Wednesday, March 9, 2016
This week finds me about half way through my year of studying Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. Taking about four days per chapter, at this point I am on Chapter 43 of 86. My year of living Julianly will end in mid-September.
Although I am now reading the chapters that Julian devotes to her understanding of prayer, this being the fourth week of Lent, I decided to write about some earlier chapters, specifically Chapter 20 to Chapter 22 in which Julian confronts Christ's passion.
Medieval Christians were exhorted to dwell on his passion, his suffering and death. Sin, our sin, as the cause of this unjust suffering, was a focal point. The reason for such heavy emphasis was an eschatology that saw mainly, or perhaps exclusively, heaven and hell. We would die, be judged according to our lives, our sins and our sorrow for those sins, and then sent to heaven, if our good deeds and contrition outweighed our sins, or to hell if they did not. Thinking about Christ's suffering would, in theory, spark contrition and result in heavenly rest. Ignoring the Passion would harden our hearts, invite sin in and land us in eternal torment.
This very legalistic, Department of Corrections, transactional eschatology has largely, and thankfully, disappeared from modern faith communities. I remember this emphasis very vividly from my own upbringing in the Roman Catholic church. Back then, we were sort of living as medieval Christians, but with better dental care. Sin and sorrow for it was a big part of our faith, our prayer, our thought, our theology.
Women, especially, in medieval times were encouraged to contemplate Christ's passion. Women needed to be reminded of sin and how Christ pain and death were specifically caused by their human errors. This was the recommended prayer practice for females. The "Eve" thing, one presumes.
Julian experienced a grave illness at age thirty. She was at the point of death when her curate brought her a crucifix to gaze on so that this would be her final earthly sight. It was at this moment, and then continuing on for a day and a half, that Julian received her revelations. Christ's passion was naturally where her revelations began. She describes in vivid detail what she saw, the physical evidence of his torment, the blood, the exhaustion, the labored breath.
But something surprising happened:
"And I, gazing upon all this by His grace, saw that the love in Him which He has for our soul was so strong that deliberately He chose the Passion with great desire, and humbly He suffered it with great joy, with great satisfaction. " *
Then Julian beholds the very sin that caused Christ's suffering, which he endured by his great love for us, being turned into glory through that love. Christ took ..."to himself all things, whether on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross." Collossians 1:20 Through his suffering, Jesus transformed our sin into glory. Julian saw it.
Jesus then asks her "Where now is there any point to thy pain or thy distress?"
from Chapter 22
"Art thou well satisfied (apayd in the Middle English) that I suffered for thee"?"
"Yea, good Lord, thanks be to thee. Yea good Lord, blessed mayst Thou be!"
"If thou art satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight that ever I suffered the Passion for thee; and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more."
This extraordinary dialogue struck me very hard when I first read it. My first reaction was to think that Julian was making it up, or that she was immersed in wishful thinking. A Christian of her time, however, would not imagine that Jesus would call his passion "a joy, a bliss, an endless delight". She could not invent a Christ who asked her to rejoice with him in his redemptive act. It was no easier for me to entertain the idea.
Human beings avoid suffering. It is built into our survival instincts. Jesus was human (true God and true man). In Gesthemane. Jesus asked to be let off from his ugly destiny on the cross. He faced his suffering bravely but he didn't seem to enjoy it, not if you believe centuries of sacred art. But, according to Julian, he was quite glad of it in hindsight.
This is a love that we can't comprehend, and that's because we will never be able to comprehend God's love. We do love. Parents usually love their children. Children love their pets. Teachers love their students, we hope. Martin Luther King Jr, just as an example, loved the people of this country. But none of that comes close to the love of God for us his creation.
A few years ago, I wanted to understand the reason for Christ's suffering. I wanted it to make sense to me. During Lent, we have Stations of the Cross every Friday, and I attend quite faithfully. I decided that during the Stations I might understand Christ's suffering, and I prayed to do so.
After one Friday service, the whole thing had a new meaning for me. I wasn't able, or willing, to articulate it to myself, but the surprising thing was that I was happy, and I sensed that Jesus was happy, too. I expected to feel sad or, at least, somber. I expected that Jesus' suffering would be more vivid for me, more sobering. I thought I would be able to draw a line from our sin, my sin, to the pain he endured. But instead, I drew a line from a loving God to my own actual true self. I guess I was "well apayd."
*All Julian quotes from The Complete Julian of Norwich, Father John-Julian OJN, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA.
Father John-Julian is the founder of the Order of Julian of Norwich of which I am an Associate.