Like St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich is widely admired and misunderstood. Unlike St. Francis, however, Julian has not been canonized and so does not have an authentic and reverent cult that safeguards her true message. Her most famous line—often translated as “Sin is inevitable, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”—is taken as proof that she stood against a judgmental Church. But the popular image of Julian is false, as is the translation of her words. Unless we recover the true Julian, we will miss her unique spiritual insight into the place of sin in the providential ordering of the universe.
Born in 1342 near Norwich, England, Julian lived through the horrors of the Black Death and the turbulence of the Peasants’ Revolt—events that would not have conduced to a sentimental view of life. Beyond that, we know very little about her. In fact, we do not even know her real name. She is now referred to by the name of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, where she became an anchorite. She took a vow to live a life of prayer in radical isolation, being literally walled into a room by masons, with only a small window for necessities and communication. It was in this state that Julian received sixteen revelations (or “showings”) from Jesus Christ, which she recounted and contemplated in her Revelations of Divine Love.
After her death, Julian’s works came to be widely read by those interested in mystical and ascetical theology. She has been embraced as a chief figure in the history of the English-speaking Church. But she has also been used as a vehicle for heterodoxy. She is often mischaracterized as a proto-feminist, experiencing a dogma-less vision of God and standing in defiance of the doctrinal, patriarchal Church.
Though many have presented Julian as an opponent of the Church and its teaching, Catholic authorities have not accepted that characterization. It was rumored in the late 1990s that she would be both canonized and made a Doctor of the Church. That has not yet happened. But as recently as 2010, Pope Benedict XVI praised Julian, saying she “understood the central message for spiritual life.” She is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Nonetheless, the image of the heretical Julian persists. Mirabai Starr’s The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation is the latest example of the unfortunate and misleading scholarship that perpetuates this myth. Where Julian refers to her fellow brethren in Christ as “my even Christians,” Starr instead inserts “my fellow spiritual seekers.” She changes “our faith” and “the Church” into “our spiritual community.” Starr hints that Julian was in tension with the Roman Church and that she thought with and through the Church’s teaching simply because it was “the only religion she knew.” In Starr’s account, Julian—a mystic who wished to be wounded with the very wounds of Jesus Christ and literally to die to be nearer to him—begins to sound like a quasi-unitarian feminist fighting back against the domineering Church.
Worse yet, Starr changes “those who will be saved” into “all beings.” Such a misinterpretation of Julian’s “All shall be well” is rooted in a superficial reading of one of the most profound spiritual texts in Christian history. It is, to be frank, a simplistic understanding of just how Julian apprehended the truth that all shall be well, and it erases Julian’s crucial insight that even sin has a role to play in all being well.
Julian’s most famous, and most important, line (recorded by her as the words of Christ) is “Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.” Starr translates “synne is behovabil” as “sin is inevitable.” The claim that sin is behovable—or “behovely,” as an earlier manuscript has it—is the key to the Showings; this line tells us just how all things shall be well. Divine providence is God’s governance or ordering of the universe, both the parts that make up the universe and the universe as a whole. This ordering is precisely what makes the universe a cosmos, that is, an ordered whole, rather than merely the convergence of arbitrary and meaningless events. Translating “synne is behovabil” as “sin is inevitable” annihilates the very mystery at the heart of Julian’s contemplation of God’s providence and love, for it erases the question as to why God permits evil at all. When one reads Starr’s translation, the mystery of the divine permission of evil is lost. Sin becomes something that God cannot keep from creeping into his cosmos.
Starr’s translation makes it seem like Julian believes evil exists because it is required in order for men to have free will. According to this view, sometimes called the “free will defense,” God cannot create a universe both with free creatures and without sin. Free creatures, by virtue of their freedom, can and will choose evil. There is nothing that God can do about this apart from refraining to create free creatures in the first place. So why did God make free creatures at all if the price to be paid was so much sin and suffering? One of the most famous proponents of the free will defense, C. S. Lewis, answers, “Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.” Sin, and therefore evil, is an undesired but inevitable part of God’s creation of free men.
This argument is based upon the idea that divine causality and human freedom are competitive. To the extent God acts upon my will, my freedom is being mitigated. But this “incompatibilist” understanding of human freedom is at odds with the Christian tradition. St. Paul tells us, “It is God who works within you, both to will and to accomplish, according to His good will.” St. Augustine says, “It is certain that it is we that act when we act; but it is He who makes us act, by applying efficacious powers to our will.” St. Thomas Aquinas says, “The act of the intellect or of any created being whatsoever depends upon God in two ways: first, inasmuch as it is from Him that it has the form whereby it acts; secondly, inasmuch as it is moved by Him to act.”
This compatibilist position sees God’s causality and human freedom as harmonious. Thus, to whatever extent God acts upon my will is precisely the extent to which I am able to act freely. God is the architect of our will and the very power by which we are free.
