The Role of Suffering in the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

(a seminarian reflection paper prepared for Church History; Prof. Bruce Mullin, instructor; The General Theological Seminary, Michaelmas 2010)

The Role of Suffering in the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

submitted by Jean Hite

The world of Julian’s Revelations is “centered upon the cross of Christ as the fundamental form of God’s self-sacrificing love.”[1]  Julian reports that God unveiled these sixteen showings through visual and verbal communication, “spiritually, in a bodily likeness” as well as “spiritually, without bodily likeness.”[2]  The work is about how the suffering God both shares and transforms the suffering of humankind.

It is in the context of her own severe illness, on what she assumes is her deathbed, that Julian experiences the Revelations; her enlightenment about suffering comes about during and through her own personal suffering.  We must assume that Julian had had an intuitive understanding of the role of suffering in deepening a spiritual relationship with God as the illness appears to have been the answer to her standing prayers for three things:  “a recollection of Christ’s Passion,” “a bodily sickness,” and “three wounds” of contrition, compassion and longing for God.[3]   (A “vocabulary of woundness” was important to other medieval writers in the consideration of sin and suffering, including Augustine and Aquinas.[4])

Julian’s prayer was for an increasing compassion for Jesus in his sufferings in his solidarity with all humanity – for the sake of humanity, Julian’s “even Christians” –  to the glory of God.  She desired first-hand experience of how God relates to humanity through suffering.  Julian comments that her suffering ends as she enters, in compassion, into the suffering of Christ on the cross during the visions.


What is suffering; what is sin; what is goodness?

Julian understands that sin is the cause of suffering.  She concentrates on suffering rather than on sin itself without identifying sin or attributing blame for sin.  She emphasizes that suffering exists because of sin.  God showed Julian that “Adam’s sin was the greatest harm ever done or ever to be done until the end of the world.”[5]   This showing indicates that sin, Adam’s sin, is corporate[6] and that one person’s sin affects others.  The nature of sin shows the solidarity of humanity.

A common assumption in the Church is that sin provokes God’s wrath.  Julian states that there is no wrath (anger) in God, but that the anger that humans may experience in relationship with God is actually their own anger projected onto God.   In addition, Julian says that God does not assign blame.

In the third revelation Julian says God “is at the centre of everything, and he does everything.  And I was certain that he does no sin; and here I was certain that sin is no deed.”[7]  This statement seems to imply that Julian agrees with those who see sin as having no substance — the absence of good, a disconnect from the goodness of God, a “disfiguring of what is intrinsically beautiful and good.”[8]

At a later point in the series of visions, Jesus tells Julian that “sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well . . .”[9]  But in continuing dialogue with God throughout much of the Revelations, Julian insistently and repeatedly asks:

Why does God allow sin and suffering?

Accepting with Julian that sin is necessary and that God “allows” sin, we can observe that God uses sin and its manifestation in human suffering to effect his purposes, to purge “our mortal flesh and all our inward affections which are not very good” and to make us “know ourselves and ask for mercy.” [10]  Suffering may have a purpose in that it requires us to trust.

As she shared in Christ’s suffering through revelation, we also observe that Julian’s experience of compassion expanded to encompass a growing sense of compassion for all her “even Christians”.  In this sense suffering serves to stimulate an awareness of the unity, the “oneing” of humanity.  Julian’s teaching in the Revelations is anchored in and focused on the Passion of the incarnate Christ, which in itself is a paradigm of wickedness, deceit, cruelty and hypocrisy.  Ironically, although Christ’s Passion is a display of human wickedness, it is also the remedy for that very wickedness.[11]  In view of suffering in the world, only an image of a suffering compassionate God can address the pain of the world.

As Julian continues to question how all will be well with the presence of sin and suffering, she receives the illusive and inconclusive answer “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me.”[12]  The answer lies in the mystery of the “great deed ordained by our Lord God from without beginning, treasured and hidden . . . known only to himself.”[13]  Julian accepts this answer as a challenge to remain steadfast in her faith.

