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Contrast Without Contradiction: Linguistic Paradox in Julian of Norwich

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The following was a college essay written by Katie Branigan. It has been edited and approved by Michael Twohig. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Katie Branigan, Hillsdale College

            At the heart of Christian theology, there is an underlying paradox; seemingly opposed poles—life and death, suffering and bliss, God and man, among others—interpenetrate each other, holding the boundary line between them in constant tension. Julian of Norwich treats this issue throughout her chronicle of her visions, Revelations of Divine Love, on multiple levels. The nature of Middle English as a language allows for ambiguity both in individual words and in the formation of her theological ideas, especially with regard to sin. Yet these opposing elements, while contrary, are not inherently contradictory.Written in stunning Middle English prose, which provides for a nuanced theological framework, Julian builds a carefully constructed argument while maintaining the homeliness—or familiarity—of the vernacular. In its very linguistic structure, Middle English makes incarnate the underlying paradoxical elements of the Christian faith. Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love ultimately holds the poles of the paradox of Christianity in tension, highlighting the simultaneous efficacy and inadequacy of language to articulate the essence of the faith.

At the semantic level, the ambiguity of individual words provides a fertile ground for theological development. Julian writes that her showings are both “lively”—vivid, brilliant, quick, life-giving, happy, or energetic[1]—and “hidous”—terrifying, horrible, dreadful, intense, or glorious.[2] These varied translations of the terms allow for either diametrically opposed—as in happy versus dreadful—or nearly identical—as with vivid and intense—definitions. So is the root of the mystery of Christianity—that in Death is Life, and in suffering is bliss. Julian continues on, stating that her showings are “dredfulle, and swete and lovely,” once again using words which, for the secular world, are completely antithetical (147). Yet “dredfulle’s” Middle English connotations include not only the most common modern English one, but also translations such as reverent, God-fearing, timid, cautious, awe-inspiring, and dangerous.

Bearing this multiplicity of definitions in mind, it is tempting to select the ones which are reconcilable with one another—such as vivid and intense, or “dredful” as awe-inspiring—in order to sidestep the difficulties that the alternate definitions present. This is a way of making sense of Julian’s claims on a surface level, but it leaves the Christian alone with conflicting teachings about the love of God and His beauty on the one hand and the reality and horror of the Cross and mortal suffering on the other. This tactic conveniently avoids the underlying mystery of Christianity which is present in the fact that human time takes on an eternal character when the Word becomes Incarnate. In selecting a convenient singular definition rather than wrestling with the apparent contradictions evident in the linguistic framework of the text, the modern reader misses the point—namely that forcing temporal, logical consistency on the eternal Logos is insufficient for contemplating the Truth and by necessity inhibits the human understanding of it. This is because in defining Truth simply, man cuts off the reality of a thing from his conception of it. He begins to understand what is effectively a metaphor for Truth, and when followed to its logical conclusions, the metaphor breaks down. If one identifies the truth of the metaphor with Truth proper, his grasp on Truth begins to disintegrate when the metaphor does. The structure of Julian’s Middle English prevents this, constantly forcing its reader to consider multiple meanings for any given word or sentence and thus inhibiting his ability to cling more to the word than to the greater meaning which is beyond words and reaches to the Word. 

Julian’s text demonstrates that clinging to a singular interpretation of any given theological statement boxes the Christian in. The human difficulty with this concept is present both in the linguistic patterning of Julian’s text and in the physical reality of the world; when Julian is ill, feels the urge to look away from the Cross and “uppe to heven to his father” (187). Rather than looking only at Christ through the lens of physicality and suffering, Julian is tempted to look toward bliss. Yet the very fact that this is a temptation for her assumes that suffering and bliss exist in a binary fashion. Here it is clear that within a purely rational framework which demands reconciliation of contrary elements, there is a limitation on man’s approach to God. The physical turning of the body away from the death and toward the glory embodies the distinction which Julian makes semantically throughout the work. In a physical sense, when she looks at the Cross she is not looking at Heaven, and if she looks at Heaven, she is not looking at the Cross. Yet in another sense—one beyond the capacity of human rationality—Heaven and the Cross are intrinsically united; “ther was nothing between the crosse and heven that might have dissesede me” (187). (“there was nothing between the cross and heaven that might have harmed me.”)[3] Julian “durst not” (“dares not”) look away from the Cross, for in looking at the Cross she is “seker and safe” (187). (“safe and saved”)[4] Julian must “chese Jhesu for [her] heven” (189), choose the Cross for her bliss. Christ’s Cross and His glory are one, as Christ and the Father are one, and the love of Christ is equally the “oning” power of God, weaving together the Death and the Life. Within the bounds of physical finitude, Julian would have to look away from the Cross to view Heaven, but in the unbounded beauty of spiritual reality, the two are one.

Yet it is not enough to merely erect a physical-spiritual binary and label the spiritual side full and the physical side limited. If this were the case, the infinitude of the spiritual would merely eclipse any skeletal meaning of the finite, and Julian would be right in looking away from the Cross.[5] The very fact that Julian’s visions are rooted in a physical description of the Crucifixion points to the revelatory power of the material world. Readers familiar with the mystic tradition or with Medieval poetics may take for granted the concept of the dream vision, but it is antithetical to a world which makes a sharp distinction between that which is physical and that which is spiritual. That Julian’s visions depict the physical reality of Christ’s Crucifixion speaks to the fact of the physical Cross as revelation of heavenly glory and love, which are one.

The quintessential example of this paradox is Julian’s treatment of sin as described in Revelation XIII, where Christ tells Julian that “sinne is behovely” (209). Her claims about sin seem, at a glance, contradictory on two levels. First, she constructs a dual account of the very reality of sin, claiming both that it does not exist and that it plagues humanity. The verbal clause—“sin is”—must be reconciled with Julian’s profession that sin “hath no maner of substance, ne no part of being” (209-211).[6] Yet sin is a condition of the human perception of the world, and to reduce Julian’s theology to a simplified privation theory would be to neglect a treatment of her nuanced idea of the human condition, which is predicated, to a certain degree, upon a treatment of sin as an entity.[7] The second difficulty resulting from the statement that “sinne is behovely” (209), assuming that sin exists in some capacity, lies in the nature of sin itself. When worked through, this statement asserts contrary claims—namely that sin is fitting and that it is a scourge. This statement flies in the face of the Christian ethos, or so it would appear. For it is sin which separates man from God, sin which jeopardizes his salvation, and sin which plagues the earth.

Sin is a mark of evil and corruption, and so it is counterintuitive—at the very least—to say that it is “behovely”—fitting, beneficial, good, proper, or even necessary.[8] The theological consequences of this statement not only oppose general Christian theology but are—at least superficially—inconsistent with Julian’s own text. She writes that “sinne is the sharpest scorge that ony chosen soule may be smitten with. Which scorge alle forbeteth man or woman and alle forbreketh hym…” (239). (“sin is the sharpest scourge that any soul may be smitten with; this scourge beats man or woman and tears him…”) She does not shy away from treating the horror of sin—she dwells upon it and focuses on the tragedy of sin and the reality that it “brekyth” man.[9] The wretchedness of sin is so terrible that Julian, when shown a vision wherein Christ reminds her that she, too, will sin, comments that she “entended not redely to that shewing” (235). (“watched not gladly that showing.”) Julian understands these visions as a gift from God; even so, the image of her own propensity for sin is deeply painful for her. Despite this, she sees the duality of her desire for the gift and her negative disposition toward the vision itself as compatible. Similarly, her double account of sin proposes non-contradictory opposites. “Sinne is behovely” (209), and yet Julian is hyperaware of the ugliness of sin, which by definition is that which is opposed to God and thus to goodness; it is, in short, “alle that is not good” (209), while “God is not but goodnes” (263). These two statements seem foundationally irreconcilable. God does not possess goodness as some accidental characteristic. Rather, He is goodness itself—thus, logically speaking, something opposed to God may not be called good.

