There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light and consciousness and knows nothing of God’s intimacy. At such a time, when the light in the lantern burns out, the beauty of the lantern can no longer be seen. With longing and distress we are reminded of our nothingness.
— Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-80)
Julian of Norwich (1342-ca.1429 AD) faced the kind of darkness and suffering written about in the quote above, as she experienced waves of the Bubonic Plague throughout her lifetime. Read my introductory blog to this series here https://wordsfromasparrow.wordpress.com/2021/07/27/julians-tips-on-living-in-pandemic-times/
In Matthew Fox’s book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond, Fox notes that Julian does not numb the pain, which we often do with various addictions or by living with our heads in the sand in denial. “Julian urges us to move beyond addiction and fear of pain or suffering…beyond denial. She is not afraid to dwell on the shadow, the darkness that accompanies a pandemic. She invites us to do the same. She assures us we are stronger than we think we are and that we can endure much that life asks of us.” But she does not dwell there for long. Rather, Julian dwells on the remedies, the “medicine.”
We find in Julian’s writings a resistance to victimhood. She advises us to take our pains and sufferings “as lightly as we can”. She also found strength in meditating on the sufferings of Christ. She noted that “Jesus suffered all the pains associated with the human condition.”
Fox also introduces Mechtild of Magdeburg, and notes that in her writings, she points out that these kinds of experiences can be “time for learning, for seeing anew our smallness in the grand scheme of things and in the vast world,” if we are willing to examine and explore.
Mechtild’s response to her experience of darkness was to pray, as was Julian’s. She lets out her feelings, her fears, her anxieties, by complaining to God. Her suffering was great. She does not find relief immediately and the darkness continues in her life. She describes her inner suffering as “I am hunted, captured, bound, wounded so terribly I can never be healed.” She longs for relief, as we all do these days with Covid-19 rebounding in our world through the Delta variant.
Mechtild longed for relief and, like Julian, finds some in the story of Jesus’ sufferings. Fox summarizes the lessons she writes about as “don’t run from the pain or diminish its deepness, and…embrace the pain, burn the dualism between suffering and joy, the via negativa and the via positiva. Life demands both.”
And finally Fox reminds us that she “instructs us how to embrace nothingness and turn it to service of others.” Through her experience with the darkness, Mechtild gives us this advice: “Love the nothing, flee the self. Stand alone. Seek help from no one. Let your being be quiet. Be free from the bondage of all things. Free those who are bound. Give exhortation to the free. Care for the sick but dwell alone. When you drink the waters of sorrows you shall kindle the fires of love with the match of perseverance – this is the way to dwell in the desert.”
Living through the uncertainties of the past months, and struggling with my own range of emotions, I found in my scripture reading, the encouragement to persevere. Sometimes, it seems that is all we can do. Julian and Mechtild both found the experience of deep darkness in their lives a “wake up call”, and they learn to persevere. A pandemic like our current one gives us plenty to grieve; much loss and suffering. Julian was brave enough to “pray for it to awaken her”. Rather than running from it, she and Mechtild faced their own darkness to learn what it had to teach them.
As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. James 5:11 (NIV)
The darkness we are living in during this pandemic is very real and affecting more and more people. I invite you to follow the example in perseverance of Julian and Mechtild, choosing one or more of these ways:
1.Pray that God would “awaken” you during this pandemic.
2.Engage with God about your complaints. Complaining to God is referred to as lament. We see many examples of lament in the Holy Scriptures. It is a legitimate form of prayer, that addresses God with the darkness and suffering one is facing. If you have not entered into this kind of prayer, or conversation with God, you can find more information here https://wordpress.com/post/wordsfromasparrow.wordpress.com/56
3.Consider reading and meditating (think about with God) on the sufferings of Jesus, as found in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Holy Scriptures. You may want to record what you notice in a journal.
4.Consider how you can acknowledge the darkness and woundedness in our world but not dwell exclusively on it.
5.Consider how you can care for others during this pandemic.
Photo credit: Charlotte Hedman Photography, charhedman.wixsite.com
Quotes from Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond, by Matthew Fox