"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."
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"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)
I'm in the midst of reading "Emma", finally making my way through Jane Austen's novels. Huddled under my quilt, with a hot cup of tea, I immerse myself in the manners and sensibilities of 18th century England. Emma is an interesting character. She is presented as both lovable and flawed, at times silly and proud, at other times truly gracoius and caring. A bit like all of us, I suppose.
One of Emma's main shortcomings is pride. All of her associations are ruled by her station in the hierarchy of the small town in which she resides. Some people are fit for friendship, others must be placed within the realm of benefactor/benefactress. At one point, she rues the fact that if only this family were a bit higher on the social scale, she could consider a relationship with them, but of course, it is out of the question.
Although it is easy to decry the class system of Georgian England, pride can rear its head in many of our own associations. Yesterday I was speaking with a friend who had just returned from a frustrating board meeting. The chair's confidence in his quick thinking, creative problem solving and grasp of the situation left no room at the table for anyone else. My friend's voice, as well as the voices of the others were effectively silenced, and the contributions that could have added and enhanced the topic under discussion were missed.
I've always known that pride was a "deadly sin." Pride puffs one up, pride comes before a fall, etc, but it wasn't until this morning that I put together the fact that one of the main harms of pride is that it closes you to community. It assumes that you have all that is needed, therefore making others superfluous.
True humility, on the other hand, believes not only in the importance of one's own contributions, but allows for, and invites the contributions of others. The humble person doesn't denegrate their own abilities (oh, I have nothing to offer), rather they insist on the gifts and insights of all. Pride isolates and contracts; humility connects and expands.
Emma is the lonelier for her refusal to associate outside her "prescribed" norms. My friend's committee suffers from collaboration. Healthy and vibrant community requires an open door, the generous hospitality of humility.