Tensions and ambiguity

Throughout the Revelations Julian is shown and experiences the tensions of ambiguity and opposing forces.  She describes the tension between well-being and woe:  “We have in us our risen Lord Jesus Christ, and we have in us the wretchedness and the harm of Adam’s falling.  Dying, we are constantly protected by Christ, and by the touching of his grace we are raised to true trust in salvation.  And we are so afflicted in our feelings by Adam’s falling in various ways, by sin and by direct pains, and in this we are made dark and so blind that we can scarcely accept any comfort.”[14]  She holds in tension the love and compassion of God with the suffering (both spiritual and physical) in the world as shared by Jesus on the cross.  The suffering of Christ on the cross was the greatest suffering ever, and it ended in the joy of Easter.  Entering into and balancing these tensions – suffering and consolation — as presented by Julian is the substance of the spiritual life on earth.  “God wishes us to know that he keeps us safe . . . in sorrow and in joy. . . Our Lord gives (joy) freely when he wills, and sometimes he allows us to be in sorrow, and both are one love.”[15]


Julian’s understanding of suffering and “oneing”

(The Middle English concept of oneing as used by Julian means to be one, blended, fused – an interpenetration of divinity and humanity – that preserves the identity of each,[16] in much the same way that the persons of the Trinity are one.)

What did Julian see in “beholding” Christ’s Passion?  What was revealed?

Julian came to understand a relationship between suffering and love:

  • ·Beholding Christ’s suffering revealed how human beings are one with Christ.  She came to understand “oneing in suffering”.
  • ·Beholding Christ’s suffering also revealed the love that caused Him to suffer.  She came to understand “oneing in love”.
  • ·Beholding Christ’s love revealed “oneing in love”.[17]  She came to understand that “love is our Lord’s meaning.  And I saw very certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, which love was never abated and never will be . . .”[18]

The suffering of God and the suffering of humanity come together, are “oned,” in the cross.  While sin and suffering are “the great disturbers” of human souls, God assures us that “all will be well”.  The reason he wants us to know this is that “he wants us to be at ease in our souls and at peace in love, disregarding every disturbance which could hinder our true rejoicing in him.”[19]

The parable of the Lord and the servant

Julian’s understanding of sin and suffering, human and divine relationship is presented vibrantly in the telling of the parable of the lord and the servant.  The lord of the parable is God; the servant is Adam and by extension all humans; the servant’s fall is the fall of every human.  The alienation, the “blindness”, the self doubt and the self degradation that the servant experiences as a result of the fall is the sense of disconnection that all humans feel from time to time.  The love of the lord is consistent but the servant is blinded and cannot see his master’s love.  No blame is assigned to the servant – he was merely rushing, striving to do his master’s bidding, to please his lord.  Through the loving compassion of the lord for his servant, the servant’s wounds are being turned into honors, illustrating the concept of reward for grief and suffering.


Reconciling the Revelations to the teaching of Holy Church

From the outset Julian shows concern and intention that her understanding of the Revelations should be in agreement with the teaching of the church.[20]  Mention of Holy Church and her teaching crops up again and again throughout the text.  Julian continues to ask for clarity in her questioning of God to be able to reconcile her understanding with the Church.  Nevertheless, Julian’s Revelations contrast with the teachings of the Church in the following points:

  • ·In Julian’s understanding, God’s constant love manifests itself in the absence of wrath and blame.  This understanding contrasts with the Church’s, which does assign blame in naming sin.  In a literal reading, the bible frequently points to the wrath of God.
  • ·The absence of wrath in God contrasts with the Church teaching that those who rebel against God will be condemned to hell.  (However, when Julian asks to see hell and purgatory during her vision she reports: “By this sight I understand that every creature who is of the devil’s condition in this life and so dies is no more mentioned before God and all his saints than is the devil, notwithstanding that they belong to the humans race.”)[21]
  • ·Julian does not interpret Christ’s death on the cross as propitiatory sacrifice (penal substitution).  For Julian Christ’s death on the cross is a continuation of the work of “oneing.”   Christ’s suffering on the cross is an act of love.

