In this second week of Lent some folks may find that their commitments to renewed prayer, penance, and works of charity are going well, and others might be struggling to get some new habit to ‘stick.’ No matter where we are on the spectrum, there is always time to enter more fully into the season. Indeed, it is still early. Whether our participation has been great or small so far it seems that the season orients us toward the suffering and death of Jesus. Therefore Lent brings to mind an atmosphere of penance and renunciation which can help us to get more deeply in touch with His sacrifice, as well as to help us to return more fully to the life we want to live as a disciple. It is never too late to attempt to change habits in order to grow in holiness or to unite our sacrifice to His suffering. But for any of it to have real meaning we must always do so with Easter in mind. That is, we cannot lose sight that in the end Jesus will be victorious and all shall be well.
Reflecting upon this season made me think of the 14th century mystic, Bl. Julian of Norwich, whose experience was uniquely Lenten. Though identified by a distinctly male name, Julian was a woman whose true name is not known. She was so called because she lived in the church of St. Julian near Norwich, England as an anchoress. An anchoress is one who literally walled herself into a room attached to a church, devoted entirely to prayer, meditation and mortification, cut off from the outside world. During a serious illness Julian had a series of visions of Jesus and of Heaven which she eventually recorded into a book which she called Showings. Julian became the first woman to write a book in the English language as a result of her desire to share these experiences with her followers.
It seems that when she was young Julian had prayed for three things. The first was a greater understanding of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The second was that she would suffer an illness which would be dramatic, but not ending in death, so that she could understand more deeply what goes on in the soul of one who is dying in order to become more sensitive to God and the way God works. The third was for three “wounds:” ‘absolute contrition, kind compassion, and steadfast longing toward God.’* She did indeed have a mysterious, life-threatening illness and during its short duration all that she asked of God was given to her. Through the visions she came to believe that our sin is ‘necessary,’ (serves a purpose), insofar as it enables us to appreciate the mercy of God all the more deeply. Just as after a sickness we appreciate good health more acutely, Julian believed that sin accentuated the understanding of how much grace God gives us and how great is the power of His forgiveness, mercy, and love. She did not condone sin, nor was she lighthearted about its effects. But instead of condemning herself or others for being broken and sinful, (which is a condition due to our humanity), she felt that in our sorrow for sin and the desire to be made more whole we can also learn to appreciate the mercy of God in a new way.
What Julian was teaching is very appropriate for Lent. She seemed to realize that God has endless capacity for forgiving us, no matter what it is we have done. Our realization of this, which comes with prayerful reflection, is what moves us to return to Him with gratitude. This is a similar message as is found in the passage from Micah which Pope Francis used when announcing the Year of Mercy: “You, O Lord, are a God who takes away iniquity and pardons sin, who does not hold your anger forever, but are pleased to show mercy. You, Lord, will return to us and have pity on your people. You will trample down our sins and toss them into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19). This is an important point: God does not hold onto our sins, but instead ‘tosses them away.’ Therefore, we have to learn to recognize our sin and then let go of it, too. Holding on to our guilt when offered freedom only serves to keep us bound, discouraging our growth in holiness.
There are three things that we have to accept if we are to venture into the mercy of God: we are sinners, we are loved sinners, and there is nothing we can do to change either of those two realities. Indeed we are sinners because we are imperfect. During Lent we can work at overcoming sinful tendencies by truly being sorrowful, begging God to forgive us our sins and to give us the grace we need to stave off temptation and falling into sin. Lent affords us the opportunity to recognize our sins and also to accept that we are indeed sinners. We can then say with King David, “For I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me…. I have done what is evil in your eyes.” (Psalm 51:5-6) But once we acknowledge our sinfulness, rather than holding onto guilt, we can enter into the vast mercy of God in which He offers us forgiveness, though we do not deserve it. God invites us into His mercy and lavishes us with His love which we can never lose no matter what it is that we have done. We are loved sinners and this will never change.
