Sabbatical 11


Ten years ago when we took our last pastoral sabbatical at VEV, three of those weeks were spent in a mountain cabin built above the tree line in the high Alps of Switzerland, all thanks to the generosity of our son-in-law’s family. It was a remarkable three weeks which constituted the heart of the sabbatical in 2004.

On our recent sabbatical, the ten days I spent at Spirit Ridge in Osoyoos felt similar. In my last blog, I wrote much on my time there, and before I move on, I want to ruminate a little more on that time which was so significant.
In my readings, I was struck by how small, seemingly insignificant but tight-knit Christian communities in medieval Europe had such a profound impact on their surrounding culture, resulting in immense historical significance. They were not megachurches so they were easily dismissed by the mainstream culture. Yet, they contained faithful people who were willing to slow down and pay attention to God together in the midst of some of the most turbulent times imaginable which included the black plague, political unrest, and natural disasters. It was so encouraging to the vision I carry in my heart for VEV, to be part of such a community that is attentive to God and is faithfully extending his radical embrace to one another, to our city, and to our world.

At Spirit Ridge, I spent much of my time immersed in the writings of Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th century anchoress at a medieval church in Norwich, England. An “anchoress” is someone who lives at the church, usually in a little room attached to the building, and serves the church in practical matters such as getting the Eucharist prepared, warming up the building for worship in the mornings, and the everlasting ministry of... cleaning!   Most importantly, she served the church in prayer and solitude.

A Download from Heaven
At the age of 30, Julian received a “download” from heaven that the greatest theological doctors of the church are still trying to unpack to this day. Nevertheless, Julian’s writings have brought infinite blessing to millions of people around the world through the centuries. They came about through a prayer she prayed followed by a life threatening illness she suffered. Her prayer had three requests: 1. That she would have a vision of Christ’s suffering and passion; 2. That she would have the full experience, physically and spiritually, of dying without actually dying; 3. That she would experience three “wounds,” (as she called them), namely, contrition, compassion, and longing for God. She suffered a bodily illness for three days and nights that was so severe that she was administered “last rites.” Nevertheless, God intervened and she recovered, and all three of her prayers were answered. She received a series of heavenly “showings” that are recorded in her book, Revelations of Divine Love, in which I soaked during the heart of this sabbatical. Julian’s book was likely the first English language book ever written by a woman.

Julian wrote that she had come out of that experience with only one compelling reason to go on living – “So I can love God better and longer, and living so, love and know God more as he is in the bliss of heaven." She was the first writer I’ve ever read who, while contemplating the passion of Christ, actually felt compassion for Jesus. So many write about the compassion of Jesus for us on the cross, but she wrote on the compassion she felt for Jesus as he suffered. I wrote in my journal, “It takes a woman to have this insight.” I recalled the prominence of women with Jesus in the Gospels, particularly, at his crucifixion. It was the women who stayed with him. It was the women who helped him when all the men had run away in fear. It was the presence and witness of women that helped Jesus complete his mission, and add to his courage to give his last drop of blood. I easily visualized Julian as being one of the many women who, though powerless to rescue Jesus physically, would have simply stayed present to him. I visualized many of the women in my life who have been the same to me – Kathleen, my mom, my daughter, my sister, and so many of my beautiful sisters and friends that I’m surrounded by here in our VEV community. Perhaps it was in honor of this that Jesus commissioned a woman to be the first witness to his resurrection. Mary Magdalene became an “apostle to the apostles,” and the men were invited to first accept the truth of his resurrection through the witness of a woman.

One of the “showings” that Julian received was that of the hazelnut, to which we referred much in our three evenings of contemplative prayer last week. She saw a tiny “ball” in her hand, the size of a hazelnut. God showed her that this was how the created universe was in his hand. “He made it; He loves it; He preserves it. Everything was made for love, and everything is preserved by love.” To this day, I continue to be overwhelmed by this. Last week, we included hazelnuts with this reading as part of our evenings of contemplative prayer to extend a Sabbath blessing to each of you. He made you; He loves you; this Love preserves and sustains you.

God as Father and Mother
Last but not least, Julian’s legacy was a significant contribution to theology from a feminine perspective. Obviously, there were many outstanding female theologians who preceded her as far back as Priscilla in the New Testament, but their voices were often muted. We have access to Julian’s writings, and in them, we find, as John Leclercq writes, “the feminine’s characteristic genius in its intuitional approach to reality.”

One of Julian's greatest insights was of God as Mother, as well as Father. She also wrote extensively of Jesus as Mother. This has been controversial in the church, or at the very least, strange to our ears. One reason is the fear of associating the worship of YHWH with the worship of the goddess that stretches back to Old Testament times. However, I suspect there is a greater fear. Since the fall, there has been a perennial fear in men of women. There has been a fear of the image of God in women, reflected in their wisdom, intuition, and wisdom. As Adam, men have continued to blame women for humanity’s sinfulness. They fear that to give women too much freedom will extend their misery. This manifests itself in control, violence, and the oppression of women through the perennial patriarchy that has lingered, not to mention sexual objectification and exploitation. Let’s face it. Sin has caused a deep painful division between the sexes. It is manifested so much in our world today. Patriarchy has suppressed and silenced the voice and role of women in the church and society, who, alongside men, in a loving partnership of co-leadership in Creation, were intended to reflect the image of God.

As a result of this oppression, the damage to church and society is beyond comprehension. It has deeply limited our view of God and our capacity to connect with him. Consider the alarming number of Christian men trapped in pornography. The Barna research group reported last year that over 65 percent of Christian men look at pornography weekly and almost 80 percent monthly. Churches and ministries have made many efforts to address it including implementing accountability partners, 12-step groups, spiritual disciplines, and  “porn-blocking” software. There isn’t anything wrong with these things but it hasn’t stemmed the tide. What’s missing?

Does Julian give us a clue? To be clear, Julian never advocated substituting God as Father for God as Mother. Rather, she sought to integrate the two. So, if God is also our Mother, have we cut ourselves off from the comfort and grace available to us because we have suppressed the feminine? Is the immense demand for porn and prostitution in our culture a misplaced cry for the comfort and security that can only be found in God our Father and Mother? Have we cut ourselves off from God, as men, because of the fear of the feminine – in our sisters? In God? In ourselves?

Last week, I wrote about significant battles I was facing against giants of anxiety during my weeks of solitude. Fear is a terrible spirit that is manifesting itself so much in our world today. Fear is the root of all violence. Love leads to peace, even though the road is fraught with risks and sacrifice. Perfect love casts out all fear. As I soaked in Julian’s revelations of divine love, the anxiety I was suffering began to dissipate and I began to be immersed in love, returning to rest. To use an analogy I heard recently at my Soulstreams intensive, I initially felt like a bucket full of holes trying to contain water. The holes were all my sins, failures, shortcomings, fears and insecurities. To try to tend to all the holes and mend them was overwhelming and self-absorbing. As I continued to be immersed in God's love, rather than trying to plug all the holes, I felt I was being immersed in an ocean of God’s love. As this occurred, all the holes became irrelevent. Even more, I saw that God uses these holes as conduits of his love, flowing in and out of me. Yes, we are buckets full of holes, but we are being immersed in the ocean of God's love.
Wade Pallister