Today is the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension and the Feast of Julian of Norwich
The Ascension is God’s assurance in the face of all our fear. The disciples have been very afraid. In his resurrection appearances Jesus addresses their fear[i]:
- The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
-On the road to Emmaus he “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”
- In the room Jesus stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you. … ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see
- And now as he is to ascend, he gives them a charge, they are to live and act, they are not to allow their fear to keep them trapped – “so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’”
Julian of Norwich lived in a very fearful time—with the Black Death, a church in schism, various popes claiming authority, and monks and priests teaching that it was all God’s punishment.
Julian responds to the fear of her time with a deep trust, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
I’ve been thinking a good bit during the past year about fear in our parish churches and a fear in many people, especially many younger people. I believe it’s largely a fear of Glory. It’s a fear of the holy purpose to which we are called and the holy life which we may participate in.
It’s usually not experienced in such grand terms. We see it in the patterns of relationship among people and in our parishes.
We see it in parish churches that have become whiny, passive-aggressive, closed in on themselves, and self-protective. They focus on the rules and finding someone to blame. It’s also there in parishes that have become focused on comfort, inclusiveness and belonging. They may generate a high loyalty in many members but they have little imagination or persistent energy. It’s all self-appreciation and maybe a tad narcissistic. In both cases we offer protection against giving ourselves and making deep, long-term commitments.
I think these patterns of parish life spring from what Julian saw as a fear of knowing our true selves and a fear that we might understand as despair.
In each pattern there is little reverence; what Julian calls reverent fear, the fear that pleases God. There may be a great many service projects but they are often activity without the roots of awe and adoration[ii] that provide their connection to the Glory.
This fear of Glory shows itself in our hesitation about or resistance to reverence in worship and in life. It also is seen in our difficulty with speaking the truth with honesty and humility or in listening to things we don’t want to hear.[iii] The needed conversations require a humble frankness and receptive listening. Much of the conversation we see is rationalization of our fear and an avoidance of the Glory in holy living and the divine mission.
The safety so many seek is an illusion. It’s not in our control. But to give ourselves to the Glory—surprisingly that is in our power. How amazing!
If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love. ― Julian of Norwich
[i] Luke 24
[ii] One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and countless human creatures evolved...We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, or relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Evelyn Underhill, “Concerning the Inner Life”
[iii] See a model on effective communication in Michelle Heyne’s In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices for Today’s Christian Life. Pages 77 – 81. Here is a one page PDF from p. 78