Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dame Julian

Page from the Amesbury Psalter

I'm not really competent to do any detailed theological analysis of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, and so I won't.

I'll never really understand the "tough love" crowd.  As if life for most people isn't full of enough ordeals and trials.  A world ruled by death and driven by greed and fear produces no shortage of fiery hoops for people to leap through.  Why should we add to that burden by turning the Gospel into yet another ordeal, another test?  The "muscular Christianity" crowd usually dismiss my concerns as "cheap grace."  Grace that has to be earned isn't really Grace at all.  It's merit.  Grace is a free gift or it's nothing at all.  Complain about Bishop Spong all you want, but his point about God loving "wastefully" is spot on, knowing of course that nothing is waste in God's economy.  The Gospel is supposed to be Good News and understood as such by the hearer.  We are supposed to find rest unto our souls in the shade of the Cross, not another calamity laid on top of the condemnation of the Decalogue.  I can't help but detect a little glee underneath the earnestness of people eager to lay ever more burdens on other people's shoulders.  As far as I am concerned, they are twin to the people who always go on about the "creative destruction" of the free market.  As economist Paul Krugman observes, the fans of free market creative destruction imagine themselves to be the creative destroyers, not the creatively destroyed.  So too the complainers about "cheap grace" draw circles for others to go into but not themselves.

The 14th century saw no shortage of fire-breathing preachers eager to tell people that all the calamities that they suffered -- plague, economic collapse, rebellion, warfare, famine, etc. -- were somehow their fault, that they suffered the just retribution of an angry God.  Even the art of the time is angry.  In the midst of a world filled with destitute and bereaved people who heard of nothing but God's wrath against them and everything they knew, there appeared an unknown woman reminding people in the face of so much evidence to the contrary that God did indeed love them and wanted them to be well and to be happy.  Even more, the desolate people of 14th century England who regularly visited Julian should feel confident and assured by God's love, that God shares their sufferings and their very substance.
The heartfelt desire that mankind had to be saved appeared in Jesus.  Jesus is everyone that will be saved, and everyone that will be saved is Jesus -- all through the charity of God; and through virtue, obedience, humility, and patience on our part.
When Adam fell, God's Son fell.  Because of the true unity which had been decreed in heaven, God's Son could not be dissociated from Adam.  By Adam I always understood Everyman.  Adam fell from life to death, first into the depths of this wretched world, and then into hell.  God's Son fell, with Adam, but into the depths of the Virgin's womb --herself the fairest daughter of Adam --with the intent of excusing Adam from blame both in heaven and on earth. 

And a passage from chapter 55 of the Revelations of Divine Love that meant a lot to the poet WH Auden, and means a lot to me:
I saw with absolute certainty that our substance is in God, and moreover, that he is in our sensuality too.  The moment our soul was made sensual, at that moment was it destined from all eternity to be the City of God.  And he shall come to that city and never quit it.  God never leaves the soul in which he dwells.

No one knows who Julian of Norwich was or where she came from.  Her given name remains unknown.  She took the name of the church, St. Julian's in Norwich, where she lived.  She appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared back into obscurity.  Whoever she was, she was literate, indicating a noble or affluent upbringing.  Perhaps because she was a woman, her writings were little noted by other theologians of the time.  She seems to have had a huge following among the common folk of England who flocked to Norwich just to speak with her.  She was an anchoress, a resident ascetic attached to a parish church.  She spent the rest of her life in a small cell with a tiny garden.  The cell had a small window into the church so she could hear Mass.  There was another small window through which she received meals, and another small indirect window out into the street where she could speak with people but not see them or be seen by them.
According to legend, a cat came over the garden wall and visited her regularly.  She probably kept him for pest control, but over time, the cat became her only close companion.  Dame Julian is one of history's most famous and revered cat lovers.  That's why I chose her for Betty's memorial drawing.

I always think of pets as something very modern and urban.  I used to have farm relatives whose attitude toward animals was very prosaic.  Animals were assets either as food or as labor.  That was true for the farm cat.  His job was pest control around the house, the barn, and especially around the corn crib and the silo.  And yet, I can remember as a small boy visiting that farm in central Illinois, sharing a bed with 2 other small boys, and being visited in the night by a loudly purring farm cat who wanted attention, and we were happy to oblige.
I once heard a famous biologist (I forget who) exclaim how cruel and brutal was the natural world.  He said that at any given moment, some creature somewhere is being devoured alive by another creature.  Darwin, I remember, made similar comments about how rough life was for animals .  And we are animals who prey upon other animals, and are preyed upon (aside from tigers and crocodiles who relish a meal of humans, there are the microbes that make us sick; tiny little predators who devour us from the inside out).  It amazes me that we form such close emotional attachments to our fellow creatures (and sometime competitors).  We depend on their companionship, and they on ours.  As Dame Julian reminds us, God created all things, not just us, for Love.

Chapel on the site of Dame Julian's cell in Norwich (I'm not sure if this is the original cell)


JCF said...

Lovely post, Doug.

Very interesting factoids re Dame Julian (I wondered about the church: thought it was named after her, not the other way around!)

The "J" in JCF is Juliana. I'm named after my mom's BFF who was, in turn, named after her mom. Ergo, I really don't know if my name goes back to the anchorite of Norwich.

But I've liked to consider that it does. ;-)

Counterlight said...

And why not. Something special for you to visit in England when you eventually get there. It would be worth a trip to Norwich for me.

JCF said...

Get back there. I did visit Blighty when I was 18!* (Didn't get to Norwich, alas)

* i.e. "In the deep mists of ancient times". Back when the Sceptred Isle endured the monstrosities of the foul Helmut-Haired T~H~A~T~C~H~E~R! [Yeah, yeah, RIP (If that "P" be Peace or Purgatory, is above my paygrade)

Eigon said...

Thanks for talking about Dame Julian! I used to worship at the church about 20 years ago. The cell is not original, but it is on the original site - the church was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and had to be almost totally rebuilt (they did a pretty good job of it).

Also, I'm sorry to hear about your relationship problems - I hope it all works out for the best.