"In God's sight we do not fall, in our own sight we do not stand. As I see it both are true. But the deeper insight belongs to God." (Julian of Norwich)
When inspiration seems lacking, it's time to outsource. Robert Llewelyn's book "All Shall be Well
", (mentioned here
) has been a treasure chest of insight. In recent reading I've come across some golden nuggets well worth pondering. As Llewelyn interacts with Julian's writing, he spends several chapters responding to the quote above. Believing God's love desires us to become more and more the people we were created to be, Llewelyn explores that movement toward deeper freedom. At times our steps may seem counterintutive, or even morally wrong. He explains himself in this passage from Chapter 4:
"That we should always speak the truth, and that it is wrong to tell a lie, has probably been a part of Christian training from earliest years...but it needs to be taught with sympathetic understanding...for the fact is that our relationship to truth is expressed better in the words of Jesus "I have come to bear witness to the truth", than in the speaking of the truth as we commonly understand those words. Happily the two normally coincide, but when they are in conflict it is how we may best bear witness to the truth which we must try to decide. Thus if a father 'tells a lie' to conceal his child's whereabouts from a man brandishing a knife, it would not be correct to say that truth for the moment had been set aside, but rather that truth had been vindicated because the deeper truth in this situation is that life is sacred and is not to be placed at the disposal of evil men...Bonhoeffer argues in his Ethics
that if a boy, who is asked by his teacher in front of the class if his father comes home drunk at night, replies 'untruthfully' that he does not, then truth has been vindicated because the boy has witnessed to the deeper truth, that a teacher has no right to ask such questions before the class."
The insight that "bearing witness to the truth" may be different than "telling the truth" helps put a new lens on "living truthfully". Llewelyn further goes on to say that in seeking the deeper truth, we may end up breaking a law that we thought was true, bringing a sense of guilt. Here, we trust in the grace of God, who realizes that we, to the best of our ability, are seeking to follow God in our actions. And even if we feel like we are not standing, as Julian says, yet we can be assured that in God's eyes we cannot fall.
(more after the break)
Last night I got to watch one of my favorite movies. "Lars and the Real Girl," written by Nancy Oliver, directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Ryan Gosling, is the story of a painfully shy and emotionally wounded young man who finds healing through a relationship with a life-size "anatomically correct" doll named Bianca. It's also the story of how a town loves outside their comfort zone. Touching and humorous, "Lars and the Real Girl" show us a reality we wish could be ours.
In "Emma," Mr. Knightley's love of Emma requires he speak the truth, as uncomfortable as that might be for both of them (see post here
). In "Lars and the Real Girl," Lars' family is advised by the family doctor to support his delusion that Bianca is a real girl. In other words, they're told to steer clear of the truth, or at least to buy into a different version of the truth: to have faith that this delusion has come as a means of bringing about Lars' emotional and social health.
I'd forgotten several things since I last watched the movie and was pleasantly surprised to see the clergy portrayed so compellingly. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, Lars is sitting in the pew of his church, listening to the sermon. "There are many laws in the world," says the pastor, "but there's only one law in God's eyes. That law is to love one another. Love is God in action."
Putting love into action is the heart of this movie. At one point, Lars' brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin come to the members of the church board to request they support them in acting as if Bianca is real. At first, the members are taken aback. Woudn't this be sinful, or unhealthy? they protest, until they are reminded by one of the parishioners of their own checkered stories. The pastor then says, "The big question we want to ask ourselves is, of course, 'what would Jesus do?'"
Guided by the expertise and compassion of Dagmar, the attending physician, and the support of Lars' pastor, Gus and Karin, as well as the rest of the townspeople take on the challenge to love outrageously. Moving past feeling awkward, moving past the stares and the jokes, one by one they join in making Bianca one of the community. Karin dresses Bianca in her own clothes, and talks with her at mealtimes. When Lars shows up at a colleague's birthday party, Bianca is taken out on the dance floor (in her wheelchair) by the hostess's husband. She is invited to volunteer at the library, model clothing, be on the schoolboard and treated with dignity and cheerful goodwill. When she becomes "ill" several ladies bring casseroles and their knitting to sit with Lars.
