Friday, January 15, 2016

Julian of Norwich: It's All Love

The female Christian mystic I found most fascinating was Julian of Norwich. She was born in 1342 and died around 1412. There is little factual information available about her life. Julian might not have even been her name. What is known is that she was an anchoress at a church in the city of Norwich, England. Unbelievably, anchoresses lived voluntarily imprisoned in cells adjoined to a church. That’s right—literally bricked in. The cells most often had a window into the church, so the the anchoress could participate in the services, a window to an adjoining cell through which they communicated with caretakers, and a window to the exterior allowing them to “counsel” anyone seeking spiritual guidance; the cells had no door. That’s right. Once an anchoress committed to her enclosure she remained in her cell, in prayer and contemplation until death. Kind of crazy. But they really existed and Julian of Norwich was one of them.

There is a lot of conjecture about Julian’s life circumstances. It’s known that she survived the Black Plague. She was about six when the first wave swept through Norwich leaving more than half of the city’s population dead in it’s wake. It’s tough to imagine what that might have been like. What if Ebola had taken out more than half the population of Dallas, TX? What emotional, mental, psychological, spiritual impact might that have had on the survivors?

The plague returned to Norwich twice more in Julian’s lifetime. It’s possible that she had a husband and children who died in one of those dark waves of contagion and sickness.

It’s commonly believed that Julian wasn’t yet an anchoress when she received 16 divine “showings” at the age of thirty-one during a near-death experience. The age at which she became an anchoress is not known. But it is during that period that she continued to reflect on the "showings" she had received earlier and expand her theology. The result was her Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written by a woman in the English language … Let that sink in.

Her work would remain hidden for over 200 years. Why? Again, in those days, women were not to speak in church, comment on scripture, or discuss theology, let alone evolve their own understanding of the human relation to the Divine. But Julian did just that and her theology was radically optimistic.

Considering the dark times that she lived in, her shining perspective of the Divine could hardly have come from any source other than her own intuitings.

I confess, reading her revelations was a laborious process. The majority of the imagery in her “showings” draws from a thoroughly graphic interpretation of Jesus dying on the cross, with a Mel Gibson The Passion of Christ explicitness. During Julian’s life, Corpus Christi plays, dramatic re-enactments of Jesus’s crucifixion were popular, and it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t influence the imagery that she “beheld” on her sick bed. However her interpretations are her own. And if you weed out all the blood, our Christ, Jesus, and the Trinity, etc. verbiage, you’re left with a spiritual clarity and perception which is surprisingly modern.

As I mentioned in my post, Mining the Mystic Gems, Julian’s glimpse of the material world as the size of a hazelnut aligns with our current understanding that given the size of atoms, neutrons, protons, quarks, etc. a compressed physical world could actually fit in a sugar cube of … Quite an amazing apprehension made hundreds of years before science would prove it.

So what else did Julian believe that was so outragerous, revolutionary, and unorthodox that it had to be hidden away for over 200 years?

1. The human and the Divine are inseparable. (I’ve chosen to substitute [the Divine] for God, etc.)

"… [the Divine] is in humanity, and [the Divine] is in all … [the Divine] who is our Maker lives in our souls, and our souls live in the Divine Essence, the very substance from which we were created. Thus, I can see no difference between the Divine Essence and our own: all is [the Divine]. Yet let’s be clear: only [the Divine] is [the Divine], and our essence is a divine creation that lives within [the Divine].”

This is radically nondual comprehension.

2. Everything good comes from the Divine.
In a world where misfortune is/was often assigned to divine retribution, god’s wrath, karmic debt, Julian was unable to perceive an “angry God.” This liberating concept dissolves the ability to control a population through threats of condemnation/misfortune due to actions, beliefs, and conduct disapproved of by the pious and/or ordained representatives of religious hierarchies.

"… and yet I saw with such certainty that [the Divine] is never angry with us nor will ever be."

"… everything that is good is [the Divine]; whatever goodness we experience in this life is truly a taste of [the Divine]…"

"[The Divine] is [the Divine]: all that is good, all that is life, all that is truth, all that is love and peace. [The Divine]’s clarity and unity leaves no room for anger. I realized that Divine goodness and wisdom are such that they cannot contain anger. [The Divine] is the goodness that cannot be twisted by anger for [the Divine] contains nothing other than goodness … we are so completely united with [the Divine's] unity that nothing separates us from the Divine Essence.

3. Sin is separation from Divine Love.

“At this point, I saw that sin is nothing. All action is [the Divine], and sin is no action at all. [The Divine] is all reality, and sin is the absence of reality. The Point I saw was all reality, and it contained no sin, no separation from [the Divine] or the love that sustains the world.”

“[The Divine] has shown me that sin is exile and separation from [the Divine].”

A far cry from the fire and brimstone preaching that was popular in her times … and still is in certain locales.

4. The spiritual nature is not superior to the earthly body.

“What is a soul? These visions showed me that our spiritual essence can rightly be called our soul—but at the same time, our sensual natures are also our soul. This is because of the unity they have in [the Divine]; we may see them as two separate things but they are not.”

I really appreciated this, because the view that the spiritual nature is superior to body drives me nuts. I wholeheartedly agree with Julian. The body is an expression of the Divine, a direct expression.

5. Contemplative prayer is the highest form of prayer.

"Resting in this Unity is the highest prayer, and it reaches down to our deepest needs. It brings our soul to life; it brings us more of life’s fullness; and our lives expand with grace and strength. This attitude of prayer aligns most easily with our very natures, and it requires the least effort to achieve, for it is simply what our souls already crave, and what they shall always crave until we truly understand that we are wrapped in the Divine Unity; the goodness of [the Divine]

6. The Divine as Mother.
It was common for female mystics to see and claim the feminine qualities of the Divine. Julian did so with an exceptional beautiful and personal perception.

“A mother’s help is the most intimate, the most quick to respond, and the most certain: most intimate because it is tied to our simplest biological natures; the most quick to respond, for a mother’s love is an automatic and instinctive aspect of her being; and most certain, because it lacks all artifice and pretension. Our human mothers bore us into a world of pain and death—but our True Mother—All-Love—bears us into joy and endless life …"

"Any natural, loving mother knows and understands her child’s needs; she watches out for the child with vigilant tenderness. As the child grows, the mother’s care changes but not her love. At some ages, the mother may allow the child to experience pain so that the child will grow in maturity and grace. In the same way, [the Divine] works in us. [The Divine] is the Mother of both our human nature, our sense-selves, and our spiritual being, and sometimes our sense-selves must suffer so that our spiritual beings grow.”

7. The Divine is Love.

“We go through so much pain in life because we do not fully comprehend love … I believe [the Divine] wants that we see and enjoy all life in the light of love … Some of us believe that [the Divine] is Almighty, able to do all things, and many of us believe [the Divine] is All-Wisdom, able to do all things. But we stop short at believing that [the Divine] is All-Love, able to do all things. This ignorance on our part is what hinders us most, I believe…

“Do you really want to see clearly [the Divine’s] meaning in the showings? Well, then, learn it well: Love was [the Divine]’s meaning. Who showed you these visions? Love. What were you shown? Love. Why were you shown these visions? For love. Hold on to that love, and you will learn and understand more of the same love—but you will never learn nor understand anything else.”

"And so I finally understood: Love was the meaning in everything [the Divine] showed me."

I suppose one of the reasons I really enjoy Julian is that I’ve been grappling with my own understanding of the energy animating the cosmos as love. Pure and simple. That behind all the “masks of God” and quantum theory is a force that creates and sustains everything, and that force while not necessarily anthropomorphic, is infinite love. The only source of infinite and unconditional love available to us.

The blood of innocents will soak Illialei’s meadows, and dreamlessness will snuff all hope from the mortal world. Fear not. This apocalyptic union can be saved. Though grace is undeserved, the purpose is love.Idonnic Prophesy, Daughter of Light

Over the past decade Julian’s writings have become increasingly studied, and no wonder, the record of her visions and her interpretation of their meanings is fascinating. She was truly a visionary, a woman well ahead of her times.

All Julian quotes for this post were taken from: All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich (Anamchara's Spiritual Classics for Modern Mystics)