            In explaining the behoveliness of sin as she sees it, Julian comments that “sinne shalle be no shame, but wurshipe to man” (237).[10] “Wurshipe” here has several interesting and relevant translations, including worship—as modern English speakers would expect—as well as honor and enhancement. Julian argues here that because by man’s own failings he shows himself the truth of his personal moral poverty and turns toward God, it can be said that it is because of his sin that he is redeemed. For if man were not sinful, he would have no need of a Savior. Man must be emptied before he can be filled, and sin is that which empties man. It is in becoming aware of the horror of their sin that men turn toward God and away from vice; “by tru longing to God we be made wurthy” (54).[11] Despite this explanation, there is a clear difficulty in acknowledging that Julian effectively makes two contradictory claims; sin is good, and sin is bad.

Yet these two arguments—one for the ugliness of sin and one for its fittingness—while they make sense when considered independently, cannot be integrated without privileging one or the other.[12] Framing the higher good of the salvation of man as resulting, in a sense, from his fall makes rational and temporal sense, though it is theologically flawed when carried through to its conclusion. Julian writes:

“…it nedeth us to falle, and it nedeth us to see it. For if we felle nott, we shulde not knowe how febil and how wreched we be of oureselfe, nor also we shulde not so fulsomly know the mervelous love of oure maker.” (95-96)

(“…we needed to fall, and we needed to see it. For if we fell not, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are of ourselves, nor should we so abundantly know the marvelous love of our maker.”)

An interpretation privileging the fittingness of sin could raise questions such as whether God then relies upon evil in order to perform His most fitting act of love—the salvation of the world on the Cross. If it is sin which provides the exposition—and inciting incident—for the salvation narrative, the Christian ventures into problematic and potentially heretical territory and must defend himself against the inference that God is then dependent upon evil for the actualization of His love. Conversely, looking only at the ugliness of sin shifts the focus of the Christian outlook to privilege the corruption and degradation of man, allowing a fuller picture of man’s sin, but this view eventually must be reconciled with the omnipotence of an all-good God, Who must allow for—if not create—sin in order for it to exist. For Julian, and for the Christian, the truth is in this tension of paradox, and her argument for the behoveliness of sin is a semantic manifestation of the difficulty of understanding the foundational aspects of Christian theology. Man, temporally bound and seeking the fullness of understanding in Christ, seeks to reconcile all things with rational logic. Logic would suggest that both of these claims cannot be true, but this is not a failure of Julian’s text to accurately express either side of the argument. Rather, this is the essence of the Christian faith, the challenge of the Cross. That the day of Christ’s Crucifixion is called Good Friday is, in itself, paradoxical.

Julian’s use of apparently contradictory phrases—such as “sinne is behovely”—constitute a semantic incarnation of this paradox. The syntactical arrangement of her ideas highlights the underlying tension of the Christian faith, a faith which holds in tension the boundary line between life and death, suffering and bliss, difficulty and joy, God and man. Although this link is antithetical to the modern conception of goodness, it is integral to Christian theology. The most common depiction of this boundary line in Christian iconography is the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Christ could not have risen from the dead had He not first died. Thus death, too, is behovely. Even locating the tension in the Crucifixion itself is a fruitful discussion. Frequently called the Passion of Christ, Christian semantics regarding the death of God often equate the word “passion” with Christ so intimately that they do not consider the word itself, which—yes—may be translated as suffering, but which also contains the meaning of intense emotion and is not necessarily a negative quality—though it certainly can be. Christ’s Passion, then, is both His suffering and His love.

