Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin and the Goodness of Contrition

In the thirty-ninth chapter of the Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes about the effect that sin has upon the conscientious soul. It is a great pain to one who desires to escape vice and to grow in virtue, and in a certain sense is its own punishment. However, the sense of unworthiness that comes with an experience of the ‘scourge’ of sin does have its positive benefits – it humbles us, reminds us how far we are from any illusions of spiritual accomplishment or moral progression we may have entertained. That the recurrence of our falling into sin is thus a great antidote to spiritual pride (the worst form of the deadliest sin) led Julian of Norwich to see sin as something ‘behovable’, which has been translated as either ‘necessary’ or ‘inevitable’.

Julian plays with the idea of Adam’s felix culpa – the idea that in his fall, though it was in itself a tragedy, the path was laid for the even greater good of the Atonement, a reconciliation between God and man, which would lift us to even higher levels of virtue and intimacy with the divine – and treads a razor’s edge, desperate to remain faithful to the teaching of Holy Church, but also keen to affirm her intuition that God could not possibly allow such a thing as sin to besmirch His creation in any meaningful way. This leads her at times into murky waters, simply setting aside things like the wrath of God – a key teaching of both testaments – rather than seeing it in a proper integration with His love. Nevertheless, Julian’s considerations in this area do lead her to another important insight.

In seeing sin as something inevitable for fallen mankind, Julian went on to consider how it might then fit into a picture of God’s creation as all-good. This also led her down dangerous paths, affirming a divine ‘spark’ in man that remained untouched by sin or evil, akin to the teachings of someone like Meister Eckhart. However, an insistence on reconciling her basic intuitions with Church doctrine led her to see that sin was, as had been said about evil by Saint Augustine many years earlier, a privation – it is something that lacks any real substance and is in essence something negative, an absence of virtue. A well-integrated humanity would not sin because it would be properly ordered to reality, to the will of God, which is Love. Part of our fallenness is then actually ignorance, or even a kind of insanity.

When we have sinned then, we recognise not only that we have done wrong, have offended against the good will of our Creator, but that there is also a profound sense in which we know ourselves to have done violence to the fabric of reality itself. Deep down we know that the will of God is reality, and so when we sin we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual disjunct. This sense of disjuncture, perhaps even more than the feeling of moral outrage, is what so often causes a sense of embarrassment after sinning – ‘how could I have done this again?’ ‘Am I mad…what was I thinking?’ It is at this point that it is important not to fall into another kind of pride, lambasting ourselves only because we should have known better, because we have fallen short of our expectations, instead of turning to God in a spirit of true contrition.

Repentance, the full about-face from our sinful ways in a spirit of sorrow for what we have done, is, according to Julian, the great goodness that comes from our having sinned in the first place. By falling, we learn again our weaknesses, and are able to see with fresh eyes the cleansing and restorative power of the Holy Spirit – whilst convinced of our own righteousness, we often take the grace of God for granted, but we cannot do that now. In a strange sense then, just as the Fall of Adam could be described as a felix culpa, our individual falls are opportunities for grace which remind us of our need for God, cleanse us again of any feelings of self-sufficiency, and draw us closer to Him, through the manifold means of His grace afforded us by Holy Mother Church.

Furthermore, as Julian writes in the extract below, throughout all this we are sustained by God’s love, and it is never His will that we despair of our failings – we should look upon them with regret and with sorrow, but also remember them as the means by which we were drawn ever nearer to intimate relationship with the One who made us and redeemed us. He looks upon our repented sins not as wounds but as scars – the signs of His healing grace at work in our lives; grace which is able to take all the ways in which we choose to resist it and use them to bring us to blessedness:

Sin is the sharpest scourge that any elect soul can be flogged with. It is the scourge which so reduces a man or woman and makes him loathsome in his own sight that it is not long before he thinks himself fit only to sink down to hell…until the touch of the Holy Spirit forces him to contrition, and turns his bitterness to the hope of God’s mercy. Then he begins to heal his wounds, and to rouse his soul as it turns to the life of Holy Church. The Holy Spirit leads him on to confession, so that he deliberately reveals his sins in all their nakedness and reality, and admits with great sorrow and shame that he has befouled the fair image of God. Then for all his sins he performs penance imposed by his confession according to the doctrine of Holy Church, and the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the humble things that greatly pleases God…

