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Love and Suffering: Insights from Julian of Norwich

“… and those only that feel the keener wound are known as Lovers”[1]

I have lived a life of quite undeserved happiness and health.  However, a few weeks ago I was struck with a severe pain running down the entire length of my left leg from some pinched nerve.  At approximately the same time I was teaching from Julian of Norwich’s Showings and was struck by her desire for “three gifts of God” and how they relate to the mysterious role of suffering and a life of love.

Julian of Norwich was an English mystic who lived from 1342/43 to sometime after 1416.  Her Showings or, as it is often titled, Revelations of Divine Love[2] is a collection of reflections on a series of sixteen visions she had and is claimed to be the first book published in English by a woman.  Julian was an anchoress; that is, a woman who withdraws from secular society to devote herself to prayer and contemplation.  As an anchoress, Julian was walled up in a cell by a church in Norwich with only a small window for food and observing church services and another to receive visitors.

Now, you already are probably asking, “How could a person who lived 600 years ago walled up in a cell for decades until her death and claiming to have visions be able to help me in my struggles?”  Well, as I often tell my students, we can learn a great deal from people who come from different times and places because they bring to the table perspectives that enable us to overcome the limitations of our own experiences and knowledge.

In chapter two of her book,[3] Julian asked for “graces by the gift of God”—a recollection of Christ’s Passion or his death, bodily sickness, and three wounds.  The three wounds were of “true contrition,” “loving compassion,” and “longing with my will for God.”  According to Julian, the first two graces or gifts were conditional because they were “not the ordinary practice of prayer.”  The gift of the wounds was not a conditional request I think because she says that they were “continual,” and thus are considered normative for the Christian life.  I will argue that the wounds of contrition, compassion, and longing are necessary to a life of love, both religious and secular, in an imperfect world such as ours.

The Wound of True Contrition

Contrition is the sorrow one feels for wrongdoing.  It highlights the moral component of a relationship of love in which the lovers recognize a standard of conduct that governs that relationship and the reality that even lovers fail one another.  Trespassing against that standard harms the one loved and the relationship and, when the lover truly loves, there is a deep feeling of regret for what one has done to the beloved.  The greater the love, the profounder the contrition.

While contrition is a normal element of loving relationships in an imperfect world, it is more specifically used in the Christian religious context of one’s relationship with God.  The fact that the relationship is with God means that contrition is only felt by the human partner.  God is holy.  He does not sin or fail us and so has no reason to be contrite.  The Christian, however, does.

What is especially noteworthy about Julian’s desire to experience the wound of true contrition is to relate it to her two conditional requests for a recollection of Christ’s Passion and physical sickness.  The first request was for a bodily vision of Christ’s death on the cross such as the women who were “Christ’s lovers” had when they witnessed his crucifixion.  The purpose was to experience with those women the sufferings they had for Christ, whom they loved.  In other words, the more vividly we can picture Christ’s bodily sufferings for us the more our love for him will deepen, even though it pains us to meditate on the sufferings of the Beloved.  That pain is related to contrition since his sufferings were the result of our sins.

The desire for a nearly fatal bodily sickness was because Julian wanted “to be purged by God’s mercy, and afterwards live more to his glory.”  This led me to think of my own much more minor physical pain.  The Scriptures teach that the Lord disciplines and chastens the ones that he loves (Hebrews 12:5-6 citing Proverbs 3:11-12).  When we his children are involved in destructive behavior, God, our loving Father, will cause us to go through difficulties in order to return us to the way of life and righteousness.  Such correction is a sign of God’s love for us.  I cannot say with certainty that my pain was sent by God to deal with a specific sin.  Nevertheless, the possibility that it was sent for that reason has led me to examine my life and deal more aggressively with my sins.  With this understanding I was able to thank God for the pain and not to wish that I had never had it.  Julian’s meditations helped me to see that the bodily pain was a gift of God’s love.

The Wound of Loving Compassion

Love creates an experiential bond between the lovers.  The experiences of the beloved are the lover’s as well.  The noun “compassion” in its component parts means “to suffer with.”  Thus, when one loves another, the sufferings of the beloved are one’s own.  The deeper the love the greater the grief one feels at the sufferings of the other. This essential part of true love leads to the second wound that Julian desired.

