From the Endless Knot to the Green Girdle: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt IV

It’s the last installment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and while I was prepping for today’s post, I was reading the poem aloud. I got all teary-eyed because I just love the poetry here. The content is wonderful and the Middle English is wildly beautiful, even unearthly. I hope that many of you are discovering that same love, truth, and wonder hidden in this 650-year-old gem. Let’s get to it.

Gawain wakes up on the morning of his destiny. He puts on his most dazzling outfit, and makes sure to tightly wrap the green girdle around his waist (the poet comments that it looks good on him, but he wasn’t wearing it for beauty). He saddles Gringolet, his horse, and a guide leads them both into the wilderness. From Simon Armitage’s translation:

They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare,
clambered up cliff faces where the cold clings.
The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped
so the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist
and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head. (Armitage, 2077-2081)

I love that Armitage gleans so much from the Middle English here. One of the most charming lines of the original mentions these “mist-hats” on the mountains, “Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge” (2081). Next time you see a mountain-top covered in cloud (for me, a regular occurrence, because I live in Denver), you can gently whisper to yourself, a “hello, myst-hakel”!

Gawain’s nameless guide gets him close to the chapel, then uneasily begins to take his leave. He attempts to convince Gawain to join him in fleeing. You don’t know this Green Knight, says the man. He LOVES to murder people! It is his favorite pastime! The servant pleads for Gawain, whom he has grown to love and respect:

for God’s sake travel an alternative track,
ride another road, and be rescued by Christ.
I’ll head off home, and with hand on heart
I shall swear by God and all his good saints,
and on all earthly holiness, and other such oaths,
that your secret is safe, and not a soul will know
that you fled in fear from the fellow I described. (Armitage, 2119-2125)

Gawain refuses, with some irritation, and says he will never be taken for a coward. He adds: 

He may be stout and stern
And standing armed with stave
but those who strive to serve
our Lord, our Lord will save. (Armitage, 2136-2139)

Now this is rather interesting to me. Both of these men are doing something which we often do today—talking about God’s work in the world confidently, directly, as if the Lord didn’t use mediums or go-betweens or subtleties in his work. For the servant, it seems that Christ doesn’t have enough power to rescue Gawain if he does something so colossally stupid as following through with his promise to visit the bloodthirsty green fiend. Meanwhile, Gawain seems to have conveniently forgotten about his own compromises he has made—ahem, secretly keeping the green girdle—undermining the strong statements that he makes on finding his fortune on “the grace of God alone” (2159). He sounds like the folks today who triumphantly declare their faith in their God-given immune systems, conveniently forgetting that God has saved lives through the hands and feet of people (including doctors and scientists, and perhaps sexy court ladies) countless times. We all can easily vacillate between perhaps performative assertions of utter trust, and implicit doubt that God himself can deal with the terrible implications of our choices. And we are all remarkably blind in our capacities for self-deception. I see myself in Gawain’s erratic ability to go from sneakily pocketing an item of enchantment for self-preservation and loudly declaring infallible trust in God in the meantime. In this moment, the blame doesn’t rest in his taking the girdle, but in that intellectual dishonesty. 

Equally this doesn’t invalidate Gawain’s courage in this moment. He has an out, and he refuses to take it. We the readers know he has been afraid, dreaming dreadful dreams, facing foes seen and unseen to get to what will likely be his death, and yet he goes onward. And boy is that courage about to be tested.

Gawain reaches the Green Chapel. This hill surrounded by frantically rushing water is creepy:

it had a hole at one end at either side,
and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
or crevice in the crag—it was all too unclear to declare.
		‘Green church?’ chunters the knight.
		‘More like the devil’s lair
		where at the nub of night
		he dabbles in dark prayers.’ (Armitage, 2180-2188)

Then, another moment of wild horror and cleverness. A sound rings out over the seemingly empty, haunted scene. Not a scream, but something close: it is the shrill sound of an axe being whetted. Here, I read in the Middle English, because yet again our poet imitates the sound of steel on a whetting stone, being honed to a fine edge perfect for shearing necks:

What! hit clattered in the cliff as hit cleue schulde
As one vpon a gryndelstone had grounden a sythe. 
What! hit wharred and whette as water at a mulne;
What! hit rusched and ronge, rawthe to here. (2201-2204)

Can you hear the noise that clatters and cleaves the cliff? The repetition of what! is particularly ingenious. The word was traditionally used in alliterative poetry as a call to listen closely (it’s the first word of that famous Old English poem, Beowulf) but here it also sounds like the sharpening itself. It’s basically a pun via sound! The sounds used in the alliteration also echo the sharpening, the w’s and the r’s closely resembling that screaming, shearing, rasping noise. It sends chills down my spine.