This is what it means to be community. It's love in action. It's God in flesh and blood.
To paraphrase a favorite Jane Austen character: "If I loved [it] less, I might be able to talk about it more." If you haven't seen the movie, set aside a night to do so. You may feel uncomfortable for a while. It's OK. As the story unfolds, perhaps you'll discover yourself in one of the characters, maybe relating with Lars' brother and sister-in-law as they wrestle with the questions of "how long?" and "really?". You might even wonder, along with some of the "righteous," how good can come from a love toy. And when you're done, I wouldn't be surprised if you join me in asking yourself, what will it take for me to choose creativity over fear, to lean into compassion over embarrassment? How far is my love ready to go?
"This vision was a lesson to my understanding that the continual seeking of the soul pleases God very greatly...The seeking with faith, hope and charity pleases our lord, and the finding pleases the soul and fulfills it with joy." (Julian of Norwich, Chapter 10)
This morning found me in a quandry. I was pondering the quote above and my mind was going in circles: Am I really seeking God? Am I seeking Him wholeheartedly? What does it really mean to seek God? How will I know when I've found Him? Should I do more? No answers came readily to mind. All I knew was that I was feeling, once again, less than spiritual, less than confident, and certainly not ready to write a post that would be of help to anyone, including myself. "God," I prayed, "I know You want me to seek You. Help me know what that looks like."
I picked up Llewelyn's book, "All Shall be Well," my companion reader to Julian's own writings, and started reading a chapter that begins by discussing the "wrath" of God. The church of Julian's day taught that God was a God of Judgment and Retribution. But in all of her visions, Julian is only shown a God of love and compassion. After much pondering and prayer, she concludes that what we see as God's "wrath" is nothing but our projection of our own distress onto God, for the face of God is always towards us in love. It is true that we fall, but never outside of God's love. She is given this revelation as an example:
"I saw two persons in bodily form: a lord and a servant...The lord is seated in solemn state, at rest and in peace. The servant is standing by his lord respectfully, ready to do his master's will. With love, gracious and tender, the lord looks upon his servant and sends him to a certain place. Not only does the servant go, but he darts off at once, running at great speed, for love's sake, to do his master's bidding. Almost at once he falls into a ditch and hurts himself badly. He moans and groans, cries and struggles, but he cannot get up or help himself in any way. Yet, as I saw it, his greatest trial was that there was no comfort at hand; for he was unable so much as to turn his face to look upon his loving lord, in whom is full comfort; and this, although he was very close to him. Instead, behaving weakly and foolishly for the time being, he thought only of his grief and distress..."
It was then, as Julian says, that I had an "inward showing." I saw that I was like that servant, eager to follow God's desires, wanting to learn and grow, and digging into Julian of Norwich in an attempt to broaden and deepen. But in my desire to "make progress," I can often fall, especially when I imagine that seeking God depends more upon me than upon the working of the Holy Spirit in me. And when I'm stuck it's easy to get down on myself, and the focus subtly shifts from God to me. But as I was reading this story, I suddenly stopped and looked up and back. And there was God smiling - at me and the predicament I often place myself in. I saw that what I seek is always there: God's love, consistently and graciously pouring out on me.
Like a father looks at his young child, face contorted in concentration with a new task, and smiles with great delight on the earnest efforts, so God loves that I'm seeking Him in new ways. And today, I saw that smile.
"Thus it fares with our lord Jesus and with us; for truly it is the most joy that may be, as I see it, that he that is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is lowest and meekest, homeliest and most courteous." (Chapter Seven)
This quote from Julian of Norwich sums up the main of Chapter Seven. She begins by describing a vision of St Mary, who, overwhelmed by the "greatness and the nobleness of the beholding of God" was filled with dread and meekness. Through this humility, she is "fulfilled with grace and with all manner of virtues." Julian then returns to a previous vision of the image of the "bodily sight...of the plenteous bleeding of [Christ's] head. This showing was both "hideous and dreadful, sweet and lovely. And of all the sights it was the greatest comfort to me that our God and our lord, that is so reverent and to be feared, is so homely and courteous. And this most greatly fulfilled me with liking and sureness of soul."
