The God of Mercy in a Time of Plague

Setting the Scene: Plague as Context and Text

Julian of Norwich (1342-1429) is one of those remarkable medieval women mystics like Hildegaard of Bingen (1095-1179), Hadewijch of Antwerp (thirteenth century), Marguerite Porete (1250-1310), Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), and Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380), all instructors in the mystical life, speaking of and enjoining a maximal Christianity that if characterized by suffering and trial, had as it aim intimacy with God understood as an infinite reality pledged to be in relationship with us as individuals (whether clerical or lay, whether man or woman) as well as pledged to be with his Church and communicate truths about himself and his relation to us through the fundamental vehicles of the Church, its creeds, its doctrines, its sacraments, and its spiritual and moral instruction.

These women do and do not constitute a type: each is in a liminal space vis-à-vis the ecclesiastical establishment, inside it but not at the very center; most write in the vernacular whether German, Dutch, Italian, old French or Middle English. Yet their gifts are diverse; some are visionaries, others are poets; some pay close attention to the institutional Church, others work very much to the side of it; some focus on their own experience of God, others focus on what their experience of God means for the Christian community at large in its fragmented and sinful state. They are in effect singularities with different but related agendas of reform of the Church or the realization of Christianity at both its profoundest depths and most glorious heights.

Julian of Norwich holds her own in this very distinguished company and bequeaths a text, “Showings” or “Revelations,” which, if marked by her English medieval context, is sui generis. To say that she is marked by her context is to say that she inherits a particular form of Christian spirituality that is Christocentric, and specifically focused on the Cross and especially on the humanity of Christ as mediating salvation. But her work is also marked by the Black Death (though not as obviously), which like COVID is both international and national, having moved from the East through trade routes to arrive in Europe in 1348, travelling from south to north and decimating the population wherever it went.

When the catastrophic outbreak of the bubonic plague occurs in Norwich in 1348 Julian—not her real name, but the name of Saint Julian’s church with which her hermitage is associated—is six years of age. The first outbreak of the plague in Norwich (then England’s second city) on some estimates has a 50% mortality rate. There are subsequent outbreaks also, a major one in 1361 that takes 10% of the population. There were further outbreaks, about every ten years or so that remind the population of the catastrophe of 1348 and kept pressure not only on the sense of human mortality, but also forced to the surface the full range of negative responses to the dreaded disease: the horror at the ugliness of the disease that reduces bodies to pustules and pus just the opposite of the good death; the recoil of family and friends from those who have it; the common trauma of mass burial and burning; the numbing of sensibilities as individuals grope to accommodate and normalize the terrible; imagination run riot—devils everywhere—and the thirst for any explanation as to who brought the city and the surrounding countryside into this afflicted state, ourselves or a particular group (the Jews) who might serve as a the scapegoat for an event and trial that has made us less than human, reduced us as Simone Weil might say to the state of “affliction” and the domain of necessity in which we come to experience that God does not hear our prayers and/or we have found ourselves too withdrawn and sealed to be able to pray.

Finally, of course, there is the question whether the abhorrent disease that makes us forget anything good or beautiful we have found in life that would make us think fondly—even if with considerable regret—of leavetaking as we or those we love die in agony, our and their shame out there for all to see, the last vestiges of dignity removed. Is the plague God’s judgment on our communities for infidelity and our transgressions, just punishment for what we have done and what we have failed to do? A perennial question, one that has occupied us in the modern period with all its calamities, wars, genocides and ethnic cleansings, tsunamis, and, of course, plagues.

The bubonic plague is an event that is there at the very beginning of Julian’s life and at its end, and shadows everything in between. It makes her think of life not simply as marked by suffering not otherwise specified, but by appalling suffering that is graphic and elemental in its attack on the human body, revealing far more than its precariousness, but laying bare the soul. Suffering tunnels inward to claim the soul of the one who almost certainly will die and cycles to the traumatized families who have already long since said goodbye and have turned to contemplate the prospects of their own appalling exit. Julian also seems to recognize the insidious way the disease breaks familial and community bonds that provide the environment in which the dignity of each person and therefore all is made possible. This, rather than caginess, perhaps explains not only Julian’s stated conviction that the “showings” are less God’s gift to her than to the community, and her constant references throughout to the need for the wholeness and integrity of the community that is essentially under siege.

