This lasted but a while, and I was turned and left to myself in such heaviness and weariness of my life and irkenes [irritation] with myself, that I could barely have patience to live. There was no comfort nor any ease to my feeling, but faith, hope and charity, and these I had in truth, but very little in feeling.
A sharp and sudden shift occurs. Julian feels as if she has been dropped out of heaven. Left alone on earth, she is full of sadness, weariness, and irkenes, that is, acute annoyance with herself. She scarcely has the patience to go on living. What a drastic change! Yet this shock and dismay at feeling suddenly abandoned by God is a familiar one in the mystical life. It is a classic example of the return of the visionary from the heights of contemplation down to the harsh fact of her still-separateness from divinity and a very human dissatisfaction with herself. . . . All that Julian could hold onto was her faith, hope, and love, and this she did “in truth,” but without any sense of consolation.
And soon after this, our blessed lord gave me again the comfort and the rest in soul: delight and sekernesse so blissful and so mighty that no dread, nor sorrow, nor any bodily nor ghostly pain that might be suffered could have unsettled me. And then the pain shewed again to my feeling, and then the joy and the delight, and now that one, and now the other, diverse times, I suppose about twenty times. And in the time of joy, I might have said with Saint Paul: “Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.” And in the pain, I might have said with Saint Peter: “Lord, save me, I perish.”
This excruciating oscillation between the utmost bliss and extreme turmoil recurs some “twenty times.” One minute she feels totally at peace in the presence of God, the next she is like a little boat being tossed about on the high seas. She is reminded of sacred scripture, but her references are inaccurate. She conflates two gospel passages: Matthew 8:25 (“Lord, save us! We are perishing!”), spoken not by Peter alone, but by all the disciples to the sleeping Jesus in the boat during a storm; and Matthew 14:30 (“Lord, save me!”), cried by Peter on another occasion when he began to sink after walking toward Christ on the water. This confusion strongly suggests that Julian did not own or have access to a copy of the new Wyclif English translation of the gospels. But she did know the essential meaning of these passages, having heard them quoted in English sermons, and also from a lifetime of meditation. Thus it was natural for her to identify the dramatic swings of feeling with the extremes of ecstasy described by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (Rom 8:38–39) and the agony voiced by St. Peter and the other disciples. Julian is convinced that she had to undergo these spiritual extremes in order to learn that it is profitable for souls to be unmoored in this way:
. . . sometimes to be in comfort, and sometimes to fail and to be left to themselves. God wills that we know that he keeps [protects] us ever in the same seker [security], in woe and in wele [well-being]. And for the profit of man’s soul a man is sometimes left to himself, although sinne is not always the cause. For in this time, I sinned not for which I should be left to myself, for it was so sudden. Also, I deserved not to have this blissful feeling, but freely our lord gives it when he wills, and suffers us to be in woe sometimes, and both are one love.
The analytic understanding of this Revelation must have come a long time after the experience itself. Reflecting on “What does this mean?” . . . Julian is led to appreciate that both well-being and woe, common aspects of human existence, must be borne with patience. But the Revelation is clear that woe is not always the result of sinful behavior (Julian was convinced she had not sinned “in this time”), nor is the wele, that is, the graced sense of God’s presence, ever deserved. It is gift, pure and simple. The one reality we can be sure of is that both states of mind are “one love.” By seeming to come close and then removing himself, God teaches us not to crave blissful feelings over blind faith. God wants us to believe in his presence, whether we feel it or not: “For it is God’s will that we hold ourselves in comfort with all our might.”
Julian is fully aware that bliss will be everlasting and that earthly pain is merely passing and “shall be brought to nought for them that shalle be saved.” But while we are trapped in this earthly mode of swinging between the two extremes, she is adamant that it is not God’s will that we pay undue attention to the feelings of pain and allow ourselves to sorrow and mourn over them, “but quickly pass over them and hold ourselves in the endless delight that is God.” Unlike the common medieval spiritual directive that the faithful should see their pains and sense of abandonment as direct punishments from God, or as signs of God’s disfavor which they should bear with a heavy heart, Julian’s conviction is that God wants his people to cling in faith to the fact of his love, even and especially in the midst of great suffering.
We can learn so much from Julian’s experience in prayer. In these troubling times, how often we ourselves feel pulled apart in prayer, from peace to anxiety, from hope to an overwhelming sense of fear or sadness. Julian assures us that this is the common lot of all who pray. We must not neglect our times of verbal prayer and silent meditation because we are afraid of these mood swings! On the contrary, it is only by resting in silence and stillness and focusing on the life-giving reality of our breath and by not grasping to the display of thoughts, emotions, and images that appear before our inner eye, that we truly learn to rest in God, in simple awareness. We become more deeply aware that we are, by the grace of God, aware! And that this blessed awareness is grounded in Divine Awareness. How could it be otherwise? By our faith, we silently affirm over and over again that the Holy Spirit is truly present within, no matter how we may feel -- whether in wele or in woe -- “for both are one love.” And that is all we need to know.
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books).