In the beginning notes to the text I am using, edited by Elisabeth Dutton, there is a glossary of key words common to Julian's writings. "Homely", we are told, has connotations of intimacy or familiarity. "Courteous", on the other hand, implies being courtly or refined as well as having behavior which is respectful and meek. When Julian pairs these words she is bringing together the court and the cottage. To further understand how Jesus is both homely and courteous, she is given this example: 'It is the greatest honor that a solemn king or a great lord may do a poor servant if he will be homely with him."
As an American, I find it difficult to live in this metaphor, given our democratic and egalitarian society. Reading Jane Austen's Emma, however, I can inhabit a world where different stations are part of the warp and woof of the social order. Emma, a member of the landed gentry, is aware of her responsibility to visit those beneath her. This she does with varying amounts of grace. Making a "charitable visit" to a sick family she finds easy to accomplish, and it brings her pleasure. The lines are clear, her position as gracious benefactress gratifying. "She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for thom education had done so little. entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will."
(more after the break)
"Some of us believe that God is all powerful and may do everything; and that he is all wise and can do everything; but as for believing that he is all love and will do everything, there we hold back. In my view nothing hinders God's lovers more than the failure to understand this." Julian of Norwich
If truth in kindness is the key that sets us free from our besetting sins, then living in falsehood constructs many a cell. As I'm still in the midst of Emma, I'll let two of her characters illustrate this point. Jane Fairfax, a beautiful and accomplished young woman, is the orphaned niece and darling of her aunt and grandmother. She joins the community at Highbury halfway through the novel, much to the dismay of Emma, who has never liked her overmuch. It isn't too long before we realize that Jane is withholding some information about her past, and it is impinging upon her health. As the story progresses it is revealed that Jane is not only hiding a secret, but actually living a falsehood. Given the circumstances she finds herself in, she is forced to act in ways contrary to her heart. It is no surprise that her mental and physical condition worsen.
For her part, Emma acts much more transparently. She does not willfully live out a lie, nor go against what she knows to be right. But as the plot develops, she is often caught in traps made by her blindness to the truth. She frequently constructs false realities: thinking a young man to be in love with her friend while he is actually in love with her, imagining her friend's social strata lifted to an unnatural level, presuming to know the basis of Jane's illness. She is even oblivious to her own feelings. Each eye-opening revelation brings her in line with what is real; her painful insights free her to know and follow her own heart.
In the passage quoted at the top of this post, Julian bemoans the fact that many lovers of Christ live in falsehood. Whether they consciously refuse to live out of the truth that they are loved by God, or whether they are blind to the fact doesn't matter. The result is the same. Instead of becoming the vibrant and lively children God desires, they keep themselves in various states of ill health and disrepair. It's as if we're flowers with the ability to move in and out of the sunshine, or refuse the life-giving rain, even say no to the fertilizer that is meant to make us lush and fruitful.
But the gardener (who is also the sun and the rain and the fertilizer) never stops desiring us to flourish. Not disheartened by the state we are in, or by the lies that entangle us, He continues to be active in our lives. Because the truth is, He loves us. And those of us who are in the midst of Lent know that He will go to any length to make that known.
One can't hang around Julian of Norwich for long without starting to see life through the lens of love. To believe that God is acting first and foremost (and even through to the end) motivated by love is the theme of her shewings. This loving God cannot be untruthful, but He is always full of goodness. As Julian comes into God's presence she is met with kindness, not judgment, with compassion, not anger.
Love is not afraid to speak the truth, but is always doing so in context, and in kindness. Far from being "judgmental," this kind of truth-speaking earnestly desires the best for the beloved. Several years ago I watched a movie version of Emma, the last novel written by Jane Austen. Although over the years I wouldn't have been able to tell you much of the plot, there has remained lodged deep in my psyche a line from this story. Recently I've returned to Emma, wanting to find again this passage that I remember so vividly. It comes near the end of the book when Mr. Knightley, a family friend who cares deeply for the character of his young sister-in-law, sees Emma act in a way that is carelessly but cuttingly unkind to one of the older ladies in their circle of friends.