Showings: The Two Texts

Remarkably, throughout “Showings” there is not a single direct recall of the plague. Still, there is much in the text that suggests that the plague provides the script of a form of hyperbolic suffering of human beings that only becomes bearable when the measure provided is the suffering of Christ. Similar to the plague-ravaged body of the citizens of Norwich and London, and European cities everywhere, the body of Christ is graphically disfigured and repulsive, and both redolent and creative of an almost unbearable form of aloneness. Not all of the sixteen visions, but the more visual of them focus on the bleeding and battered body of Christ, the crown of thorns and the tearing of and hanging down of Christ’s scalp (1), the discoloration of his face from yellow tinge to brown and blue ending in black (2); the scourging and the massive tears in his back (4), his final agony and death (8), and his postmortem pierced heart (10). We are spared no detail: as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ there is blood and gore everywhere.

Again, despite the lack of historical reference we get a sense of the medieval understanding of the interaction of the infernal with the normal order in Julian’s sporadic references to devils who, if they could be blamed for disease, are also in a battle with angels for the souls of the afflicted at the hour of their death. Undoubtedly, the references to devils read more like an appeal to a convention that could or should be questioned than a principled conviction. Questioned also is the hysterical coping strategy of medieval communities of laughing at devil—a coping strategy that Julian herself exhibits in in her tête-à-tête with Christ for which she receives a reproof. The very coping strategy suggests that so-called Christian believers have far more faith in devils than in God and that this is the relationship that goes deepest despite the Church’s avowal of Christ and its mediation of his grace and despite our convictions about the omnipotence and omniscience as well as the goodness of God.  

There is much more in the text than the visions of the crucified Christ, and necessarily so, for the issue of the text is not the suffering itself, but rather its meaning as it relates to our salvation. Do the visions suggest a call for repentance and/or imitation? These are options routinely taken up in the medieval period. Or are they intended to provide consolation for the Christian community from which she never separates her charism. The answer cannot be read off the visions themselves, which it turns out are an answer if, and only if, the right questions are asked. So, Showings is not simply a chronicle of sixteen visions—not all of which are graphic in any event—but the visions interpreted and explicated and submitted to theological reflection over two distinct periods of Julian’s life as an anchoress marked by asceticism and prayer, and her reading of scripture.

The visions occurred in 1373. They are the subject of the so-called “Short Text” (circa 35 pages). Despite the desire to let the visions speak for themselves as much as possible, they are not left uninterpreted, nor does the “Short Text” fail to suggest theological implications that might be at odds with Church teaching. The second text produced in 1393, the so-called “Long Text,” sticks faithfully to the original sixteen visions, though interpretation and theological explication is significantly more expansive in a text that is approximately four times as long as the “Short Text.” It should not go unnoticed that in explicating her visions of Christ Julian pays attention to the Gospel narratives and in interpreting her visions evokes John and Paul—in the latter case especially to Philippians, First Corinthians, and Romans. She also pays attention to Church teaching on Christ and his salvific capacity, the nature and origin of sin, the reality of hell, as well as the nature of beatitude.

Despite the manifest tension between some of her interpretations or theological speculations and Church teaching on many of the above matters, she willingly concedes to Church authority—and avoids the Inquisition and the unhappy fate of Marguerite Porete. In line with the “Short Text” she insists that her views—based on what she saw—can ultimately be squared with the Church if not necessarily in this life. Despite her continual avowal of submission to Church authority Julian seems for more subjectively confident in the “Longer Text” about the validity of her interpretations of the visions and the drawing out of their theological implications—though she continues to admit that neither is probative. 

