Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Year of Living Julianly: Part IV - The Forever Thing

There are some well known themes in The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. There is the theme of love, of course. Julian ends her writing with "Love was his meaning." She'll hear no argument from me. There is the theme of the hazelnut, where Jesus shows her all of creation as the size of a hazelnut, contained and cared for. There is the theme of man's fall, as exemplified by the parable she tells of the servant falling into a ditch while on his lord's business. And there is the best known one of all - the oft quoted "all will be well" theme.

The theme I will explore here is almost hidden in her writings, hidden, that is, in plain sight. It is the theme of eternity.

I have no plan to do a word count, but words denoting "forever" abound in Julian's writing. Words and phrases like "endlessly" "from without beginning" "eternally" and "without end" appear in every one of her 86 chapters and usually more than once. Here is an example:

God, the blessed Trinity (who is everlasting Existence), just as He is endless from without beginning, just so was it in his endless purpose to create mankind. Chapter 58

Paraphrasing clumsily: "God, being eternal, in his eternity, used his eternal will to create us."

Julian finalized her writings over a twenty year period between the ages of 30 and 50, so this was no girlish excess, no impetuous over-use of adverbs. Every word and phrase was pondered and prayed over, "smithed" as it were..

She is known today as a mystic, but I take exception to that designation. It is easy to brush aside a mystic's writings as abstract, ethereal, and irrelevant to the modern, everyday reader. No, Julian was earth bound and practical. She did not predict the future. She had nothing to say about achieving any sort of enlightened state or spiritual ecstasy. She was about as far from John of Patmos as it is possible to be; there are no mutant creatures, heavenly or otherwise, no flashes of light, no trumpets in her writing. Julian was shown things by Jesus that led her to refine her concept of God. She asked questions, got answers (mostly), and was happy about it.  

Julian was, in fact, a theologian. Her theology was based first on her religious upbringing and then finally on what Jesus himself showed her. Unlike other theologians of her day (Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart) Julian had no Latin, surely never studied the Patristics, probably never read Scripture herself but listened to what was read and preached to her and what she saw in the many mystery plays common in the late middle ages. Her theology was a sort of grass roots thing based on her particular experience of God, both in and out of church.

So why her continual emphasis on eternity? What theology is implied in this? We hear about eternity so much that we take it for granted. Julian did not. We say "world without end" while we're gathering our belongings, settling our children, finding the page. Eternity is a given for us, but Julian doggedly pursued the concept until it made sense to her. If God is eternal, no beginning and no end, then everything that God wills is eternal. We ourselves, every thought and word of ours, were present in God from without beginning. Every action of every person creature has been contained in God from forever. The tuna fish sandwich that I will be eating for lunch was known to God, the fish itself, the bread, the grain, the baker, the scallion and celery grower, the horseradish manufacturer, the grocer, the ceramicist who designed the plate, are all part of God's eternal essence.

What does this mean for us as people living today? How can I have an enemy if that person was also contained with me in God from without beginning? How can I ever be afraid of anything knowing that God's hands have been on me from all eternity? How can I even think of amassing wealth or pretty sweaters? How can I resent the laundry that I have to fold?

But let's consider some bigger questions. Man's fall, so charmingly depicted in Genesis, was no surprise to God. The Exodus did not happen when things got to be too much for God to stand it any longer. Mosaic Law was never going to be the final word. The Incarnation and Redemption were not last-ditch responses to a needful world. We tell our salvation story linearly through the lens of our human understanding. We naturally see it that way. I've spent my whole life being on David's side vs Goliath, vs Saul, even vs Absalom. What a joke on me! God holds everything and every one. Always has. Always will.

And speaking of final words, how can there be any final world when the future is contained in God from without beginning? All words are final, and yet no words are final.

All these things, my tuna sandwich, the Exodus, the Law, Jesus' life, David's triumphs are not entirely in the past, just as they were never entirely in the future. T.S. Eliot said that "all time is eternally present." He said that this happens "at the still point of the turning world." Where is that?

For me, and I think for Julian, that point is God.

Because of our intimate connection with God through creation, we have a natural grasp of this eternity. Eternity is ours by default. When the words of Absolution are said over us in church after we confess, the celebrant asks God to "keep you in eternal life". The key word is "keep." Do I live as if I am kept in eternal life? Do I see myself as part of eternity? Do I see my neighbor that way?

In the face of her revelations, Julian struggled with these and other ideas. She asked Jesus for more and more clarification. Finally, she saw in this eternity the answer to many of her questions. When her confidence in a teaching or a tradition grew rocky, she saw that in eternity everything would turn out as it was meant to .... from without beginning.

Here are her final words:

In this love He has done all his works, and in this love He has made all things beneficial to us and in this love our life is everlasting.
In our creation we had a beginning, but the love in which He created us was in Him from without beginning and in this love we have our beginning.
And all this we shall see in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.  Chapter 86