The lone voice crying out in the wilderness of Julian scholarship has been Denys Turner. He has persuasively argued that “behovely” ought to be translated not as inevitable but as fitting, or in Latin, conveniens. Anyone familiar with the theology of the Angelic Doctor will recognize just how often he employs the idea of the conveniens. It refers neither to that which is necessary nor to that which is purposeless or awry. The conveniens might not have been so, and yet it is so precisely because its being so corresponds to the divine plan and is expedient for its consummation. The behovely, then, is the felicitous.
And yet, when we return to Julian, we cannot help but be dumbstruck, or perhaps even scandalized. Sin is behovely? Sin is conveniens? On second thought, perhaps we’d rather that Julian had said “sin is inevitable.” This certainly seems more immediately and superficially palatable. But the mystics do not deal in the superficial or the palatable. They deal in mystery, and so we must work to apprehend what Julian is telling us rather than what we’d like her to be telling us. So, sin is fitting? It is well within God’s power to create a world without sin, and yet he chooses one in which we do indeed sin. Why?
One possible answer is that sin shall be utterly defeated and replaced entirely with grace. This is the answer given by those who believe in universal salvation. Every last soul, even the fallen angels, shall be saved. This presupposes the veracity of the compatibilist position. God could save all, and he indeed does save all. As we have already seen, this position is often ascribed to Julian. “All shall be well” is taken to mean that all shall be saved. And, of course, this is where modern theologians posit a tension or even incongruence between Julian’s visions and the doctrinal teaching of the Church. We return again to the trope of the mystic, unencumbered by the artificial limits of doctrine, who must pit her personal experience against the hierarchical Church. But reading the Showings as they are (rather than how one would like them to be) reveals a different picture. Julian repeatedly tells the reader that she roots her understanding and interpretation of her visions in the authority of the Church. When Julian speaks of the blessed souls that are shown to her, she does not claim that all souls are numbered among these elect. She explicitly mentions the eternality of hell, both for the demons and for men:
And yet in this I desired, as [far] as I durst, that I might have full sight of Hell and Purgatory. But it was not my meaning to make proof of anything that belongeth to the Faith: for I believed soothfastly that Hell and Purgatory is for the same end that Holy Church teacheth. . . . I saw that the devil is reproved of God and endlessly condemned. In which sight I understood as to all creatures that are of the devil’s condition in this life, and therein end, that there is no more mention made of them afore God and all His Holy than of the devil—notwithstanding that they be of mankind—whether they be christened or not. . . . Nothwithstanding I knew in my Faith that they were accursed and condemned without end, saving those that converted, by grace.
Universalism posits that sin exists here and now but that it will disappear when all is brought to completion. Sin is in no way behovely or fitting. It is the opposite: amiss, a mistake in the providential narrative of the cosmos, something to be edited out of the story. Sin is so ill-fitting that God must save all in order for sin not to have the last word, as it were. For the universalist, sin is not behovely; rather, it is the removal of all sin, as if it never happened, which is behovely. But for Julian, it is the existence of evil in the created order, as an essential part of the story, which is behovely.
Consider how Julian describes her vision of the thick, deep-red blood of Christ, unceasingly dripping down his brow, springing forth from the wounds inflicted by his crown. Julian tells us this scene was “horrifying and dreadful, sweet and lovely.” On the surface, the description may seem self-contradictory. But the Christian understands its meaning well. These are not contradictory predicates but two parts that when taken together explain the whole. All things can be seen in two ways: as they are in themselves and as they are in relation to the whole. This is what St. John Damascene meant when he distinguished between God’s antecedent and consequent wills. He was not arguing that God has two wills; this is impossible given divine simplicity. What he meant was that God might will something according to two different scopes or purviews: the thing in itself and the thing’s place in the whole. Antecedently, God may wish the life of the gazelle. But consequently, given the relation of the parts that compose the whole, God may will something different, such as the death of the gazelle for the sake of the life of the lion. That locution, “for the sake of,” is crucial. If all good comes from God, and God is capable of causing every good, even upholding us in perfection without violating our human freedom, why does he not do so? Antecedently, God wishes for us to enjoy perfection, but consequently, he permits (but does not cause; we suffice for that) that we sometimes fall into sin. This would be a meaningless permission if it were not “for the sake of” something else, something higher. The conveniens is thus the middle term between that which is necessarily meaningful and that which is necessarily meaningless. It is unnecessary absolutely speaking, but it is not arbitrary or irrational either; it is conditionally important, employed fittingly. And now we are really entering into the traditional understanding of the divine permission of evil.
It appears that for Julian, sin is, of itself, grotesque, a perversion. But in relation to its place within the providential whole of creation, sin is fitting; it is for the sake of a higher good. If it were not, it wouldn’t be permitted by a just and loving God. It would have no place in the story. As such, sin is both grotesque and sweet; it is grotesque in itself and sweet in that God presses it into the service of some good that would not exist without it. O felix culpa, the Easter Exultet announces. The fall of man was behovely because it led to man’s redemption in Christ. Upon final analysis, when the entirety of the cosmos can be seen as God sees it, it shall all, in its own way, radiate the glory of its Creator. All shall be well, even though not all shall be privately perfect. Sin will remain sin, but it will be subsumed into the larger story of God’s abiding love.
This same understanding of the permission of evil is necessary for us to comprehend that unending sin that we call hell. It is not an arbitrary punishment on account of sin, nor is it some entirely separate quarantined zone for the souls that God was powerless to save. There is one, simple reality, which is the unconditional nature of God’s love for his creation. The damned soul embraces the shadow of nothingness rather than the light of reality. His perception of reality is radically false, so much so that he experiences the unconditional love of God, the same unconditional love felt by the saints, as torturous existence. Hell is indeed a punishment, but it is the punishment of a self-inflicted isolation. Turner recognizes the parallels here with Dante’s hell: “In that sense, Dante’s hell just as much as his purgatory and paradise, represents not the defeat of love but its victory, a victory that the free rejection of it ironically concedes. Sin’s defeat is ultimately its self-defeat.”
And yet this reality, Julian teaches us, is not “amiss,” as if God would have liked to have created a universe very different from our own but failed to do so. Our Lord says to Julian:
See! I am God: see! I am in all things: see! I do all things: see! I lift never mine hands off my works, nor ever shall, without end: see! I lead all things to the end I ordained it from without beginning, by the same Might, Wisdom, and Love whereby I made it. How should anything be amiss?
Under God’s all-encompassing governance, the permission of sin has a point. Ugly and meaningless in itself, it is transformed into some higher good. This is the font of Christian hope. No matter what happens, we know that God is in control. All shall not be lost, but, as St. Paul tells us, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”
Of course, it is impossible for us to see here and now precisely how permitted evils will lead to higher goods. We do not even know what higher goods they might lead to. But this is exactly what we should expect. We exist as characters in the middle of a story written by providence. We are not its authors. St. Augustine describes God’s permission of sin in terms of the painter’s chiaroscuro:
And the sinful will, though it violated the order of its own nature, did not on that account escape the laws of God, who justly orders all things for good. For as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.
St. Thomas, in his characteristically lucid style, presents us with the same insight when he says:
Every evil that God does, or permits to be done, is directed to some good; yet not always to the good of those in whom the evil is, but sometimes to the good of others, or of the whole universe: thus He directs the sin of tyrants to the good of the martyrs, and the punishment of the lost to the glory of His justice.
What St. Thomas tells us here cannot be overlooked. We often fail to recognize that the cosmos does not have so many ends as there are souls in creation. We forget the primacy of the common good. The cosmos is its own organic whole; the cosmos is a creature. God wills a singular end to the cosmos, and the providential orchestration of the individual parts is for the sake of achieving that singular final end: the self-expression of God as God.
It would appear that a universe wherein the darkness is pressed into the service of the good is the greatest manifestation of God’s power and nature. Perhaps God’s omnipotence and love are best revealed in a story that enrolls sin into the triumph of good, ugliness into the display of beauty, nothingness into the glory of being, rather than blotting them out entirely. Of course, this involves a kind of blotting out, but it’s more like a transubstantiation, or to be even more precise, a second creation ex nihilo, than it is an undoing of a mistake. Sin in and of itself is nothing, a lack, a privation of some good that ought to be there. And yet from this nothingness, God brings forth life. The resurrected Christ is somehow more perfect for retaining the wounds of his crucifixion. This is an image that is horrifying in itself and yet is transformed into the sweet and lovely. The crown of thorns glorifies. The wounds are not lost. That the gore produced by hatred is turned into an image of God’s infinite love undoes the wisdom of the world and forces us to consider God without earthly mediation. That’s the image that Julian wants us to see.
Julian presents to us the mystical complement to the intellectual insight of St. Augustine and St. Thomas. She shows us (through what was shown to her) that God has painted creation with a place for the darkness of sin. Ultimately, evil is not meaningless or amiss because it serves a role in his providential plan. Sin does not inhabit pockets of the universe wherein God has been defeated. Sin has served the grand purpose of displaying who i am is, and thus God has truly become all in all. Julian does not deny the ultimate reality of sin, nor does she claim that it is inevitable. Julian tells us that all shall be well precisely because God, the grand storyteller, has written, is now writing, a story in which the reality of our virtue and even the reality of our sin shall forever reflect nothing but the glory of God. And thus I hope and pray that Julian is soon canonized and made a Doctor of the Church. She already is, so far as I am concerned, the Doctor providentiae.
Taylor Patrick O’Neill is assistant professor of religious studies at Mount Mercy University.