Christ Visits the Sickroom

LAST TIME, when we began to look at Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers (the shorter version of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love), Julian confessed that she had had three things she desired of God: first, to experience such a vivid meditation upon the Passion of Christ that she would feel she was there with Him on Golgotha, alongside His Blessed Mother and Mary Magdalene; second, that at age thirty she might suffer an illness that brought her to death’s door (but did not actually kill her); and, last, to receive three “wounds” of God that would last her all her life: contrition, compassion, and longing for God. She said that the first two desires came and went, after she submitted them to the will of God, but the third one remained with her. Today we shall see how God answered her prayer.

The next two chapters are very short and closely related, so I will include both before commenting on them.

Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers

Chapter 2. Sickness and Last Rites

AND WHEN I was thirty winters old and a half, God sent me a bodily sickness, in the which I lay three days and three nights. And on the fourth night I received all my rites of Holy Church, and thought not to have lived till day. And after this I languored forth two days and two nights. And on the third night I thought ofttimes to have passed [away]; and so thought they that were about me. But in this I was right sorry, and loth to die; but not for anything that was in earth that meliked to live for, nor for anything that I was afraid for; for I trusted in God. But it was because I would have lived to have loved God better and longer time, that I might by the grace of that living have the more knowing and loving of God in the bliss of heaven. For methought all the time that I should have lived here, so little and so short in the regard of endless bliss.

I thought thus: “Good Lord, may my living be no longer to Thy worship?” And I was answered in my reason, and by the feelings of my pains, that I should die. And I assented fully, with all the will of my heart, to be at God’s will.

Thus I endured till day; and by then was my body dead from the midst downward, as to my feeling. Then was I stirred to be set upright, leaning with clothes to my head, for to have the more freedom of my heart to be at God’s will and thinking on Him while my life should last.

And they that were with me sent for the parson my curate to be at mine ending. He came, and a child with him; and brought a cross. And by then I had set mine eyes, and might not speak. The parson set the cross before my face, and said, “Daughter, I have brought thee the image of thy Saviour. Look thereupon, and comfort thee therewith in reverence of Him that died for thee and me.”

Methought then that I was well [i.e., that it was well with me], for mine eyes were set upward into heaven, whither I trusted for to come. But, nevertheless, I assented to set mine eyes on the face of the crucifix, if I might, for to endure longer till the time of mine ending. For methought I might longer endure to look straight forward than upright.

After this my sight began to fail, and it was all dark about me in the chamber, and murky, as it had been night, save that in the image of the cross there held a common light; and I wist never how all that was beside the cross was ugly to me, as if it had been much occupied with fiends.

After this the upper part of my body began to die, as to my feeling. My hands fell down on either side; and also for lack of power my head settled down on one side. The most pain that I felt was shortness of breath and failing of life. Then thought I truly to have been at the point of death.

And in this suddenly all my pain was away from me, and I was as whole, and especially in the upper part of my body, as ever I was before or after. I marvelled at this change, for methought it was a secret working of God, and not of nature. And yet by the feeling of this ease I trusted never the more that I should live. And the feeling of this ease was not full ease to me, for methought I had liefer have been delivered of this world, for my heart was set thereon.

Chapter 3. Vision of the Crown of Thorns

A ND SUDDENLY came into my mind that I should desire the second wound, of our Lord’s gift and of His grace; that He would fulfil my body with mind and feeling of His blessed Passion, as I had before prayed. For I would that His pains were my pains, with compassion, and afterward longing towards God. Thus methought that I might with His grace have His wounds that I had before desired.

But in this I desired never any bodily sight, nor any manner of showing of God, but such compassion as methought a kind soul might have with our Lord Jesus, that would for love become mortal man. With Him I desired to suffer, living in mortal body, as God would give me grace.

And in this suddenly I saw the red blood trickle down from under the Garland, all hot, freshly, plentifully and lively, right as methought that it was in that time that the Garland of Thorns was thrust on His blessed head. Right so, both God and man, He suffered for me.

I conceived truly and mightily that it was Himself that showed it me without any mean [intermediary]; and then I said, “Benedicite Domine.” This I said reverently in my meaning with a mighty voice. And full greatly I was astonished for wonder and marvel that I had, that He would be so homely [familiar] with a sinful creature, living in this wretched flesh.

Thus I took it for that time that our Lord Jesus, of His courteous love, would show me comfort before the time of my temptation, for methought it might be well that I should, by the sufferance of God, and with His keeping, be tempted of fiends before I died. With this sight of His blessed Passion, with the Godhead that I saw in mine understanding, I saw that this was strength enough for me—yea, for all creatures living that should be safe—against all the fiends of hell, and against all ghostly enemies.


