A few years ago, Rev Dr Stephen Cherry led a retreat on Julian of Norwich. Last week I visited Norwich and visited the cell attached to a small church from where she ministered, prayed, wrote and spoke. It was an amazing experience. In commenting on evil, Rev Cherry said the following, which I think speaks to not only evil per se, but also anxiety, a current blight for so many people in our day.
I remembered this verse from 1 Corinthians 14:20 to accompany it: “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”
“What does it mean for us to take evil seriously? There’s a good question! It does not mean we take it on its own terms. Don’t let the devil determine what seriousness is. Don’t let sin call the tune . . . we’re getting into moralism territory a little bit . . . but this is what Julian is up to; It’s the victorious – we don’t know how; it is nothing but the loving, transcending, the delight in God that should set the tone, set the agenda. And it’s that context which makes things “laughable”. Do we see what she is saying here? Challenging at many levels. I’ve always liked that line in the hymn,
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou mayest smile at all Thy foes.
I’ve often wondered what sort of smile that was meant to be, but I think it’s this kind of smile really. This kind of “Oh well, that’s very interesting. You have an evil project there, intended to undermine all that’s good and loving and positive, how interesting that you should waste your time in that regard!”
That’s not to fix your eyes on the damage that will be caused, but to fix your eyes on the longer, more distant future. This connects up, of course, with anxiety [mentioned yesterday], because it’s very hard to laugh when you’re anxious; and you might, if you’re thinking about how the devil works, you might say, the devil works by a lot of threat, and sucking you into the devil’s way of thinking and being – which is, as it were, the wrong kind of nothingness. The nothingness that is futility and without purpose, a human cul-de-sac. That’s the kind of thinking for Julian that is going on at this laughing out loud at the devil here.
So what does that mean to how we should respond to the actual evil that we see perpetrated or known to be going on. Does it have any strategic consequences for us, or it it just “pie-in-the-sky” theology? Julian doesn’t tell us any detail of practise, but it gives us the sense of the context, the framework in which we should try to hold on to things. Not being diminished by those who attack you! Quite a tricky thing, in institutional life, for instance. So I’ve been trying very hard recently to be a grown up. So when I get home and my wife asks me what I’ve been doing today, I say, “I’ve been trying to be a grown up.” And this is apart of what Julian is encouraging us to do – rise above, transcend this, don’t get sucked in, don’t answer people back on their own terms. It’s terribly hard not to do all that, because in a way, as soon as you have, you’ve lost it, as it were. But don’t think for a minute that I’m successful at being a grown up – it’s not my particular forte, but I at least see what one should be trying to do, even if there are proper ways in which one should be childlike as well.”