Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lady Julian of Norwich: May all men be saved?

Yesterday, Saturday, was the feast day of Lady Juliana of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a well-known piece of literature in the English language, her 'Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love', which were a big hit in the fourteenth century, and are still read today.

She had a number of rather heterodox ideas, and in retrospect it's interesting that she wasn't called to account by the church hierarchy. Perhaps they couldn't; she was a nun of unquestionable virtue and saintliness, and her 'Revelations', which she claimed were accounts of direct experiences with Jesus Christ, had the ring of something compelling.

One of the ideas she was known for, is her hope that at the end of time, all men- perhaps all beings- would be saved. She claimed that Christ Himself had said to her, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," implying that at the end of time sin, hell, and death would cease to exist. She made it clear, though, that she couldn't be _sure_ that all would be saved, and her universalism was strictly a 'hopeful' universalism.

Many people would like to agree with Lady Julian on this. The problem comes, of course, when we set her testimony against the testimony of so many other mystics, who said that they had seen visions of a literal and fiery Hell. Now I happen to be a person who sets great store by the experiences of mystics and visionaries. Indeed, this is (in my mind) one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and for the existence of the supernatural. But if we are to credit the argument from mystical experience, that means that we are bound to credit that the people who wrote the 'Apocalypse of Paul', or the three children of Fatima, had as much claim to have genuinely experienced the supernatural as Lady Julian. Is there some way, then, that they could both be right? Can Lady Julian's hopeful universalism be reconciled with the vivid visions of hell that so many other mystics through the ages- Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and those of other faiths- claimed to see?

I'm not sure how to reconcile these two points of view- the torments of hell, and the belief that all may be saved- but I think reconciliation is possible. The key lies in a verse from today's scripture reading, in which St. John tells us of heaven, that "its gates shall never be shut by day, and there shall be no night there" (Revelation 21:25). The gates of the city of God are never closed, once the judgment has happened, and 'there shall be no more night.' Heaven is always open to those, even in the depths of hell, who truly repent. We are told that on Holy Saturday, Christ descended into hell to preach to the damned, and broke open the gates of hell that they might be saved. If he did it once, he could do it again.

The early Christian literature is replete with visions of Hell, attributed to Peter, Paul, the Mother of God, and others. These visions are terrifyingly graphic, and depict sinners being tormented in all kinds of creative ways for a multitude of sins. People who dressed immodestly, who took interest on loans, who carried out abortions, who committed sins like murder and robbery, each being punished in a way befitting their sin. The style and conviction of these visionary writings is compelling, and they appear to be genuine accounts of mystical visions; whether or not these people really saw hell, they clearly saw something. And if you give credence to the argument from mystical experience, as I do, then you're more or less bound to believe that these people really saw, in some sense and in some degree, visions of hell. Hell is an unfortunate but inescapable reality.

But just as graphic, horrific and terrifying the pictures of the torments of hell that these writers give us, equally powerful and compelling is their insistence that in some measure, the mercy of God penetrates even to Hell, and that even death and damnation do not mark a final and irrevocable break with God. One of the most common themes in the visionary literature of the early Christian and the medieval periods is that God's mercy is not absent even in hell. The writer of the 'Apocalypse of Paul' has the narrator praying to Jesus for intercession for the damned, and Jesus responding to his prayers by granting all sinners in hell a respite from suffering on every Easter Day forever. As the writer puts it:

"Yet now because of Michael the archangel of my covenant and the angels that are with him, and because of Paul my dearly beloved whom I would not grieve. and because of your brethren that are in the world and do offer oblations, and because of your sons, for in them are my commandments, and yet more because of mine own goodness: on that day whereon I rose from the dead I grant unto all you that are in torment refreshment for a day and a night for ever."

The writers of the other two apocalypses say something similar; one of the common themes of the medieval visionary literature was that the mercy of God was such that He would allow the damned little 'vacations' from hell, respites from their suffering, and one even claimed to have seen Judas, on such a vacation, out in the Atlantic Ocean.

If we accept the visions of Hell we also have to acccept the visions of God's infinite mercy. I believe that His mercy is truly infinite, and that even in hell, if anyone is truly repentant, and truly wants to be with God, their wish will not be denied. St. John tells us that the gates of heaven will never be closed, and never means never. Anyone who wishes it- even after death, even in hell- may, I think, be saved.

But will everyone truly wish it? I don't know. With Julian of Norwich, I hope so. But I think the answer is no. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it, and I believe that there will be some who choose hell, even unto the rest of eternity, rather then submit to God and to the fire of his love. Dostoyevsky said that hell was the condition of being unable to love, and there will be some that are so wrapped up in themselves, so drunk on their own pride and self-absorption, that as horrible as the pains of hell are, they still prefer them to the joys of heaven. The apocryphal 'Gospel of Peter', written around the end of the first century, tells us of the Roman soldiers who witnessed the dying Christ forgive the repentant thief hanging next to him on the cross. Seeing this immense, inconceivable act of mercy, they weren't overcome by love but rather by hate, and 'they resolved that there should be no leg breaking, that he should die tormented.' There are some, even in this world, who respond to love by becoming even more embroiled in hate, in pride, and in impotent selfishness. This is, perhaps, the inner meaning of all those cryptic references in the story of the Exodus to how God 'hardened Pharaoh's heart': not by design, but by the free choice of Pharaoh.

We can, then, believe in hell as a place from which redemption is possible, but not assured: hoping with Julian that all will be saved, but recognizing that it is quite possible that some may choose not to be. For God honours our choices to the end: and perhaps for those who choose hell, as painful and horrible as it is, it is less painful to them then the fiery love of God would be; and maybe, in this sense, it is true that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well'. And above all, we should remember, that when we talk about sin and separation from God, we should talk first and foremost about ourselves. We should never talk about hell and death without remembering what Paul said, and applying it to ourselves: that 'this is a true saying, and worthy to be received: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the chief.'

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

1 comment:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The more graphic the vision, the more misleading it is. "My ways are not your ways saith the Lord." All is parable, for the simple reason that God exists on a plane utterly incomprehensible to us. It is like trying to imagine a color one has never seen. Not a new amalgam of exiting pigments, but a totally new primary color. We can't do it. It is totally outside our experience.