Because of the radical nature of some of her views, especially but not only her conjectures regarding universal salvation, the temptation exists to read Showings as if it were a theological text in which Julian cannily gives cover to her unorthodox views by tying them to visions, whose value will ultimately be decided by the Church. Plausible as this interpretive strategy might appear, it hardly does justice to a text in which the terms “comfort,” “consolation,” and “solace” are everywhere, and where what the human situation demands is an alleviation of our suffering and a buttress against the despair that arises when we look at our sinfulness, indeed cannot take our eyes off it.

The Showings are essentially a book of consolation in line with Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. The consolation is intended to be effected by drawing out the implications of Christ’s passion and death. One obvious implication is that of Christ’s solidarity with our human suffering. Another implication is that the suffering of Christ is such that it exceeds and encompasses ours. It exceeds because though the suffering is associated with Christ’s humanity, the fact that Christ is divine makes the suffering infinite in dimension as well as monumentally gratuitous. It envelops in that even though the suffering occurs at a particular moment in history, it is exemplary and cradles the suffering of all persons and communities throughout history.

There is a sense then in which in a surprising way Pascal’s claim that Christ suffers with all of us until the end of history and the world is anticipated by Julian. In terms of function and/or our reception of it, if Christ’s solidarity with our suffering makes us feel less alone, the excess and exemplarity of his suffering consoles by downsizing our own suffering. The suffering is further downsized by Julian referring to the temporal span of our suffering: compared to the life of bliss, honor, and delight that is promised, our suffering is but a moment, a blink, a brief candle mercifully snuffed out.

The visions, the visual and non-visual ones, which are accompanied by “imagined” auditions of Christ speaking, are also intended to provide comfort for those distressed by sin and its eternal consequences, mainly the fear of hell, but perhaps also a fear of purgatory understood as a place of punishment rather than purification and the prospect of an almost endless but not quite everlasting state of existence that does not enjoy communion with God. The downsizing of sin happens along a number of different tracks. Julian exclaims in both the long and short text that in her visions she did not see sin, thereby leaving it to her readers to determine the status of sin vis-à-vis the appearance of a lordly but utterly benevolent Christ. She adds that to the degree to which creatures appeared in her vision, despite the distortions of sin, no one is corrupted all the way down: at their core or at their bedrock each has a “godly will.” (vision 4). This is supported and buttressed by the view of creation as a “hazelnut,” a homely characterization intended to suggest something about the loveliness as well as fragile character of the order of creation that God lovingly brings into being (vision 3).

Christ: Character, Disposition, and Nature of God

The main vistas for consolation of those who fear God’s judgment and eternal and semi-permanent punishment across both the Short and Long text are the depiction of Christ, his character, his disposition towards us, and what we might call his theological status. I will treat each in turn. In terms of character, despite or because of his suffering, Christ is lordly. Undoubtedly, Christ’s suffering is sacrificial; but Christ is glad to suffer on our behalf (vision 13); there is nothing grunting and grinding about it as if Christ is the hero in the latest action movie defeating the best efforts of the torturer. In a paradoxical way, suffering is easy for Christ, at least in the sense that if we knew Christ outside of his suffering we would not be so shocked that he endured this for us; if we knew our God properly, this is precisely what we would expect God to do for us.

In his untoward but seemly suffering on our behalf Christ shows his honor. Even more importantly in and through his suffering he confers honor and worth on us.  Julian’s view of the atoning sacrifice of Christ seems to be in dialogue with the atonement theory of Anselm which is similarly famed in terms of honor. In Christ’s view, which is God’s view, we are creatures first, sinners second. Moreover, we are creatures who God lovingly brings into being and remembers for the duration of our lives. God’s providence regarding his suffering, willful and despairing creatures, may be hidden, but it is definitional of who God is. God made us for fellowship with him: the intent is a promise, is irrevocable, and is the ground of the eschatological promise that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

The Lord who is at the center of Julian’s visions is magnanimous because courteous. Admittedly, “courteous” seems a weak word for us for us moderns and generally tends to mean civility as defined by our current social conventions, which are the gravamen of books of etiquette that, arguably, surpass Miss Manners in depth but perhaps not by much. Not so with Julian who understands well that the term circulates with other terms in the medieval code of honor. One extraordinary effect of the term is that it deflects attention away from focusing on honor being owed, what happens in Anselm, to honor being conferred. The most glorious Lord, astonishing in beauty even in the passion, is characterized by conferring honor on creatures that is not their own, that in short they neither possess naturally nor earn.

