Online Book Club - Showing Of Love By Julian Of Norwich - Discussion Summary
Showing of Love, a book written by Julian of Norwich in the 15th Century, is not an easy read! OK. I admit it. Mea culpa. With much laughter, when nine of us met last week for Book Club, I was roundly - but affectionately - condemned for having chosen the book. (Click here for the Questions raised.)
Some members opted not to read it at all. Those of us who did were profoundly grateful to the person who took over from me (when my father nearly died) and apportioned sections to be read by various members. Thus the whole book was covered with no one having to plough through the entire text - an idea that other Book Clubs may like to take up. Each person then submitted a variety of questions.
We were grateful, too, for the paraphrase from which one member translated some of Julian's old English; and to our host (not a Book Club member, though we're hoping to co-opt him) who had downloaded the Wikipedia article on the book.
DO GIFTS HAVE TO BE SEEN TO BE VALIDATED?
Prompted by a question raised by a Facebook friend of mine, who asked whether modern writers felt compelled to be published, I raised the issue of the nature, and proper use, of gifts. Julian had been forced, "on pain of death", to go under cover with her book, making drastic changes to her writing when Adam Easton persecuted those who supported the translation of Latin Scriptures into English. What of her gifts, we asked?
Thinking of the New Testament story of the Ten Talents, I pointed out that there are cacti which flower in the desert, unseen by anyone but God. This, I felt indicated that we should use our gifts whether or not they are seen and acknowledged by others. Another Book Club member agreed. Those cactus flowers, she said, were crucial to the lives of a species of bat which flies 3,000 miles to feed on them. Without the nectar produced by the flowers, they would die.
"We were criticised," said another member, "for running a mums' and toddlers' group on church premises for women who never came to church. But how can we know what effect our friendship had on those women?"
Our host endorsed these views with a quote from Wikepedia, which showed that Julian's book was, actually, published only posthumously, about two hundred years after it was written. It would seem, from these examples, that our job is to use the talents given to us without questioning their efficacy. In God's hands they will be used.
FEMINISM & UNIVERSALISM
The most enduring phrase from Julian's book, Showing of Love, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well" is said to have summed up her theology. Throughout the book, she also advocates that God does not condemn us for our sin, but pities us. A teacher of small boys, it is, perhaps, unsurprising, therefore, that she has become something of an icon to Universalists and feminists.
While unable to subscribe to the theories of universalism - a doctrine of unanimous reconciliation without repentance or hell - I found myself identifying, personally, with the concept of God's pity. Embroiled for many years in a situation of discord and abuse, there are times when I feel a deep sense of anger with the perpetrators; and others when I feel only sorrow.
It seems to me that the people concerned have dug themselves into a hole and that the more they sharpen their talons of hate and denial, the more they harm themselves. But the fact remains that neither my pity for them, nor my forgiveness, can do anything to bring about reconciliation between us, unless they, themselves, desire it. Similarly, no one - least of all God, who has given us free will - can force anyone into the repentance that would restore a relationship of happiness and harmony with himself.
Given that the whole ethos of Christianity is centred on forgiveness, we found it hard to come up with an answer as to why the church has, traditionally, been steeped in a culture of blame. The negative perceptions of the world and modern media were easier to understand. After all, said one member, God, himself, instigated a culture of "Thou shalt not", when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The tendency nowadays - in our church, at least - is to adopt a positive attitude of love-in-action to counter this, while remaining true to the theology of salvation by repentance, not good works.
KNOWING GOD; KNOWING OURSELVES
On page 77 of her book, Julian writes: "it is readier to us, and more easy to come to the knowing of God, than to know our own soul". Her comment on page 78, however, appears to be a contradiction: "We may never come to full knowing of God till we first know clearly our own soul". Why, we asked, is it so difficult to "know our own soul"?
At one point in the book, the author seems to suggest that God does not condemn sin, but allows it in order for us to learn. I was not alone in taking exception to this. God's intention, before the Fall, was for Adam and Eve to live, sinlessly, in his presence. How can a God of goodness and justice not condemn sin? Yet we agreed that he does use our wrongdoing to highlight our imperfections.
One Book Club member reminded us about a visual episode in our church service last Sunday. Our new associate pastor who, until last year was ministering in Albanian, came in dressed in the robes of the Magi and proceeded to tell us the Christmas message in Albanian. Watching the puzzled looks on the faces of the congregation, he repeatedly uttered one word that we understood: problemo?
It was a timely demonstration of what the dialogue of "church", "faith" and "Christianity" means to the unchurched. Much of what we do and say, as Christians, is as incomprehensible to others, as Albanian was to us. Yet God's Word promises us, time and again, that he has written his laws in our hearts and that, ultimately, every knee will bow, and we will know him.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
On the question raised by the book of whether escapism is the motive for nuns and monks to live isolated lives, we seem to have returned to the matter of gifts-unseen, raised at the beginning of the discussion. A life of prayer and isolation in a Convent or Monastery would not suit everyone, we agreed, but it could not, for that reason, be invalidated. One member spoke of a friend who fulfilled years of yearning to become a nun. Another spoke of the dichotomy in the novel and film, The Nun's Story, in which Sister Luke was torn between loyalty to her Convent, and her desire to continue to be a nurse after WW2.
I remembered posing the question of escapism to my father, when I was a child at a Convent primary school.
"How do you know," he asked me, in return, "that the world wouldn't be a far worse place without the prayers of the nuns?"
Bearing in mind that he was a self-professed Agnositic, that struck me as profound.
THE SECURITY OF TRUST
Perhaps it is this that answers the final question we discussed. If "God wills we understand and believe that we are more truly in heaven than on earth" as Julian asserts on page 82 of her book, how can we arrive at this point? Living, as we do, in difficult times, it would be easy to become bogged down: depressed because of the current state of austerity; fearful for the future.
Yet we are exhorted, in chapter 41 of Julian's book, to beseech God even "in dryness and in barrenness, in sickness and in feebleness". Why? Because, though we may feel that our prayers do little for us, they are pleasing to God. Isn't this the way in which we may be "in the world", acknowledging the realities of evil and strife, yet being elevated in such a way that we are "more truly in heaven than on earth"? Prayer, praise, and the positive attitude they engender in us, can lift us to such heights.
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