Saturday, August 28, 2010



In this post I want to enlist the help of two very different writers, one a French Jesuit and the other a simple woman of the 1300’s who was gifted with visions.

FRANCOIS VARILLON was a French Jesuit priest, teacher and preacher who died in 1968. In 1981 someone collected many of his class notes and summaries of his conferences into a best-selling book entitled Joie de croire, Joie de vivre. I’ve pored over it dozens of times and have always come away with some new spiritual challenge. I was delighted to find that it had been translated into English so that more people could enjoy it. If you are up for an intellectual challenge and don’t mind someone questioning your comfortable presuppositions about your faith, then I highly recommend Joy of Faith, Joy of Life.

JULIAN OF NORWICH was an English recluse born in 1342. We know very little of her life – not even her name (she lived in the anchorhold attached to the church of St. Julian, and so was known simply as “The lady at St. Julian’s” which was quickly contracted to “The Lady Julian.”). She was granted a lengthy mystical vision of the crucified Christ over a period of two days as she lay dying from some unknown physical ailment at the age of about 30. She would spend the rest of her life meditating on and writing about those “Shewings of God’s Love” and would never have another vision. Compared to the other great mystics of the time she is a simpler person, much more down to earth and her reflections are often, to use one of her own words, “homely.” I read about her in a lovely little book entitled “Introducing Julian, Woman of Norwich” by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard.

So now to the business at hand.


Recently I was unsettled by the following idea of Varillon’s. (What follows is a mixture of his thoughts and mine.) You might want to think about what you're saying when you tell your child, “Mommy and Daddy can’t always see you, but there’s someone who sees everything you do, no matter where you are, and that’s God.” “What a horror!” Varillon says. As a child Sartre had found the idea of being constantly watched by God enough to push a person to suicide or at least to a loss of their Christian faith. And Nietzsche laughed derisively at our caricature of “God as a spider” watching its web.

Granted that we find the idea in the Old Testament and in a lot of Christian spiritual tradition, but think for a moment about what it entails. Varillon asks,"Do you really want to be a spectacle for God?" "The human person a spectacle for God to watch? Come, now!” writes Varillon, “I have no desire to be a spectacle for you and I have no desire to be a spectacle for anyone, even if that person is called God. I refuse in the name of my dignity." He insists that this, like any image that makes God into a frightful thing, must be rejected.


“Thank God,” Varillon continues, “the God who Jesus Christ revealed to us is not a God who watches us but a God who embraces us, and that’s completely different.” (French edition pp 257-8). Wouldn’t you prefer a God who embraces you (God as “thou”) to a God who watches you (God as a third person outsider or as an object).

As my back pain has suddenly gotten bad again I’ve found myself once more thinking about suffering and how God fits into that mystery. Having God hug me when my back is in spasms sure beats having God just standing aloof and watching me and (shudder!) watching how well or poorly I do with the experience of pain.


Just this week I came across the following in Elizabeth Hubbard’s book on Julian of Norwich. The author quotes Julian as summarizing the whole meaning and purpose of all of her visions in one single word, LOVE:

"Love was the unifying theme --tender, dependable, utterly trustworthy love.
But if love is the leitmotif of the Revelations, where does sin come in? Julian is no naive woman, unaware of the power of sin in herself, in others and in the world at large. However, while acknowledging that sin is a mystery, she refuses to respond to it by activating the motive of fear. Julian countenances no theories that show God as on the watch, waiting to condemn and punish the weak and the sinful. Instead, she sets sin within the wider context of a creator who cherishes rather than condemns. Sin is only part of a whole in which grace and forgiveness predominate." (p. 36)

So, there is an earlier version of Varillon’s rejection of a God who is "on the watch." But there was a second image of Julian's which really spoke to me. Here are her own words:

Our good Lord showed himself to his creatures in various ways, both in heaven and on earth, but the only place in which I saw him actually take up residence was in the human soul…. He has made our soul his resting place and his royal city. And from this glorious throne he will never ever get up or move away permanently.

The place where the Lord dwells is wonderful and magnificent, and therefore he wants us to respond quickly to the touch of his grace, rejoicing more in his unbroken love than sorrowing over our frequent falls. For out of all the things that we can do, the one that gives him most honor is to live gladly and joyfully for love of him. (p. 116)

As I was leaving church after meditating on that last passage I was very conscious of Jesus resting inside of me. And when I had this nasty twinge of pain while walking down the steps I smiled as I imagined Jesus enthroned there on his royal throne inside of me, closer to my spine that I am myself, and suffering along with me and loving me.

I hope to hold on to and continue unpacking Julian’s image of my body as a place where Jesus is enthroned. Especially this body of mine with its painful spine.


...........................Jerusalem, God's Holy City

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