WHEN I FIRST STARTED THIS BLOG, I really didn’t know where to begin, so I began with what was, for me, a safe place: a book. Specifically, The Cloud of Unknowing, a book that teaches prayer of a rather advanced kind—i.e., it is aimed at someone who is already fairly well advanced along the path of spiritual growth and who is ready for the next step. This is a book that I would like to read with understanding (and perhaps others would like to do the same), so I decided to approach it the way I usually approach books that I want to digest rather than skim, by summarizing each chapter and writing my own commentary on the things that strike me — a method slow and painstaking, but guaranteed to help me assimilate deeply what I have read.
The modern world hates anything slow and painstaking, much preferring things that are fast, constantly changing, meant to be swallowed in a gulp and assimilated without digestion. Unfortunately, this tendency has created considerable spiritual malaise in the world, and we must resist it. The cure called for is, I believe, to avert our eyes from the madly spinning world, to slow down; rather than gulping down all the manufactured trash that the world throws at us, to nibble on wholesome things of proven spiritual nourishment and to digest them slowly. This is part of the reason I’ve decided to return to writing about spiritual books. And, as we have just entered the holy season of Lent, this seems an opportune moment to do so.
A Small Book Packed with Spiritual Nourishment
For the moment, I’m setting aside The Cloud of Unknowing, a book that, as its author admits, is not meant for everyone, and instead turn to a little volume that I first read a few years ago and have decided to return to for my spiritual reading this Lent. I think it offers the perfect encouragement that we need in these troubled times.
I’m referring to a little book called Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers, the shorter version of Julian of Norwich’s account of a series of sixteen “showings” that she experienced when she was near death as a young woman. The longer version, which she completed decades later, is reasonably well-known today under the title Revelations of Divine Love.
I had heard about the longer Revelations of Divine Love many years ago, when someone gave me a holy card with a quotation from Julian’s book: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Unfortunately, at the time (early 1980s) the book was rather controversial because of its allegedly “feminist” theology, a rumor that put me off reading it for a long time. But the reflections that gave rise to the (spurious) rumor that Lady Julian was some sort of feminist seven centuries before her time are absent from this earlier, shorter, and completely un-controversial manuscript called Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers.
This briefer account, written while her mystical experience was still fresh in her memory, describes each “showing” unburdened by the lifetime of theological reflection that fills the better-known long version. This gives the earlier manuscript a kind of undiluted freshness that I find rather thrilling. I first ran across it on the Internet Archive in a copy of the first modern edition (1911) by the Rev’d. Dundas Harford, an Anglican scholar. As soon as I dipped into it, I immediately fell in love with it.
What I propose to do here is to reproduce this little book, one chapter at a time, along with my personal commentary upon the same. I hope that others reading this blog will themselves be moved to reflect on the revelations that Lady Julian received from God more than six hundred years ago and preserved our spiritual benefit and encouragement today.
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Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers
The Author: Before I begin, however, just a brief introduction: its author lived in second half of the fourteenth century and died around the year 1416, in her early seventies. For most of her life, from a few years before the events she describes and until her death, she lived as an anchoress, a kind of religious recluse, attached to a parish church in Norwich (England) named for St Julian. We call her “Julian” after the church, her own name being unknown.
The Showings: Around the age of thirty, she became deathly ill and, just as she seemed to be literally at death’s door, she experienced a series of vivid experiences that she called “showings”—things that God revealed to her which a way that was partly sensory (seeing and hearing things as if they were physically present) and partly interior (understanding infused directly into her mind). She recovered completely from her physical illness and spent the rest of her life reflecting upon the truths that God had revealed to her, remaining within her cell of religious seclusion. A preface by the copyist who made one of the surviving manuscripts affirms that she was still alive in the year 1413 (when she would have been approximately seventy years of age).
The first chapter (from Harford’s 1911 edition) follows:
Chapter 1. Her Three Desires
I DESIRED THREE graces by the gift of God.
- The first was to have mind of Christ’s Passion.
