John 19:16b- 19; 25b-30
“I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.,”
(Showings Julian of Norwich)
Julian of Norwich is the second Christian mystic I have chosen for our Lenten meditations. Thomas Merton regarded Julian was one of the greatest English theologians. She was certainly the first. As she is also Isobel’s favourite, I have asked Isobel to write today’s meditation, with a little bit of editing from my side. Julian’s character is revealed through her writing, and both who she was and what she wrote have been very meaningful to Isobel since she first came across her in the 1980s. Although her most famous saying is: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Her last words that have come down to us sum up what she discovered in contemplating Christ on the cross: “I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning,” An important reminded of the purpose of this Lenten journey to the cross.
Julian was a young woman, only thirty year old, living in Norwich in England in 1343 when she fell seriously ill. As she lay dying she had a series of visions in which she saw, as though she were present, Jesus being crucified, and other “showings“ as she called them. She recovered from her illness and entered a cell attached to the church of St Julian and became an anchorite, sealed in her cell for a life of contemplation, though frequently visited for counsel. She wrote down what she had seen in her visions and for the next twenty years meditated on their meaning, questioning what she had been shown, wrestling with the issues raised, and receiving other insights from God. These she recorded in a book in the language she spoke, the language of Chaucer, making her the first woman author in the English language.
The Medieval world Julian inhabited is not our world, and therefore it is sometimes difficult to relate to it, but once we break through that barrier, we discover a depth of spirituality that we often lack. After all, her world was also much like our own. It was a world of war and violence, of the plague, poverty and much suffering. So keep that in mind as we listen to Julian speak. She was a woman of her time, but she also speaks to our time. Amid our busyness and noise, her contemplative life-style calls us to discover God in the silence.
Julian starts by telling us that she had three wishes or longings in her Christian life. In her own words,
My wish was for God to give me three graces: the first was to experience, as though I were present, Christ’s Passion; the second was a bodily sickness and the third was three wounds. I already felt deeply about Christ’s Passion but I longed for more. I wanted, by God’s grace, to feel as though I were actually there with Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ other friends – to see with my own eyes what he suffered for me. I wanted to suffer with him as others who loved him had done. (chap. 2)
The second grace she asked for strikes us today as very strange. She desired a ‘bodily sickness’, something just short of actual death. Being aware that even then this was unusual, she added that the first two graces should fall within God’s will for her.
On the eighth day of May in 1373, God granted Julian’s second ‘wish’ along with it the first. She fell seriously ill. When it seemed death was near, her curate was sent for; he gave her the Last Rites and held a crucifix in front of her. As she felt death closing in, she remembered her wish for the second wound – that Christ’s pains would be her pains – to lead her nearer to God. She then saw Christ on the cross as he hung in agony. Her description is vivid and realistic, picturing Christ’s blood streaming down his face from the crown of thorns. She writes: “It came to me, truly and powerfully, that he, who is both God and a man, and who suffered for me, was now showing this to me without any intermediary.” This is the first of Julian’s Showings. She saw the crucifixion as though she was there but didn’t exaggerate it for the sake of morbid effect. She simply, longed to “experience the Passion as though she were present”. The hideousness of the crucifixion, brought her real physical pain, yet she also experienced great joy.
For in this death there is life,
In this suffering, joy,
in this hideous act,
the turning point of history:
and Christ who is highest and noblest,
mightiest and most honourable,
is also lowest and humblest,
and graciously our friend.
Rejoice and delight in this
and live with his strength and grace.
The vision affected her deeply as she contemplated its meaning and saw more vividly Christ’s agony and the blood flowing for the redemption of humankind. She even began to regret that she had ever even thought of asking to be present. Then she was pained at the thought that she wanted to escape from it. When it all became too much to bear Julian wanted to turn her gaze away from the cross towards heaven to find solace. We would surely do the same. Isobel writes:
There is so much suffering,
for so many, for so long:
it disturbs us, depresses us,
threatens to suck us into its black depths.
Julian felt the same,
for she saw the suffering of Christ
on the cross,
It became too much to bear,
and she wanted to look away,
to look to heaven
for there was safety
and an end to grief.
But she did not.
She chose to keep on looking at Christ,
staying with his suffering.
So she came to see that
Christ was her heaven,
and the joy that came later,
came only because she stayed her gaze
on the crucified Christ.
Julian’s language night not be everybody’s cup of tea, but she takes us deeply into the meaning of Christ’s passion as we struggle with our own pain. She was a person full of good sense and warmth, whose vivid imagery expresses a gentle humanity. Instead of the “spiral of violence” we encounter in the world, she offers us a “spiral of love.” But it all began as she stood in contemplation with Mary at the foot of the cross and expressed in her final words: “I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.”
Isobel de Gruchy
Volmoed 9 March Lent 2
See Isobel de Gruchy Marking all things Well: Finding Spiritual strength with Julian of Norwich (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012)