The Inward Journey, the Outward Gaze

Progressive Mysticism with Julian of Norwich

Theologian Karl Barth once counseled, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” In graduate school over 40 years ago, I heard a modification of Barth’s wisdom, “The preacher should have the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other.” This advice surely applies to the spiritual seeker and social activist as well. We must have our eyes trained on eternity while boldly living in our time and place. Touching eternity, the cosmic wisdom of God, grants perspective and hope in the moral arc of history. But the wide perspective – our hope in God’s arc of justice – is of value only if it guides our pathway in responding to the unique challenges of our time.

It may seem like a stretch to consult the wisdom of mystics, such as the cloistered Dame Julian of Norwich (1342–1412), for guidance in our 24/7 breaking news, internet savvy world. he was anchoress, which meant that she was “anchored” in one place, committed to experiencing God in the confines of monastic life. For decades Julian lived in a two-room monastic cell, from which she could neither come nor go. In one room, her maid took residence, providing the mystic with food, water, and other necessary supplies. In the other room, fitted with two windows, Julian spent her days. One window of Julian’s cell connected with the cathedral sanctuary, enabling her to participate in worship and take communion. The other window looked out on the street. From this window, Julian heard news from the outside world and gave spiritual direction to passersby.

The life of Julian reminds us that progressive Christians need “two windows.” A whole-person spiritual adventure is grounded in withdrawal from the world. For most of us, this doesn’t mean relinquishing family life, professional achievement, and political involvement. Nor does it mean abandoning cable news and social media and jettisoning our cell phones. (For example, after morning meditation, an aerobic prayer walk on the beach, and some devotional reading, I typically turn on the headline news for a few minutes each morning.) It does mean following mystics like Julian of Norwich in joining contemplation and action, looking inward toward the cathedral of the spirit, taking time regularly for prayer, meditation, and retreat and then looking outward with insights for today’s challenges.

These “monastic” practices are not optional for progressive spiritual seekers: they ground our actions in divine wisdom. They nurture the virtues of patience and perspective, inspiring us to look beyond the present moment or the latest breaking news to the long haul of historical transformation. In stillness, we feel a connection with life beyond ourselves. In the dynamic interconnectedness of life, there is no “other” – no one is alien. Even our opponents are God’s beloved children and deserve our respect even when we challenge their policies and priorities.

Julian looks toward the cathedral but she also looks out onto the street, listening the village news and responding to heartfelt queries of spiritual seekers. Like Thomas Merton, she discovers we are all “guilty bystanders.” We cannot escape our involvement in the politics and culture around us. Spiritual depth inspires cultural and political breadth as we move from the parochial to the global. The inner and outer are united and complement one another. Let us take seriously Julian’s two windows, silence and action, in discerning God’s presence in daily wonder and chaos of our world.
About the Author
Bruce Epperly is senior pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville, Massachusetts, and a professor in theology and spirituality at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of over 45 books, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World (Upper Room Books) and The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman(Anamchara Books).

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