- The second was bodily sickness.
- The third was to have of God’s gift three wounds.
As for the first, it came to my mind with devotion. Methought I had great feeling in the Passion of Christ; but yet I desired to have more by the grace of God. Methought I would have been at that time with Mary Magdalene, and with others that were Christ’s lovers, that I might have seen bodily the Passion of our Lord, that He suffered for me; that I might have suffered with Him, as others did that loved Him.
Notwithstanding that I believed firmly all the pains of Christ, as Holy Church shows and teaches; and all the paintings of crucifixes that are made, by the grace of God, after the teaching of Holy Church, to the likeness of Christ’s Passion, as far forth as man’s wit may reach; and notwithstanding all this true belief, I desired a bodily sight, wherein I might have more knowing of the bodily pains of our Lord and Saviour, and of the compassion of Our Lady, and of all His true lovers that were believing His pains, that time and since. For I would have been one of them, and have suffered with them.
Other sight or showing of God I never desired, till the soul were departed from the body; for I trust truly that I should be safe; and this was my meaning. For I wished because of that showing to have after-wards the more true mind in the Passion of Christ.
As for the second [desire], there came into my mind with contrition, freely without any seeking, a wilful desire to have of God’s gift a bodily sickness. And I would that this bodily sickness might have been so hard as unto death, so that I might in the sickness receive all my rites of Holy Church, thinking myself that I should die, and that all that saw me might think the same. For I wished to have no comfort of any fleshly or earthly life. In this sickness I desired to have all manner of pains, bodily and ghostly, that I should have if I should die; all the terrors and tempests of fiends, and all manner of their pains, save of the out-passing of the soul. For I hoped that it might be to me a speed when I should die, for I desired soon to be with my God.
These two desires—of the Passion, and of the sickness—I desired with a condition; for methought that it passed the common course of prayers; and therefore I said: “Lord, Thou knowest what I would. If it be Thy will that I have it, grant it me. And if it be not Thy will, good Lord, be not displeased, for I will nought but as Thou wilt.” This sickness desired I in my thought that I might have it when I were thirty years old.
As for the third [desire], I heard a man tell of Holy Church of the story of Saint Cecilia. In the which showing I understood that she had three wounds with a sword in the neck, with the which she pined to her death. By the stirring of this I conceived a mighty desire, praying our Lord God that He would grant me three wounds in my life time; that is to say, the wound of contrition, the wound of compassion, and the wound of wilful longing towards God. Right as I asked the other two with a condition, so I asked the third without any condition. These two desires beforesaid passed from my mind. And the third dwelled continually.
FIRST, I HAVE TO SAY that this little book does not start with words that most of us will find “comfortable”: Here is a woman who desired suffering, fatal illness, and wounds. Most people today would say that this sounds like a woman who is already sick—in the head. Some kind of masochist? Who can read her list of three desires and not feel their gut clench?
But let’s slow down and avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Give Lady Julian a chance to explain herself. In fact, I want to back up for a moment to think about the book’s title, Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers. As far as I know, the title is as old as the book itself, so perhaps “comfortable” meant something a bit different for Julian. Today, if we call something “comfortable,” we mean that it doesn’t cause us pain or uneasiness. Comfortable jeans are old and shaped to our body after many wearings; they don’t pinch at the waist or bind when we bend over. A sofa or a bed is comfortable if it is soft, yet not too soft; easy to get into and to get back out of. A situation is comfortable when we feel relaxed rather than uptight. Julian’s words, right from the start, do not seem intended to be “comfortable” in this way.
As the Reverend Mr. Harford explains in his editorial introduction to the book, he deliberately modernized the text as little as possible, in order to preserve the flavor of Julian’s fourteenth century English. Only words that have changed their meaning so much that they would be baffling to a reasonably well-read modern reader have been updated (others that may sound archaic are listed in a glossary). Now, I’m a more than-reasonably-well-educated reader, and my background in Latin and English etymology informs me that “comfort,” in its original sense, means to “strengthen,” in the sense of “bucking one up.” Catholics who pray the Anima Christi prayer should be familiar with this usage: in Latin the prayer says, “Passio Christi conforta me,” which in English is “Passion* [suffering] of Christ, strengthen me.” So perhaps this is what Julian is referring to—she offers words that will strengthen us in some way or for some purpose.
