Near the end of the 14th century, a woman known as Julian of Norwich wrote a book called Revelations of Divine Love. It is, as far as we know, the first book written in English by a woman.
We know very little about Julian; we don’t even know if that is really her name. She probably came from a privileged family. She may have been educated by Benedictine nuns. We do know that she was an anchoress, someone who lived at least a part of her life in seclusion, devoted to prayer. Beyond that, we can only be sure of what we read in her book. Julian writes that at the age of 30, she suffered from a serious illness and experienced visions of Jesus. She describes these visions in detail in her writing, and includes further thoughts on their meanings.
One of the most striking parts of Julian’s book for modern readers is her description of God as a Mother. Julian describes God in Jesus as conceiving, nursing, enduring labor, and providing nurturing care; forgiving us our sons, and loving all people with great devotion. God, Julian writes, is a Mother – and so much more.
When God says “It is I,” Julian writes, it is as if God is saying, “I am the power and the goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness … I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfillment of all true desires.”
Julian is a Christian mystic: someone who experiences a rare intimacy and unity with God. Her book is an attempt to share her experience with others. She wants to break open our concept of God, to make it live and sing. Julian uses words to meet the hunger that lives in so many of us, the hunger to know: what is God really like?
In our scriptures today, we meet Jesus as he gives his farewell discourse in the gospel of John. This is Jesus’ long goodbye before his crucifixion. Jesus tells his disciples that he is leaving them, and then he tries to reassure them. They will not be alone after he goes. The Holy Spirit will come to guide them, and then, finally, when the time is right, Jesus will come to them again. He will lead them to join him in the eternal home that God has made for them.
These words are comforting. They’re so comforting that we often read this passage during memorial services, to remind us of how our loved ones have found a home in God’s care beyond death. The disciples, however, are far from satisfied by Jesus’ reassurances. Thomas worries he won’t be able to find the way to this mysterious destination. Philip has a different concern. He doesn’t want Jesus to leave before he truly understands and experiences the nature of God. Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Of course, Jesus has been trying to show the disciples their God ever since he met them. He has taught with parables and questions. He has performed healings and dramatic miracles. And he has shared his love with them, love that is from God, love that is God. How many more ways can Jesus show them God? But Jesus tries to explain, again: “ If you know me, you will know my father also… Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am the Father and the Father is in me.”
What is God really like? Many of us have particular names or images or metaphors that we like to use for God. But our tradition resists the idea that any one word could capture the nature of God. Some Christians think it is impossible to describe God with human language at all. They prefer silence in favor of any language that falls short of the fullness of God. It is better to be silent, or to say what God is not, than to pretend we can say anything entirely true about God.
Our Scriptures, and mystics like Julian of Norwich, take another tack, using what we might call expansive language, using every possible word and image they can imagine to help us try to grasp God. Just in the two scriptures passages from this morning, God is called Father, Son, Lord, way, truth, life, living stone, cornerstone, and even, nursing mother. And Julian, in the space of one paragraph, describes God as power, goodness, Father, wisdom, Mother, light, grace, trinity, unity, love, desire, and fulfillment.
We can seek God in silence; or in expansive language. Or we can seek God in a person: the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the person of the eternal Christ, the person who God sent down to be God among us. But with all of these avenues, many of us still end up feeling incomplete, uncertain. Who is God, really? What is God like? With Philip, we demand, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Here is the good news. While we may struggle to know and describe God, ultimately finding God is not our job.
God is our creator, and our destination. God is the ground of our being, and we are made in her image. God is as close as our next breath, and God is the spirit that animates our bodies. God first loved us, and God pursues us: whether we go to heaven, or to hell, or the farthest reaches of the sea.
If there is in you a hunger to know God more deeply, give thanks for it. May that hunger help you along, to greater understanding, and deeper trust. But we will never have a long enough silence, or a big enough vocabulary, to completely know God. God is beyond our knowledge. As it says in psalm 139: How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
In the end, the practice of faith is a surrender to presence and mystery. We follow our hearts and minds until we can’t find the next step, and then we fall into the arms of a God who was there all along: a parent more perfect than any human parent; a home more final than any human home; a love too large for human understanding; the fulfillment of every true desire. Thanks be to God.