What is being suggested is that the visions gifted to Julian effect a re-centering of Christian faith on the essential message of the Gospel, namely, our redemption by Christ. Now, if redemption necessarily supposes sin and counters it, at the same time it is so far in excess of it as everything is to nothing. For Julian, this asymmetry between sin and redemption, which finds expression in scripture, above all in Romans 5, has a number of implications. Two are particularly important. First, in line with this asymmetry that attests to the secondness of sin and its at best parasitic nature, she reminds that the notion of sin as the privation of the good (thus at bottom devoid of substance) should not be used to reproduce the elevated consciousness of sin and a tormented conscience in which the goodness and mercy of God falls out of the Christian picture. Rather is not the basic insight that sin and its contemplation is not ultimately a decisive ingredient in the correction of our imagination and the alleviation of fear? For Julian, if fear has any place in Christianity—and she thinks it has very little—it is the reverent fear of a glorious Savior who is the object of our worship and gratitude.

Second, in contradistinction to theological authorities such as Augustine and Anselm, Julian wonders whether sin is adequately cast as rebellion and whether we would move closer to the basic phenomenon by thinking of it as a form of blindness characterized by error in judgement whose secondary effect is losing confidence in God’s mercy that is grounded in God’s indefeasible goodness. Her view is hardly without support in Scripture. It is shaped in a determinate way by the parable of the prodigal son: from the point of view of the parable the “easy” forgiving of the errant son by his loving father, who knows something the prodigal’s brother does not, is congruent with the view that while sin is not trivial, it is more in the order of dissipation than in the order of concentration in which one might be prepared to say with Milton’s Lucifer “evil be thou my good.” Nor is it without precedent in the theological tradition. Irenaeus’s view of the fragile, unsteady nature of human beings as embodied creatures who require a pedagogy in and through which we learn from our mistakes marks the approximate area in which the pondering of Julian takes place and makes intelligible her sense that sin is permitted by God and turns out to yield a good, even if a difficultly acquired one, involving the pain of repentance and the courage of perseverance.

A feature of Julian’s attempt to refocus our attention on Christ suffering and courtesy is her reserve regarding Judgment being deemed central to the character of Christ. In Showings there is no analogue to the judgment scene in The City of God that favors the apocalyptic judgement scene of Matthew 25 and the intra-historical scenarios of judgment or division between those who belong to Christ and those who belong to either Satan or the Antichrist so central to the book of Revelation. The putting in parenthesis of this characterological trait of Christ also has a profound effect on the figuration of the drama of redemption as the struggle between the prerogatives of wrath (God’s righteous anger) and mercy.

Julian is more than usually declarative for a medieval mystic given to declaratives: wrath has no prerogatives, since it really has no place in God. Julian’s relatively comprehensive set of visions no more reveals wrath than hell or at least a hell that is populated. In addition, even when she looks for it or enquires as to whether it might be implied in her visions, she comes up empty. Wrath is not a phenomenon in God; it is purely a human phenomenon and is born of ignorance and stubbornness and fueled by our shame and self-loathing. In one sense, the eclipse of wrath in Showings is a function of Julian’s separation from Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement in which the mercy of Christ is constrained by his righteous judgment of an infraction none greater than which can be thought, in another sense, it is aimed at popular piety in which the wrath of God functions as an interpreter of our world of suffering and sin that seems to have arrived at a critical threshold.

For Julian, wrath has an unfortunate hold on our imagination. Too often it is the lens in and through which we read our current reality, and if not that, then our future destiny. To imagine thus is neither to feel or think Christianly. It convicts us of lack of faith; it provides the basis of a major theological faux pas, that is, that divine mercy is fundamentally constrained by and thus determined by wrath enjoying its proper remittance. Julian does not explicitly challenge this view either on the theological grounds that it does not match up with the best in the theological tradition or philosophically it that it raises the specter that God’s mercy is finite rather than infinite. In a very real sense, Julian’s natural province is that of pictures, whether real religious pictures, the visuals of her visions or the quasi-visuals that constellate around the core visions of Christ crucified in her showings, and the interpretive figuration and re-figuration processes that are the two forms of intellectual reception that she displays and validates in her classic text.