In what way? We have one clue: her words are directed at “Christ’s lovers,” i.e., those who love Christ. This book has a devotional intent, and these words are intended to strengthen our love for Christ. That’s encouraging, and perhaps it also helps us to see why Julian desired things that don’t sound all that desirable. When she says she desires to “have mind” of Christ’s passion, to be able to imagine it vividly, as if she were actually present when He suffered on the cross. This is a devotional practice that is still rather common today.
But it seems that she means even more than this: she wants to feel His pain, and that is certainly “uncomfortable.” Yet love, like comfort, is a word that we often use rather loosely in colloquial speech. A Christian, though, knows that love is often uncomfortable, in the modern sense of feeling good. Love—the love of God and the Christian Charity that allows us to become like God—is not something we feel but something we do. When we enter imaginatively and spiritually into Christ’s suffering on the Cross, we unite ourselves to him in love.
Julian wants to love Christ more, so she prays for the grace to experience His passion more vividly. She wants to love Him so much that she, like His blessed mother and Mary Magdalene, can stand at the foot of His death gibbet and accompany Him until He draws His last breath. That takes a strong love, something that most of His disciples couldn’t muster. Even most of his closest associates, the apostles themselves. Only “the beloved disciple,” St. John, was man enough to stand by Him in His public pain and humiliation.
So, her first desire is something we can understand and sympathise with. Her second desire, to contract a fatal physical illness, may seem like some gruesome self-torture she dreamt up so that she could imitate His passion, but she says it came unbidden to her mind, born of contrition. As soon as the first desire occurred to her, the second naturally followed on its heels. In other words, thinking about how much He loves us, to have suffered so, made her contrite for having sinned and made His redemptive death necessary. Why should God, who is all good, suffer as sinners do not? Shouldn’t we suffer, too? And it immediately came to her mind that yes, she should suffer, not just in her imagination but in her actual body. And not just suffer, but suffer and die. She desired not only to suffer with Christ but also to die with Him, so that she could be with Him in eternity, not just in her imagination.
I understand the latter part of this desire. The older I get, the more I look forward to the day when I will pass out of this life, this wicked world, and into eternity, where I will see God as He is, and be like Him. In His wisdom, though, God sees that I am not yet enough like Him, so I must remain longer in the “school of charity” a while longer, like a backward student who gets “put back.” Julian, though, had already dedicated her life to knowing and loving God—that’s why she had deliberately shut herself off from the outside world, and that’s why she wished to suffer death.
As she says, though, even she realized that these desires might be excessive. She asked these favors only if God thought they would be good for her; and if not, pardon her for even suggesting it. Perhaps these two desires were somewhat impulsive for, having submitted them to God’s will, they passed from her mind and were replaced by a third, more enduring desire, to suffer three wounds—but not physical wounds. Spiritual wounds, albeit inspired by the three literal sword wounds that St. Cecilia received from her Roman executioner. Cecilia lived with those wounds for days afterward before she succumbed to death; Julian’s “wounds” of contrition, compassion, and willful longing for God were something that she desired for as long as she might live, however long that might be.
These are wounds that we all can, and should desire to, bear for as long as God sees fit to confine us in this mortal life. I begin to see that Julian, strange as she might seem at first glance, is not some extremist weirdo. She is simply someone who loves God very much and desires to be with Him and to become like Him. I understand this, I feel it myself (if not quite as strongly as she did), and I am eager to learn what God showed her and what she can show me. In the next chapter, we will begin to see how God answered her prayers and granted her desires.
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* For a detailed reflection on the meaning of Christ’s Passion, see “The Riddle of the Passion” on my other blog, The Complete Catholic Reader.