Julian notes: Shame

To understand Julian of Norwich’s revelations and spiritual journey, we must start with shame.

It is the journey of a little girl who prayed to suffer an illness unto death. (I’ll leave you to consider why a child would pray for that.)

It starts with a little girl who prayed for an experience of Christ’s passion – for the terrible experience of Mary at the foot of the cross; for the experience of Christ himself on the cross.

She prayed for these things. And why? She wasn’t worthy; she was a bad girl. You can hear this voice, this perception throughout her writing.

She needed to suffer to learn contrition. So she chooses the greatest suffering she can think of, at Golgotha.

And, of course, the church was no help to a personality such as hers. In one sense, the church loved her shame. It made them so much more powerful, more necessary.

And they certainly did everything they could to encourage it – to encourage people in thoughts of their own wickedness, in thoughts of God’s anger towards them, in imagining God’s spilling rage.

Here was a vicious circle for this faithful child of the church – illness feeding on illness, a sick form of co-dependency. To be free of shame, Julian needed the church’s forgiveness. To remain powerful, the church needed Julian’s shame.

But what emerged in the visions given to Julian on May 8th 1373 broke this vicious circle. And no one is more surprised than Julian as she discovers no wrath in God.

‘I saw no wrath in God’ – she says, and repeats the line at various points, for it is an astounding statement and one quite without precedent.

Certainly there was no voice at the time saying anything remotely similar.

The wrath of God at human sin was the headline story of contemporary theology …and painted on the walls of every church.

Yet Julian saw no wrath in God …and breathe.

It wasn’t that Julian was soft on sin – my goodness me, no. She goes on and on about the awfulness of sin, both hers and others’.

She knew the damage sin did in the world. And her own sense of shame magnified it on her psychological horizons.

But what changes is the transaction taking place inside her. Instead of an endless cycle of human sin feeding God’s wrath, feeding more guilt and shame – the circle is broken…for there is no wrath.

And in its place is intimacy, a ‘courteous’ God, a God who ‘gazes on me lovingly’, a God who asks if she is ‘satisfied’ with him. Here is a ‘homely’ God, a word she uses thirty times, meaning safe, familiar…and the opposite of furious.

‘Why do I blame myself if God does not blame me?’ she asks – and that’s quite an arrival for Julian.

In her visions, given over eleven hours, she discovers a number of other attributes of God so shocking/enlightened, that they were repressed by the church for another 600 years.

Even today, much of what she wrote threatens Christians who prefer an angry God; an anger they understand from their experience of humans, and so easily transpose onto God.

‘Of course he must be furious – I would be!’

But while Julian always believed herself a faithful child of the church, never wishing to speak against it, her re-imagining of God is profound.

Her visions would certainly have been enough to see her burnt, had anyone read her work at the time.

In 1401, Archbishop Arundel, King Henry IV and parliament sanctioned the statute De Haeretico Comburendo(On the burning of heretics), which, for the first time, made incineration of heretics legal in England.

Julian would have been vulnerable. I suspect she lived in some terror towards the end; her remarkable manuscript her prosecutor.

But the (hidden) truth was, she saw no wrath in God; and for a little girl full of shame, this discovery was quite enough and at the heart of all her adventures.

Shame was dissolved (slowly, because it’s a cockroach) and replaced by delighted trust; and though she sometimes mislaid this understanding, she never lost it.

The bomb she put under the church’s teaching concerning divine anger, left the teaching in ruins; it left no part standing.

But for Julian, they were happy ruins. 

My novel on the life of Julian of Norwich, The Secret Testament of Julian, published by White Crow, is available now.

Leave a Reply