The writings of the medieval anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich will doubtless seem strange to many modern readers. In the opening sections of her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian recounts how she prayed earnestly for a vivid perception of Christ’s Passion and also that she might experience bodily suffering and sickness. She also desired to be inflicted with three spiritual “wounds,” namely, “the wound of contrition, the wound of compassion and the wound of an earnest longing for God.”
We live in an age that emphasizes positivity and comfort, and it would be easy for some to interpret Julian’s words as evidence of mental illness, as an unhealthy obsession with suffering bordering on masochism. But this would be a gross misunderstanding.
Julian of Norwich was keenly aware that suffering is unavoidable this side of eternity. Through meditation on the sufferings of Jesus Christ, Julian was able to find peace amid her own tribulations and even to welcome sufferings permitted by God as for her benefit.
Earthly joys are fleeting
Julian recognized that all earthly joys and sorrows are fleeting when compared to the eternal life promised us by Christ, noting that “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.”
She continued, “therefore if a man is suffering so much pain, so much woe and so much distress that it seems he can think of nothing but the state he is in and what he is feeling, he should pass over it lightly and set it at nought as soon as he can.” This brings to mind the words of St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
Suffering and grace
Christ did not promise us a life free from suffering, but rather that through his grace we shall find the strength to persevere amid life’s adversities. Referencing Christ’s words to her in her visions, Julian says, “He did not say, ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to pay attention to his words and wants our certainty always to be strong.”
When St. Paul begged Christ in prayer to remove a certain suffering from his life, Our Lord responded that his grace was sufficient. This grace gave Paul the strength to endure and to boldly proclaim: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Prayer is crucial
Prayer can be a crucial lifeline in times of distress, as Julian recognized: “Prayer gives man pleasure in himself, and makes him calm and humble, where before he was contentious and troubled.” Yet she also insists that in our prayer we must always be humble and seek the will of God: “When a soul is tempted, troubled and isolated by distress, then it is time to pray and to make oneself pliable and submissive to God. Unless we are submissive, no kind of prayer can make God bend to us, though his love is always alike.”
By aligning our desires to the will of God, we are imitating Christ himself. Tormented by sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, mere hours before his Passion, Jesus submitted to the will of the Father, praying, “If it is possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
Love is the remedy
Julian reveals that the remedy for suffering is love: “And our Lord very humbly revealed to me the patience with which he bore his terrible Passion and also the joy and delight which that Passion gave him because of his love. And he showed by his example that we should bear our sufferings gladly and lightly, because that pleases him greatly and benefits us forever.”
Amid illness and pain Julian was able to find peace by clinging to God’s infinite love and mercy: “God wishes to be known, and is pleased that we should rest in him; for all that is below him does nothing to satisfy us. And that is why, until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest.”
As unsettling as some of Julian’s words may seem to us six centuries later, her outlook on suffering is in fact deeply biblical, reflecting the teachings of St. Paul and of Jesus himself. Julian’s revelations have been a comfort to me amid personal hardships and depression. To turn on the news or browse the internet is to be exposed to the fact that countless people around the world continue to suffer the misfortunes and tragedies that have plagued human history: poverty, wars, disease, natural disasters. In the writings of Julian of Norwich we find an eloquent expression of the breathtaking truth: In Jesus Christ we have a God who understands our sufferings because he suffered, too.