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Category - "Forgiveness":

Julian of Norwich: Beyond Torture – Chris Fewings

The quotations from Julian below are edited

Last year I received on my birthday a hazelnut, a traditional crucifix, and a card showing Julian of Norwich, who became in the fourteenth century the first woman to write a book in English. She was a highly original and articulate theologian and visionary, forgotten for centuries but seeming to speak directly from her time to ours.

The crucifix with its tortured Christ seemed at first a very odd gift, especially in the context of Julian of Norwich, who saw not one whit of anger in God. Then I remembered how, as she lay at death’s door at the age of thirty, she had asked for a crucifix to be held before her eyes, and wanted with medieval gruesomeness to experience Christ’s pain.

‘After this I saw the body bleed freely because of the scourging. The fair skin was broken very deep into the tender flesh with sharp blows all about his body. So the hot blood ran out so freely that I could see neither skin nor wound, but as it were all blood.’

She recovered and the visions she had seen and her thoughts on them were written down, going far beyond blood and gore and exploring the motherly love of God, especially in the second book she wrote about twenty years later.

‘I saw that he is to us everything that is good and comforting for us: he is our clothing that wraps us, clasps us, and enfolds us because of his tender love, that he may never leave us; being to us everything that is good.’

* * * * *

‘He shewed me a little thing, the size of an hazelnut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And the answer came: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last: it was tiny it might just have disappeared. And the answer came to mind: it lasts because God loves it.’

Her view of the fall is encapsulated in her vision of a lord sending a servant on a mission:

‘I saw a master and a servant, the master sitting calmly and in peace, the servant standing before his master reverently, ready to do his will. The master looks upon his servant lovingly, and sends him off to do his bidding. The servant not only goes, but starts at once, and runs in great haste, eager to do his master’s will. But then he falls and is badly hurt, and groans and moans and wails and struggles, but he can neither rise nor help himself in any way.

‘I marvelled how this servant might meekly suffer there all this woe, and I looked carefully to learn if I could perceive in him any fault, or if the master should assign him any blame. And in truth there was none, for only his goodwill and his great desire was cause of his falling; he had no hate, and was as good inwardly as when he stood before his master, ready to do his will. His master looked on him with all tenderness and compassion — and I also saw him rejoicing to think of the restoration he would bring his servant by his plentiful grace.

‘Now this courteous master says “Look, look, my beloved servant, what harm and distress he has taken in my service in his eagerness. Is it not fitting that I recompense him for his shock, his hurt, his injury and all his woe? And not only this, but should I not give him a gift that will be better to him than his own wholeness should have been? How else can I thank him?”‘

* * * * *

‘A mother may let her child fall sometimes, and to be hurt in various ways, but she would never allow any real danger to come to the child. And even if our earthly mother let her child perish, our heavenly mother, Jesus, will never allow his children to perish.’

Julian’s writings have been important to me for nearly thirty years. I wrote this short poem last year because in receiving the crucifix I realised that I had skimmed over her close attention to the tortured Christ. She is the voice of the motherly love of God, but she does not shy away from pain and cruelty.

JULIAN

Before she was enfolded and enfolded us
in words that recognise that mothering
is more than something local (a universal
sling holding us to the torso of reality,
as we cry out to our core of being),
she saw the worst that men can do to men
and felt her life suspended. So if you
would like to hold a hazelnut in hand
and know the woods that can enclose you
can be enclosed in a single palm,
don’t shrink away from Amnesty International,
special rendition, fingernails ripped off.
There may be nothing you can do but run on errands
and fall until your ankle’s twisted round.
The mother-king will raise you to herself.

Julian’s feast day is celebrated on 8th May in the Church of England, and 13th May in the Church of Rome. More extracts from her work can be found on Wikiquote. I was introduced to her work by the booklet Enfolded in Love edited by Robert Llewelyn. The photograph (of Norwich Cathedral) is from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday In Holy Week: Evelyn Underhill on Forgiveness

Forgive

There is no lesson Christ loves better to drive home, than this disconcerting fact of our common human fragility: which, when we have truly grasped it, kills resentment and puts indulgent piety in its place. Let the man, the group, the nation that is without sin cast the first stone. God’s forgiveness means the compassionate recognition of the weakness and instability of man; how often we cannot help it, how truly there is in us a ‘root and ground of sin’, an implicit rebellion against the Holy, a tendency away from love and peace. And this requires of us the constant compassionate recognition of our fellow-creatures’ instability and weakness; of the fact that they too cannot help it.