Gawain has one last chance to lose his nerve, but instead calls out and reveals his presence. Come out, it’s now or never, he calls. And something growls back: “Abide!” 

Out of the stones comes the Green Knight, now with a giant new axe in his hand, and the massive green man uses it to vault over the rushing waters and comes to Gawain. He greets Gawain, and notes he has fulfilled his promise. Gawain tries to look unafraid. He bares his neck, and bows before the knight. In a theatrical flourish, the Green Knight draws the axe high above, ready to deal a deathly blow. As he brings it down, Gawain suddenly flinches and shrinks, and the axe-wielder diverts his swing. “You’re not Gawain,” he says. Such a man would never shrink 

at foretaste of harm. 
Never could I hear of such cowardice from that knight. 
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe?” (Armitage, 2270-2274). 

We’ve heard this taunt before. Its presence, as always, is telling. Gawain’s life is at stake, but more importantly to him, his reputation is on trial. Gawain protests that he won’t do it again, but brusquely tells the Green Knight to get on with it. The Green Knight taunts him by repeating the swing, but moving it away at the last second. This time, Gawain is rooted like a tree. With inner fear and outward anger, Gawain demands that the Green Knight just hit him already. 

With a great, final stroke, the Green Knight brings the axe mightily down upon Gawain’s neck.

Hoisted and aimed, the axe hurtled downwards,
the blade bearing down on the knight’s bare neck,
a ferocious blow, but far from being fatal
it skewed to one side, just skimming the skin
and finely snicking the fat of the flesh
so that bright red blood shot from body to earth.
Seeing it shining on the snowy ground
Gawain leapt forward a spear’s length at least,
grabbed hold of his helmet and rammed it on his head,
brought his shield to his side with a shimmy of his shoulder,
then brandished his sword before blurting out brave words,
because never since birth, as his mother’s babe,
was he half as happy as here and now. 
“Enough swiping, sir, you’ve swung your swing.” (Armitage, 2309-2322)

Gawain has lived! He’s ready to fight if the Green Knight follows through on his murderous reputation, but instead the Green Knight looks at Gawain standing aggressively and bravely, and in his heart admires him. 

The Green Knight explains his own game, that he had divided his strokes into three. “Had I mustered all my muscles into one mighty blow, / I would have hit you more harshly and done you great harm,” he explains, but instead, he feinted with his first blow, for Gawain’s truthful behavior had won his trust (2343-2344). He missed Gawain again with his second, “and this for the morning / when you kissed my pretty wife then kindly kissed me” (2350-2351). Wait—the Green Knight is Lord Bertilak?!?! Yet this hardly has a chance to hit us because he keeps going with his explanation. The last time he hit Gawain for real, and shed his blood, because of that very green girdle which belongs to the Green Knight himself. I sent her to test you, he acknowledges, 

“As a pearl is more prized than a pea which is white,
in good faith, so is Gawain, among gallant knights.
But a little thing more—it was loyalty that you lacked:
Not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse,
but you loved your own life; so I blame you less.” (Armitage, 2364-2368)

This was all a trick, engineered by the enchantress, Morgan le Fay, to tempt and weaken the great King Arthur. Gawain stands speechless, absorbing the shock. The blood rushes to his face and he shrinks in shame. This moment stretches out in time—the cringing, handsome young knight with his sword beginning to sink downwards, the smiling, giant green man looking at him with triumph and also, strangely, some love and understanding.

Gawain breaks the silence. Like a child throwing a toy that hurt them, he fumblingly unties the girdle and flings it at the Green Knight in an agony of anger and shame. He cries out:

My downfall and undoing; let the devil take it.
Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot
the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow.
And now I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed. (Armitage, 2378-2383)

At first, Gawain’s words are disorienting. Why is he confessing all these crazy sins, when it seems that his only mistake was a lie of omission in a game? This seems like an overreaction. But do you remember Gawain’s personal emblem on his shield, the endless knot, the pentangle of virtues that characterized his face to the world? Gawain’s endless knot has utterly collapsed. The vices he cites are the opposites of those virtues. His understanding of himself, and the way he is in the world, is crumbling in one moment. The Middle English here is especially interesting. Gawain is “taught” by “cowardice” to “forsake” his “kynde” (2379-2380). Kynde is a central word here. We still use some word-ancestors of it today: our modern “kind” as in kindness, appropriate and attentive behavior to one another, and our modern “-kind” in mankind, or type or category (as in I like that kind of candy). Medieval people used it in those ways as well, but it was a far more powerful word. It’s a multivalent word that means identity, a deep nature inherent to a person. With the discovery of his girdle-theft, Gawain feels as if he has forsaken his deepest nature as a knight and as a man.

