This year I’m spending Valentine’s Day finishing a chapter on the history of pastoral theology for a pastoral care textbook that I’m co-writing. (That’s romance in the life of an academic!) I’ve spent the past month scouring ancient texts—learning how the communion of saints has participated in God’s ongoing ministry of healing and reconciliation in response to the most pressing needs and issues in various times and places. Of these, Julian of Norwich stands out for mention on this Hallmark day.
Julian (1342-1416) was an English anchoress, mystic, and pastoral theologian. She lived in a cell adjacent to a church, which likely had three windows—one into the church; one for receiving food and other necessities; and one for receiving visitors in need of counsel. Through her window into the world, she listened deeply and shared spiritual guidance, sustenance, and comfort with persons in need. Rooted and grounded in the providential love of God, Julian cared for others in her anxiety- and grief-filled age.
Fourteenth century English society experienced a scourge of plagues, both figuratively and literally: the Black Death (bubonic plague), the Hundred Years War with France, the peasants uprising of 1381, the widespread prosecution of heresy throughout Europe, and the Great Schism between the Avignon and Roman papacies. In short, life was fraught with anxiety, dread, and insecurity. And the prevailing popular sentiment and church practices only exacerbated this. The dominant theological lens for explaining rampant devastation and trauma was God’s wrath. This gave rise to piety marked by rumination on death and devils and practices of bodily deprivation, self-flagellation, and ruthless self-examination.
Julian’s antidote was an unswerving emphasis on God’s love. God is a compassionate nurturer. Christ our Mother, as she so eloquently described him, feeds, nourishes, teaches, holds, and disciplines believers. Julian reminded her charges that though they were surrounded by death and destruction, they nevertheless were enclosed in Christ—safe and secure like a child nestled in her mother’s bosom. Though all around them fall apart, they were united to God in love. As she learned from twenty-years of meditation on her own near-death experience, God’s eschatological promise is this: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Julian’s message rings true today. For though the contours of our world may be radically different, the human experiences of pain, suffering, fear, upheaval, and disorientation remain the same (or last, quite familiar). We all need to be reminded again and again that God provides; that God upholds and nurtures us; that God is present with us and beside us in all circumstances. As Julian encouraged her spiritual directees, we abide in God’s love through prayer, contemplation, receiving the sacraments, and self-kindness. Prayer marked by honest surrender to God; contemplation on God’s goodness in creation and redemption; feeding on Christ in the Lord’s supper; treating ourselves as those beloved of God: through all this, the Spirit raises us up and sends us out to share God’s love with the world. And that sounds like Valentine’s Day.