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Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich

A Radically Optimistic Theology

Friday, May 15, 2020

Julian of Norwich

A Radically Optimistic Theology
Friday, May 15, 2020

My friend Mirabai Starr is gifted with the ability to deliver the teachings of the mystics straight to our hearts. Here is what she says about Julian of Norwich:

The medieval English anchoress Julian of Norwich bequeathed us a radically optimistic theology. She had no problem admitting that human beings have a tendency to go astray. We rupture relationships, dishonor the Divine, make unfortunate choices, and try to hide our faults. And yet, Julian insists, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” [1]

Take that in.

This assertion is meant to penetrate the fog of our despair and wake us up. . . . Julian repeats her declaration three times—most emphatically the third: All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well. She does not ask us to . . . [relegate] everything that unfolds to the will of God, calling it perfect against all evidence to the contrary. She squarely faces the inevitability that we will miss the mark [what Julian calls “sin”] and that there is wickedness in this world. Even so, she is convinced that the nature of the Divine is loving-kindness, and she wants us to absorb this into every fiber of our being.

In her mystical masterwork The Showings, Julian shares that she used to obsess about sin. She couldn’t figure out why God, who is all-powerful, wouldn’t have eliminated our negative proclivities when he made the world. “If he had left sin out of creation, it seemed to me, all would be well.” But what God-the-Mother showed Julian in a near-death vision [during her thirteenth revelation] was that all shall be well anyway. Not in spite of our transgressions but because of them. [Or, as I like to say, we come to God, not by doing it right, but by doing it wrong. —RR]

Julian unpacks this for us [in chapter 27]. In doing so she dispenses with the whole concept of sin and replaces it with love. “I believe that sin has no substance,” Julian writes, “not a particle of being.” While sin itself has no existential value, it has impact. It causes pain. It is the pain that has substance.

But mercy is swiftly forthcoming. It is immediately available. Inexorable! It is frankly rude of us to doubt that all will be well. . . . “When he said these gentle words,” Julian writes, speaking of God-the-Mother, “he showed me that he does not have one iota of blame for me, or for any other person. So, wouldn’t it be unkind of me to blame God for my transgressions since he does not blame me?” The merciful nature of God renders the whole blame game obsolete. . . . In fact, it is when we stumble that the Divine looks most tenderly upon us. Our vulnerability is beautiful to God-the-Mother.

[1] Julian of Norwich, The Thirteenth Revelation, ch. 27. All quotes from Julian in this meditation come from this chapter.

Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Sounds True: 2019), 175–176.

Image credit: Revelations of Divine Love (detail), mid-15th century, (Add MS 37790) f. 97r from The British Library Manuscript, The British Library, London, England.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Julian [of Norwich] experienced . . . sixteen visions, or “showings” as she called them, all on one May night in 1373 when she was very sick and near death. As a priest held a crucifix in front of her, Julian saw Jesus suffering on the cross and heard him speaking to her for several hours . . . then she patiently spent twenty years as an anchorite in contemplation and prayer, trusting God to help her discern the deeper meanings to be found in the visions. Finally, she wrote a long [text] titled Revelations of Divine Love. —Richard Rohr
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