In contrast, the Green Knight argues this only means that Gawain loved his life, an understandable weakness in the face of death. In this sense, it is in accord with an even deeper kynde for him to betray these values, these ideals of knighthood and manhood. But Gawain isn’t having it. He’s so frustrated and ashamed of his failure. So he asks the Green Knight to forgive him, and the Green Knight absolves him, in a secular parody of confession, penance, and absolution. The Knight even invites Gawain back to the castle, to meet his wife now as friend and not foe. Gawain refuses, and enters on a tirade against women worthy of the most virulent friar of the Middle Ages. I hate to give it airtime, so to sum up: ever since Eve, women have been the source of man’s downfall.

Do we take this vitriol against women seriously? Is Gawain echoing what the poet truly believes to be true about women? We could. This speech is part of a long tradition of medieval writing and thinking, especially from friars and other religious men committed to chastity. Some readers do. I do not. I think the poet is having a last bit of fun at people when their values collapse into a heap in a moment of failure. Surely it can’t be my own fault! Gawain is desperately casting about for something to blame when the world isn’t as it should be according to him. As it so often does, the hammer of blame falls upon women (we also see unfair blame cast at persons of color regularly). All of this is in line with Gawain’s general overreaction, shame, and anger with himself. It is also apiece with the poet’s keen awareness of the fragility of some types of masculinity—Gawain’s overweening interest in his reputation, especially with women, Arthur’s advice towards greater violence in a game, and the Green Knight’s interest in cutting them down to size.

The Green Knight tells him to keep the girdle, and Gawain swears he will wear it always, as a sign of his sin and failure and frailty of flesh. It will act as a check to his prowess, his pride in his skills and abilities, and a reminder of his humanity. And Gawain rides, green girdle tied aslant his chest, back to Camelot: 

So he winds through the wilds of the world once more, 
Gawain on Gringolet, by the grace of God, 
under a roof sometimes and sometimes roughing it, 
in valleys and vales had adventures and victories, 
but time is too tight to tell how they went. (Armitage, 2479-2483) 

I think the ending of the poem is perhaps the most curious and interesting, and I still vary in how I interpret it, despite having read it so many times. When Gawain arrives back at Arthur’s court, everyone rejoices to see him alive. He shows them his scar from the axe, and the girdle, and tells them the story of his failures. “I was tainted by untruth,” he announces, and shows his new knot, the knotted lace that he wears around his human body. The court comforts him, then laughs and they all agree to wear a green girdle themselves. Each knight who wore the girdle was honored ever after, and the girdle becomes a symbol for honor and for the great court of King Arthur.

Who is right about the girdle? Gawain, in his shame, as a symbol for sin? The court, as a symbol for a knight who was brave and managed to live? Either way, isn’t it amazing that the knot of perfection is replaced with this new knot? I have three main interpretations that I see as possible, and will tell you all.

The first is that Gawain is right, and he is now a truth-speaking man within a court of frivolity that cares little for the failures of man. The court acts like a certain American ex-president: something that should be shameful becomes part of the pageantry and excitement of a political party, a shallow and unethical way of being in the world. If we celebrate failures and dishonestly turn them into triumphs, we don’t have to deal with their consequences.

The second is that Gawain is being overscrupulous about his sins. He is self-flagellating, punishing himself too severely for something that he should feel properly guilty about and move on. The court sees the girdle as a symbol of common humanity, of honor even in weakness. Gawain needs to lighten up and recognize that he fails like everyone else.

Either of these last two are extremely viable interpretations, but the third is my favorite. Both Gawain and the court are a little bit right. We all wear the girdle of our mortality, in the form of our crumbling and glorious bodies. We need both Gawain and the court, both the girdle as reminder of weakness and the girdle as reminder of bravery and honor in human limitation pushed to its limit. We mourn our sins and we rejoice that we live in a world with the beauty of courage and great action.

I wrote this on Halloween, and it occurred to me that this is what Halloween, celebrated properly, is about. Facing, and celebrating, our littleness in the face of so much unknown. Our merry rejoicing against the darkness, combined with a little healthy fear and respect for the vastness and vast unknowability of our world. Our simultaneous reclamation of the knowledge that we are made to live well, in the image of God, and knowing that we aren’t the people of the righteously perfect eternal knot though we would like to believe so. We make decisions not knowing their outcome, but we try to practice the virtues. We, like Gawain, are learning. We are learning where we have imbibed toxic cultural untruth, where we are haunted by grand ideas of ourselves that hold us to suffocating unreality. What is our kynde? We are not the people of the pentangle, the glorious, perfect, intertwined crown of virtues, yet—but the people of the green girdle, bound to fail in our big and often dark world, yet learning who we are and how to live.

Let’s end this series in the words of the poet of 650 years ago. I’ll first read Armitage’s translation, and end with the Middle English.

…once the siege and assault at Troy
			had ceased,
		our coffers have been crammed
		with stories such as these.
		Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
		bring us to perfect peace.
			Amen.


After the segge and the assulte watz sesed at Troye,
			Iwysse,
		Mony aunterez herebiforne
		Haf fallen such er this.
		Now that bere the croun of thorne,
		He bring vus to His blysse!
			Amen. (2525-2531)

If you enjoyed this series, I’d love to hear from you. Please share, subscribe, or follow me on Instagram or Twitter. Thank you so much for listening. I had a blast thinking through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I hope you did too.

The Hunter and the Hunted: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fitt III

A cozy reading scene with Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain, beautifully illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Here we are in Fitt III of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the wondrous, thoughtful, magical fourteenth-century poem. If you’ve missed the previous three installments, I’d recommend reading those first, because we are now on the downward slope towards the exciting conclusion. Gawain has found himself in an enchantingly beautiful castle in snowy, distant woods, just in time to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. And much to his relief and trepidation, he has learned that the Green Chapel, where he must meet the blow given by the mysterious Green Knight, is only two miles distant. Despite all Gawain’s negative past experience with games offered by strangers, he has entered into yet another one, with the host of the castle, Lord Bertilak. Bertilak is going hunting for the next few days, and anything he kills in his hunt he will give to Gawain—if Gawain gives him anything that he has received at the castle in Bertilak’s absence. 

Fitt III is constructed in a really interesting way. It’s split, between scenes of Bertilak hunting and scenes of quite a different kind of hunt. I will be frank with you: this is my least favorite fitt. Hunting scenes are not my jam. However, hunting was an elaborate, important medieval ritual for the nobles of the time. I say nobles, because that’s mainly who hunted. The King owned forests for the most part in medieval England, and he granted permission to hunt in them. Otherwise, anything caught in those forests belonged to him. Peasants were even killed for daring to hunt for food in those areas. 

Hunting was also another area in which to display your aristocratic, well-bred courtesy and expertise. There were entire handbooks written for the correct way to kill and then process a deer. There were entirely different rules for the hunt of each kind of animal. And so this passage is another chance for the Gawain-poet to show his aristocratic audience that he’s in the know. The hunt was a place to show your style as much as the court was. We can still see the ancestors of this idea today, in England, with fox hunting. Fox hunting is an elaborate ritual, with the right kind of gear, the best horse, and its own vocabulary, incomprehensible to the uninitiated… or the not-so-high-class. 

The Gawain-poet writes with a savage, bloody beauty in these hunting scenes, deploying that correct vocabulary with precision. It’s unbelievably skilled, but more difficult to appreciate today due to our distance from that culture and taste. Maybe if you’re a hunter you would enjoy it more; I am not one. Also, it seems to me that hunters and poetry folk might not coexist in the same Venn Diagram. I’d be happy to be proven wrong! Listen, briefly, to Simon Armitage’s translation of the hunting of the female deer:

But the hinds were halted with hollers and whoops
and the din drove the does to sprint for the dells.
	
Then the eye can see that the air is all arrows:
all across the forest they flashed and flickered,
biting through hides with their broad heads.
What! They bleat as they bleed and they die on the banks,
and always the hounds are hard on their heels,
and the hunters on horseback come hammering behind
with stone-splitting cries, as if cliffs had collapsed. (Armitage, 1158-1166)

From this loud, hacking, driving scene, the poet leads us into a quiet bedchamber back at the castle. Exhausted after all his journeys, Gawain sleeps late in a room dappled with sunlight. He awakens when he hears the door gently open. He quietly peers to see who the intruder is. It’s the lady of the castle, and Gawain decides to pretend like he’s still sleeping, and meditates on what this visit might mean. She’s gorgeously arrayed, beautiful as ever. Gawain decides he should stop pretending to sleep and ask her what she’s doing here, and this part cracks me up:

So he stirred and stretched, turned on his side,
lifted his eyelids and, looking alarmed, 
crossed himself hurriedly with his hand, as if saving 
                   his life.
 (Armitage, 1200-1204)

I love the fake crossing himself with shock. I think the poet is having a little laugh at Gawain’s bad acting, especially with the glimpse into his thought processes. And by the way, we take such interior monologuing in literature for granted, but this is a really early example of “interior consciousness” in poetry. This is also why you should roll your eyes at anyone who thinks modern people are more conscious or self-aware than medieval or ancient people.

