Loud are the bells of Norwich
and the people come and go.
Here by the tower of Julian,
I tell them what I know.
Ring out, bells of Norwich,
and let the winter come and go
All shall be well again, I know.
Love, like the yellow daffodil,
is coming through the snow.
Love, like the yellow daffodil,
is Lord of all I know.
All shall be well, I'm telling you,
let the winter come and go
All shall be well again, I know.
Sydney Carter, Bells of Julian
We haven't gotten to the yellow daffodils yet, but we have yellow crocuses. Monday these crocuses were under a mound of snow. Today the sun shone, the temperature inched over 40 degrees, the crocuses flung themselves open, and the bees rushed out from wherever bees hide for the winter, loading themselves with pollen.
And the snowdrops that were flattened and, I thought, finished a week ago, sprang back up and spread their petals wide. All March there has been a repeated refrain of snow at the beginning of the week, then warming and melting and the crocuses and snowdrops timidly opening, only to be covered in another snowstorm. And yet they are still here -- the epitome of perseverance, letting the winter come and go.
The Julian in the song is Julian of Norwich, a medieval English woman mystic and anchoress. Last year during Lent I read her Showings, and around Easter I posted several stories related to her insights, and the well-known quote, "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." (Click on Julian in the list on the right, scroll to the earliest entry at the bottom and work your way upwards, if you want to read these.)
"All shall be well" can sound like a too-easily-rattled-off line, but Julian wrote out of awareness of great suffering, and this message was given to her as she wrestled with her questions and wonderings -- and her deeply felt knowledge that God is Love.
Daffodils -- or crocus -- in the snow, winter coming and going, the messiness of spring and of life generally -- Julian's words come from wrestling with the paradoxes.
I hadn't heard the song I'm quoting, Bells of Norwich, before last week, when my son sent me this clip in response to one of my blog postings. A friend of his is using it with a children's choir for Easter. It fits well with this time of year, at least here in northern Indiana, in the earliest stages of spring. (The song starts at 2:00 minutes, if you want to skip the pre-song chatter.)
During second hour on Pentecost, we celebrated Heidi's years of pastoring at Assembly. Carmen Horst, one of our interim pastors, told of being invited, along with other friends, to send a bead as a way of accompanying Heidi as she gave birth to her first child. We were invited to present Heidi with a bead and a written blessing as part of this celebration. These were later strung together as a gift for Heidi and the family.
I posted about seeing tadpoles at the Calendar Garden in late April. Heidi told me later she immediately took the boys out to see.
The cycle of life -- empty chrysalis cases on the crumpled leaf and a bright monarch butterfly in flight.
A candle for those Heidi leaves behind. That's a hazelnut on the base, to remind me of the words Julian of Norwich heard Christ say:
All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.
On May 13 in1373, Julian of Norwich received the sixteen visions that she spent the next twenty years or so contemplating, writing about and living out.With Mother's Day coming on May 13 this year, it seems fitting to include some quotes from the passages where Julian writes of Jesus as Mother. It's hard to pick one succinct quote, so here are several from chapters 58 and 59, interspersed with some spring flowers, in honor of our mother Jesus.
And so in our making, God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord.
Our great Father, almighty God, who is being, knows us and loved us before time began. Out of this knowledge, in his most wonderful deep love, by the prescient eternal counsel of all the blessed Trinity, he wanted the second person to become our Mother, our brother and our savior. From this it follows that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.
And so Jesus is our true Mother in nature by our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking our created nature.
I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. The first is the foundation of our nature's creation; the second is his taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work. And in that, by the same grace, everything is penetrated, in length and in breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.
One more Julian icon, showing a reference to perhaps her most frequently quoted line. It comes in a passage where Julian is wrestling with her awareness of the pain caused by sin, and wondering why God could not have prevented sin from ever beginning. She hears that sin is necessary (or as one translation has it, inevitable), but "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well."
A good word to carry with us into the world as we move outwards from the high celebratory note of Easter, as is also Julian's summary of the essence of her showings:
And from the time it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.