If the Christian penitent dares to ask that his many departures from the Christian norm, his impatience, gloom, self-occupation, unloving prejudices, reckless tongue, feverish desires, with all the damage they have caused to Christ’s Body, are indeed to be set aside, because—in spite of all—he longs for God and Eternal Life; then he too must set aside and forgive all that impatience, selfishness, bitter and foolish speech, sudden yieldings to base impulse in others have caused him to endure. Hardness is the one impossible thing. Harshness to others in those who ask and need the mercy of God sets up a conflict at the very heart of personality and shuts the door upon grace. And that which is true of the individual soul, is also true of the community; the penitent nation seeking the path of life must also conform to the law of charity.

This principle applied in its fullness makes a demand on our generosity which only a purified and self-oblivious love can hope to meet. For every soul that appeals for God’s forgiveness is required to move over to His side, and share the compassionate understanding, the unmeasured piety, with which he looks on human frailty and sin. So difficult is this to the proud and assertive creature, that it comes very near the end of our education in prayer. Indeed the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is so drastic and so difficult , where there is a real and deep injury to forgive, that only those living in the Spirit, in union with the Cross, can dare to base their claim on it.

Evelyn Underhill

Abba (1940)
The illustration, Detail of charred cross – Coventry Cathedral, is Forgive by: Alan M Barker via Seed Resources

Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?


Love means never having to say you’re sorry. So said Ali McGraw to Ryan O’Neal as she lay dying at the end of ‘Love Story’, coining a catchphrase which summed up attitudes at the end of the flower-power decade of the 1960s.

It’s not true, of course: anyone acting seriously on this relationship advice is going to end up without any relationships, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox knew:

There’s one sad truth in life I’ve found
While journeying east and west –
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
But deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.

 

‘Repentance Becomes a Trend as Thousands Tweet #SorryJesus’, reported Emma Koonse in the Christian Post on 27 September 2011. However, she did not attempt to analyse any possible reasons for this. The tweets began on Monday 26th/Tuesday 27th, according to where you are in relation to Greenwich Mean Time, and are continuing as I write this post. Well, maybe there is something in the air, to which the collective unconscious has responded via social media, since twitter and facebook are increasingly the outlet for the collective unconscious – always supposing you believe there is any such thing, of course. Some of the tweets are silly, but some are genuinely moving including the heartfelt:

‘Sorry Jesus for nailing you back to the cross for the wrongs I do.’

I think it is no coincidence that October 8th this year is the Jewish ‘Yom Kippur’ or Day of Atonement, which the Church of England might do well to copy (after all Christmas is linked with Hanukkah, and Easter with Passover) – though perhaps ‘Day of Apology’ would sound more Anglican? – Our own lectionary for the day after Yom Kippur, October 9th, is all about repentance and forgiveness. Confession and Absolution are already, of course, firmly embedded in the liturgy but: whereas once Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent, Christians, says Dom Anthony Sutch:

must recognise their own need for help and ask for forgiveness. St Benedict in his Rule expects the individual to acknowledge his wrongdoing in the presence of the community. St. Benedict thought this the best way for men to repair broken bonds. In the same way, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is initiated by the person seeking forgiveness, who is then forgiven in the name both of God and of the community…this is of enormous importance, since any fault affects everyone else. Sin is not a private zone.

Frank Sinatra has a lot to answer for in what became his theme tune, adopted by several truculent East End gangsters for their funerals:

And now, the end is here, And so I face the final curtain…
Regrets, I’ve had a few – But then again, too few to mention…
I’ve lived a life that’s full; I’ve travelled each and every highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it My Way.

 

 

Edith Piaf famously regretted nothingneither the good anyone has done me, nor the evil, it’s all the same to me – it’s been paid for, swept away and forgotten. I start again from zero. However, although she intends to be every bit as truculent as the gangsters, she in fact crystallises the Christian message: our sins are redeemed (or paid for) by the sacrifice of our Lord’s crucifixion, enabling them to be swept away and forgotten so that we can start again at the beginning, washed in the blood of the Lamb.

And what have you been up to this week? Committed any murders in Middlesbrough? Is Aylesbury awash with adultery? Are you all stealing from each other in Swansea? No, I thought not. When we look back at our sins, they are not the major, headline-grabbers of murder, adultery and theft: what we do all have in common, surely, is ‘something to expiate, a pettiness’. In one of his best-loved poems, D H Lawrence describes beautifully just this feeling of remorse:

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me…
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth…

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness

‘The Snake’ Taormina, 1923

And then, like John Donne, we must be ‘done’ with sinning: John Donne’s ‘Hymn to God the Father

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sins, through which…..
And do them still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy sun
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done; I have no more

 

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Note

The illustration is by Jan Martin Will via Shutterstock and she has entitled it ‘Emperor Penguin gets rejected by another Emperor Penguin.’

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