This is the third sermon in our Lenten series on Christian mysticism called “A Voice to Call Us Home.”
Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-9
We don’t know much about the woman called Julian of Norwich. We don’t actually even know her name. “Julian” is the name of the church where she lived for much of her adult life, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But we know a lot about her mystical experiences, because Julian was the first woman to write a book in English (or the first woman whose book survived into our time). Called Revelations of Divine Love, her book was about the 16 mystical visions she received in 1373.
Many people have heard of Julian because of a quote from her book which you can now buy emblazoned on mugs, t-shirts and masks. I’m wondering if you can say the quote out loud? “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I’m sorry, but at the height of the pandemic if I saw somebody walking around wearing a mask with those words on it, I might think to myself, “Spiritual bypass.” “Spiritual bypass” is a term from contemporary Buddhist psychology that refers to the tendency to “check out of painful experiences by means of religious platitudes and practices.” (This is a quote from Mirabi Starr in Matthew Fox’s book Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond, which I draw from in much of this sermon). As wonderful as meditation or mindfulness or other spiritual practices are, you can sometimes use them to distance yourself from painful feelings, rather than accepting them as part of life or turning toward them to learn what there might be to learn from them.
The Christian world is replete with examples of spiritual bypass. “Don’t be sad. They’re in heaven now with God,” or “It must be have been God’s will.” Any others you can think of? Julian, at first blush, seems to encourage this sort of spiritual bypass. Listen to another quote from Revelations of Divine Love: “It is not God’s will that we pine and mourn over feelings of pain but that we get better and continue to enjoy life.” This only a short step from “Don’t worry, be happy” (although I like that song). It could also sound like something a very privileged person might say, someone who has known little of the suffering life can bring.
Well, you might know enough about Julian’s life to know that nothing could be farther from the truth. Julian lived her entire life during a time of pandemic. And I’m not talking about something like COVID; this was the bubonic plague. You would get infected, horrible, bulbous sores would break out on your body, and in 4 days, could be dead. You could go to bed fine and literally not wake up the next morning. And the plague wasn’t confined to a couple of years. It came and went for decades. The first plague hit Norwich, where Julian lived, when she was 7, and subsequent waves followed every handful of years. By the time she wrote her book in the 1370s, the population of England was half of what it had been. Half. Imagine half the people you know gone! (And some of you who lived through AIDS do know what that was like.) Some believe Julian may have lost her entire family to the plague. She writes in her book, “Of all pains that lead to liberation the worst is to see your loved one suffer. How could any pain be more excruciating than to see the one who is all my life, all my happiness, and all my joy suffer?”She says she experienced a “constant flow of woe” in her life.
This was a woman well acquainted with sorrow and grief. And then, when she was 30, she almost died herself. In fact, she was given last rites, and she describes feeling death take over her body. She lost feeling in the lower half of her body, she felt her breathing start to slow down, she lost her vision — all she could see was the crucifix the priest held above her bed. She hints in her writing that she welcomed death, as she had nothing to live for.
Suddenly, the figure of Jesus on the cross began to bleed. And there, on the portal between life and death, Julian received a series of visions — she called them “showings” — for the next several hours. We might say now that Julian was having a near-death experience. She recovered and wrote down the visions she received while on the verge of death. She spent the next 20 years pondering them before she felt she understood them fully, at which point she wrote down her interpretation of the visions — that is the book called Revelations of Divine Love.
From her literal deathbed, from the depths of her suffering, Julian “bequeathed (to) the rest of us the most extravagantly optimistic theology of the Christian landscape,” says theologian Matthew Fox. Because that Christ that she saw bleeding on the cross? He was not a “remote and tortured sacrificial victim,” but rather someone she describes as friendly, merry, warm and welcoming. “In her ‘“showings,” Christ reveled his bleeding and his dying as acts of unconditional love for us. Julian boldly, radically — even for today — came to regard Christ as our spiritual mother. “Who but a mother, Julian asks, would break herself open and pour herself out for love of her children?” (Mirabi Starr in Fox’s book). (Note: I also want to say that it’s possible to hold this motherly love in a non-gendered way. People who identify as male can embody motherly love.)
Julian believed that the relationship of a loving mother with a child came the closest to illuminating the relationship of love that exists between Jesus and us, this mother who loves us unconditionally, this mother who gives of her very body to nourish us. She would even speak of the nursing breast of Jesus, who gives us the milk of kindness. Perhaps needless to say, Julian didn’t believe in substitutionary atonement theology, where Jesus has to die so that his blood could cover our sins and thus put us back into good graces with God. Jesus’ salvation, for her, is not a matter of absolving sin, it is about “loving us into the wholeness of who we really are.”
Mother Jesus reveals who God really is: Unconditional love. God is not a God of wrath, which was a prevalent idea at that time, maybe even moreso than our own. The belief that an angry God was punishing people for their sins was almost the only way people could theologically make sense of the great suffering they were experiencing during the plague. In contrast, Julian writes, “For I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and (God) forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love.”She writes that God sees us as perfect and waits for the day when human souls mature so that evil and sin will no longer hinder us. She writes: “the Lord God regards us with no more blame than if we had been as pure and holy as (the) angels in heaven.”
As for the famous “all shall be well” quote — it came to her as Julian was pondering why sin existed, why suffering existed. She writes: “In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well… I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus… answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”
Now, I don’t know what Julian means when she says that “It was necessary that there should be sin.” What I do know is that there, on death’s door, Julian had such an overpowering experience of the unconditional love of God, of God’s tender, motherly regard for us, that she came to believe that love was the ground of our existence, that our life is rooted in this love, that it is the overshadowing fact of our existence. And I believe her! I have found one or two of my own “showings” that confirmed this for me. Kim Barber, Michael Bauman’s wife, told me of her own near death experience years ago. It consisted of such an overpowering sense of love and bliss that, six days before she died of breast cancer, Kim told me, “I know where I’m going, and I can’t wait to get there.”
Julian was human like the rest of us. And so, it turns out that, in the years after her mystical visions, she came to wonder if they were actually hallucinations, if they were really God’s revelation to her. And then, years later, she received her 16th and last vision, which confirmed the truth of the earlier visions. It was only then that she published her book and became an anchoress. Here’s how Julian writes about that experience:
From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. (I don’t know who is speaking here, but it is the voice from her 16th vision, and the Lord refers to Jesus.) “You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else – ever.”
Hold onto this and you will now and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else — ever.
Children’s Story, by Beverly Walsh
Hi, I’m Julian of Norwich and I’d like to tell you some of my story. I lived many, many years ago in England, in one of the most religious towns of Europe. There were lots of fancy churches and monasteries in my town. This meant there were lots of beautiful places and interesting people. But, when I was growing up, there was also a lot of sadness, death and violence around me.
There was this great sickness that spread through my town when I was little. They called it The Black Death. I survived somehow, but half the people in my town didn’t. At some point people stopped getting sick, but there weren’t enough people left to work in the markets or teach in the schools. Everything became so expensive and all the adults were super stressed out. Everyone was sad, and angry and scared. Not such an easy time to grow up in.
I was always afraid that the sickness would return… so I got a cat. That’s right, a cat! Some say that a cat is a wonderful friend and companion, but cats also catch rats and my neighbor told me that rats were what was making people sick. So, Whiskers became my friend and my body guard! From then on, I had a cat by my side all the time.
But even with Whiskers as my bodyguard, when I was 30 years old I got really sick, so sick that everybody was sure I was going to die. While I lay in my bed, waiting to die, God gave me strange, magical, wonderful visions. I learned a lot in those visions. The brief version is this: God is in all things, it is normal to feel joy and sorrow, and God loves me like a mother loves her child. Pretty deep stuff! A few days later I recovered from my illness, a miracle, and I wrote down the visions so I wouldn’t forget.
Some time after I recovered, I became an anchoress. Do any of you know what an anchoress is? In some ways, it’s kinda like a nun. I decided that I wanted to serve God in a special way, where I could be away from the distractions of daily life, but still participate in church services and care for the community. So I made a promise that I would devote the rest of my life to serving God by staying in one place. An anchoress lives in a small room that is attached to the side of the church and devotes her life to God. The day I moved in, they sealed up the door behind me, and I never left. I spent the rest of my life in that small room, with my cat, of course. There, I spent my days in prayer. I participated in worship through the window on one side of the room, and talked with people on the sidewalk passing by from my other window. I used the wisdom I gained from my life experiences and what I knew about God to help strangers.
People who knew me often asked how I was so hopeful in a time of such sadness and turmoil. The answer was pretty simple. I knew for a fact that I was loved by God (because God told me so)! That knowledge helped me to be kind and grateful in a world that was falling apart.
Some say I was the greatest mystic of my time.