Early in Lent I participated in the monthly Taize worship at the Hermitage, in Michigan. We gathered in the chapel with the chairs set up in two tiers circling a cross which hung in the middle of the room, over a center arrangement with trays of sand, a Christ candle, and small prayer candles.
We sang the simple Taize songs over and over, sometimes accompanied by piano, sometimes by cello or flute or harp, till they had sunk deep within, quieting and centering us. Some were familiar to me from other settings: “Come and pray in us,” “Bless the Lord.” We sang, and quieted our souls, and slowly people began going to the center, lighting a candle, praying for awhile and then placing the candle in the sand and returning to their seats.
For an intercession song, we sang #22 in the Taize song book:
By your cross and all the wounds you suffered,
grant us freedom in your love.
I found this echoing with my reading of Julian’s showings of Christ’s Passion, and of the deep message of love she felt. Our cross was empty, two branches stripped of their bark and roped together. But there was a discoloration on the side facing me that looked like the face of someone crying out or weeping, hand to cheek. And across the room, on the opposite wall, there was a crucifix, with Christ on the cross, and beside it, an icon of Christ the Light-Giver. I found my gaze going to the cross behind the head on the icon, to the crucifix, to the crying face on the cross of bare branches.
And in that space I held awareness of a number of people I know who are suffering – living with cancer or chronic disease, the loss of a loved one, depression, the breakdown of relationship. I went up to light my candle and to hold that in prayer at the foot of the cross.
We moved in to an extended time of silence before singing “When the night becomes dark, your love, O Lord, is a fire,” watching the flames of the candles flicker as others came forward to add another candle. And we sang “We adore you, Jesus Christ, and we bless your holy name, truly your cross and passion bring us life and healing.”
That one I will continue to ponder. The resurrection and its hope of healing and restoration, yes – but what of the cross and Christ’s Passion? How do I understand this gift of love? Understand, not in the sense of worrying about which theological interpretation of atonement I can assent to, but rather understand and receive at the heart level, as Julian so clearly did.
As I ponder, another visual memory stirs. Years ago I attended an Interplay workshop at Bethany Theological Seminary. In their lovely wood-floored chapel, we did hand dances, moved and played, told big body stories, sometimes all together, sometimes just a few of us. For one session, Cynthia Winton-Henry read the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha, and then put on some lively music. I watched as Martha after Martha sprang up, energetically moving, stirring, dancing around.
Then one male dancer stretched out on the floor, on his side, with one hand reaching towards the cross on the wall across the room, and with intense focus, began pushing himself with his other arm, a slow, silent, straight route through all the lively dancers, to the foot of the cross, where he rested, hand open and outstretched.
Like the dancer, like Mary, like Julian, like those praying at the Taize service, on this Holy Saturday I can continue to bring my prayers to the foot of the cross, my own and my intercessory prayers.
And a different sort of flame lifted my prayers this morning, as I walked the Stations of the Cross at Pathways Retreat Center -- the flame of sunlight and new plant growth.
Several of Julian’s showings touch on aspects of Christ’s Passion – copious bleeding from the crown of thorns and from the whipping, discoloration of his face and the drying of his body. It’s not imagery I’m accustomed to spending much time with. In my tradition, we tend to focus on Christ’s life and on the resurrection – our crosses are bare. We move seamlessly from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the alleluias of Easter, with a nod towards the Last Supper and the handing over of Jesus and his abandonment by his friends if we attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service.
But we don’t – I don’t – spend much time suffering with Jesus on the cross.
Julian does, along with many other medieval mystics, though her visions of blood and of suffering are always interwoven with a vivid awareness of God’s love. She suffers as she watches Christ suffer, for the pain he felt and for her awareness that he who suffered is God. And she experiences a mix of sorrow and of joy.
And in this he partly brought to my mind the exaltedness and nobility of the glorious divinity, and at the same time the preciousness and tenderness of his blessed body united with it, and also the reluctance that there is in human nature to suffer pain. For just as he was most tender and most pure, so he was most strong and powerful to suffer. And he suffered for the sins of every man who will be saved; and he saw and he sorrowed for every man’s sorrow, desolation and anguish, in his compassion and love. … And now he has risen again and is no longer capable of suffering; and yet he suffers with us, as I shall afterwards say. p 213, Showings.