The success of Julian’s arguments in these areas comes down to a matter of faith, in a willingness to follow Julian in coming to rest and consolation in God – accepting, depending, trusting in God’s love and faithfulness as promised in the Revelations.  This challenge to acceptance and trust Julian lays open to us as a choice of free will to accept or reject.

Kenneth Leech characterizes Julian’s “hazelnut[22] theology by three characteristics:  simplicity, optimism, and earthiness.  He points to corresponding potential perils in this theological approach:  false simplicity, pseudo-optimism and, most directly pointed at Julian’s understanding of suffering and sin, “the Romantic cult of nature” that may tend to underplay the need for redemption.  Julian’s theology stresses creation and incarnation and de-emphasizes the dimensions of sin, redemption and judgment.[23]

Julian repeatedly says that in the Revelations she was never shown sin.  She emphasizes suffering that exists because of sin rather than identifying sins or attributing blame for sin.[24]  Although she does identify us all as sinners, she says that God “tenderly excuses us, and always protects us from blame in his sight.”[25]

Julian’s understanding that sin as “nothing”[26] can be seen as somewhat inconsistent with the traditional Christian, prophetic, “orthodox” cycle of sin – judgment – redemption.  She is not totally convincing in her frequent downplaying of sin, however, because in many other instances she acknowledges sin[27] and questions her own understanding as she continues to ask why God allows sin and suffering – the great mystery of theodicy which goes unanswered, at least for the present times.

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hide, Kerrie, Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfillment.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001.

Jantzen, Grace, Julian of Norwich.  Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1987.

Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Love, trans. John Swanson, O.J.N.  Lincoln, NE:  Writers Club Press, 2003.

_______________, Showings, trans. James Walsh, S.J. and Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1978.

Leech, Kenneth, “Hazelnut Theology:  It’s Potential and Perils,” in Julian Reconsidered.  Oxford: SLG Press, 1988.

Llewelyn, Robert, With Pity Not With Blame.  London:  Darton, Longman & Todd, 1982.

Mursell, Gordon, “Suffering,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed.

Philip Sheldrake.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2005.

Williams, Rowan, The Wound of Knowledge.  Cambridge, MA:  Cowley Publications, 1991.


[1] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, (Cambridge, MA:  Cowley Publications, 1991), 149.

[2] Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. James Walsh, S.J. and Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. (Mahwah, NJ:

Paulist Press, 1978), Chapter 51, 267.

[3] Ibid., Chapter 1, 125 – 126.

[4] Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich, (Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1987), 172.

[5]  Julian, Chapter 29, 228.

[6]  In this aspect Julian echoes St. Paul writing in 1 Cor. 15 “for as in Adam all die . . .”

[7]  Julian, Chapter 11, 197.

[8]  Jantzen, 189.

[9] Julian, Chapter 27, 225.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jantzen, 167.

[12] Julian, Chapter 32, 233.

[13] Ibid., Chapter 32, 232-233.  These passages are again reminiscent of Paul and the mystery of 1 Cor. 15

and 1 Cor. 13:12 (“For now, we see through a mirror dimly but then, face to face.”)

[14] Ibid., Chapter 52, 279.

[15] Ibid., Chapter 15, 205.

[16] Kerrie Hide, Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfillment, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 53.

[17] Julian, Chapters 22 – 23.

[18] Ibid., Chapter 86, 342.

[19] Ibid., Chapters 32, 232.

[20] Julian, Chapter 9, 192.

[21] Ibid., Chapter 33, 234.

[22] “Hazelnut” is a reference to the first showing when Julian was shown all creation in a small ball the size

of hazelnut, loved and kept in its being by God, its creator.

[23] Kenneth Leech, “Hazelnut Theology:  It’s Potential and Perils,” in Julian Reconsidered  (Oxford: SLG Press, 1988),  6-9.

[24] Hide, 97.

[25] Julian, 336.

[26] Ibid., 137.

[27] After stating that “sin is nothing” she goes on to say “and on another occasion God did show me, nakedly

in itself, what sin is.”

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