Julian’s Joyful Insight Into Sin (During Bad Times Like Ours)

by | Sep 29, 2020 | 4 Hunger & Thirst

julian-of-norwich-juliet-venter

Julian of Norwich: All shall be well.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).

Fourteenth century Norwich, England bore the Hundred Years’ War, the peasant’s revolt, religious persecution, and a bubonic plague pandemic called the Black Death. Amid the madness, a lullaby issued from a cell beneath the buttresses of the Church of St. Julian: “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The singer took no refuge there from the world’s horrors. Rather, she contemplated them in graphic visions of Christ’s passion as she took on his every pain and sorrow.  An anchorite devoted to a life of prayer, she assumed the name of the place she inhabited, Julian of Norwich.

These visions did not reveal a bitter and vengeful Son. Instead, she encountered One who suffered with us, who responded to sin not with condemnation but compassion.  As she questioned why God made us to sin and suffer, he answered, “Sin is necessary, but all will be well…”[i]  Why is sin necessary?

Because in our natural hungering and thirsting for God’s love and our passion to serve and please God, we inevitably lose our balance and fall.  Sin, then, is an extension of what is best in us, not what is rotten.

An allegory clarified this.  Each of us is like a devoted servant of a beloved and loving lord who sends him on an errand to grow a special vegetable and return with it after harvest.  Eager to please, the servant runs down the road toward the appointed land, but stumbles and falls into a ravine, suffering serious injuries that stop him short.  Broken and lonely, the servant does more harm than good with his efforts and probably does not fulfill the mission.  Meanwhile, the lord who sees this in light of the servant’s original loving intention, prepares a home for the servant’s return.[ii]

Julian’s vision suggests that God made us with a root motive to love, and our sin derives from that goodness as we strive beyond our capacities.  To make peace, we fight wars.  To protect our own, we exclude others.  For justice’s sake, we scrimp on mercy.  These evils look absurd when committed by others, but when we falter, we know the good, deeper motive in ourselves.  God knows and sustains everyone’s righteous deeper motive which outlasts sin. In Julian’s words:

“For all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison.  For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always to adhere to his goodness… Our natural will is to have God, and God’s good will is to have us, and we can never stop willing or loving until we possess him in the fullness of joy.  And there we can will no more, for it is his will that we be occupied in knowing and loving until the time comes that we shall be filled full in heaven.”[iii]

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[i] Julian of Norwich, Showings, tr. Edmund Colledge, OSA and James Walsh, SJ, The Classics of Western Spirituality. (New York: Paulist Press, 1974), p. 225.
[ii] Ibid. 267-278.
[iii] Ibid. 186.

6 Comments

  1. Jerie artz

    I was looking for this quote the other day. Glad to have found it here. Truly all shall be well….words for our day. How we desperately need the beatitudes.

    Reply
    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      You KNOW I agree! If we live the Beatitudes, Julian’s assurance will sink into our hearts.

      Reply
  2. Cinda McGuinn

    Thank you for this wonderful post about Julian of Norwich and her wisdom and compassion. She has always been an inspiration to me. I clicked on this article right after reading a facebook posting about a woman who horribly abused a dog. It showed her face and pictures of the scars and open abrasions on the poor dog. I found myself enraged and sickened. There were dozens of replies demanding the woman be beaten and punished like the dog. Looking at her picture I realized that she must be a deeply disturbed and unhappy person. Probably an addict of some really destructive drug. I trust that our loving God will not find her to be irredeemable but a lost soul desperately in need of Grace. I also pray for the innocent animals and children who suffer from the sins of the world. I guess I’m saying that the guilty (me and everybody else) also need compassion and forgiveness. Perhaps especially those who seem the most depraved. These are terribly disturbing times. We really need Julian’s wisdom and serenity more than ever.

    Reply
    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      Thank you, Cinda. Julian’s image of love losing its bearings in a mad rush offers hope in a world gone mad. Perhaps love is at the heart of things after all.

      Reply
  3. Michael Parnell

    I had a funeral home director that always said to me before the funeral I was doing, “In spite of you and me, we are goin’ to get through this thing.” In spite of all our efforts otherwise, we will get through this. My concern is will we learn anything from it?

    Reply
    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      I am optimistic that we will. We learn more from passages through liminal space than through anything else, and right now, the US and perhaps the whole world is in that uncharted and perilous territory. But for me, believing in grace entails hope that we will learn the only lessons worth learning, lessons that guide our love toward the right ends.

      Reply

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