Sunday, October 12, 2008

Julian of Norwich: Challenging the comfortable life

It's a long story how I came to be reading Julian of Norwich -- and I am undecided as to whether her visions are trustworthy. All the same, I benefited from reading her Revelations of Divine Love.

Background for those who haven't read it: Julian had, in her youth, prayed for three gifts of God: a vision of the passion of Christ, a bodily illness to the point of death (which struck me as an unhealthy wish), and three "wounds": contrition, compassion, and an earnest longing for God.

The final of these three prayers draws me the most: the prayer for the three wounds. Of her three original prayers, this is the only one she offers without reservation. These particular three wounds have their roots in Scripture as wounds which the faithful might well desire. Contrition is portrayed as a wound in Psalm 51, where the psalmist says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Compassion is portrayed as a wound in the letter to the Hebrews, where the author writes, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner, and those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). The wound of an earnest longing for God is frequently portrayed in Scripture as the suffering of thirst (for examples, see Psalm 42:1-3, Psalm 63:1-3, Isaiah 44:3, Isaiah 55:1-2). As Julian meditates on the suffering of thirst in Christ’s passion, and as she envisions her own suffering so inseparably from Christ’s, it is possible that she had such passages of thirst in mind when for she discussed the wound of earnest longing for God.

As Christ’s wounds heal us, Julian seems to envision these three wounds as blessed wounds with the paradoxical power to heal. Psalm 51 supports this connection, as the well-known passage, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” is followed by the cry of contrition. Contrition is seen as the sacrifice for being cleansed of the stain of past sins – not an aloof regret but a broken heart over our sins. The wound of contrition challenges our attitudes towards our own sins, such as hard-heartedness, indifference, or willful ignorance of the depth of the problem of evil in our own lives.

Compassion is the wound from which love cannot desire to be healed and still remain faithful to the beloved. The wound of compassion challenges us that any concern for others which feels no wound is a lesser thing: cheaper and safer than compassion, and culpably timid. This type of wound challenges us on the comfortable distance we keep from suffering and on the convenience of any dissociations which justify the distance.

The earnest desire for God keeps us from being permanently satisfied with worldly things which have no permanence in themselves. Someone who is too satisfied with this life stops striving and searching for something more, and her life becomes closed. If there is no longing for something more, then there is little thought towards the future and little hope of things to come. The desire for God prevents us from adopting lesser hopes, from forgetting him from whom we come and to whom we return.

Julian’s early devotion in offering her prayer and her eventual decision to become a recluse are part of the same desire in her life: to reject the ways of the world in order to know and love God. She left the open life of the world for the enclosed life of a recluse, though her prayer indicates that she may have been mindful that a recluse was still a part of the world, just as susceptible to the temptation of complacency.

Of Julian’s original three prayers, we know the answers to two. We know whether she had her vision of the passion, and we know whether she had her bodily sickness. We do not know how she fared with her third request. Julian’s life and prayers ultimately challenge us whether satisfaction and comfort are worthy goals, or whether we would be better served to desire a few wounds.

No comments: