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Does Julian of Norwich advocate the salvation of every human being? The question haunts readers of her Showings. That it does so is curious. Julian repeatedly qualifies (25 times, to be exact) God’s salvific work in Christ with the phrase “that shalle be saved.” For example:
For in this onehede stondeth the life of alle mankind that shalle be saved. (LT 9)
And for the tender love that oure good lorde hath to alle that shalle be saved, he comforteth redely and swetly, mening thus: “It is soth that sinne is cause of alle this paine, but alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thing shalle be wele.” (LT 27)
Crist, having knit in him all man that shalle be saved, is perfete man. (LT 57)
For I saw, as it is knowen in oure faith, that than paine and sorow shall be ended to alle that shalle be saved. (LT 75)
Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins comment that the phrase appears to “pull against” the universalizing thrust of “All shalle be welle” and similar expressions (The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 154). Granted, “that shalle be saved” is ambiguous. It need not be read as excluding a universalist reading, yet why introduce it if the author intended apokatastasis? Some suggest that Julian has simply added the phrase to ward off doctrinal inquisitors, but that would be too cynical by far. I take the anchoress at her word when she states that nothing in the shewings led her away from the common teaching of Holy Church (LT 46). And at a critical juncture in her reflections she explicitly affirms the traditional teaching on eternal damnation:
Oure faith is grounded in Goddes word, and it longeth to oure faith that we beleve that Goddes worde shalle be saved in alle thing. And one point of oure faith is that many creatures shall be dampned: as angels that felle out of heven for pride, which be now fendes, and man in erth that dyeth out of the faith of holy church—that is to sey, tho that be hethen—and also man that have received cristondom and liveth uncristen life, and so dyeth oute of cherite. All theyse shalle be dampned to helle without ende, as holy church techeth me to believe. And stonding alle this, methought it was impossible that alle maner of thing shuld be wele, as oure lorde shewde in this time. (LT 32)
Our faith is founded on God’s Word, and it belongs to our faith that we believe that God’s word will be preserved in all things. And one article of our faith is that many creatures will be damned, such as the angels who fell out of heaven because of pride, who now are devils, and many men upon earth who die out of the faith of Holy Church, that is to say those who are pagans and many who have received baptism and who live unchristian lives and so die out of God’s love. All these will be eternally condemned to hell, as Holy Church teaches me to believe. And all this being so, it seemed to me that it was impossible that every kind of thing should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time.
The last sentence highlights the tension between the authoritative teaching of the medieval Church and the shewings Julian has received. We will return shortly to this tension, but here I wish to record Denys Turner’s judgment regarding the alleged universalism of Julian: “Moreover, Julian appears to be certain not just of the possibility that God can be rejected, but that in fact at least some people actually make that choice, and that they get what they want—to be in hell. Disputed as the matter is, there is much less textual support to be found in Julian’s Revelation for the ‘universalist’ doctrine that all will be saved and none that is as explicit as her emphatic assertion [quoted above] that many are not” (Julian of Norwich, Theologian, p. 106; cf. Robert Sweetman, “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well,” in “All Shall Be Well”, pp. 66-92).
Yet even still … when I concluded my first reading of the Showings, having noted along the way the various texts supporting the traditional position, I had nonetheless developed the clear impression that Christ had led Julian into the greater hope, perhaps not as a theological judgment but most assuredly as rhetorical performance. Julian preaches as if she is a strong universalist. Missing are prophetic threats of perdition, as well as the countless summonses to repentance that often characterize homilies and spiritual writings. The note of exhortation is occasionally struck but it plays only a minor role. That which one hears is the divine word of love; that which one remembers is the divine word of promise, spoken in a striking and convincing mode of unconditionality: Alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shalle be wele.
I note three specific features of Showings. Perhaps none are individually decisive, yet cumulatively they produce conviction, at least to my mind.
1) God is Love.
All Christians affirm, in one way or another, God’s character as love. One can hardly get around it, given the 4th chapter of the First Epistle of John. Yet preachers and theologians, particularly in the Latin tradition, have also sought to balance this attribute with the attribute of retributive justice. God is merciful, they say, but he is also holy and righteous. In his wrath he punishes the wicked and eternally punishes the impenitent. But Julian only speaks of the divine love and goodness, perhaps most arrestingly in her figurative identification of Jesus as Mother:
Thus Jhesu Crist, that doth good against evil, is oure very moder: we have oure being of him, where the ground of moderhed beginneth, with alle the swete keping of love that endlesly foloweth. As verely as God is oure fader, as verely is God oure moder. And that shewde he in all, and namely in theyse swete wordes there he seyth: I it am.” That is to sey: I it am, the might and the goodnes of faderhode. I it am, the wisdom and the kindnes of moderhode. I it am, the light and the grace that is all blessed love. I it am, the trinite. I it am, the unite. I it am, the hye sovereyn goodnesse of all manner thing. I it am that maketh the to love. I it am that makith the to long. I it am, the endlesse fulfilling of all true desyers.” …
Oure hye fader, almighty God, which is being, he knew us and loved us fro before ony time. Of which knowing, in his full mervelous depe charite, by the forseeing endlesse councel of all the blessed trinite, he woulde that the seconde person shulde become oure moder, oure brother, and oure savioure. Whereof it foloweth that as verely as God is oure fader, as verely God is oure mother. Oure fader willeth, oure mother werketh, our good lorde the holy gost confirmeth. And therfore it longeth to us to love oure God in whome we have oure being, him reverently thanking and praising of oure making, mightly prayeng to oure moder of mercy and pitte, and to oure lorde the holy gost of helpe and grace. For in these three is alle oure life: kind, mercy, and grace, werof we have mekehede, mildehed, patience, and pitte, and hating of sinne and wickednesse—for it longeth properly to vertuse to hat sinne and wickednesse. (LT 59)
Thus Jesus Christ, who opposes good to evil, is our true Mother. We have our being from him, where the foundation of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection of love which endlessly follows. As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says: I am he; that is to say: I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires. For where the soul is highest, noblest, most honourable, still it is lowest, meekest and mildest. …
Our great Father, almighty God, who is being, knows us and loved us before time began. Out of this knowledge, in his most wonderful deep love, by the prescient eternal counsel of all the blessed Trinity, he wanted the second person to become our Mother, our brother and our saviour. From this it follows that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms. And therefore it is our part to love our God in whom we have our being, reverently thanking and praising him for our creation, mightily praying to our Mother for mercy and pity, and to our Lord the Holy Spirit for help and grace. For in these three is all our life: nature, mercy and grace, of which we have mildness, patience and pity, and hatred of sin and wickedness; for the virtues must of themselves hate sin and wickedness.
Perhaps we can entertain the possibility that the Father of Jesus limits his atoning love to the elect; but Julian’s bold maternal identification of Christ excludes such limitation. Mothers love all their children, in all times and all situations. The metaphor highlights the universality, inclusivity, and unconditionality of the divine love. Julian compares the love of Christ with the love of the Blessed Virgin, she who was chosen by God to be the mother of the divine Mother:
Oure kine moder, oure gracious moder, for he wolde alle holy become oure moder in alle thing, he toke the grounde of his werke full lowe and full mildely in the maidens wombe. And that shewde he in the furst, wher he broughte that meke maiden before the eye of my understonding, in the simpil stature as she was whan she conceived: that is to sey, oure hye God, the sovereyn wisdom of all, in this lowe place he arrayed him and dight him all redy in oure poure flesh, himself to do the service and the office of moderhode in alle thing.
The moders service is nerest, rediest, and sekerest: nerest, for it is most of kind: rediest, for it is most of love; and sekerest, for it is most of trewth. This office ne might nor coulde never none done to the full but he alone.
We wit that alle oure moders bere us to paine and to dying. A, what is that? But oure very moder Jhesu, he alone bereth us to joye and to endlesse leving—blessed mot he be! … This fair, lovely worde, “moder,” it is so swete and so kine in itselfe that it may not verely be saide of none, net to none, but of him and to him that is very mother of life and of alle. To the properte of moderhede longeth kind love, wisdom, and knowing; and it is God. (LT 60)
Our Mother in nature, our Mother in grace, because he wanted altogether to become our Mother in all things, made the foundation of his work most humbly and most mildly in the maiden’s womb. And he revealed that in the first revelation, when he brought that meek maiden before the eye of my understanding in the simple stature which she had when she conceived; that is to say that our great God, the supreme wisdom of all things, arrayed and prepared himself in this humble place, all ready in our poor flesh, himself to do the service and the office of motherhood in everything.
The mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest. No one ever might or could perform this office fully, except only him.
We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death. O, what is that? But our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless love. … This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom and knowledge, and this is God.
One can hardly imagine a stronger affirmation of the unconditional love of God. How much does a mother love her children? God loves his infinitely more.
2) Divine love excludes wrath.
In a book full of theological surprises, perhaps the most startling is Julian’s statement that in her showings she does not see any sign of the divine wrath. This omission surprises her, for she has been taught by Holy Church that “we be sinners and do many evilles that we oughte to leve, and leve many good dedes undone that we oughte to do, wherfore we deserve paine, blame, and wrath” (LT 46). Yet despite the undeniable actuality of human wickedness, God’s divine anger is absent in his revelation: (a) because anger cannot exist within the God who is absolute goodness and unconditional love, and (b) because the union between God and human beings is inalienable:
And notwithstonding alle this, I saw sothfastly that oure lorde was never wroth nor never shall. For he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is pees. And his might, his wisdom, his charite, and his unite suffereth him not to be wroth. For I saw truly that it is against the properte of his might to be wroth, and against the properte of his wisdom, and against the properte of his goodnes. God is that goodnesse that may not be wroth, for God is not but goodnes. Oure soule is oned to him, unchangeable goodnesse. And betwen God and oure soule is neither wrath nor forgevenesse in his sight. For oure soule is so fulsomly oned to God of his owne goodnesse that betwene God and oure soule may be right nought. (LT 46)
And despite all this, I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be. Because he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is peace; and his power, his wisdom, his charity and his unity do not allow him to be angry. For I saw truly that it is against the property of his power to be angry, and against the property of his wisdom and against the property of his goodness. For it is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness. And between God and our soul there is neither wrath nor forgiveness in his sight. For our soul is so wholly united to God, through his own goodness, that between God and our soul nothing can interpose.
The first reason is easily grasped, I think. If God genuinely and always wills the good and wellness of those whom God has freely created in his goodness, then he will never act in ways that might irreparably harm them. Whatever justice might mean, therefore, it cannot mean anything less than the realization of their good—at least so I think Julian would argue. She does not see wrath or retributive punishment in God because it has no place in the One who is Love and Goodness. This apprehension of divinity leads Julian to the conclusion that God does not literally forgive:
For this was an hye marveyle to the soule, which was continuantly shewed in alle and with gret diligence beholden: that oure lorde God, as anynst himself, may not forgeve, for he may not be wroth. It were impossible. For this was shewed: that oure life is alle grounded and roted in love, and without love we may not live. And therfor, to the soule that of his special grace seeth so ferforth of the hye, marvelous goodnesse of God, and that we be endlesly oned to him in love, it is the most unpossible that may be that God shulde be wrath. (LT 49)
For it was a great marvel, constantly shown to the soul in all the revelations, and the soul was contemplating with great diligence that our Lord God cannot in his own judgment forgive, because he cannot be angry—that would be impossible. For this was revealed, that our life is all founded and rooted in love, and without love we cannot live. And therefore to the soul which by God’s special grace sees so much of his great and wonderful goodness as that we are endlessly united to him in love, it is the most impossible thing which could be that God might be angry.
God cannot forgive because he has not been injured by the sins of humanity. They do not, as Herbert McCabe liked to say, make a difference to him. God simply loves—totally, absolutely, unconditionally, transformatively. Consider the parable of the prodigal son. When the son returns home, the Father runs out to greet him, cuts shorts the prodigal’s confession, and orders the making of a feast. The father speaks no words of absolution. There is only celebration. As Turner observes: “He offers no forgiveness after the event because he does not need to; the forgiveness was always there before the event of the son’s betrayal, because forgiveness was in the very nature of his fatherhood” (p. 127).
The second reason Julian offers for the absence of divine wrath is somewhat obscure. Given that God has freely created us from out of nothing and continues to sustain us in being, this very fact witnesses to the absence of divine wrath: “For sothly, as to my sight, if God might be wroth a touch, we shuld neither have life, ne sted [locality], ne being” (LT 49). But Julian also seems to be making a stronger claim: namely, because of our abiding union with our Creator, not only can we not undo our existence but we cannot extinguish our desire for God as our supreme good and eschatological end. She posits in every human being (or at least in every human being “that shalle be saved”) a bestial will and a godly will. The godly will, Julian tells us, has “never assented to sinne, nor never shalle” (LT 37). Fallen humanity is so immersed in the sensual world that it has lost sight of its fundamental orientation to God, yet it remains deep within each of us. “This godly will,” comments Denys Turner, “is the level of true desire that is indeed there already in us” (p. 170). Neither original sin nor our actual sins has obliterated it. No matter how mortal our sin, it is never quite fully mortal. Turner continues: “There is nothing that we have to get ourselves to do except allow ourselves to be drawn by grace to see that we love God anyway, for loving God comes with our being created by God’s love for us. It is only sin that prevents us from seeing this and causes us to misrelate to our selves and our truest loves” (pp. 170-171). The Christian life is a seeking for that which we already possess and need to repossess. Julian then makes the following astounding claim:
For or that he made us he loved us, and when we were made we loved him. And this is a love made of the kindly, substantial goodnesse of the holy gost, mighty in reson of the mighte of the fader, and wise in minde of the wisdom of the son. And thus is mannes soule made of God, and in the same pointe knit to God. … And in this endlesse love, mannis soule is kepte hole, as all the mater of the revelation meneth and sheweth, in which endlesse love we be ledde and kepte of God, and never shalle be lost. (LT 53)
For before he made us he loved us, and when we were made we loved him; and this is made only of the natural substantial goodness of the Holy Spirit, mighty by reason of the might of the Father, wise in mind of the wisdom of the Son. And so is man’s soul made by God, and in the same moment joined to God. … In this endless love man’s soul is kept whole, as all the matter of the revelation means and shows. In this endless love we are led and protected by God, and we never shall be lost.
“We shall never be lost”—to whom is the promise spoken? To Julian and her readers, to the baptized, to the elect, to all mankind?
3) What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.
“There is a deed the which the blisseful trinite shalle do in the last day,” the anchoress prophesies (LT 32). What this deed will be and when it will occur is unknown to all creatures. It is, as we say, a mystery. All we need to know is this:
This is the gret deed ordained of oure lorde God fro without beginning, tresured and hid in his blessed brest, only knowen to himselfe, by which deed he shalle make all thing wele. For right as the blessed trinite made alle thing of nought, right so the sam blessed trinite shale make wele alle that is not welle. (LT 32)
This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from without beginning, treasured and hidden in his blessed breast, known only to himself, through which deed he will make all things well. For just as the blessed Trinity created all things from nothing, just so will the same blessed Trinity make everything well which is not well.
Julian does not know how to rationally harmonize her shewings with the teaching of the Church on hell: “And stonding alle this, methought it was unpossible that alle maner of thing shuld be wele, as oure lorde shewde in this time” (LT 32). In response Christ reiterates his promise: “That that is unpossible to the is not unpossible to me. I shalle save my worde in alle thing, and I shalle make althing wele.” Watson and Jenkins interpret Christ’s words as promising “the reconciliation of orthodox teaching on damnation with God’s message of love to Julian” (p. 224). Still we wonder. How well is well? How well will well be? Turner construes the pledge as eschatological manifestation of the behoveliness of perdition. Just as we will be given to see the befittingness of evil within the economy of salvation, so we will come to understand the inconceivable befittingness of everlasting damnation and loss (pp. 106-109). The conflict between magisterial teaching on hell and the revelation to Julian of God’s infinite love is therefore only apparent. We cannot see the reconciliation now because we grasp only a fragment of the story:
The Church teaches that many are damned. Her shewings reveal to her a God whose love is so universal and inclusive as to be beyond the need even to forgive sins, never mind any desire to punish for them. But that is the point: the tension between her two sources is troublingly present in a way that it would not be were Julian to have seriously challenged the Church’s teaching in a universalist manner. Moreover, what does seem to be clear is that her frequently repeated references to “all that shalle be saved,” though theoretically open to the possibility that every soul is to be saved, is more naturally read against the background of her unambiguous declarations that many are not. It is therefore true that, as Watson and Jenkins say, Julian is caused to be anxious by the difficulty of reconciling the universal love of God with the fact that some place themselves by their own choices outside that love. But when she tells God of this anxiety Julian admits that “as to this, I had no other answere in shewing of oure lorde but this: ‘that that is unpossible to the[e] is not unpossible to me. I shalle save my worde in alle thing, and I shalle make althing wele.'” It does not seem right to conclude that the Lord’s answer “I shalle make althing wele” entails that, contrary to the teaching of the Church, God will pull off the “impossibility” of saving everyone. It seems a more natural reading of what Julian says that the impossibility of which the Lord speaks refers to her problem of seeing how the damnation of many can be made consistent with God’s making “althing wele,” that what seems impossible to her is not an impossibility to God. (pp. 106-107)
I am unconvinced. If Turner’s reading is accurate, then the shewings seem all too inconsequential. God is absolute love, we are told, and therefore we should think of perdition not as an act of divine wrath and retribution but rather as an enactment of love. God does not justly condemn to hell; we choose hell and God confirms our choices. The traditional teaching is thus preserved by being made even more intolerable. Do not be anxious. One day you will see that hell is well.
Surely, though, “All shall be well” and “I shall make all things well” intimate something far more glorious than the behoveliness of eternal damnation. Perhaps in heaven we may come to see that evil and sin somehow belong to the providence of God, thus resolving many of our theodicean problems; but do not the words of the Savior bespeak something even greater and more wondrous? The divine promise portends an eschatological act, an unexpected “gret deed” that redeems, heals, and makes whole. Hence I propose an alternative reading, along the lines of the illumination given to St Isaac the Syrian:
I am of the opinion, that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. (The Second Part 39.6)
Accordingly we say that, even in the matter of the afflictions and sentence of Gehenna, there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and wilfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection His dispensation wherein lies the teaching which makes wise, and the advantage beyond description, hidden from both angels and human beings, hidden too from those who are being chastised, whether they be demons or human beings, hidden for as long as the ordained period of time holds sway. (39.20)
How is it possible that the God of love might save the incorrigibly impenitent? Like Julian, we cannot see beyond the limits of human freedom. If God has brought into being a world in which human beings may irrevocably reject him, which apparently he has, how can we hope for the salvation of all? Even so Christ speaks to Julian, and through her to us, his eschatological promise:
And thus oure good lorde answered to alle the questions and doutes that I might make, sayeng full comfortabely: “I may make alle thing wele, and I can make alle thing welle, and I wille make alle thing wele, and I shalle make alle thing welle. And thou shal se thyselfe that alle maner of thing shall be welle.” There he seyth “I may,” I understonde for the father; and there he seyth “I can,” I understond for the sonne; and there he seyth “I wille,” I understonde for the holy gost; and there he seyth “I shalle,” I understonde for the unite of the blessed trinite, thre person and on truth. And there he seyth “thou shalt se thyselfe,” I understond the oning of alle mankinde that shall be saved into the blissful trinite. (LT 31; my emphasis)
The wellness of hell or the salvation of the damned—which “impossibility” seems more like the God who conquered death on the Cross and rose into indestructible life on Easter morning?