do God’s will. Then by our spiritual blindness and bodily sluggishness we are most inclined to these; and therefore it is God’s will that they should be known, and then we should reject them as we do other sins. (Ch 73)

The first of these problems is “impatience and sloth,” which seem to be different problems, but to her are two sides of the same coin. To make this more apparent, we might call them spiritual aggression and passivity, anxiousness and depressiveness (being clear to differentiate these from clinical mental illness), hyperactivity and laziness, or doing too much and doing too little. No matter which pair resonates most strongly for you, this sickness is at heart about the energy and dynamism of our faith. Many of us have experienced times of religious fervour and zeal, where we love nothing more than reading the Scriptures, attending services, or performing acts of service within the community. And, many of us have also experienced times when the weight of the world is so heavy that nothing we do seems to matter, and even saying a quick “Lord have mercy” seems like more effort than it’s worth. Really, what seems to be the hardest thing in the life of faith is constancy, simply showing up and being fully present, doing neither too much nor too little, trusting that God is at work and all will be revealed in the fullness of time. (”All will be well and all will be well and every manner of thing will be well” (Ch 27).)

The second spiritual sickness Julian discusses is what she calls “despair or doubtful fear.” Despair is easy enough to understand, but doubtful fear is a trickier idea. And Julian knew this, so she spent much of the next chapter elucidating different kinds of fear and how they can impact us. She writes:

For I understand four kinds of fear. One is fear of assault, which comes to a man suddenly through timidity. This fear does good, for it helps to purge a man, as does bodily sickness or such other pains which are not sinful; for all such paints help one if they are patiently accepted. The second is fear of pain, through which a man is stirred and wakened from the sleep of sin; for anyone fast asleep in sin is not for that time able to receive the gentle strength of the Holy Spirit, until he has accepted this fear of pain from bodily death and from spiritual enemies. And this fear moves us to seek comfort and mercy of God. (Ch 74)

So far so good: the first two types of fear are the fear of violence and the fear of pain, which both have self-evident usefulness for our safety and security, of both soul and body. But, as far as Julian is concerned, they can also stir us out of passivity or inaction as well. I’m reminded of people who have received a new lease on life and willingness to make big changes following a close brush with death, through accident or illness. But she also understands that, as her own experience showed, it’s also an acceptance of mortality — from dust you come and to dust you will return, the memento mori ‘recollection of death’ that was such an important part of Christian awareness until the past century or so. But now comes the third type, which is the one she called a type of sickness:

The third is doubtful fear. God wants us to have doubtful fear, inasmuch as it induces to despair, turned in us into love by true knowledge of love, that is to say that the bitterness of doubt be turned into the sweetness of gentle love by grace, for it can never please our Lord that his servants doubt in his goodness. The fourth is reverent fear, for there is no fear in us which fully pleases God but reverent fear, and that is gentle. For the more it is obtained, the less it is felt, because of the sweetness of love. (Ch 74)

Doubtful fear is the fear that doubts God’s goodness and provision, whether in general or for us specifically. It’s the fear that there isn’t enough to go around and maybe the blessings we see others receiving are not for us. Note how even here, she can frame doubtful fear positively. It doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Like the other kinds of fear, it can be used to our advantage. Namely, it can be turned into love. But, this is an effort, and doubting God’s goodness can also make us bitter and cynical and inasmuch as this is the case, it is a sickness indeed.

And finally, the fourth type of fear she describes is reverent fear, which is nothing more or less than the humility of standing as finite creatures before the infinite God. It is not about cowering in fear of God’s wrath, but standing in awe of God’s power and love. Really, Julian’s image of the hazelnut in chapter 5 is a perfect example of what reverent fear looks like.

So what is the answer to these two forms of spiritual sickness? If you’ve been paying attention this series, you’ll not be surprised to learn that, Julian believes the answer is love:

And for help against this, very meekly our Lord showed what patience he has in that cruel Passion, and also the joy and delight that he has in that Passion, because of love. And he showed me this as an example of how we ought gladly and easily to bear our pains, for that is very pleasing to him and an endless profit to us. And the reason why we are oppressed by them is because of our ignorance of love. (Ch 73)

Again she turns to Christ’s sufferings on the cross, but it is not a magical talisman; it’s instead the revelation of God’s love in a broken and hurting world.

I see in these passages from Julian a call for reflection. Is my life of faith marked by anxiousness and impatience? Laziness and passivity? I am despairing of God’s goodness? I am afraid that God’s blessings aren’t for me? To some extent, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all likely answer yes to some of these questions to some degree. And inasmuch as that is true, we are also called to remind ourselves of God’s great, good, and gracious love, which is working all things for good and which will make all things well.


* 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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