Julian of Norwich and the Atonement

I don’t know if you have ever heard of Julian of Norwich. She’s a 14thcentury mystic, an anchoress, really, in Norwich, England. When she was thirty years old, she became so ill that her local priest came to administer the Last Rites. As she fixed her eyes on the crucifix, she experienced a series of sixteen visions (shewings), beginning with a vision of the blood running down Christ’s face as the crown of thorns was pressed home. She produced one version, called the Short Text, quite soon after her visions. Fifteen, or maybe twenty years later, she produced the Long Text, after she’d had time to think on what she’d seen and after she’d had one more visionary experience.

Her ideas about sin are, how shall we say it, unconventional, and especially so in comparison to Medieval Christianity. Where the church taught that Man was naughty and God was angry, Julian said that God was not and never had been angry and that sin was not “a deed,” that is, something that humans do, but that it was basically Man’s unawareness of God’s love and nearness. In a [hazel] nutshell, God didn’t blame Man. She knew she wasn’t in line with the church (ah yes, the Inquisition) and so she wrote in Chapter 50:

For I knew by the common teaching of Holy Church and by mine own feeling, that the blame of our sin continually hangeth upon us, from the first man unto the time that we come up unto heaven: then was this my marvel that I saw our Lord God shewing to us no more blame than if we were as clean and as holy as Angels be in heaven. And between these two contraries my reason was greatly travailed through my blindness, and could have no rest for dread that His blessed presence should pass from my sight and I be left in unknowing [of] how He beholdeth us in our sin. For either [it] behoved me to see in God that sin was all done away, or else me behoved to see in God how He seeth it, whereby I might truly know how it belongeth to me to see sin, and the manner of our blame…I cried inwardly, with all my might seeking unto God for help, saying thus: Ah! Lord Jesus, King of bliss, how shall I be eased? Who shall teach me and tell me that [thing] me needeth to know, if I may not at this time see it in Thee?

The answer is one of the major differences between the Long Text and the Short Text — the Parable of the Lord and his Servant. Here’s the basic parable from Chapter 51:

AND then our Courteous Lord answered in shewing full mistily a wonderful example of a Lord that hath a Servant: and He gave me sight to my understanding of both. Which sight was shewed doubly in the Lord and doubly in the Servant: the one part was shewed spiritually in bodily likeness, and the other part was shewed more spiritually, without bodily likeness.

For the first [sight], thus, I saw two persons in bodily likeness: that is to say, a Lord and a Servant; and therewith God gave me spiritual understanding. The Lord sitteth stately in rest and in peace; the Servant standeth by afore his Lord reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will. The Lord looketh upon his Servant full lovingly and sweetly, and meekly he sendeth him to a certain place to do his will. The Servant not only he goeth, but suddenly he starteth, and runneth in great haste, for love to do his Lord’s will. And anon he falleth into a slade,[i.e. a steep hollow place; a ravine] and taketh full great hurt. And then he groaneth and moaneth and waileth and struggleth, but he neither may rise nor help himself by no manner of way.

And of all this the most mischief [i.e. injury, harm] that I saw him in, was failing of comfort: for he could not turn his face to look upon his loving Lord, which was to him full near,—in Whom is full comfort;—but as a man that was feeble and unwise for the time, he turned his mind [“entended.”] to his feeling and endured in woe. In which woe he suffered seven great pains. The first was the sore bruising that he took in his falling, which was to him feelable pain; the second was the heaviness of his body; the third was feebleness following from these two; the fourth, that he was blinded in his reason and stunned in his mind, so far forth that almost he had forgotten his own love; the fifth was that he might not rise; the sixth was most marvellous to me, and that was that he lay all alone: I looked all about and beheld, and far nor near, high nor low, I saw to him no help; the seventh was that the place which he lay on was a long, hard, and grievous [place].

I marvelled how this Servant might meekly suffer there all this woe, and I beheld with carefulness to learn if I could perceive in him any fault, or if the Lord should assign to him any blame. And in sooth there was none seen: for only his goodwill and his great desire was cause of his falling; and he was unloathful, and as good inwardly as when he stood afore his Lord, ready to do his will. And right thus continually his loving Lord full tenderly beholdeth him. But now with a doublemanner of Regard: one outward, full meekly and mildly, with great ruth and pity,—and this was of the first [sight], another inward, more spiritually,—and this was shewed with a leading of mine understanding into the Lord, [in the] which I saw Him highly rejoicing for the worshipful restoring that He will and shall bring His Servant to by His plenteous grace; and this was of that other shewing.

And now [was] my understanding led again into the first [sight]; both keeping in mind. Then saith this courteous Lord in his meaning: Lo, lo, my loved Servant, what harm and distress he hath taken in my service for my love,—yea, and for his goodwill. Is it not fitting that I award him [for] his affright and his dread, his hurt and his maim and all his woe? And not only this, but falleth it not to me to give a gift that [shall] be better to him, and more worshipful, than his own wholeness should have been?—or else methinketh I should do him no grace.

