This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte
Sometimes the right book finds you just when you need it the most.
I had not heard of Julian of Norwich before this past year, when her book “Revelations of Divine Love” was assigned for the Well-Read Mom book club, a national community with small groups all over the country (wellreadmom.com.) While I am not a mom myself, the ladies of the local group warmly welcomed me into their ranks for discussions of books, family life and our faith. In the year and a half since I joined them, I have fallen in love with several books through them that I might never have encountered or made time for otherwise. “Revelations of Divine Love” has certainly been one of the greater gifts I have received so far.
This book was intentionally selected to be read during Lent, but none of us knew how unique this particular Lent would be or how much we would need the reminder of God’s divine love.
In the late 14th century, Julian of Norwich was given visions of Christ’s Passion, during which God spoke to her and conveyed deep insights into His love and mercy. Julian was only 30 years old when she received these visions and spent many years mediating upon them before writing it all down. Julian was also living during a time when England and the rest of Europe was being ravaged by plague, famine and social unrest. By the mid-1300s, the Black Death was sweeping through Europe, and an estimated one-third to one-half of England’s population died.
Yet it wasn’t messages of God’s anger or retribution that were given to Julian during this time. She received messages about His love, His willing sacrifice on the cross, and His ultimate triumph over evil and sin.
I began reading this book in March, right as things were beginning to be shut down due to the COVID-19 virus – just as we were dispensed from attending Sunday Mass, various activities were being canceled, and the media were reporting disturbing news from pandemic hotspots such as New York City. By the time North Carolina issued its own stay-at-home order, I was about halfway through Julian’s book and her words (God’s words) had quickly become a sanctuary of comfort and reassurance in this increasingly unsettled world. The reminder of God’s boundless love and His own sacrifice and Passion gave me a much-needed perspective on the current crisis.
One of the most relevant messages I found in Julian’s visions is how God always brings good out of every evil. God took the sin of Adam, “the greatest harm that was ever done,” and because of it brought about the Incarnation, the greatest sign of God’s love. Julian was told in her vision: “Since I have turned the greatest possible harm into good, it is my will that you should know from this that I shall turn all lesser evil into good.” We are all limited to our own experiences and little glimpses of the world, so it can be difficult for us to see the good being worked during these difficult times, but in faith we must believe it is there. And perhaps the good to be found is the reawakening of our faith and realization of our dependence on God. We must always remember that our ultimate goal is the joy of heaven and unity with God, even though that means suffering here on earth. As Julian says, “for all this life of distress which we have here is only a moment, and when we are suddenly taken from suffering into bliss, then it will be nothing.”
In several instances Julian writes specifically of the devil, whom she refers to as the Fiend, at work in the world as well as attacking her personally during her visions. Even as she herself experienced the devil’s oppression, her message is still one of hope and God’s triumph. In regards to the Fiend, Julian records that he is forever frustrated and blocked in his schemes, “for everything that God allows him to do turns into joy for us and into pain and shame for him; and that is because he may never do as much evil as he would wish, and God holds fast all the Devil’s power in his own hand.” The devil suffers even as God allows him to work in the world, because the devil knows that ultimately God will turn all of that work to good and for the salvation of souls.
I hope all the ladies in the Well-Read Mom book club found as much comfort in this book as I did, and I strongly encourage all others to check it out. Look for a good contemporary translation and be sure to get the Long Text version, which is still not particularly long. It is not a dense theological treatise, but a more conversational work, such as St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul” or the Diary of St. Faustina. Though Julian does not provide many details of her own life, there is still a very personal feel to her writing, which makes for an easier read.
I will end with the Lord’s own words to Julian, which are repeated frequently in the book and now often come back to me as the whisperings of the Holy Spirit: “I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all things shall be well.”
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