Relative to her age of crisis and escalation of sin-consciousness she paints Christ—and thus the God revealed in Christ—otherwise. And relative to the theological tradition she wishes to disambiguate the theological picture in which if the mercy of Christ was rarely ignored, nonetheless, it tended to function against a background of divine wrath whether the wrath was associated with the Father alone or whether Christ was effectively implicated. It would be a mistake to think that Julian has no interest in aligning herself with the theological tradition more broadly and not simply for reasons of prudence.

There can be no doubt that Julian skillfully negotiates between the claims of the authority of her own visions and the authority of the Church as institution and its theological, largely Augustinian, tradition. While that might smack of contrivance to some, connivance to others, nonetheless, there is an undoubted sincerity in her painting of Christ, at once a gift of a complete portrait and a more or less empty canvas in which one finds the faint lines of an incomplete sketch accompanied by the imperative to draw and color in. She can and does (even if fleetingly) call on the Patristic motif of Christ’s descent into hell and his victory over death and sin. As the descent points to solidarity with the lost as the crowning action of Christ’s mission, it also is the epitome of who he is: boundless compassion and mercy that is not the contrary of divine power but rather its definitive expression.

Needless to say, in God no less than in human being character and disposition are intrinsically related and can only be artificially separated from each other. Nonetheless, focusing on the of Christ as a set of behaviors he exhibits towards us brings out specific aspects of his character that throw light simultaneously on his relationship to Mary as well as our relationship to both. We have already captured some elements of this disposition when we spoke to Christ’s solidarity with our suffering. More specifically, we can speak to his sympathy for the suffering of our broken and disfigured bodies that make us feel like the wretched of the earth, utterly alone, not only without comfort but without hope, and in the response of disgust and repulsion the fracturing of community. Christ, and also the Spirit of Christ, is the comforter: he shelters, protects, supports, abides with, accompanies. Moreover, he is the one who calms our fears regarding our salvation both by reminding of his constant presence and assuaging the imagination that will have us as one of the denizens of hell. Healing the imagination, which more than dogma rivets our attention, is one of the main tasks of Showings as a text of consolation in a time marked by acute suffering and the crossover to the elevation of sin-consciousness bereft of the sense of the transfiguring power of grace due to a failure to see in a gracious and courteous Christ not only the center of faith but its periphery also.

What Julian is trying to show is that there is no truth of faith that is not inflected by Christ, though obviously Christ as he has been properly figured as creator and redeemer and not as judge. To judge what something is worth before a tribunal is not a heavenly way of judging. The only judging done by God is his valuing his creatures far more than they value themselves, granting them worth that human beings routinely find inexplicable. Finally, even as early as the “Short text” the disposition of Christ towards a suffering humanity is analogous to that of Mary, since essentially her tenderness and solicitude towards a suffering and degraded humanity mirrors his. The ordering of mirroring is crucial for the text. Julian will not tolerate the disjunction of the stern Christ and the merciful mother of God interceding on our behalf as if to cajole the fire of mercy out of hard flint. If Mary is the mother of God, she is the human exemplar of her Son’s divine kindness in the world: she participates in divine mercy and demonstrates how available it is to all humanity by pointing away from herself towards her Son who is both her child and creator.

Third, and finally, from character and disposition, both of which are expressed in saving action, Julian moves to contemplate the nature of God that in both texts she makes clear is defined by love (3, 16) or even more accurately by triune love. Julian is an astonishingly Trinitarian theologian, and one can only speculate as to what she had read. Nonetheless, it is clear that he has a clear grasp of the doctrine of the Trinity and may very well have been familiar with its use in medieval mystical theology where union with the triune God defined the purpose of the pilgrimage of life and where the momentary status of union or intimacy in this life was a foretaste of the heavily state where union with the triune God was permanently enjoyed and everlastingly fruitful.

