Julian of Norwich and the God who Delights to Die

“Sin is befitting, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (Revelations LT 27).

On reading these words of Christ to Julian of Norwich we might be tempted to think that our Lord is telling the anchoress that the Eschaton will somehow compensate—and more than compensate—for the horrific evils we are forced to suffer in our lives. “Yes, violence, oppression, and poverty are terrible. Yes, your sufferings are intolerable and meaningless. Yes, the sin that causes them is unfortunate (but don’t forget free will). But I promise you that your torments will end when I bring you into the beatific vision. Dawn will break. The lame will walk and the blind will see. I will wipe away all your tears. All is not well now, I know, but all will be well.” Yet as attractive such a reading may be, this is not how Julian understands the dominical words. It is prohibited by the “befitting.” As Denys Turner writes: “Note that Julian does not say only that however awful things are in the meantime, all will turn out well in the end. What happens ‘in the end’ is that we will see how everything was all right at the time; and that is what we must believe now at the time of its awfulness” (Julian of Norwich, Theologian, p. 233, n. 28). Here is where we stumble. How can evil, especially horrific evil, ever be judged behovely?

In my earlier article “God is the Doer,” I noted that Julian affirms a strong version of divine sovereignty. She is given to see “that alle thinges that is done is welle done, for our Lord doth all” (LT 11). All of God’s workings are accomplished in mercy and grace, and “the blessed trinite is ever fulle plesed in alle his workes.” God causes all events and all actions, including the free actions of human beings, and because he does so, we may confidently anticipate the fulfillment of his eschatological promises. Evil is real and truly horrible and contrary to God’s will for his creation, yet is nonetheless comprehended within his beneficent providence. God does not cause evil qua evil. As the Creator of all that exists, he necessarily brings into being our sinful actions, but he does not choose them for us. Or as Turner puts it: “God causes sinful actions in that they are actions, because God causes everything that there is. But God is not and could not be the cause of my actions in that they are sinful” (p. 63). Which is simply to say, Julian is no deist. Like her fellow medieval theologians, Julian understands that everything owes its existence to the immediate doing of the Creator, and this must include sinners and their immoral actions. Julian’s presentation of divine agency is no doubt vulnerable to the charge of occasionalism, but given her insistence that God does not cause evil, it seems more likely that she presupposes a Thomistic understanding of noncompetitive transcendent causality (see Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil). We moderns, on the other hand, tend to think of the world as a stage upon which human beings think, choose, and act, apart from the divine causality. God builds the set and casts the actors, who then compose and live out their scripts. We model ourselves upon Aristotle’s prime mover. We do not usually put matters so starkly, yet some version of libertarian autonomy typically informs our thinking. Human freedom, we think, requires the absence of divine causality. In the words of philosopher Roderick Chisholm: “each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.” Where does God fit into this? He’s our audience and critic. Divine agency and human freedom are thus viewed as mutually exclusive. For the anchoress, though, God can never be thought as an observer of the human drama: he is the transcendent doer of the drama. God does not create sin–the nothingness that sin is is not a something that can be created–but from nothing he creates human beings with their sinful and virtuous actions.

At this point classical theology has typically invoked a distinction between God’s absolute and permissive wills: God does not ordain evil but rather permits it. Julian too brings this distinction into her reflection:

All that oure lorde doeth is rightfulle, and alle that he suffereth is wurshipfulle. And in theyse two is comprehended good and eville. For alle that is good oure lord doeth, and that is evil oure lord suffereth. I say not that eville is wurshipfulle, but I sey the sufferance of oure lorde God is wurshipfulle, whereby his goodnes shalle be know without ende, and his mervelous mekenesse and mildhed, by this werking of mercy and grace. Rightfulhed is that thing that is so good that may not be better than it is. For God himselfe is very rightfulhed, and all his werkes be done rightfully, as they be ordained from without beginning by his high might, his high wisdom, his high goodnesse. And right as he hath ordained it to the best, right so he werketh continually, and ledeth it to the same ende. And he is ever fulle plesed with himselfe and with alle his workes. And the beholding of this blisseful acord is full swete to the soule that seeth it by grace. (LT 35)

All that our lord does is right and all that he endures is praiseworthy; and in these two are contained good and evil, for our Lord does everything which is good and he endures everything which is evil. I am not saying that any evil is to be praised, but I am saying that our Lord God’s willingness to endure evil is praiseworthy, and through this his goodness will be recognized for ever in his wonderful compassion and kindness, through the operation of mercy and grace. Righteousness is the thing which is so good that it cannot be better than it is; for God himself is true righteousness and all his deeds are rightly done as they have been ordained since before time began by his great power, his great wisdom, his great goodness. And just as he ordained what is for the best, in the same way he continues to work and lead everything to the same end; and he always take great pleasure in himself and all his works. And the sight of this blessed accord is very sweet to the soul that sees it through grace. 

Yet the dual distinction appears to play only a minor role in Julian’s reflections, perhaps because she is not really concerned to advance a theodicy; or perhaps more accurately, because she is principally concerned to proclaim the crucifixion of theodicy in the death of Jesus. As Denys Turner notes, Julian’s explorations are dominated by the tension between two apparently irreconcilable convictions:

On the one hand, she is acutely aware that the appallingly irrational cruelties of sin that the world contains deserve just and due punishment, as the Church teaches. On the other, and no more nor less unshakeably, she is convinced that just that world containing just that quantity of sin and evil was created by a Love who is absolute, and absolutely invincible, who does not, and cannot, condemn. … Her shewings afford her no conclusive answers. Never is she shown any one compendious vision containing both truths in harmonious conjunction. … For Julian is certain that any theology that purports to know how the divine love and omnipotence and the existence of a world of sin might be reconciled must be wrong one way or the other, either about sin’s reality or about the reality of the divine love. (pp. 19-20)

Julian eschews simplistic resolutions. She sees before her only the riddle of the Cross. “When she is tempted to look beyond the Cross to heaven, she resists,” writes Turner, “because she wants no other focus of explanation than the crucified Christ” (p. 20). Even the resurrection seems to disappear into the background:

Notably, there is no concluding Resurrection narrative in Julian, no further episode of dénouement, no upbeat reversal of the fortunes of the Cross. That is not the Gospel. That is Hollywood’s role for the Marine Corps, an entirely secular form of optimism, and a merely Pelagian story that tells of the hope that may be placed in superior force. No such narrative is possible, because the conflict between sin and love is the final conflict, and the Cross is the final outcome of that conflict. It is perhaps Julian’s central theological insight that sin wages war against love because sin is of its own nature violent, but love wages no wars at all, not even against sin, for love is absolute vulnerability. Love knows no other strategy than that vulnerability. For that reason, then, neither is any subsequent reversal of the Cross’s violent defeat necessary, for it is precisely in that victory of sin over love that sin is defeated. In its victory over love sin defeats itself. Sin’s failure to engage perfect love in a contest on sin’s terms of violence and power is sin’s defeat, its power being exhausted by its very success. For killing is the best strategy that sin can come up with; it is sin’s last resort. The Resurrection, then, is the meaning of the Cross, the meaning that the vulnerability of love, its refusal of the sword, is stronger than sin’s power to kill. That is all we know. That is all we can know. The meaning of the Cross neither allows for a fairy-tale ending nor needs one. (pp. 20-21)

Turner’s interpretation of Julian at this point may be a bit too modern. Does she think of Christ’s death in any way as a defeat? I’m not sure. I need to reread the Showings in order to test it. But he is correct that for Julian the Cross is determinative. She does not proclaim the victory of God over sin and death on Easter morning, at least not as an independent event. Certainly she believes in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Christ is the living Savior. In this sense she is very Latin and very medieval. But neither does she masochistically glory in the violence and brutality of Calvary. Her visions of the Passion have a matter-of-fact quality and convey a mood of serenity and peace, even a holy mirth—and above all, indomitable hope. Absent in her presentation are any intimations of divine wrath or retribu­tive satisfaction. There is only the quiet but decisive victory of love over sin on the Cross. “Furthermore he lerned that I shulde beholde the glorious asseeth [atonement],” writes Julian. “For this asseeth-making is more plesing to the blessed godhed and more wurshipfulle for mannes salvation withoute comparison than ever was the sinne of Adam harmfulle. Then meneth oure blessed lorde thus in this teching, that we shulde take hede to this: ‘For sithen I have made welle the most harm, than it is my wille that thou know therby that I shalle make wele alle that is lesse'” (LT 29). In the ninth shewing Christ asks Julian:

“Arte thou well apaid that I suffered for thee?” I saide: “Ye, good lorde, gramercy. Ye, good lorde, blessed mot thow be.” Then saide Jhesu, our good lord: “If thou arte apaide, I am apaide. It is a joy, a blisse, an endlesse liking to me that ever I sufferd passion for the. And if I might suffer more, I wolde suffer more.” (LT 22)

“Are you well pleased that I suffered for you?” I said, “Yes, my good Lord, thank you. Yes, my good Lord, blessed may you be!” Then Jesus, our kind Lord, said, “If you are pleased, I am pleased. It is a joy, a delight and an endless happiness to me that I ever endured suffering for you, and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.”

“If I might suffer more, I wolde suffer more”–the Son’s love for sinners is so great that he would freely endure countless deaths, if such were necessary to restore every human being to his Father:

And I behelde with grete diligence for to wet how often he wolde die if he might. And sothly the nomber passed my understanding and my wittes so ferre that my reson might not, nor cold not, comprehende it ne take it. And whan he had thus ofte died, or shuld, yet he wolde set it at nought for love, for alle thinketh him but litille in regard of his love. (LT 22)

And I watched very carefully to see how often he would die if he could, and truly the number of times passed my understanding and my senses by so much that my reason neither would nor could comprehend it. And if he had died, or was going to die, so often, he would still think nothing of it out of love. For his love is so great that everything seems a trifle to him in comparison.

Nothing has been left undone; all has been accomplished in perfect atonement. If another crucifixion were necessary, Jesus would gladly embrace it. And so Julian sees “fulle blisse in Crist, for his blisse shuld not have ben fulle if it might ony better have been done than it was done.” The joy of the Trinity is complete.

Perhaps here is the clue to the Lord’s shocking statement “Sin is befitting.” Julian is not an analytic philosopher who seeks to justify the presence of evil by modal analysis of possible worlds. There is simply the good world, this world, that the good God has made; and at the center of this world is crucified Goodness hanging on a tree. Thus Turner:

“How shoulde anything be amisse?” Nothing can be amiss because from all eternity all of it was intended by a God who can only love and cannot will sin, but can, out of pure love, will a world in which there is sin. Julian believes this because she is shown how the solution is willed all at once with the problem, so that while in one sense it is true that everything went wrong with Creation, in another she has overriding reasons for believing that nothing has gone wrong at all. Everything went wrong because the Fall excluded all human beings from the destiny for which they were created: they can no longer enjoy the beatitude of the vision of God because they repeatedly choose for themselves, through sin, the blindness of mind and soul in which, as the result of the Fall, they are born. Their predicament is real; they can do nothing whatever about it. And yet nothing has gone wrong, because that same divine act that willed the world as it is, thus fallen, willed also the remedy–which is not a “remedy” at all, because it goes far beyond the measure that any remedy could require. The compassionate gaze enclosed, foreclosed, the falling itself. And Julian is sure that it is a better world in which the problem is solved than any world would be in which, because there had been no problem in the first place, there was no need for the solution. (pp. 209-210)

And sin? Sin is a felix culpa, sin too is behovely. It fits, if anywhere, within that delight that the Father has in his Creation, within the Father’s delight in the Son, and in the Son’s delight in the Father’s gift to him, which is humanity redeemed. (p. 214)

The befittingness of sin cannot be proven by reason. Its truth will only be apprehended on the Last Day. But perhaps it can be believed–if, like Julian, we have been captured by the breathtaking and astounding love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(Go to “How Well is Well?”)

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