BY DR CARMEL BENDON DAVIS
For a variety of social reasons, including the rise of the mendicant orders and their preaching of the gospel directly to the people in simple, straightforward terms, the High Middle Ages saw an intensification of focus on the humanity of Jesus.
The great apophatic mystics of the age, and earlier, who had professed that God could not be known but only loved, were suddenly overshadowed by other great spiritual writers whose focus was cataphatic.
That means that in experiencing God and then describing the experience, such writers approached the task by using a multiplicity of vivid and evocative images which usually centred on the person of Jesus Christ, particularly in his suffering and passion.
The 14th century female mystic, Julian of Norwich (pictured), for example, describes in her writings that her great spiritual insights were precipitated by an experience of the suffering Jesus. At thirty and a half years of age, Julian became gravely ill, to the extent that those around her called for the priest to minister to her at the end.
When the priest held the crucifix in front of her, Julian saw the figure of the crucified Jesus become vivified. As Julian watched and her revelations unfolded, Jesus’ sufferings increased as he moved closer to his death. At the same time, Julian’s pain and suffering also increased as she, too, moved nearer to death.
Julian’s earlier symptoms of a complete absence of feeling in the lower body progressed so that, at the height of her pain, Julian’s upper body also lost feeling and function and led to her “greatest pain [which] was shortness of breath and the ebbing of life”. In this way, Julian’s deterioration can be viewed as mirroring Jesus’ own pains, from the immobilisation of his legs and arms on the cross to what many scholars consider to be the final pain of crucifixion: suffocation, as a result of the body sagging from the pain and exhaustion, thus interrupting and then preventing breathing.
What Julian describes is a scene of ultimate empathy in which she and Jesus both suffer, just as all people suffer as the inevitable consequence of their humanity. Julian explains that she “saw a great unity between Christ and us … for when he was in pain we were in pain”.
More poignantly, Julian comes to understand that Jesus’ greatest suffering was to see her - as representative of all humanity - suffer, just as Julian’s greatest pain was to see Jesus, the one whom she most loved, suffering so greatly. This is an insight to which we can all relate now. As parents, especially, we have all experienced sickness and pain in our children and, without exception, we would say that we would prefer to suffer the pain ourselves than to see our child or loved one suffering.
Like Julian, who watched the dying Jesus across the small personal space between her sick bed and his Cross, we too witness death and suffering in our own lives and in our world. Often, we struggle to make sense of it but there is hope in understanding that love and suffering are inextricably linked in the human condition.
More than that, Jesus, in assuming humanity, also entered willingly into the pain of human life and embraced it because of the infiniteness of God’s love for us. As he spoke to Julian, Jesus speaks to all of us in our shared experience of humanity, especially in our own times of difficulty and suffering.
– Dr Carmel Bendon Davis