“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.“St Isaac the Syrian Discourses II.38.1-2
Holy Church teaches me to believe that all these shall be condemned everlastingly to hell. And given all of this I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as Our Lord revealed at the this time. And I receioved no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: “what is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well.”Revelation of Divine Love, Chapter 32
The best known of all Mother Julian’s sayings is that “all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. But we see here how conflicted she was after the “showings”. The Church taught one thing, the experience of God seemed to teach her another. Her anxiety is clear in chapters 32 and chapter 50. In the latter she wrote:
My good Lord, I see that you are truth itself and I know for certain that we sin every day and deserve to be bitterly blamed; and I can neither give up the knowledge of this truth, nor can I see that you show us any kind of blame. How can this be?Revelation, Chapter 50
She could not find in any of the “showings” that the omniscient and omnipotent God was “angry” with his finite creation. Indeed for her, our very existence proved that God was not angry, not least since he could simply have annihilated all of us at a stroke:
It seems to me that if God could be even slightly angry we could never have any life, or place, or beingRevelation Chapter 49
If God is, as we are told, “love” then how can he also be angry and want to exact vengeance on us?
The image of God as vengeful father is one at odds with the image of him as a loving mother. Speaking personally, I have always had a problem with the idea of an angry God, and the first time I read Mother Julian, as with the first time I read St Issac the Syrian (whom I quote above) it made me crystallise my discomfort. Like Mother Julian I can do nothing with it, but what she taught me was that I don’t need to do anything with it.
This is where the fact that she was an “unlettered” woman helps. A Schoolman would have wanted to come to a resolution of the difficulty and would have ended by agreeing with the condemnation of Origen’s (supposed) teaching at the second council of Constantinople in 553, that we cannot believe in “universal salvation”. Mother Julian, not confined by the rules of debate, could. according to taste, do what mothers often do when it comes to their children and discipline, which is exercise what (to some men) looks like muddled thinking, or what (to others) is a sensible acknowledgement of limitations. She could not, and did not, go outside what the Church taught, any more than I could or would.
But what she could do was to express what she was shown, which is the God of love who fits St Paul’s definition of love:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not [a]puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, [b]thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Cor, 13-4-7
If this is “love” then St Paul omits to mention that the God who is love is “angry’, and will wreak vengeance on those who fail him. That was as far as Mother Julian could go. But without ever having heard of St Isaac, she found herself in the same place in terms of how the God who is love would bring creation to a place where it would be true that “all shall be well”:
there is a deed which the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done in unknown to all creatures under Christ and shall be until it has been done … This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity make all well that is not well.Revelation, Chapter 32
Just as God made everything at the beginning of the world, like a mother birthing a child, so at the end of things he will match that with another motherly action. We do not know what it will be, and anyone who claims they do claims too much, but we know it will make “all things well.” And after all, when it comes to seeking comfort, it is, perhaps, more usual for a child to go to her mother for that than to go to her father.
Mother Julian goes no further than St Isaac. But both mystics did not see God as an angry father whom we should obey because of fear of punishment. That idea might, of course, pose a problem for some, and as Mother Julian was the first to acknowledge, cannot be squared with the official teaching of the Church. But I, for one, come to God because I can do no other than to respond to the love he has shown me. A God who would behave in a manner which, in an earthly father, would have him banged up for child abuse (“if you don’t behave you will burn forever”) is one who is too frail and human to die upon a Cross for me. That he did, that he did it because he loves me is why I love him; I can do no other.
As for hell, for sure, we have Scriptural authority for knowing it exists, but what is it? Here I quote St Isaac again:
As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.
That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.St Isaac the Syrian, Ascetic Treatises, 84
What could be worse than cutting yourself off from love by closing your heart to it?
Mother Julian and St Isaac have a lot in common, and I just wish I had the time and the ability to compare and contrast, but for our purposes this Lent, perhaps this will suffice? To some I shall be thought to have said too much, to others I shall be held to have been too cautious. In these matters the latter is perhaps the better charge.
#lentbookclub is on Twitter as #LentBookClub, Facebook as https://www.facebook.com/groups/LentBookClub, and is using The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn which can be bought here rather than Amazon. It runs from Ash Wednesday 20210219 to Easter Sunday-ish 20210404 and we are doing a chapter a week, roughly. Folk who are blogging about this are Graham, at https://grahart.wordpress.com/, Andrew at https://www.shutlingsloe.co.uk/, Eric at https://sundrytimes2.wordpress.com/, Soobie at https://soobie64.medium.com/, Ruth at https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/. Come join the pilgrimage with Julian to Norwich!