And in this an inward spiritual Shewing of the Lord’s meaning descended into my soul: in which I saw that it behoveth needs to be, by virtue of His great [Goodness] and His own worship, that His dearworthy Servant, which He loved so much, should be verily and blissfully rewarded, above that he should have been if he had not fallen. Yea, and so far forth, that his falling and his woe, that he hath taken thereby, shall be turned into high and overpassing worship and endless bliss.

The story is the Fall of Man, but with some significant differences: no Eve, no blame for Adam, God has not withdrawn but is as immanent and as loving as ever, while Adam simply cannot see God’s comforting presence nor hear God’s intent to raise him higher than his original state precisely because he took the fall!

Were we to continue to read, we’d find out that Julian still doesn’t understand how this can be and that the main source of her confusion is in the Servant character. Over the course of about forty paragraphs she goes over the vision in detail and decides that the Servant is actually threefold: Adam, Man (all of those to be saved?), and Christ.The idea that the Servant is simultaneously all three is very interesting because it allows Julian to tease out various doctrines of the Incarnation. But the most interesting bit, and the key to her reasoning about God’s unchanged love and the absence of blame directed at humans, is her insight into the double fall:

When Adam fell, God’s Son fell: because of the rightful oneing [unity] which had been made in heaven, God’s Son might not [be disparted] from Adam. (For by Adam I understand All-Man.) Adam fell from life to death, into the deep of this wretched world, and after that into hell: God’s Son fell with Adam, into the deep of the Maiden’s womb, who was the fairest daughter of Adam; and for this end: to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and in earth; and mightily He fetched him out of hell.

Now we humans see a great deal of time between Adam’s fall and Christ’s redemption but according to Julian from God’s viewpoint they occurred at precisely the same time. It would appear then, that there was no point in time when Man was unredeemed. God’s love for Man never changed because there was no reason for it to change. The fall occurred because of Man’s love and desire to serve God, so God rescued Man (who also happens to be His Son) and intends to reward him! No blame is attached:

For in all this our good Lord shewed His own Son and Adam but one Man. The virtue and the goodness that we have is of Jesus Christ, the feebleness and the blindness that we have is of Adam: which two were shewed in the Servant.

And thus hath our good Lord Jesus taken upon Him all our blame, and therefore our Father nor may nor will more blame assign to us than to His own Son, dearworthy Christ

Pretty interesting, eh?
Heheh. What a nice way out of that silly Genesis business…since all the rest of us fell with Adam, why not explicitly acknowledge that Christ must have done likewise and then use that bit of information to make a nice, new, happy theory of the atonement without all that misogyny, guilt, etc., etc.?

10 Replies to “Julian of Norwich and the Atonement”

  1. I think the misogyny mogget’s referring to is all the the anti-Eve stuff. Not to threadjack, but since mogget brought up the lack of misogyny, one cool thing about Julian is the way she finds symbols of the atonement in the process of motherhood. I mentioned this a while back on my own blog. This is fascinating to think about in connection with the images of birth and motherhood that are associated with the atonement in John.

    Cool post, mogget.

  2. Righto, righto. Mastro’s already got my theory on the double fall (and done a far better job than I) but I did find another tidbit late last night from, I think, Judith Dales in “Mystics Quarterly.” Seems that the only major character to remain completely male the entire time is the fiend that attack Julian after the vision of the crucifix.

  3. For an online intro and text see http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/julian.htm.

    For a non-CCEL version, see http://www.umilta.net/showinglove.html

    For access to the secondary literature, you want an academic library and ATLA (American Theological Library Association). You’ll find it among the online databases.

    For a nice intro to mysticism by a critical and yet sympathetic author, give Two Worlds Are Ours: An Introducation to Mysticism by John Macquarrie a look. He has a nice intro to mysticism and a section on Julian and her contemporary, Margery Kempe.

  4. Thank you. I so enjoyed this post. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have discussions like this in Sunday School?!

  5. (B)ut according to Julian from God’s viewpoint they occurred at precisely the same time. It would appear then, that there was no point in time when Man was unredeemed.

    This is brilliant. I hope it is true. I don’t know that it is but lately I’ve had the growing feeling that we seriously misunderstand how everything actually was prior to coming here and how it will be afterwards.

  6. Hm, yes. It seems to me that most of our insight into the pre- and post- mortal life has its roots in our need to explain life in the here and now.

    I’m not sure that the question of whether or not it’s “true” is the best way to approach the matter. All we know about the creation, fall, and redemption is presented in metaphor. What always strikes me is the richness and variety that we experience when we vary that presentation.

    I teach this class right after Anselm, Aquinas, and Chaucer. It has a semi-miraculous effect on students because its sensuality contrasts strongly with Aquinas’s intellectual frigidity and its honesty points up the corruption of the church that informs Chaucer’s characterization in the Canterbury Tales.

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