That God is love is in one sense an object of vision. Both the third and the sixteenth vision have this in view, even if there is a sense that we are talking about “vision” in an inverted comma sense and in reality signifying something more like an intellectual intuition. In another sense, that God is defined by love is something like a logical implication of Julian’s interpretation of Christ’s passion which is ordered towards our rescue from suffering and sin and the fulfillment that derives from union with God who inexplicably loves us utterly and wants us to be in communion with Him. Love is generative of a form of seeing that pierces through the ugliness of suffering and the disfiguration of sin that mark our earthy lives.

The God who loves us is seeking a responsive love from us. It may seem that when we search for God—and we often don’t—the initiative comes from us. Julian suggests in a pattern that would do justice to Augustine, Aquinas, or Dante that our seeking of God is a response to God’s seeking of us. Thus, with prayer, we will never have begun to pray to God—prayer is dialogue and communion--unless God has been the agent with respect to the seeking. Similarly, with faith defined as trust in God. God will have trusted us first, and despite or because of his omniscience will have stood by us. Our trust reflects his steadfastness. Reflection on God’s love and his steadfastness are meant to console. It is also intended to encourage a responsive love and a responsive faith.

As a text of consolation, however, in a very real sense, similar to what one often comes across in the French poet, Charles Péguy, the crux has to do with hope. Of course, the renewal of faith and the conviction of God’s enabling love both help to foster hope. Perhaps, even more there is at least an outline in Showings that the theological virtue of hope is grounded in God after the manner of faith and love. That is, our hope in the passingness and meaning of suffering and in eternal life is grounded in God’s hope for us individual Christians, the Church, and perhaps ultimately the human race. The force of God’s hope is that it gives a future beyond, even if through suffering, gives life where there is death, consolation where there is desolation, communion whether there has been isolation, and gives permanence to joy by fixing it to the only reality that deserves it, the only object capable of continually renewing it.

In the “Long text” here is a much fuller account of the centrality of prayer, the role of God in initiating and maintaining it, as well as an acknowledgement of the flagging of prayer and the experienced absent of God, as if (to use a Kafka analogy) the phone line was down and all we can hear is static. There is also, as I mentioned earlier, Julian’s greater confidence in her theological statements. Indeed, we can see she further radicalize her take on universal salvation: if in the “Short Text” universal salvation is restricted to “all Christians,” in the “Long Text” its span covers all humans without reserve, or, as she puts it, Christians, Jews, and pagans. And, as already indicated, Julian is more subjectively assured of the validity of all the statements that are either at odds with Church doctrine or represent the minority report on contested issues.

The two main ways in which the “Longer Text” goes beyond the “Short Text” is (a) the development of the parable—based on the parable of the Prodigal Son—of the Lord and the servant, and (b) the famous Jesus as Mother motif, which though it belongs to the order of interpretation and theological reflection and is not itself a vision, seems to have the character of a painting or to be a composite of religious paintings in which all the motherly functions usually assigned to Mary are taken over by Christ. Thus, the image of woebegone human beings nursing at the breast of Jesus.

In the case of the Lord and servant, the Lord is not only magnanimous and courteous, but a knight errant who goes looking for his servant. The looking already is a reversal of the expectation and an equalization between God and human being, and, the finding is the Lord’s celebration of finding his “lowly” servant who it so happens is of infinite worth. In what amounts at once to the generation of a new parable and the condensation of a number of biblical parables (good shepherd and prodigal son) Julian sees simultaneously the relationship between the Father and Christ, the Son of God, who has been sent forth into the land of unlikeness, and the relationship between God and an erring Adam. In the two-dimensional picture, the first covers the second and provides all the hope for we who are in Adam, since Christ is the second Adam. The absolute chivalry of God gives us consolation and provides us with hope.

