I suppose I’m looking for hope. Not that I don’t have any, it just gets misplaced at times.
Since June, I’ve been envisaging my way through Isaiah and I finally made it through the first half of lamenting the people’s wrong doing to get to the reassuring parts of the story. After prophets observe and “identify those parts of our world order that are contradictory to God,” there is the second part where prophets, again according to Walter Brueggemann, “talk about the will and purpose that God has for the world that will indeed come to fruition even in circumstances that we can’t imagine.” I often need to be reminded of the “even in circumstances that we can’t imagine” part.
In Isaiah 37:6, the prophet reminds King Hezekiah, “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.” Like us, Hezekiah’s head was turned by the paralyzing rhetoric of his time from the Assyrians whose words and actions threatened to undermine the King’s trust in God. There is a fierce hope to the prophetic voice.
I, too, have been lost in the words I hear; in the paralyzing rhetoric of these times, and in the personal what-ifs and unless-es of the story I’m narrating about my life now. How do I reframe my experience to trust and not despair?
In recent months, I’ve encountered Julian of Norwich in conversations with friends and mentioned in books I’m reading, oddly even in two novels. Julian seems to be making a comeback. She is stepping forward, perhaps, because she also lived through a pandemic (the Black Death) and spent more than 30 years in a sealed room attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. In August, I attended an online retreat to explore her teachings that folded into Isaiah’s message of pain and possibility.
Just in case you didn’t know, Julian was an English anchoress and Christian mystic who lived from 1343 to around 1416. She is best known for writing about her revelations or showings after an illness that brought her near death around age 30. Julian describes and reflects on these showings in her book, Revelations of Divine Love, believed to be one of the earliest works by an anchorite and the first English book written by a woman. Julian seems to have a theological optimism and deep trust in the midst of all that was going on in her world.
My teacher in the online retreat, Anglican priest Matthew Wright, surprized me. He began with his own sense of spiritual disconnection that was a reassuring connection to my own. He recalled that “the fear and disconnect brought on by the pandemic, the divisiveness and sense of incoherence heightened by the global political moment describe our experience, valid as it may be, but not reality, that is Reality with a capital R.”
Matthew reminded us not to mistake our experience of fear and confusion for the reality of love and trust calling to us. Julian’s teaching has urged me forward in that call to trust. Just like Walter Brueggeman’s description of prophetic voices, Julian’s teaching named what “most do travail and tempest us” and offered wisdom into my everyday contemplative practice.
What does most travail and tempt us? Julian wrote that what we need to be most wary of is impatience and despair or mistrustful dread, the only two “sins” God shewed her in her revelations. She attributes this struggle to our “lack in knowing of Love… He [God] willeth that in all things we have our beholding and our enjoying in Love. And of this knowing we are most blind.”
Julian teaches that the highest form of prayer is the Goodness of God. Chapter VI of Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love begins,
“This showing was made to learn our soul wisely to cleave to the Goodness of God… the Goodness of God is ever whole; and more near to us, … and that we be evermore cleaving to His Goodness. For all things that the heart may think, this pleaseth most God, and soonest speedeth [the soul]. “
When I am trying to figure things out, even the mysteries of God’s work, it takes me farther away into my head and anxiousness. I know that when I am quiet, reading, praying, and even walking the dog and attending to the goodness around me, I am able to let go of the sense of dread or uncertainty that creeps in at other times. Maybe “cleaving,” as Julian calls it, means doing those things that enable me to hold my experience in the shadow of God’s Goodness. In centering prayer, I abide in that goodness where, as Julian says, God is the doer.
Matthew explained that Julian invites us to trust this gaze of Love that doesn’t judge us. That “meaningless incoherence” we sometimes feel is from our side. Julian teaches that the Goodness of God keeps us in all circumstances, in “woe as well as weal.” Love is the ground that holds both. No matter what the circumstance of my experience, I can trust that unfolding.
Matthew began the retreat with “the thick veils” of incoherence, fear, and confusion that is now, and in the last session he ended with Julian’s wisdom that God is at work in all circumstances. He reminded that if we only see this one sliver of time, then we can be lost in impatience and despair. Julian is “is inviting us to really see and trust that what we experience in time is only the surface of reality” and that we are collectively unfolding eternally in God.