We continue our lead up to meditations on Julian of Norwich who lived through the bubonic plague and its many waves throughout her life. It seems she may have much to teach us during our times of the coronavirus and the climate change emergencies.
It is in the context of the plague that Julian of Norwich’s profound and fresh teachings came to life. Unfortunately, however, her books were not disseminated until the 17th century when a Benedictine who was arguing with a Jesuit first got them published and distributed.
Julian’s deep theology is a bastion of creation spirituality, but it was ignored for centuries, a period of profound historical impact not only because of the birth of the Reformation churches but also because Europe set out to conquer the rest of the world (with the help of the notorious papal Documents of Discovery).
Having lost its creation centered tradition and having become so preoccupied with redemption and so bent on enriching a “Christian empire” and so aligned with the military was it, that it often missed the wisdom of the indigenous religions that it encountered in the Americas, the Pacific islands and Africa.
In all this sad history Julian stands out and in many ways alone.
French cultural historian Jean Delumeau, in his major study on Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture notes that the fourteenth century birthed a “scruple sickness” that in turn gave birth to a “new fear—the fear of one’s self” and that an “excessive sense of guilt and culpability” created a gap that advanced the “dread of God” over the “fear of God” understood as awe.
He believes the Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century reached a vast audience with their message of doctrine of justification by faith and its emphasis on “the world’s fragility, of its vice and its vanity,” where humans were but “dung” and “filth.”
The result was despair. Calvin said:
Life in this world is full of worries and troubles. It is totally wretched. Nowhere is happiness to be found.
“Infinite misery” abounds and instead of blessing in the cosmos Calvin sees only curse.
No matter where we look, high or low, we can see only a curse that, spreading over all creatures and embracing the earth and the sky, ought to burden our souls with horrible despair.
Luther called the world “the devil’s kingdom” and the “son” of the devil that deserves to be called “all bad” and is filled with sin. Luther urged Christians to “despair totally of themselves in order to be able to receive Christ’s grace” and proposed that humans, “having grown into a bad tree, can only want and do evil.” What happened, says Delumeau, is that “Augustinian pessimism gained both its strongest coloring and widest audience during…the years 1400-1700.”
In subsequent Daily Meditations we will be calling on some of Julian’s wisdom which stands in explicit contrariness to such pessimism.
Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, (North Atlantic Books edition, 2016), pp.163-165.
Banner Image: “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.” Painting by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450 –1516). From the collection of the Museo del Prado, on Wikimedia Commons
Queries for Contemplation
Thomas Aquinas says that “the worst thing a person can do” is to teach despair. How does it feel to relive the despair that much of modern religion has been teaching the West for centuries? What can we do about that?