Thursday, May 8, 2014

An ancient saint still speaks


Some years ago, I visited Norwich, which is the shire town of the County of Norfolk, northeast of London. While there, I took a few moments to see the Church of St. Julian, the place at which Dame Julian of Norwich was an anchorite. A bomb destroyed the original building in 1942. The present Church, erected in 1953, is a reconstruction.

Little is known about Dame Julian of Norwich. She was born sometime around 1342 and died in 1417. Even her actual name is a mystery, the designation Dame Julian connoting the place at which she was an anchorite. Nothing is known of her early life. Following a grave illness at age thirty, Dame Julian had a series of visions (or, as she called them, showings) in which she had intimate encounters with God. She described these visions in her only writing, Revelations of Divine Love. The short text contains her 16 visions; the long text includes her subsequent prayers on and interpretations of those visions.

My visit to a rather uninspiring Church confirmed my pre-existing disinterest in Dame Julian. Voluntarily limiting one's life to a small room seemed wrong. God created humans with the ability to move about, ability that we have enhanced by devising various modes of transportation. More importantly, the idea that T.S. Eliot popularized and for which Dame Julian is best known ("All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.") appeared prima facie naïve if not patently wrong.

In the intervening years, intrigued that Dame Julian's popularity has remained constant, perhaps grown, I researched her. What I learned changed my thinking. Dame Julian has much to teach twenty-first century Christians.

First, Dame Julian described God as our Mother. Although that depiction may not seem remarkable today, it was uncommon in the fourteenth century and it continues to trigger negative criticism from evangelical writers as an unbiblical image. The image of God as Mother has critical implications for anyone who wants to defend maleness as a necessary qualification for ordination, for persons recovering from sexual abuse perpetrated by a male, and for persons struggling to move beyond gender specific images of God. Dame Julian similarly invites scientific literalists to enter a world of metaphorical realities.

Second, Dame Julian's showings (or visions) emphasized God's love and left her yearning for God. Paraphrased in our vernacular, she wrote,

Would you learn the Lord’s meaning in these showings? Learn it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What showed him to you? Love. Why did you see him? For Love. Hold yourself to this love and you shall learn and know more of the same.

For post-modern people who reject judgmental religion, Christian exclusivity, doctrinal narrowness, and superficial emotionalism that too easily masquerades as spirituality centering language and practice on love invites a genuine spirituality that engages with self, others, the world, and God. The Anglican mystic, Margery Kempe, known for her copious tears, groans, and the erotic imagery of her prayers, consulted Dame Julian for advice, regarding her as a gifted spiritual director who emphasized pragmatism over theological speculation. We do well when we let love light our way.

Third, Dame Julian's confinement as an anchorite visibly reminds us, in the midst of over-committed and hectic lives, both to prioritize God ahead of all else and of how even the most physically challenged individual can make a difference in the world. I regret not having known more about Dame Julian when I served my first parish, calling on a woman so severely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that she never left her bed (a different type of cell), yet who spent hours daily praying for other people. Yet this woman was no saint. At times, she made life hell for her husband and daughter. Dame Julian might have inspired this woman to love the people in her life more fully for, like her, the anchorite relied upon the daily assistance of others to survive.

Finally, Dame Julian's optimism, for which she is widely lauded, was no pie in the sky, opiate of the masses, Christianity. She lived through plagues that decimated Europe. The Hundred Years War bankrupted England during her lifetime. As with the affluent today, the English nobility refused to pay for the war and, in 1380, they instituted a poll tax so burdensome that the peasants revolted. She declared "All will be well!" in spite of having witnessed unmerited suffering, unending poverty, and unimaginable hardship.

Reputedly, Albert Einstein when asked what is the most important question, responded, "Is the universe a friendly place or not?" Apparently, Dame Julian had asked that question. And her answer that all will be well reflected her convictions that God is love, is active in the world, and will somehow, sometime, in some unknown way, bring, guide, lead, or lure creation to the goodness that God intends.

Would I choose to confine myself to a small room in order to concentrate more fully on God? No. So radically, permanently, and unnecessarily narrowing my life would actually impair my ability to pray. I would resent not feeling the sun, wind, and rain; I would rue the people not encountered and places not seen. Do I subscribe to Dame Julian's theology in total? No. Her understanding, for example, of Jesus' passion as atonement for sin when read through a modern lens problematically resembles either child abuse or masochism.

However, I am thankful for Dame Julian and for what she can teach contemporary Christians. I find myself agreeing with Thomas Merton (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 275), that Dame Julian is one of the greatest English theologians, someone who lived the Christian life writ large and for whom my appreciation deepens with the passing years. All will be well, for God loves the world and all who dwell therein; all will be well, and God calls us to proclaim that message and to join in transforming the world.

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