In the year 1373, at the age of 30, Julian of Norwich had a series of visions, published as the Revelations of Divine Love. I’ve read the work a couple of times, and I find it good medicine for the overly neurotic soul. While I might not accept all the details of Julian’s theology, I love her picture of a God who is approachable, who is infinitely kind, who isn’t nearly as troubled by our constant failings and mistakes as we are.
God reminded me that I would sin; and because of my pleasure in contemplating him, I was slow to pay attention to that showing. And our very Lord kindly waited and gave me the grace to pay attention . . . And at this I began to feel a quiet fear, and to this our Lord answered, “I am keeping you very safe.” This promise was made with more love and assurance and spiritual sustenance than I can possibly say, for just as it was shown that I would sin, the help was also shown.
It’s a reassuring idea: yes, we’re inevitably going to sin, as uncomfortable as it might be to look at that. But God isn’t planning to give up on us or leave us alone when that occurs; he is rather “keeping you very safe.” Julian explains, “Our Lord takes tender care of us when we feel that we are almost forsaken and cast away because of our sin and because we have deserved it.” One of the most pernicious effects of sin, she warns, is that it prevents us from seeing God correctly. In our guilt, we think that God is angry or hates us, and we turn away from him; we are blinded to the reality of his love.
And when we fall through frailty or blindness, then our kind Lord touches us, moves us and calls us, and then he wants us to see our wretchedness and sinfulness and acknowledge it humbly. But he does not want us to stop at this point, nor does he want us to be very anxious to accuse ourselves, nor does he want us to be inwardly miserable; but he wants us quickly to turn our thoughts to him; for he stands all alone and waits for us, sorrowing and lamenting until we come, and is impatient to have us with him; for we are his joy and his delight, and he is our balm and our life.
Not only is God our delight, but we are also his. We long for God, and God longs for us. Julian elsewhere comments, “For as truly there is a property of compassion and pity in God, so there is as truly a property of thirst and longing in God.” I’m reminded of the story of Enos, in which God is no Unmoved Mover but one who weeps over his children.
There’s a homey quality to Julian’s God; you can imagine yourself having a cup of hot chocolate with him on a cold day, and talking over your troubles. He speaks in a friendly, down-to-earth way, and expresses interest in what’s going on with us. Thomas Aquinas, writing the century before, explains in brilliant detail how grace effects a change in us, but it’s hard to imagine his God inquiring as to our feelings about the atonement, which is what the Lord asks Julian. And when we finally turn to God, she reports, his affectionate response is, “My darling, I am glad you have come to me. I have always been with you in all your misery and now you can see how much I love you and we are united in bliss.”
Sometimes I find myself avoiding prayer because of a vague unease that God is mad at me and perhaps doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. I appreciate Julian’s vision, because it tells me of a God who is more patient and loving than I usually think he is. And I also like that it’s very much a vision of hope. The Lord tells Julian (in a line famously appropriated by T.S. Eliot), “I may make all things well, I can make all things well and I will make all things well and I shall make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.”