To reassure Graham Heartland (he of the wonderful Advent book club posts and organiser of the Lent book) and C451, no, I am not intending to exhaust Mother Julian before Lent even gets underway, but I do want to raise a few themes. If the Advent experience is anything to go by, the posts will be read and appreciated, but not much commented upon – which is perhaps natural with poetry. I am not sure how the Lent book thing is going to work, but suspect that because Mother Julian is more discursive, it might go better. Anyway, Graham’s choice of Sheila Upjohn’s book is a wonderful one, and I don’t want to spoil it. But (yes, Neo and C451 would have been expecting that “but”) I do want to get the theme that I brough up yesterday off my chest.
Why do we have such difficulty with the notion that “God is love”? I can see exactly why some atheists have a problem with the God they seem to have encountered in their interaction with Christians (though I do rather wonder whether some of them go out of their way to find such Christians). An omnipotent being who created all things getting in a peeve with us and punishing us until we are good – what’s that about then? It sound like one of those ghastly Church run “homes” for “wayward girls” in Ireland and elsewhere. I can totally get why, if that’s how you see God, or have been taught to see him, you’d think the best thing to do with young girls who got pregnant outside of marriage would be to punish them (and I can also totally see how in a patriachal society the men who made them pregnant would suffer no consequences). It’s easy, too, to see in the way Christians leap to judgment on each other – “that church is not the true church / my church is the true church / the Vatican II sect is the anti-Christ” – and so on and so forth – why for many outside the Faith we all get tarred with the same brush and are thought to be more than a little mad. There is something weird about believing that an omniscient God takes out his vengeance on we lesser beings – talk about punching down!
There’s a ton of excuses for it of course. As I pray the psalms daily it often comes to mind how the psalmists seem to see God as the Clint Eastwood character in “Pale Rider”, dealiong death and destruction to their enemies in due season. Reading Hosea at Morning Prayer all week is quite an experience. I kept wondering why Hosea was obsessed with “harlotry”? It didn’t seem quite healthy to me. Then I had St Paul of an evening telling me that while God was the head of man, the man was the head of woman. Golly, I thought, for a woman who is writing about not getting cross, I was getting jolly cross – my other half asked why I was so irritable and suggested stopping reading the Bible as that appeared to be the cause of my shortness of temper (well, combined with the sheer mind-numbing fatigue of this Covid year). But I am not having that. I love Christ, who is the antidote to it all.
Mother Julian saw with insight that if God were to feel what we call “anger” even for a moment, he would cease to be the creator and become the destoyer, and we should cease to exist. Anger is what happens inside us and we attribute it to God. We are, we say in some circumstances, “standing up for God”, as though he needs our anger; well it’a an excuse isn’t it? It was human anger which crucified Christ; it is our own anger which crucifies us. It holds us in an atmosphere of conflict and fear which keeps us from peace – and from atonement and repentance; I can’t repent when I am angry, maybe you can? If God’s vision of us were like our vision of others and the view we have of him as a vengeful God, how could it make sense to call him “love”? Our Heavenly Father would be the worst sort of abusive father – love me or suffer – love me because you have suffered – worship me or else something really horrible is going to happen to you. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want to know such a God – though I get how, scared to death – you might worship him very noisily.
In chapters 47 and 48, Mother Julian steers us towards some possible answers to the puzzle of what it means for God to turn away from his anger to forgiveness:
the only anger that I saw was man’s, and he forgives us for that; for anger is nothing but contrariness and antagonism to peace and love, and it comes from a lack of strentgth, or from lack of goodness – and it is not God who lacks these things but we who lack them; for through sin and vileness we have in us a vile and continual antagonism to peace and loveRevelation, chap. 48
The source of mercy, pity and compassion is love, and God will hold us safely in love. Mother Julian saw mercy through the eyes of motherhood, and grace as a property of good lordship – both going beyond any merit we could ever hope to have in our own eyes:
For I saw quite certainly that just as our contrariness brings us pain, shame and sorrow here on earth, so, on the contrary, grace brings us comfort, honour and bliss in heaven … and when I saw all this, I had toi admit that the effect of God’s mercy and forgiveness is to lessen and wear away our angerchap. 48
As Rowan Williams put it we need to:
“Apaide” is the Anglo-Saxon word Mother Julian uses which we translate as “satisfied”. Our nature can be complete and wholer only in God.
There is a great deal more to be said on this theme, and during Lent I hope to say some of it – but I wanted just to point up what a wonderful guide Mother Julian is for us.