In spirituality writ large, it’s common for people to talk about longing for God, or the divine. And certainly the various traditions of Christian spirituality and mysticism are no exceptions to this. But one thing that sticks out about how Julian of Norwich uses this language is that she’s actually far less concerned about our longing for God than she is about God’s longing for us. And that’s what I’d like to reflect on today.
She introduces this theme in chapter 31 of her Revelations of Divine Love as she reflects on Christ’s thirst on the cross and understands that he continues to thirst in the same way to this day, for us:
For he still has that same thirst and longing which he had upon the Cross, which desire, longing, and thirst, as I see it, were in him from without beginning; and he will have this until the time that the last soul which will be saved has come up into his bliss. For as truly as there is in God a quality of pity and compassion, so truly is there in God a quality of thirst and longing; and the power of this longing in Christ enables us to respond to his longing, and without this no soul comes to heaven. (Ch 31)
Out of his great love for us, Jesus suffers on the cross and would even suffer more if he could (Ch 22); He puts up with his thirst on the cross because it pales in comparison to the thirst and longing he has to bring all humanity with him into his Father’s Kingdom.
Towards the end of her reflections, Julian returns to the theme of divine longing. She writes:
I saw three kinds of longing in God, and all to the same end, as we have the same in us, and from the same power, and for the same end. The first is because he longs to teach us to know him and to love him always more and more, as is suitable and profitable to us. The second is that he longs to bring us up into bliss, as souls are when they are taken out of pain into heaven. The third is to fill us with bliss, and that will be fulfilled at the last day, to last for ever. (Ch 75)
Again we see how she understands love to motivate God’s action in the world, this love causes God to long for us. The three aspects of this longing that she sees are: for us to know and love God always, to bring us into paradise, and there to fill us with every joy and blessing. She picks up on the first of these a few chapters later, where in another ‘listicle’, she outlines four things that God longs for us to know — and all four are about the knowledge and love of God:
It is his will that we have knowledge of four things. The first is that he is the foundation from whom we have our life and our being. The second is that he protects us mightily and mercifully, during the time that we are in our sin, among all our enemies who are so fierce against us …. The third is how courteously he protects us and makes us know that we are going astray. The fourth is how steadfastly he waits for us, and does not change his demeanour, for he wants us to be converted and united to him in love, as he is to us. (Ch 78)
In saying God wants us to know and love God, Julian understands this to knowledge to be of God’s loving creation, God’s loving, mighty, and merciful protection in the times when we are faithless, the humility, openheartedness and vulnerability of that protective love (what she calls ‘courtesy’, which was in Medieval literature more like the ‘grand gestures’ of romantic comedies than the proper manners the term suggests for us), and God’s patience and persistence in waiting for us.
I don’t have a whole lot to comment about this, so this will be a short post today. But what a wonderful and humbling thought all this is: that has much as we may long to know, to love, and be united with God, God longs for us all the more!
* 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.