After the exchange, which happens at a picnic where Emma is a bit out of sorts, he pulls his friend aside and says: "Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? ... Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!"
(More after the break)
Heading back from the west coast after a great week. Back online Friday.
Remember to breathe...
"Also, our lord God showed us that it is very greatly pleasing to him that a simple soul come to him nakedly and plainly and homely (simply). For this is the kind yearning of the soul by the touching of the Holy Ghost, as I understand by this showing: "God, from your goodness, give me your self; for you are enough to me and I may ask nothing that is less that may be complete honour to you. And if I ask anything that is less, always I am lacking, but only in you have I everything." And these words are very lovely to the soul and touch the will of God, and his goodness, very closely; for his goodness comprehends all his creatures and all his blessed works, and is endlessly surpassing, because he is the endlessness. And he has made us only for himself and restored us by his blessed passion and keeps us in his blessed love. And all this is from his goodness."
In the passage above, Julian brings the goodness of God to the fore. Like love, God's goodness is infinite and ever present. It "comprehends all his creatures and all his blessed works." It is the air we were made to breathe, our natural habitat. The following poem, which I came across this morning, expands this metaphor. It was written by Mechthild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic who lived from 1210-1297.
A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of creation,
Gold doesn't vanish:
The fire brightens.
Each creature God made
Must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God.
The last few days I've been attempting to live out of faith in God's goodness. To approach each day simply and plainly, with the hope that what I need will be given to me. To breathe deeply and not worry. There are times when my breathing becomes shallow, perhaps I'm overtired or anxious or judgmental. But I catch myself and find that the air supply has not diminished, it has been there all along. I inhale deeply again and know that God smiles.
"This above all causes the soul to seem small in its own sight: to see and love its maker. And this is what fills it with reverence and humility, and with generous love to our fellow-Christians." (chapter 7)
This morning, I wandered to another book in my stack: "All Shall be Well" by Robert Llewelyn, a priest, retreat conductor and chaplain at the Julian Shrine in Norwich until his death in 2006. In his exploration of the spirituality of Julian of Norwich, Llewelyn writes about the process of becoming purified in soul. It involves, he says, an embracing of humility.
Llewelyn encourages us to live our lives in the presence of the God of love, to focus on His compassion and kindness. As we seek to do so, we become aware of things like envy or jealousy, anger or lust. The temptation is to hide these feelings or motivations, to suppress them in a desire to seem more holy (or healthy) than we are. It's as if one goes to the doctor and then refuses to name the symptoms.
But God will have nothing if not ourselves filled with Him. He welcomes us to come into His presence, to sit and notice what is not of love (what causes us dis-ease). But then He takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes toward Him. He invites us to sit under the fountain of His boundless compassion and desire for our good. It is humbling to admit that we are filled with thoughts and beliefs that are less than generous, like crusty residue on a forgotten bowl, set aside from last night's dinner. But God's love desires to flow and flow, dissolving, rinsing, gushing through our lives.
On this morning's stroll, I passed a simple stone labyrinth marked out on the desert sand. Intrigued, I decided to stop for a minute and walk the path laid out for me. As I reached the center I looked up at the mountain range guarding the horizon. Slowly I turned, embracing the amazing landscape of this valley floor, the horizon planted with mountain ranges in almost every direction. In the past I've thought of the middle of the labyrinth demarcating the center of one's journey inward, but it came to me that from the center we are also able to see the panorama. All points on the compass stream from this core place.
This morning's reading from Julian of Norwich centers her work, as it centered her life, in the knowledge of God's love. Here is is, with some comments below:
"Also in this he showed a little thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What may this be?' And the general answer came: 'It is all that is made.' I marvelled as to how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothingness, because it was so small. And I was answered in my understanding: 'It lasts and always shall because God loves it; and so everything has being by the love of God.'
In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it., the second is that God loves it, the third that God keeps it."