Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Universe in Your Soul

With a title like “The Universe in Your Soul” you might think I’ve gone New Age or motivational, but this idea came to me while reading the medieval Christian recluse Julian of Norwich, whose “Showings” or “Revelations” (the first book written in English by a woman) I’ve been contemplating for several months during my morning prayers. She writes: 
And then our Lord opened my spiritual eye and showed me my soul in the midst of my inner self. I saw my soul as large as if it were an endless world… 
Translator Father John-Julian, OJN offers other versions and translations of her Middle English as possibilities for “endless world,” but concludes that “Julian is trying to convey the idea of limitless space within her soul.” Julian views the soul as both body and spirit, much as the ancient Hebrews and first Christians did, and that God is “the means by which our sensuality and our essence are held together.”

When she speaks of her soul, she means our souls as well. That captures my imagination. It occurs to me that our souls are the progeny of a universe expanding not only beyond itself, but also within ourselves—not only outwardly, but inwardly.

Being, life itself, is how the universe is reaching beyond matter and gasses, energy and dark matter, to comprehend itself, to communicate, and to contemplate the wonder of it all. (Scientific contemplation is helping us also understand how “lively” matter is, even before life emerges.)

For Julian, this is not just humanity, but all living things. And, she observes, it’s in this “being” that God is to be found, making me think of Paul Tillich’s notion of God as “the Ground of Being.”

She has a high view of human beings, in sharp contrast to “the typical medieval stance (or the Puritan and Calvinist attitudes),” to quote her translator. She observes: 
For I saw in the same showing that if the blessed Trinity could have made [humanity’s] soul any better, any more beautiful, any nobler than it was made, [God] would not have been wholly pleased with the creation of [the human] soul. 
And that’s why God chooses to dwell in our souls. I flash on Etty Hillesum’s understanding of God as her “deepest and richest” self—in the words of 12-Step, our “higher power.”

For Julian, “the Fall” is a human stumbling into a hole, requiring compassion and help getting out. As I’ve written in a previous post, she doesn’t believe that God blames us for sin, but feels empathy for the trouble and suffering it causes us. Sin is “nothing” and “unnatural” for us, making me think of Karl Barth’s notion of sin as “the impossible possibility.”

And she embraces the “felix culpa,” the “fortunate sin” that makes possible the Incarnation as well as our individual realizations of vulnerability, though I prefer Hildegard of Bingen’s notion that the Incarnation was intended from the beginning; indeed, I would say the Incarnation is a teaching moment to reveal God’s incarnation in all life.

And our “dearworthy Mother” Jesus, “if we fall, quickly…raises us by [a] loving embracing and merciful touching.”

God knows we could all use more “merciful touching”! Julian writes: 
As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. 
And what [God] showed in all the showings… particularly in those sweet words where [God] says: … 
“I am the supreme goodness of all manner of things.
I am what causes thee to love.
I am what cause thee to yearn.
It is I: the endless fulfilling of all true desires.”
We do not invite so much as observe the presence of God, Jesus, and the Spirit in our souls, central to our interior “endless world and…blessed kingdom.”

And, as if all of this were not enough, Julian asserts: 
It is God’s will that I see myself just as much bound to [God] in love as if [God] had done all that [God] has done just for me. 
And thus should every soul think in regard to [God’s] Love: that is to say, the love of God creates in us such a unity that when it is truly understood, no [one] can separate [oneself] from any other. 
As I contemplate this insight of an “endless world,” this universe inside me, I am struck with awe and a sense of tremendous responsibility. A recent study indicates that awe is directly related to an ability to care for others. A current book, The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller, argues “that spiritual awareness is innate and that it is an important component in human development,” in the words of columnist David Brooks.

This further insight from Julian I find transforming the more I consider it: 
And thus I understand truly that our soul can never have rest in things that are beneath itself. 
Reminiscent, as John-Julian observes, of Augustine’s famous saying that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O God.” It makes me consider all the things with which I occupy my life that are “beneath” my soul. 
And the soul that thus contemplates [this delightful sight] makes itself to be like [God] who is contemplated, and ones itself in rest and peace by [God’s] grace. 
Even for those who may not believe in God, contemplating the universe within that is the culmination of a billions-year-old universe may inspire awe and make us sensible to the value of our lives and the lives of others. 

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

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  1. Hey Chris,
    I like the part about not doing thins that are "beneath" my soul. I consider the entire debate of Homosexuality in the church to be somewhat like this. If I am honest with myself and others, I love other men. Yet, if I lie and stay in the closet, I will know the truth and it would torment me instead of set me free.(John 8:32 "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."). I am thinking about ordering your book "As my own soul". I need a boyfriend ROFL. You be safe Chris, ThANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR BLOG. I just lost my mother to lung cancer and it's been a rough time for me, the most depression and frightening time in my entire life. You add light into my world with your insights, NO WONDER you are such a prolific author. You are SO WELL VERSED in using words effectively. Anyhow, I will be donating to your blog when i get the $$.. You be safe. -Paden F. Cheeks

    1. Thanks, Paden. I am so sorry for the loss of your mom. My mom's death was the toughest death I have faced. I thought if I could survive that I could survive anything. I just said a prayer for you. Thank you for your encouraging words about my writing, books, and blog. You made my day! You be safe as well, and take especially good care of yourself during this time of grief. I've appreciated our conversations on Facebook and wish you well!

  2. I love you Chris.

  3. I am sorry to be pedantic, but Julian was an anchorite, not a recluse and the words are not synonymous and are extremely different vocations.

    1. Thank you for the correction, but I believe you're using the terms more technically than I intended. Elsewhere I have referred to her as an anchorite, but in this case I am using the term as the OED has it: definition 1 under anchorite: "A person who has withdrawn from the world, usually for religious reasons; a hermit, a recluse." Also, the translation I am using uses the term "recluse" in its self-description. I would be pleased to have you explain the difference in these vocations. Thanks much!

  4. I enjoyed reading this. Only this evening I was out in nature, strolling along a canal just before sunset, awestruck by it all. Plenty of other people I came across must have been feeling something very similar. It seemed very natural for everyone to be smiling at strangers, when ordinarily we might have been head down lost in our own thoughts. So there's an example of the link right there between awe and our capacity to care for and connect with other people.