Prayers Answered

How precisely God answers her prayers, down to the least detail! She had asked for a deadly illness at age thirty, and smack-dab in the middle of that year of age her wish is granted. Yet this was a wish that she had already forgotten about—as she said in the previous chapter, as soon as she had desired it, it passed from her mind. It wasn’t something she dwelt on, waiting for it to happen. God, who is eternal, forgets nothing, though, and in due time He gives us what we need and even what we desire, if it will do us good.

This strikes me as an indication that the desire itself had originally come from God, as if it was a little gift He planned to give her and He gave her a hint ahead of time. In my own life there have been a few times that I’ve felt myself prompted to desire something out of the blue — something good and spiritual — and to be reminded of this desire only years later when I realize it has actually been fulfilled. In retrospect, it seems that the desire itself was a kind of prevenient gift from God, which I accepted at the time without thinking much about it, rather as if He had slipped a note into my pocket written in my own handwriting.

Sometimes, I believe, prayer works this way, at least if we have reached a point where our requests of God, like Julian’s, carry an implicit “yet not my will but Thine be done.” For most of us, though, it takes us a long time to learn to trust God enough to make such a prayer; we tend to believe that we must continually harangue God, as if he were the unjust judge in the parable, who will gives in only if he is first annoyed to distraction. But really, He wants all good things for us, and He wants us to desire them, too.

There’s an anecdote Mother Angelica told once, of a time when she was very busy and the phone rang at the monastery and there was no one but herself to answer it, which she did rather impatiently. The caller was a distraught woman who urgently desired prayers for her son. He had been badly injured, was in a coma and not expected to regain consciousness. Mother Angelica quickly assured her that she would pray for him, then hung up and, eager to get back to whatever she was working on, uttered this quick prayer: “Lord, please get this kid out of dodo-land.” She thought no more about it, until the mother called back and said that, as soon as she had hung up the phone from her first call, her son revived and the doctors now thought he would make a full recovery. Mother Angelica had forgotten all about the boy—she had entrusted him to God, and God had taken care of him.

So, a desire that Julian has forgotten about suddenly gets fulfilled. At the age of thirty, she finds herself at the point of death, her extremities become unresponsive, the life leaving her body and then . . . she is suddenly restored to health. Her response? She’s a bit disappointed. She had hoped that she soon would be passing into eternity to be with the Lord. . . .

God Is With Us

. . . But she is not disappointed for long, because at that moment, God fulfills another desire of hers: He gives her a vivid experience of Christ in His Passion. Not only does God provide what she has longed for, but He gives “full measure, packed down and flowing over,” for the experience is far more vivid than she had expected. She had hoped simply to be able to imagine the scene so vividly that she would sympathetically share Christ’s pain; instead, she actually sees Him present in her room, not with the eyes of her imagination but apparently with her actual eyes, His head newly wounded with the crown of thorns and still bleeding profusely.

She assumes that He has appeared in order to give her moral encouragement as she approaches her own death, when she expects to be sorely tempted by the devil. Seeing the sufferings He endured for her sake will give her courage to face her own final torment. And, indeed, how gracious the Lord is to visit her sickroom! He is like a badly wounded officer, limping through a field hospital, careless of his own wounds as he encourages soldiers lying on their deathbeds, consoling them, talking with them as a friend, not as a superior who must be saluted. The wounded soldiers, in return, feel both humbled and proud, eager to get better and return to the fray.

As any rank private might feel if he received such a visit, Julian’s attention is captivated by her Visitor. The very sight of Him has made her forget her own illness. She heartily greets the Lord as if He had just knocked on her door: “Welcome, Lord! I’m honored that you would visit such an insignificant person as myself.” Her greeting reminds me of the one Elizabeth gives Mary when she arrives to visit: “How is it that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” A combination of wonder, gratitude, and welcome.

He came to Julian because she had desired to be with Him in His suffering. In doing so, He does not simple grant the desire of her heart, but He also shows her something about Himself. The reason He suffered was so that He could be with us in our suffering. That is what Love does. And because she truly loves Him, she wanted to be with Him in His Passion. This mutual bond of love draws them closer together. At the moment of our greatest pain and temptation, God is closer to us than we can ask or imagine.

Julian’s experience is extraordinary, but it shows us in a vivid way a truth that we all should recall: God is always with us, like a Lover who cannot bear to be parted from His beloved. Many saints assure us that God longs for us much more than we long for Him. He “hides Himself” only so that we will seek Him out; it’s a kind of game He plays, like Hide & Seek, not to keep us from finding Him, but to make us more eager to do so. In Julian’s case, He makes an exception, not so much because she needed encouragement but because we do. Peekaboo, I see you! He says to us, through a vision granted to a holy woman nearly seven hundred years ago. He sees us, and He wants us to know it. He wants us to see Him as He truly is: the Love that never deserts us. That is the meaning of this first “showing” of His Divine Love for us, just as it was the meaning of His very real suffering two thousand years ago.

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