Julian desired “the compassion which I thought a loving soul could have for our Lord Jesus, who for love was willing to become a mortal man.”[4] As one of the lovers of Jesus, Julian desires to have compassion for him.  In meditating on the cross, the lovers of Jesus not only experience the pang of guilt or contrition for their sins but also grieve at the very sufferings that he experienced in his Passion.

Christians rightly believe that the cross is an act of God’s compassion toward us.  Shockingly, Julian is saying Christians can receive the gift of having compassion for God because of his sufferings for us.  While watching in the theater the 1959 movie version of Ben Hur as a newly converted Christian, I began to weep profusely at the depictions of his sufferings.  Very effectively there was no sound but that of the Roman soldiers nailing him to the cross and then came the awful thud of the cross being dropped in the ground.  I felt that pain in my heart as if it were my own.

However, this grief ultimately is not limited to an emotional experience of sorrow that is one’s own and external to the sufferings of Jesus.  The wound of loving compassion for Julian is “to suffer with him.”[5] By God’s grace the Christian is united with God in love through faith.  In meditating on the cross of Christ, Christians grieve that the one who loves them suffers and that suffering becomes their own.  The sufferings of Christ are theirs too because they are united with him in the bond of love.

My initial reaction to Julian’s request was to recognize the wound we feel when we love other humans.  This is not the primary meaning of the second wound she desired; however, I think that it is a necessary consequence for the lover of Jesus.  As we are united with him in his love for sinful mankind, we too willingly embrace the wound of compassion for our fellow human beings.  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

I reflected upon the relationships that were the most meaningful to me and the wound of love.  When my wife is disappointed, even in seemingly minor matters, I share her disappointment.  It has been well said that being a parent is “forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”[6]  My children’s struggles, failures, and sufferings are mine.  As a teacher, I love my students.  That day, as I was discussing with them this reading from Julian, I explained to them how we teachers suffer with them when they are struggling and how it hurts to see them make unwise decisions.  I grieved in my heart because I knew that many of them were feeling the pressure of school and that a couple were leaving to attend another school.

Jesus’ heart for the world becomes our heart as we are united with him in love.  His compassion for a suffering world becomes by the grace of God our compassion for that suffering world.

The Wound of Longing

In human love there is a strong element of longing.  This is felt particularly in the absence of the one loved.  The Song of Solomon captures this experience perfectly.  “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not” (3:1).  In a peculiar way the absence of the beloved makes the lover feel simultaneously the presence of the beloved in a shared familiar place and at the same time the longing to be with the beloved.  Early in our marriage I felt this when my wife had gone for an extended stay at my parents’ home.  When I returned to our tiny studio apartment, I could sense her everywhere.  That feeling created in me a longing to be with her that could not be fulfilled at that time.

This longing for the lover is the third wound that Julian seeks and is especially characteristic of religious love.  The quotation from Plotinus at the head of this essay describes it in Neoplatonic terms of the desire to be united with the One.  St. Teresa de Ávila describes the experience as a “delicious wound” so exquisite that the soul “hopes the hurt will never heal.”[7] The experience of longing in the Christian’s love for God is the result of our love not being fully consummated until the end of the age when Christ will return, the new heavens and the new earth will be created and “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”[8]


Julian’s affirmation that “all will be well” is made in response to the reality of sin.  In an imperfect world like ours, filled with suffering and sin and ending in death, love necessarily wounds the lovers.  In human love we disappoint the beloved and experience the wound of contrition.  The beloved suffers.  We suffer with them and experience the wound of compassion.  Finally, the beloved is not always present, and we suffer the wound of longing.

The wound of longing points to the limits of human love.  We were made for a love that is always present.  As wonderful as human love can be, the beloved is not always present, and in our mortality we will be finally separated.  Only by the love of God that creates in us love for him do we find the always and ever-present love that we were made for and find fulfillment.  Love wounds but in those wounds, we find the true joy that heals our souls.

[1] Plotinus, Enneads, Sixth Tractate, Section 4.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, I shall be quoting from Julian of Norwich, Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).  This edition if from the Classics of Western Spirituality series and is in modernized English.  In particular, I shall be using the longer version of Julian’s Showings.

[3] Ibid., pp. 177-179.  All quotations in this paragraph are from these pages of the second chapter.

[4] Ibid., chapter 3, p. 181.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For an interesting article on the source of this well-known quotation, see

[7] The Interior Castle, “The Sixth Dwelling Place,” II:2

[8] Showings, Chapter 27, p. 225.

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