The engine behind the arresting and subversive image of Jesus as Mother is Julian’s perception that mercy cannot be sub-contracted out to Mary, but must be the defining attribute of the Christian God. If Julian already has laid the theological foundation in the “Short Text,” in the “Long Text” here she finds the imagistic correlative. Finding this imagistic correlative, however, not only distinguishes what she says in the “Long Text” from the “Short Text,” but also from the tradition. Julian does not invent the nourishing, spiritually parturitive side of reflection on Christ; there are precedents in the medieval tradition. Nor more generally, is she responsible for the introduction of the feminine into depiction of the divine. Scripture abounds with such images whether associated with Wisdom or Spirit or God in his sheltering, covering comportment towards a fragile humankind. What she does do is condense reflection into image and produce an icon whose efficacy with respect to consolation is a function of the capacity of the image to question the overplus or overkill in the dominant theological tradition and to correct, even if with some degree of violence, our over-active imaginations fueled by fear.

A Reflection

What are we to make of a text that is at once the discovery of God in dire times, in a time of plague, and God’s inexplicable romance with us in which forgiveness of our sins is deliberately without drama or agon. In any event, forgiveness is not a strenuous activity for God: it is the air God breathes or should we say the Holy Spirit. It certainly speaks to us in our dire time when the “withers are unwrung” from our world—to quote Shakespeare. It also manages to unrubbish Christianity of the fear-mongering that has accompanied it almost from the beginning and rediscover the Gospels and the New Testament more broadly, as an extraordinary word of consolation, even if visions are the detour in and through which we arrive back where we began. Yet, the text is theological risky in promoting views that are rejected by the Catholic Church—universal salvation and correlatively the unreality of hell—and perhaps unbalanced not so much in suggesting that sin for the most part can be characterized by blindness and bad judgment, but rather in suggesting that it is always such, that human beings never rise to malice.

A scan of history, an attention to our lived world would likely vouchsafe evidence of neglect, carelessness and general sleepwalking, but likely also of callousness and malice that cry to the heavens for justice. So perhaps in the end, Julian is right in the need for correction, but wrong insofar as she overcorrects. That certainly is plausible. Yet, perhaps we may have misinterpreted her because we have misinterpreted the genre of Showings. Because of the often declarative form of Julian’s sentences, we may not have noticed their performative force. Everything she says has the purpose of consoling us, of making us abide with more patience with our suffering and have love’s salve to heal the despair that results from our weakness, our veniality and self-love. She wishes to effect a change in our disposition towards our selves by recalibrating our view of God. Her declaratives regarding universal salvation, the unreality of hell, and even our uncorruptibility are really in the end hyperboles intended to console by correcting for the medieval hyperboles of the wrathful God who exaggerates our sin and doubles down on our misery.

Julian reminds us of something important we had forgotten while weaning us from ways of thinking about God and God’s relation to us that distort the Gospel message. She speaks to us in our time of plague where we cave in on ourselves and where the community fractures. We desperately need her voice. We need other Christian voices also. We are dealing with other plagues: the cold carelessness of the circulation of money flying high beyond responsibility to the poor who are God’s poor; the howling noise that has become the opposite of logos, that is rage real or manufactured, in any event rage weaponized on social media platforms to inflict maximum damage, and like the plague contagious and self-renewing; and the default of demonization for those who disagree with us on matters trivial and important, arcane and obvious, and those who might look different than us, have a different belief system, different habits and practices and forms of life.

Without injecting a God of justice into the conversation so that it becomes one more way to fuel the plague of our disunion and balkanization, nonetheless, perhaps a prayerful appeal to the God of justice is in order. Perhaps also a theological anthropology understood to correct the corrector Julian, perhaps a theological anthropology that is also prepared to deal in performatives and hyperboles. Sometimes human beings go darker than we think possible. What has started out as sleepwalking turns to malice and destruction. One world: plural plagues; different rhetorics and performatives required, rhetorics and performatives of consolation complemented by rhetorics and hyperboles of diagnosing the extent to which we have fallen as individuals and community and the necessity of the prophetic announcement of a God of justice who is, nonetheless, the God of surpassing mercy.

Featured Image: Taken by Poliphilo, Julian of Norwich niche in the Norwich Cathedral, 18 June 2012; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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