Suffering is so intimately linked for Julian with the Passion of Christ in this way that, in seeking Him, she asks God for the “gifte”[13] of physical illness, that she may be ever more united to Him in His pain and His love (125). Julian’s visions are the result of God’s response to this request; she comments that she receives these things by “the grace of God” (125). A salient point here is that God is the one who gives her this gift. God is all good—she introduces Christ in the first sentence of her work as “our endles blisse,” and she proceeds to comment that God is “almightie, all wisdom, and all love” (123). Yet the common conception of bliss understood in a modern context is seemingly irreconcilable with Julian’s—and indeed the Christian—understanding, wherein suffering and bliss are intimately united.

Christ Himself binds together the nature of suffering and that of bliss. He states that “if I might suffer more, I wolde suffer more” (195).There is no order which commands the omnipotent God of the universe to die for the sake of an unworthy creation, just as there is no order which commanded Him to create it in the beginning.It seems impossible that God should desire to suffer. Yet the point of this passage for Julian is that the degree of God’s power is only matched by the degree of His love, and this because they are one and the same. Julian writes that Christ’s “blisse shuld not have ben fulle if it might ony better have ben done than it was done” (197).  (“bliss would not have been complete if it might have been done any better than it was done.”) Suffering and death are not an inhibitor of bliss but its fullness.

All of this is appropriate for an incarnate God—for Christ, the Word made flesh, Who is God and becomes, in a sense, not-God. An eternal God enters into the realm of becoming, fundamentally alters the nature of time, and as a result the truth of time begins to transcend its natural limitations. Thus, the various opposing pairs are not integrable, nor are they divisible, but even divisibility and integrability are juxtaposed and held in tension in Julian’s text, for sin is that which divides—man from God, man from nature, man from joy—while God “oned in blisse” (189) man to Himself.[14] In stating that “sinne is behovely,” therefore, Julian seems to propose that it is division which leads to unity. The essence of this project, then, is to highlight the paradoxical Christian boundary lines which demand that the human mind not cling exclusively to the tenable earthly explanations for metaphysical realities. The fact remains, however, that it is in the realm of temporality that human beings are struggling and seeking the Lord. The tension treated above with reference to the statement “sinne is behovely” (209) is woven throughout Julian’s linguistic patterning, wherein she is constantly forcing her reader to bear in mind multiple interpretations, meanings and definitions, as if to remind him not to cling too tightly to any one line of thinking but to hold all thoughts with open hands. [15]

Julian, in holding up the poles of the Christian paradox, does not claim that the apparent discrepancies between pairs of opposites render their union unintelligible, but rather that their union is intelligible only in the eschaton. The meaning of this world transcends the world and reaches beyond it. No finite thing—phrase, physical movement, or ideological claim—can fully incapsulate the truth of the infinite. Thus, multiple, apparently contradictory kataphatic statements can be held up in tension with each other and remain eschatologically unopposed.

Bibliography

Cummings, Charles. “Wounded in Glory.” Mystics Quarterly, 10 no. 2 (June 1984): 73-76.

Dale, Judith. “Sin is Behovely: Art and Theodicy in the Julian Text.” Mystics Quarterly, 25 no. 4 (December 1999): 127-146.

Healy-Varley, Margaret. “Wounds Shall Be Worships: Anselm in Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 115 no. 2 (April 2016): 186-212.

Middle English Compendium Online. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018.

Turner, Denis. “Clearing the Conceptual Space.” In Julian of Norwich, Theologian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Turner, Denis. “Two Stories of Sin.” In Julian of Norwich, Theologian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Van Engen, Abram. “Shifting Perspectives: Sin and Salvation in Julian’s ‘A Revelation of Love.’ Literature and Theology 23, no. 1 (March 2009): 1-17.


[1] All Middle English definitions are my own and based upon the Middle English Compendium Online.

[2] This and all subsequent citations of Julian’s texts are from Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love, ed. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006). These terms are from the long text, but the correlative passage in the short text also invokes the terms “hamlye”—familiar—and “curtayse”—courtly, though this word can also mean generous, benevolent, or gracious. Note that generosity may be a property of the familiar, but that courtly is generally not considered so (147).

[3] “Dissesede” here can be translated a number of ways, including harmed—as I translated it above—but also distress, affliction, deprive, rob, or dispossess. The translation dispossess is especially interesting because it harmonizes with the courtly verbiage present not only in Julian’s own text but in the Scriptures.

[4] The phrase “seker and safe” occurs verbatim in the short text. “Seker” can be translated free from danger, safe, strong, firm, certain, assured, or convinced; “safe” can be translated unscathed, well, whole, cured, healed, saved, redeemed, or assured. Note that here, as with the words “lively” and “hidous,” these terms can be translated identically, but they may also carry alternate meanings. If Julian, in gazing at the Cross, is “free from danger and assured” of this fact, that is a drastically different meaning that her being “strong and redeemed.” Yet these two interpretations are also linked, bound together in Christ’s suffering on the Cross.

[5] Abram Van Engen takes this approach to an account of Julian’s soteriology in “Shifting Perspectives: Sin and Salvation in Julian’s ‘A Revelation of Love,” Literature and Theology 23, no. 1 (March 2009): 1-17. He frames his discussion in light of the question of whether to privilege Julian’s visions or Church teachings on points where they appear to be contradictory, and he writes that “in the end, Julian’s theology raises the lower plane to the higher—an ultimate unity that entails different outcomes for each duality. When the ‘dome’ of Holy Church rises to God’s ‘dome’, it disappears, supplanted by a higher judgment that makes the lower obsolete. Likewise, when blindness rises to the godly will, it sees as God sees, and thus it ceases to be blind: blindness disappears. The only duality that does not entail a disappearance is the union of sensuality and substance” (8). Van Engen’s argument that the poles held in tension in effect battle for dominance, with one side eventually winning out over the other. This is troubling—and ultimately unsatisfying—because it oversimplifies both Julian’s argument and theological truth.

[6] Sin, says Julian, is known only by its effects. She sees the horror and corruption in the world and sees that this is the result of sin, but sin in itself is an unreality. There is an inherent opposition in the claims “sinne is” (209) and sin “hath no maner of substance” (209)—implicitly, sin is not. For Julian to claim that sin does not exist, she relies primarily upon a soteriology which proposes a radical “oning” of man and God. If, as Julian claims, Christ so radically unites man to Himself that there is no difference between the two, then man is built to be filled with God’s grace such that there is no room for sin. That which is corrupted, then, is an empty space to be filled by grace rather than a positive depravation in and of itself.

[7] Turner writes, “There is one clear, and in my view defensible, sense in which it would be right to say that sin lacks reality, and it is perhaps the core of Julian’s meaning. That is the sense in which to live in sin is in some way to live within illusion, a sense in which there is what one might call a sinful world of misperception. More to the point, sin makes us misperceive the nature of sin” (88). To say that sin lacks reality, then, is to claim that sin is an illusion. He continues, “if we are to say that sin is a refusal of reality, this does not mean that it is in any way an unreal refusal, for to say that to live in sin is to live within illusion is by no means the same as to say that sin is illusory” (94) and “Sin is real in the sense that an unreality can become the real substance of a person’s or of a society’s existence, a kind of really lived refusal of the real” (95). Denis Turner, “Two Stories of Sin,” in Julian of Norwich, Theologian (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2011.

[8] In Denis Turner’s “Clearing the Conceptual Space,” in Julian of Norwich, Theologian (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2011, he links “behovely” with the Latin word conveniens. This word means that something which “‘fits,’ it is ‘just so,’ and that there is something with which it fits” (38). Turner comments that it is neither necessary nor contingent that God became man—rather, it was conveniens, meet, just, or behovely. His argument is for a treatment of narrative—rather than empirical or Platonic—necessities and contingencies. He proposes that the behovely is fitting precisely because it is not necessary or contingent. He articulates this quite beautifully in his discussion of Mozart’s music, which he describes as “so transparently retrodictable as to create an illusion of utter predictability and obviousness” (45). So it is with sin as well; that sin is fitting need not imply either that it is necessary or contingent. His discussion is rooted in the understanding of conveniens common to Aquinas, Bonaventure, Anselm, and others.