Julian had struggled with why God would allow sin, and therefore during the vision she asked Jesus about this. Later she wrote, “But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' In other words, she saw that sin is part of the brokenness of the world, but that it could serve the purpose of helping us to both know the greatness of God’s mercy for us and to long more deeply for Him. Jesus was assuring her that if we cooperate with His grace, are truly sorrowful for our sins and continue to work toward perfection, in the end, all will be well. Jesus will heal our souls completely through the power of His death and resurrection, and when all is said and done we will be with Him in Heaven, perfected by His love and mercy.
Julian reminds us that we should not fear approaching God to ask for forgiveness and grace. He will trample down our sins and toss them into the sea. Therefore in this Year of Mercy it is important to accept the opportunity to return to the side of Jesus and walk closely with Him. We can do this by praying with the Scriptures to witness the many ways in which God has offered forgiveness and the hope of salvation. We can enter into the greatness of His love through meditation on the Passion and death of Jesus. We can look to the saints and holy ones to observe the ways in which God taught His mercy to them. We can ask that our eyes be opened to our own sins, that we might be freed from the grasp of temptation. We can ask that we might be moved to ‘kind compassion’ so as to become more aware of those who need help, those who have asked our prayer, the suffering, the lonely, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, those on the edge of worry about how to make ends meet, the mourning, and all those who only think of themselves as terrible sinners and need to be reminded that they are able to be loved by God into wholeness. And we need to become more aware of God’s love for ourselves, too.
If nothing else, we must remember that no matter what we do, it is not our sin that defines us in the eyes of God, but rather it is the beauty of who we are made to be which is precious to Him. It is our attempts at working with grace which He cherishes; He does not hold fast to our sins, but rather truly cleanses us when we ask for forgiveness. How blessed we are to have this season as a reminder that the power of God’s love overcomes all obstacles! Jesus spared nothing to make sure we know this. And He wants to make sure that the same promise He gave to Julian will sustain us, too: all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
May we continue to seek a closer relationship with Jesus through our prayer, penance, and almsgiving! May we come to see our Lenten journey as an opportunity to let God transform our sin into grace! May we embrace who we are, including our weaknesses, in order to bring ourselves as a gift to God! May we trust that all shall be well when we get to the end of our life’s journey! And may we be filled with kind compassion through God’s mercy as we make our Lenten offering to Him! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I used the following site for some of the information about Julian in this entry:
The first image is of Bl. Julian of Norwich. It can be found at http://a401.idata.over-blog.com/0/12/02/38/Images-spirituelles-4/julian-of-norwich.jpg
If you want to know what the significance of the cat in the image might be, Julian is the patron saint of cats and cat care. The only creature she would allow into her cell, evidently, was a cat. If you want just a bit more on this, go to http://www.saintjulianscatcare.com/stjulian.htm
The photos are all my own. The first is of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland. I chose this one because of the vastness of the water and the power it has, as seen in the surf breaking on the rocks. God can toss our sins into the sea at this and any spot He so chooses!
The second photo is of a sunset taken over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon. I chose this one because 'at the end of the day,' all shall be well. We await Easter and we await the return of Jesus.
The last image is a detail, The Holy Spirit, from a larger work by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose to use it because it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us; during Lent we are seeking to grow in grace and sanctity. ~ The larger work from which this comes is called Viriditas and it can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/viriditas-finding-god-in-all-things-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The Holy Spirit is at the top of the larger work. You can find it by going to the gallery Fr. Bill has set up on his website, which is found at http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/william-hart-mcnichols.html?tab=artworkgalleries&artworkgalleryid=584247
You can purchase any or all of Viriditas, such as the Holy Spirit detail, if you wanted it for a card or plaque. Peruse the entire website. There are many wonderful icons and images! Just click on the image you like and the page will show you how to do it. (Remember, I do not get anything for endorsing Fr. Bill's work. I just love his icons and images and enjoy sharing the wealth!)
Heart Speaks to Heart