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Posts Tagged "Julian of Norwich":

Cells In The Body Of God’s Universe? – Chris Fewings


The Christian Pentecost, celebrated tomorrow, crowns the 50 days of Easter. It’s a reincarnation of the risen Christ in the body of believers animated by the “Creator Spirit”. This rich sequence of spring festivals deserves a second look whatever your creed. You don’t need to assent to a fourth-century formula of the Trinity to enter into the poetry of the earth breathing new life, inspiring a babble of praise.

For most churchgoers in Britain, Easter pretty much finishes with Sunday lunch on Easter Day. After that, there’s only the rest of the chocolate, a few stragglers at evening services, and the bank holiday family outing. Following the intensity of Holy Week, with its numerous re-enactments of Passiontide events, there is no equivalent excitement in Easter week. There are Easter hymns for the next couple of Sundays, but few make much of the fact that the season lasts a full seven weeks, longer than Lent, whose 40 days still feature in the popular consciousness.

For over a thousand years the western church has buried a startling welcome to sin in the middle of the long and glorious Exsultet traditionally sung by the deacon on Easter night: “O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam, which merited such and so great a Redeemer.” This echoes Julian of Norwich’s equally startling medieval dictum, made famous by T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding: “Sin is behovely”, which I take to mean “appropriate”. For sin read separation: whatever separates us from each other, from the rest of creation, and from the source of everything. Pride, the ego’s attempt to rise above all around it, is the sin of Lucifer.

In a fascinating essay in the book Ecopsychology*, Mary Gomes and Alan Kanner probe the relevance of our sense of self to the environmental crisis, focusing on the early development of the child. So far as we know, newborn babies make few if any distinctions in their experience, not even between “self” and “mother”. These develop with time, but differently in different cultures: in ours we have built up the fiercest distinction ever known between humans and the rest of the biosphere, which has simply become a resource we can exploit in any way we please. This attitude, combined with our ingenuity, has led the biosphere to the brink of the sixth great extinction – the first conscious one. The essay discusses the “separative self” – we are still dependent on our environment for each breath we take, but our actions are based on the illusion of independence.

But separation is behovely. The child’s ego must be allowed to develop. Language, even thought, depends on making distinctions; a word or concept defines something by excluding other things. The fatal flaw arises from making separation absolute. Redemption is a dialectic: we think ourselves separate, rise up on angel’s wings, then are dashed down when the reality of total interdependence calls us back to earth. Like a parent picking up a fallen toddler, life sets us back on course, hopefully a little wiser. We fall at another hurdle, learn a little more. Eventually we may learn respect for our limitations, teamwork, even love – but we can and must still strike out on our own, to fall back again into the loving arms of interdependence, learned in a new way each time.

Easter, observed just after the first full moon following the equinox, is – like spring itself – a blaze of light bursting in on darkness. The light of Christ is an invitation to the dance – come closer, go to arm’s length, be pulled back. In our era we are better at learning this in relation to each other than in relation to the earth itself. We pull further and further away, crucifying not only other species, but our own fullness as part of an ecosystem. Even most models of environmentalism paint us as caretakers of a separate “natural world”. Paul’s cosmic Christ calls us to more than this – rediscovering ourselves as cells in the body of God’s universe.

This article was printed in the Face to Faith column of the Guardian in 2008, under the name Chris Duggan.

The discussion on the article is still on the Guardian website. My favourite comment is “Where does Jesus stand on subsidies for wind and solar power? Oh, he’s too busy dancing in the new moon or something.” Some others engage more deeply with the article.

*You can read part of Ecopsychology at Amazon:  ECOPYSCHOLOGY: Restoring the earth, healing the mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (2002)

The image is Creator spirit by: David Perry via Seed Resources

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.


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

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