We are turning to the great Julian of Norwich, called “the first woman of English letters,” to meditate on her profound gifts of creation spirituality for our times. But first we are putting her in an historical context which in many ways parallels our current coronavirus emergency since her lifetime spanned many invasions of the bubonic plague in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Yesterday we considered how, due to the plague of Julian’s time, spirituality from the fourteenth century on became more and more privatized and more and more preoccupied with salvation and set humans and their religion apart from nature. The fear of nature engendered by the plague and the subsequent disinterest in nature as a source of spiritual experience set religion up for its divorce from science in the early 17th century.
Because of the plague the creation spiritual vision of such people as Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Meister Eckhart over the previous 150 years was practically abandoned in favor of Thomas a Kempis (“every time I enter creation I withdraw from God”) and other more introverted thinkers. Julian clearly represents the last and the best of this lineage of creation spirituality mystics—even though she lived through a harrowing time of pandemic.
Jesus of Nazarus was steeped in creation centered spirituality because he was steeped in the Wisdom and prophetic traditions of Israel. One scholar has said that Paul’s theology is not only of the Cosmic Christ but of a “metacosmic” Christ. The Gospel of Thomas, written about the time of Paul’s letters, also declares a Cosmic Christ. Church fathers such as St. Irenaeus and the founders of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict and St Scholastica, and the Celtic tradition such as Scotus Erigena, also taught the creation spirituality tradition.
But this tradition had already been profoundly compromised in the fourth century when Christianity took over the Roman Empire and sought to build an empire of its own when St Augustine pronounced his theory of “original sin” (which he linked to our sexuality). Jesus would not have recognized such a concept since it is not Jewish. The quest for a Christian empire and a theology of original sin were strikes number one and two against CS.
But the Bubonic plague delivered a third strike against CS and by the time Protestant reformers came along in the sixteenth century they were dripping with the anthropocentrism of Augustine’s preoccupation with personal salvation, banishment of the Cosmic Christ, and fear of death. The preoccupation with sin and redemption displaced the blessing of creation a la Genesis One as a starting point for Western religion. The teachings of Genesis One–where the world is praised as “good” and “very good”–took back seat to fear and self pity.
In this historical context we can begin to realize what a brave and fresh teacher Julian was and still is.
See Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, (North Atlantic Books edition, 2016), pp.163-166.
See Matthew Fox, “Creation-Centered Spirituality from Hildegard of Bingen to Julian: Three Hundred Years of an Ecological Spirituality in the West,” in Matthew Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets, pp. 75-104.
Banner Image: Window blinds drawn, nature scenes on a screen: how we have distanced ourselves from the natural world. Photo by Denislav Popov on Unsplash
Queries for Contemplation
Do you sense a decisive detour in Christianity away from the attitude of love of the earth and a spirituality of awe and wonder for creation that occurred with the time of the Black Death? What follows from that? How does science assist us to return to a more earth-honoring spirituality?
Wrestling with the Prophets: Essays on Creation Spirituality and Everyday Life
In one of his foundational works, Fox engages with some of history’s greatest mystics, philosophers, and prophets in profound and hard-hitting essays on such varied topics as Eco-Spirituality, AIDS, homosexuality, spiritual feminism, environmental revolution, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism, Art and Spirituality, Art as Meditation, Interfaith or Deep Ecumenism and more.