I wanted to find a photo of a 14th century English crucifix, such as Julian might have gazed upon. This is Welsh, but the right century, and though it is broken and faded, perhaps that can also carry some of the sense of Christ's suffering.
Julian goes on:
“And as I watched with all my might for the moment when Christ would expire, and I expected to see his body quite dead; but I did not see him so, and just at the moment when by appearances he seemed to me that life could last no longer, and that the revelation of his end must be near, suddenly as I looked at the same cross, he changed to an appearance of joy. The change in his blessed appearance changed mine, and I was as glad and joyful as I could possibly be. And then cheerfully our Lord suggested to my mind: Where is there now any instant of your pain or of your grief? And I was very joyful; I understood that in our Lord’s intention we are now on his cross with him in our pains, and in our sufferings we are dying, and with his help and his grace we willingly endure on that same cross until the last minute of life.” p 214-5, Showings.
And in these words: If I could suffer more, I should suffer more, I saw truly that as often as he could die, so often should he die, and love would never let him rest till he had done it. And I contemplated with great diligence to know how often he should die if he would. And truly the number so far exceeded my understanding and intelligence that my reason had not leave or power to comprehend or accept it.
p 217, Showings
I find Julian’s words resonating with experiences from Gestalt Pastoral Care, where people have found suffering transformed through recognition of ways Christ is present with them, whether in present sorrow or in painful memories. (See Tilda Norberg’s Consenting to Grace for vivid stories from her work with people suffering deep pain and trauma.)
He suffers for us, we who are part of the Body of Christ suffer with him, and he suffers for all who suffer.
On this Good Friday, I am pondering this, and hearing the ringing refrains of Carl Daw’s hymn, “How shallow former shadows,” especially the last verse:
Yet deep within this darkness lives a Love so fierce and free,
that arcs all voids and – risk supreme! – embraces agony.
Its perfect testament is etched in iron, blood, and wood.
With awe we glimpse its true import and dare to call it good.
#251 in Hymnal: a worship book
I've had this icon card pinned just above my computer for years and this year for Lent, I’ve been reading and ruminating on the Showings of Julian of Norwich. Julian was a 14th century Englishwoman, a devout woman who lived the secluded, prayer-filled life of an anchoress in a two-room suite attached to the small church of St Julian’s in Norwich.
It sounds peaceful, but her times were as troubled as our own. The Black Plague visited Norwich at least three times during Julian’s lifetime, killing about a quarter of the population. France and England were caught in the seemingly endless battles of the Hundred Year war, controversy over the papal succession created two Popes, and there were ever-increasing taxes and the Peasants’ Revolt in England.
When Julian was 30, she fell so ill that she received last rites and her mother and friends gathered round to say farewell. Instead of dying, she received a series of visions, recovered, and spent the next 20 years ruminating on these showings, eventually writing up her account of what she saw and what she had come to understand about them.
In her first vision, she is sure that she is on the verge of death as the room darkens around her, except for ordinary light falling on the crucifix that the curate holds in front of her. Then blood begins to fall in round drops from under the crown of thorns; she has a strong sense of the presence of the Trinity; she sees Mary as a young, simple maiden full of wisdom and truth, aware of her Creator’s greatness and her own littleness; she understands that Jesus is everything that is good, wrapping and enfolding us, surrounding us with his love.
And Jesus shows her something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, as round as a ball. She writes,” I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could fall suddenly into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”
Several of Julian's visions touch on aspects of Christ's Passion. As Julian recounts her visions and shares her reflections on them, she repeatedly works with the themes of God’s love and the gift of Christ’s suffering for us, wrestling with how this foundational love that she has been shown connects with the pain and suffering in the world.
Life and death, light and shadow.
I have found it meaningful reading for this year’s Lent, and I’ll be sharing some of the ways it has connected for me in these coming days of Holy Week.
"Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"
I've taken on a prayer practice of looking for the moments of light in each day, whether actual or metaphorical, and then writing or posting photos of what I find.