The Cart and the Horse: A Reflection on Romans 8:6-11 and Julian of Norwich

A few days ago, we saw how, in a passage talking about the problem of pain, Julian of Norwich stumbled into some language that comes across as being dualist, denigrating matter and embodied life while praising the soul and spiritual life. She comes by this language honestly, for even those of us who, like Julian, place a lot of value on physical existence, the separation of body and soul is easy language common across religious traditions around the world and throughout time. I think it’s so common because it resonates so strongly with our experience: we want to fast (or, in a secular context, lose weight), but our stomach is growling; we want to be mindful in our sexuality, but the libido loudly makes its desires felt; we want to work tirelessly for justice, but our bodies let us down. And on and on. And so, while we need to be very careful with how we use such contrasts between body and spirit, they do come very easily to us. I start with all this today because in today’s Epistle reading, Romans 8.6-11, Paul uses this language too, in a way that deserves some reflection — and, as it happens, the way he does so ties in nicely to something Julian of Norwich, our guide this Lent, says about the life of faith.

Paul writes:

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8.6-11)

‘The flesh’ is one of the major ways Paul talks about what opposes our best intentions in the life of faith. Again, it’s not really a metaphysical dualism, but a reference to the frailty and neediness of embodied life. As I’ve said previously on this topic, Paul “us[es] this weakness as a symbol for the ways we can easily confuse our body’s passing whims and wants for legitimate needs, and thereby be led astray…. There are a lot of things our body craves — food and drink, rest, sex, physical and psychological safety and security — these are all good and important things, but once we confuse what we need and what we want, we can easily turn them into ends in themselves instead of means of communion with life, with God, and each other.” And that’s how Paul is using the term here. To “set the mind on the flesh” means to put our attention towards fulfilling our appetites, living a life not filled with, but defined by food, sex, comfort, and pleasure. It means a life that is passive and soft and out of control in our relationship to the things the world has to offer. For regular readers of this blog, this should ring some bells. For this idea has come up so often over the past year here, particularly in how Paul talks about the operation and vice and virtue in Ephesians 2 and 4-5 and Romans 1, and in the passage from 1 Corinthians that is often misleadingly translated to be about homosexuality. The point is that, for Paul, ‘the flesh’ and its appetites aren’t bad, but they are to be our servants, not our masters. The issue is one of priorities and being in command of one’s actions: To use an old analogy, the appetites of the flesh are the cart, not horse, and to put them before the values of the Spirit means that we aren’t going to get far. Note that this is about focus and intention as much as behaviour: Paul isn’t calling for a radical ascetic avoidance of the things of the flesh — for if our focus is on not eating a hamburger or not losing our temper, the hamburger or anger is still in control; rather, the focus is to be on the things of the Spirit, not on what we want to avoid, but on the good fruit we want to produce in the world.

Julian of Norwich makes a similar point in chapter 19 of her Revelations of Divine Love, using the language of interiority and exteriority. She writes:

Reluctance and deliberate choice are in opposition to one another, and I experienced them both at the same time; and these are two parts, one exterior, the other interior. The exterior part is our mortal flesh, which is sometimes in pain, sometimes in sorrow, and will be so during this life, and I felt it very much at this time; and it was in that part of me that I felt regret. The interior part is an exalted and blessed life which is all peace and love; and this is more secretly experienced; and it was in this part of my that I powerfully, wisely and deliberately chose Jesus for my heaven. And in this I truly saw that the interior part is the master and ruler over the exterior, attaching no importance, paying no need to what the exterior part may will, but forever fixing its intention and will upon being united with our Lord Jesus. But it was revealed to me that the exterior part would induce agreement in the interior part; but it was revealed that the interior part always draws the exterior by grace, and both will be eternally united in bliss through the power of Christ (Ch 19)*

Here she’s talking about the flip side of Paul’s point; where he’s talking about questioning the priority of things the flesh seeks, she’s questioning the priority of the things it avoids, namely pain and sorrow. Just like how the body’s appetites are important but not ‘the one thing needful’, so too are the things it wants to avoid. Pain and sorrow are important signals that tell us something is wrong, but to focus solely on avoiding them means we’ll also avoid living our life. Life always involves a certain amount of vulnerability and risk and so there will always be pain and sorrow. We want to minimize them, sure, but not let this desire control us — especially where it keeps us from engaging with the world and our communities. What Julian calls “the interior part” and what Paul calls the Spirit, that “exalted and blessed life which is all peace and love” needs to be what guides our actions and behaviours. And when we put it first, the superficial, exterior, life will follow.

This could be a helpful practice for us as we enter the last week of Lent: to focus not on what we don’t like or don’t want to do, and more on what we do like and the actions we’d like to take. If Paul and Julian are right — and I think they are — this should be a helpful way to really start making the positive changes and transformation the life of faith creates.


* 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s