…Dearly indeed does our Lord hold on to us when it seems to us that we are nearly forsaken and cast away because of our sin – and deservedly so. Because of the humility we acquire this way we are exalted in the sight of God by his grace, and know a very deep contrition and compassion and a genuine longing for God…

…By contrition we are made clean; by compassion, ready; and by a genuine longing for God, worthy. It is by means of these three that souls can attain heaven, as I understand it. (I am referring, of course, to those who were sinners on earth, and who are to be saved.) By these medicines it is necessary for every soul to be healed. Though healed, the soul’s wounds are still seen by God, not as wounds, but as honourable scars. Counterbalancing our punishment here with its sorrow and penance is our reward in heaven through the courteous love of almighty God. His will is that no one getting there shall be deprived of any of the benefits gained by his hardships. For in his lovers he regards sin as a sorrow and a suffering, and, because of his love, not as blameworthy. The reward we will receive will be no small one, but one rather that is great, glorious, and honourable. So shall shame be turned to greater honour and joy.

Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair even if they fall frequently and grievously. Our falling does not stop his loving us. Peace and love are always at work in us, but we are not always in peace and love. But he wants us in this way to realise that he is the foundation of the whole of our life in love, and furthermore that he is our eternal protector, and mighty defender against our enemies who are so very fierce and wicked. And, alas, our need is all the greater since we give them every opportunity by our failures.

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (1988), pp.120-121, Penguin Classics.


9 thoughts on “Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin and the Goodness of Contrition

  1. I have just heard a great quote on EWTN Radio’s “The Son Rise Morning Show”:

    “If you do not forgive yourself after going to Confession, you are putting yourself above God.”

    • Thank you Kathleen for that quote – it sums up in a few words exactly what I was hoping to get across here! It is indeed so very easy to forget what the sacraments actually are – they are not just things to make us feel good, nor are they means of creating a sense of community (though some would like to turn the Mass into this), but objective channels of God’s grace.

      With respect to the Sacrament of Confession, I particularly love the picture (not sure who did it first, but it has been circulated widely since) that shows the viewer a side-view of the confessional, with both priest and penitent in the picture, and Our Lord standing behind the priest as he utters the words of absolution. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words!

      Also, regarding what you said about the post striking a real chord in your heart – this really is a great compliment and I thank you for it 🙂

      • Yes Michael, I know the picture you refer to – I love it too. It ‘speaks’ volumes of how it is truly Our Lord Jesus Christ to Whom we are confessing our sins and Who embraces us with His eternal mercy and forgiveness. The priest is simply an instrument of God, a human channel, who administers the Sacrament.

        I remember reading an article by a priest who admitted that once he came out of the confessional a surprising type of ‘amnesia’ on all he had heard there would overcome him and a great sense of peace then settled in his soul. It is almost as though the countless lists of sins and sorrow poured out to him in Confession were whisked away to oblivion once his ‘alter Christus’ work was over. 🙂

        This should be told to would-be penitents who fear that their sins will shock or even scandalise the priest in Confession.

        I have also heard priests say how they have nothing but respect and compassion for those who humble themselves enough to make a clean and honest Confession.

        • That story of the priest receiving a sort of peace-filled amnesia after leaving the confessional is really beautiful, thank you! Also yes, it is very good to remember that we go to confess to priests who know the value of contrition and how hard it is to humble oneself enough to confess certain sins (especially one’s we have fallen prey to over and over again). The Church is full of compassion for the sinner already, despite what some would have us think 🙂

          What you say about priests not being scandalised or shocked is very true too, and reminds me of certain of the Father Brown stories, where people are constantly surprised at Fr. Brown’s insight into and knowledge of human evil and weakness. His usual response is something along the lines of ‘well, I am a priest you know – I’ve heard this sort of thing many times before’!

  2. Pingback: Julian of Norwich: The ‘Sharpness’ of Sin and the Goodness of Contrition | Journey Towards Easter | nebraskaenergyobserver

  3. Pingback: Thomas A Kempis: On Resisting Temptation | Journey Towards Easter

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