In this passage from the Second Revelation, Julian of Norwich reminds us that God wants the soul to keep seeking even if, and especially when, it is “in travail” (which can also mean “in labor,” as a woman labors to give birth). At these times the soul does not feel God’s presence, yet it must continue to seek and walk by faith through the “dark nights.” Julian considers this “seeking” of God every bit as important as “seeing.” And she is sure that God will show himself to the soul through a special grace if it is patient, and when it is the Divine Will to do so.
Then God himself will teach the soul how to “behold” him in a graced contemplation. And this beholding is the highest honor and reverence human beings can give to God, and extremely profitable to souls, producing the greatest humility and virtue, “with the grace and leading of the holy ghost.” For the soul “that only fastens itself onto God with true trust, either in seeking or in beholding,” gives him “the most worship.”
Julian defines two distinct workings that become apparent from this vision. One is seeking, the other beholding. Seeking is the common lot, given as a grace to all by the teachings of holy church. Beholding, or mystical seeing, however, is only in the provenance of God. Julian also considers three aspects of seeking which are conducive to seeing. First, one must seek willfully and diligently, without becoming lazy, disheartened, or depressed by the effort. Rather, one must seek “gladly and merrily, without unskillful heaviness and vain sorrow.”
It is notable that Julian gives an inkling here of her own lifelong battles against these very human tendencies to sloth, depression, and sorrow. She knows only too well that such often self-indulgent moods are not those that will most please God and give him worship. She goes so far as to call them “unskillful,” meaning unreasonable, unproductive, and even destructive of the spiritual life. For Julian, the true seeker is a glad-hearted and hope-filled soul, not because it is free from suffering, but because it trusts in the One it seeks. Such a person comes to believe that the Ultimate Answer to every Why? . . . loves us.
The second way of seeking is that “we wait for him steadfastly because of his love, without grumbling and striving against him unto our life’s end, for it shall last but a while.” Julian warns her fellow seekers that grumbling against God is to be avoided at all costs. (The onomatopoeic Middle English word she uses is gruching, very close to “grouching.”) That, and “striving against him” (which would be outright disobedience) are deadly to contemplative “seeing.”
The third way of seeking is that “we trust in him mightily, with full, seker faith.” The Middle English word seker, which Julian uses repeatedly in her text, connotes absolute security that the soul is protected from all danger, is not at any risk, is spiritually safe, and is even among the already saved.
For it is his will that we know that he shall appear suddenly and blissfully to all his lovers. For his working is private, and he wants to be perceived, and his appearing shall be very sudden. And he wants to be believed, for he is very pleasant, homely, and courteous. Blessed may he be!
Julian ends this section with the promise that these three ways of seeking will have blissful results, when one is least expecting them. God will work in the soul in a secret manner, yet his own great desire to be perceived and to be believed will make him suddenly appear (not necessarily in a vision, but by granting a spiritual sense of his intimate presence). And then the soul that has been seeking, suffering, and trusting will, for a suspended time, be filled with joy, as was Julian.
I hope you will heed Julian’s wise advice of seeking and fastening on God with secure faith in divine love, “gladly and merrily, without unskillful heaviness and vain sorrow.” We must believe that God is at work in our current crises and sufferings. And it is precisely when we “trust mightily” in divine help that we begin to see and behold divine presence in our lives. May we give thanks for all the blessings and graces that have been given to us – especially during this time of pandemic and turmoil. “For it is his will that we know that he shall appear suddenly and blissfully to all his lovers.”
NOTE: Excerpt above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf