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Home / The gift of a compassionate heart

The gift of a compassionate heart

Julian of Norwich & Therese of Lisieux.

This year we are celebrating the 650th anniversary of Julian of Norwich receiving her revelations or ‘Showings’ as they are called. This month New City sees the publication of a book by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard on the lives and message of Julian of Norwich and Therese of Lisieux, who was born 150 years ago. This article contains extracts from that book giving us a message both women share even though they lived centuries apart. But what are a few centuries when to the Lord ‘a thousand years are but a single day’.

Elizabeth Obbard writes

At the end of her first ‘Showing’ Julian realizes that what she has ‘seen’ is meant for everyone and her heart is deeply moved. She wants everyone to find comfort in the love shown by Jesus in his passion as she has done, to know themselves wrapped up in his tender embrace. She understands that each one of us should take what she writes as given to her, for us all individually. She is not the important person others might think, just because she has seen a vision. No, what matters is the response we give to love. Each of us is invited to share with everyone what Julian has shared with us. We too can ‘become a Julian’ in our own way and in our own era. No one is saved alone; we are one in Christ and one with all our brothers and sisters. It is not just about God and me, but God and us.
If I look at myself alone, I am nothing at all, but in the whole body of Christ I am, I hope, united in love with all my Christian brothers and sisters. It is on this union of love that the life of all those who are going to be saved depends. For God is all that is good (as I see it) and God made all that is made. Therefore, whoever loves everyone else for God’s sake, loves all that is made. For in ‘humankind that shall be saved’ we understand that all is included, that is – all that is made. For God is in us, and in God is all. And I hope, by the grace of God, that whoever sees things like this shall be truly taught and mightily comforted, if in need of comfort. (RDL 9)[1]

Julian’s constant feline companion

Love is about union with one another, but also with all that is made. Love cannot be separated out, loving only what comes into some categories and not others. It must include all people, all sentient beings, plants, rocks, everything. Tradition depicts Julian with a cat, as the Rule for Anchoresses allows a cat to be kept in order to deal with any mice that might come into the cell. How many depictions of Julian show this feline companion! There is something human about her wanting and having another living being in her solitude. Cruelty to animals, or even a sense that ‘they do not really count’ is coming to be seen as unchristian. Love is indivisible. All creation deserves our compassion and tender care. (The mice here are rather unfortunate!)
Compassion is not the same as sympathy. Compassion enters into the sufferings of another so that one feels with and for the other. Julian had asked for the grace of understanding the passion of Jesus. She wanted to enter into the sufferings of Jesus as if she had been present on Calvary. She wanted to suffer with him as did those who loved him and stood beneath the cross watching him. She sees it as natural that we should suffer with those we love, but the revelations enlarge her heart so that she recognizes that it is not enough to suffer spiritually and compassionately with the Lord alone, this quality must be extended to all. The words ‘peace’ and ‘love’ are coupled in her revelations countless times. For Julian, they seem to belong together, and they indicate an attitude of complete non-violence. Compassion is not a driven love. It is the entering into another’s sufferings, another’s feelings, with great respect and tenderness, without judgement and without preconceived ideas about what the other is suffering.

All shall be well…

We certainly sin, and sin causes suffering. However, our sin draws forth Christ’s compassion, rather than his blame. ‘Yes’, says Jesus to Julian, ‘It is true that sin is the root and cause of all pain, but all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ (RDL 27) These words are a constant refrain when Julian looks at sin. Sin has no power where love reigns. And when she thinks about the passion of Christ her thoughts turn almost automatically to all those other people who need her compassion, not just the crucified saviour. In fact, she sees Jesus rejoicing over our sufferings, looking on us ‘with pity, not with blame’.
Julian writes that each one of us has something in our character that causes others annoyance and issues in their negative judgment of our behaviour or lifestyle. Our defects of character or personality cause people to judge us, but they are not the cause of God blaming or judging, in fact, these weaknesses are God’s gift. This is another of Julian’s most original insights. Not being, or seeming, perfect ourselves should cause us to have compassion on the weaknesses of others in the same way that God has compassion on us and our annoying idiosyncrasies.
Yes, I saw clearly that our Lord even rejoices with pity and compassion over our tribulations. And on each one of us that he loves and wants to bring to bliss he lays something that, in his eyes, is not a defect, yet makes us to be humiliated, despised, scorned, mocked and rejected in this world. And he does this to prevent us from being harmed by the pomp, the pride, the vainglory of this wretched life and to better prepare us for the way that will bring us to heaven with infinite joy and eternal bliss. For he says: ‘I shall completely break you of your empty affections and viscous pride, and then I shall gather you together and make you humble and gentle, pure and holy, through union with me.’ And then I saw that any natural compassion we may have for our fellow Christians is due to Christ living within us. (RDL 28)

The tender eyes of God

To look at others as God does, with ‘pity not with blame’, gives us ‘tender eyes’, for we realize that we too have our own faults and difficulties that are not a sign of God’s rejection or of our failure. Often what causes us to have an unfair judgement of others is the fact that they come from a different culture, have had a different upbringing, have some personality defect, suffer from bad temper, over-sensitivity, or just get on our nerves for no particular reason. They leave us feeling helpless and imperfect, so we avoid them. They show up our lack of charity when we want to see ourselves as loving and kind. And no doubt they see us in a similar bad light – as being unbending, judgemental, overbearing, too optimistic or pessimistic… the list could go on. We are all different. No one can please everyone. We are not here to please others but to love them just as they are, and hope that they can love us in the same way.

A love which is universally warm and non-discriminatory

Differences are a gift, not a liability. God sends his sun to shine upon just and unjust alike, making no distinction. Our love should be like that – universally warm and non-discriminatory. Often I think that we are careful about what we do, but failure and sin are perhaps more present in what we fail to do. How is it that many old people die of loneliness or despair with no visitor to enquire about their wellbeing? We walk past the homeless, and ignore the refugee and the beggar. Our smile, our love, must be for all, bringing sunshine into the lives of those who have little or nothing to comfort them, who receive no acknowledgement of their human dignity. We can be put off by their ‘difference’ from ourselves, but really they are the same as everyone else. Kindness is a universal language. ‘Be kind, and you will be a saint’ said St Francis de Sales.

God uses everything for our good

One wonders what in Julian’s own life caused her to be humiliated or despised. Did she have some personality defect? Some long-lasting physical disability? And when she noticed defects in others was her natural reaction to avoid them, see them as lacking in virtue? Did their judgment of her cause her pain and a sense of unworthiness? These things we cannot know, only speculate on. But for each of us, we can take heart that God uses everything for our good. Our weaknesses teach us humility and gentleness towards ourselves and compassion for others. Living peacefully with our imperfect selves is an art worth cultivating even if we do not succeed as we would like. Let peace reign in our hearts, come what may, buttressed by tenderness and acceptance of all, whether friend or stranger.

[1] RDL = Revelations of Divine Love

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By |2023-04-13T12:24:56+00:00April 13th, 2023|NC Articles, NC Book Review|0 Comments

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