[9] “Brekyth” can be translated to break into parts—in this context, to divide man from that which is proper to him, whether that be God or his own uncorrupted nature—to tear—which would indicate sin as an entity which conducts the tearing and makes the phrase a bit more passive—to fracture—which, when contrasted with break implies that the break is not complete and is redeemable, perhaps by the love and death of Christ—to lose composure—which points to the state of distress of man when in a state of sin—to subdue the pride of—which might be considered a good thing, wherein the effect of man’s sin makes him aware of the horror of it—to disclose or reveal—where man’s corruption is revealed to him by the sign of his sin— or to break a vow—which points to man’s violation of a covenant with God when he sins—among other definitions.

[10] Margaret Healy-Varley includes a discussion of this phrase in an article discussing Anselm of Bec’s influence on Julian’s work. The statement that “wounds shall be worships” works only if Julian’s theodicy is eschatological. In this way, a discussion of Julian’s theory of sin as compared with Anselm—particularly his fourteen joys of Heaven—is fruitful. Healy-Varley describes sapientia as “a kind of self-knowledge, remembering the sins of a past life without shame” (193). Margaret Healy-Varley, “Wounds Shall Be Worships: Anselm in Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love,The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 15, no. 2 (April 2016): 186-212.

[11] Charles Cummings writes a beautiful meditation on the theological and personal significance of this idea. That the Christian God is a God Who not only remediates the effects of sin but Who enters into and transforms sin into man’s glory is a profound testament to His mercy and love. When Julian says that “sinne is behovely,” she is speaking in the eschatological context of a God Who has made the very sign of man’s transgression the instrument of his salvation. Charles Cummings, “Wounded in Glory,” Mystics Quarterly, 10 no. 2 (June 1984): 73-76.

[12] In an article on Julian’s theodicy, Judith Dale describes another pair of opposites to counter these two aspects of Julian’s definition of sin—namely the faces of Christ and the Fiend. She writes that “In this final sighting, especially as it is developed in the Long Text, the appearance of the Devil counterbalances that other young man [Christ] of the initial descriptions” (131). In fact, Julian “goes beyond…other accounts in creating a personalized, even humanized devil” (133). This representation of the Fiend plays into Julian’s recurring fascination with polarity and opposites, wherein she depicts “the Jesus of the passion story as instigatory vision and the fiend as his necessary, behovely, opposite-the text constructs a conventional binary opposition of good and evil” (133). This doubleness is integral to the Julian conception of sin, which manifests in various pairs of opposites throughout the text; Julian holds together the poles in concert with each other. Judith Dale, “Sin is Behovely: Art and Theodicy in the Julian Text,” Mystics Quarterly 25, no. 4 (December 1999): 127-146.

[13] “Gifte” here can be translated a number of ways, among which is “vow,” which is interesting given the covenantal imagery which is prominent throughout the Old Testament.

[14] Julian also writes that she sees God “in a poynte” (20), which statement has a wealth of meanings. The salient one here is that in mathematics a point is an indivisible unit. “Poynte” can also be translated here as a brief moment in time—which would point to the shortness of time during which Julian experienced her visions and the length of time afterwards—a critical or decisive moment—which would imply the importance of the moment of turning to Christ—or an activity, especially an act of charity.

[15] Margaret Healy-Varley writes, “…the most useful way to describe Julian’s method of composition is harmonization, in that the Revelation of Love records a process of reconciling her visions with existing doctrine. the process comes from her desire or need to find the right context with which to understand them—to fit the revelation into the existing language of devotion and doctrine while being true to the showings themselves. the result is a hard-earned speculative theology that is coherent if not always consistent, at times original but far from idiosyncratic” (Healy-Varley, 190).

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