Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Power of a "Little Thing"

Commemoration of Julian of Norwich

Psalm 25:5-11
Isaiah 46:3-5
Hebrews 10:19-24
John 4:23-26

In this little object I saw three truths. The first is that God made it; the second that God loves it and the third is that God keeps it. – Julian of Norwich*

I'm fascinated by Julian of Norwich, a medieval English mystic and anchoress. Her biography is somewhat sketchy -- we don't know the name given her at birth or anything about her background. We really don't learn anything about her until she is about thirty and following an extreme illness. During that illness she had a series of sixteen visions or revelations which she wrote down twice, the first and short form right after the visions and the second long form  with greater depth and reflection about twenty years later. As an anchoress she did not leave her cell which was attached to the church of St. Julian of Norwich, from which her name was derived, but it did not mean that her wisdom and influence did not extend beyond those four walls. She was much sought after as a woman of wisdom and great spirituality, something that we can still feel today when reading her words.

Hers is an amazing voice, a woman's voice from a time when the voices of women were seldom counted for anything. The message she brings to the modern world is one that both women and men can hear and take comfort in,  namely that God made everything, God loves everything and God keeps everything, just as Julian saw in her vision of the “little thing” that was no bigger than a hazelnut.  It was a tiny ball yet it represented all that exists. What a great metaphor. Instead of making us work for a metaphor to represent something so immense it can hardly be imagined, she hands it to us and explains it in such a way that we can catch on fairly easily. I bet Julian would have been a great facilitator of theological reflections.

Her theology was a gentle one, rooted in God's love and care for all of creation. She often referred to the motherly characteristics of God and Jesus but always used the masculine pronoun for them. It's an interesting juxtaposition, but for Julian, and for many of us, it works beautifully. It's also a reminder that God is not always the stern judge (a very masculine figure) but also a nurturing mother figure. I think that is something we need to be reminded of from time to time.

Another of Julian's revelations contains one of her most notable quotes,  "... but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Prefacing it, however, is the acknowledgement that Jesus is speaking with regard to sin. "… sin is the cause..." Really?  When I think about it, maybe it is. How else can we know the love and care of God unless  maybe if God sent us a Hallmark card or personal note?  The only way we can truly experience the depth of God's love is to realize that it is tied to our sins -- my sins, your sins, -- and the forgiveness of those sins before we even ask for that forgiveness. In the story of the returning prodigal son, the delinquent stammered his repentance but the father, embracing him in what I imagine was a great bear hug, ignored it as if it were unnecessary and immediately called for a party instead. I know I often forget that even though it is a parable, the truth is there and written large for me to see: I ask forgiveness for myself, but God's already planning a party for me before I can even form the first word.

In Julian's revelations, the suffering and death of Jesus were for a purpose and that  was to prove God's love for us, not God's need or demand for a sacrificial victim to atone for the sins of the world. Atonement plays a part, but undergirding everything is love. I wonder why that is so hard a concept to grasp?  Maybe it's easier to think that we deserve punishment from God when I miss the mark, and certainly I grew up with enough of a belief that it was because of my sin that Jesus had to die on the cross -- substitutionary atonement, to use big words about it.  But Julian's "most courteous Lord", even in his suffering, exemplified pure love. It was all done for love, and her writings emphasize that fact. I think it's a theology I could work my way into very easily. 

"... and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."  That's something to hang onto.  Oh, and would you believe, Julian is sometimes depicted with a cat.  I knew I liked that lady for more than her theology!

*Parke, Simon, ed., Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich,  (2011; Kindle ed.) Guildford, UK: White Crow Books.

No comments:

Post a Comment