Gawain is “trapped” as the lady laughingly announces, just like the deer driven down towards the water then slaughtered by the hunters in wait. Gawain carefully “loads his words with laughter” as he asks permission to rise and put on his clothes (we think perhaps he is sleeping naked, making this scene all the more vulnerable!). The Lady winkingly refuses—she notes she has pinned the famous Sir Gawain, and now she and he are left all alone, she suggestively emphasizes. “Do with me what you will.” Not very subtle!

Thus begins a game of romance chess. Each player in this game counters the other. The Lady moves with overt seduction, layering each speech of hers with sexy innuendo. Gawain, too, layers his speech. He flirts with her, compliments her, but avoids her seduction at all costs, determined not to betray his host. But he is truly trapped, more than just being caught in bed with his pants down. Both know that one of the chivalric values of knighthood is that very love-talk we discussed in the last episode. So Gawain is effectively caught between two facets of his identity: the knight Gawain and the Christian Gawain are at odds. The knight Gawain is expected by his society and tradition to woo and court this beautiful lady (whom, the poet makes perfectly clear, Gawain does desire). The Christian Gawain, with Mary on the inside of his shield, must not commit adultery nor betray the person who took him in from the bitter cold, Bertilak. 

Finally, the Lady taunts Gawain into giving her a kiss: 

“May the Lord repay you for your prize performance.
But I know that Gawain could never be your name.”
“But why not?” the knight asked nervously,
afraid that some fault in his manners had failed him.
The beautiful woman blessed him, then rebuked him:
“A good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded,
the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being,
could never have lingered so long with a lady
without craving a kiss, as politeness requires,
or coaxing a kiss with his closing words.’ (Armitage, 1292-1301)

And yes—Gawain enfolds her in his arms, and kisses her. Alarm bells should be ringing right about now. The original verse of Gawain as the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being clues us in to some big problems: “Cortaysye is closed so clene in hymseluen” (1298), or courtesy is closed clean in himself. Remember Gawain’s shield? Cleanness, or purity, and courtesy, or impeccable knightly manners, were both points on the pentangle. And now they are at odds with one another. 

As so often happens in real life, parts of our identities clash with one another. Difficult choices or foolish mistakes reveal the selves we desire to be, and who we really are. We see this all the time in public apologies, to make a brief point. I hate the phrase “that’s not really who I am” after someone messes up publicly and has to apologize. Though you may not like that you did that, and now see the error of your ways, it was you who wrote that stupid tweet, made that ill-advised comment, and so on.

This poet lived before public apology was really a thing. But he sees that the values we build up around ourselves—the public and private identities, the shields and self-portraits—simplify deeply complex motives and fragile ecosystems of inner peace. This, of course, doesn’t mean that virtue isn’t real, or undesirable. But it does indicate that when we use them to construct ourselves, to portray ourselves to the world, they can be just as breakable as anything else. Any virtue, as every medieval theologian knew, can be susceptible to that ultimate corruptor, pride. Gawain is actually not proud at all, the way we are used to thinking of it. He’s constantly aware of the others around him, serving those he needs to serve, not trumpeting his skills or flaunting how much people love him. But Gawain, like any of us, can become so aware of, so enchanted with, this ideal, wonderful version of himself that he presents, that it becomes the driving force behind all his actions. Gawain so desperately wants to live up to his reputation as the perfect knight that he can resist this breathtaking woman who so clearly wants to sleep with him—up until she invokes that very identity as the perfect knight. 

Once he kisses her, she leaves him, to his great relief. He attends mass and feasts joyfully with her and the old crone who is her companion. No damage has truly been done yet. In a famously homoerotic moment, the two men exchange their winnings at that night’s feast. Gawain merrily kisses Bertilak after receiving what seems like countless deer corpses. And onto the next day.

Yet again, Bertilak happily slaughters. Today, instead of deer, he pursues a ferocious, massive wild boar. I thought of this scene recently when a wild boar attacked the pop singer Shakira in a park in Madrid, an absolutely wild headline that sounds generated by the web. It really happened though! Too bad Bertilak wasn’t there. And by the way, wild boars can be extremely dangerous. He handily kills the great, savage beast, again in the flawless, brutal web of specialized hunting poetry woven by this poet.

And yet again, the Lady sneaks into Gawain’s room in the morning. And again, when he does not follow up on her more explicit advances, she challenges his identity, and suggests he could take what he wanted anytime by force. If you are truly Gawain, use those muscles to get what you want. Interestingly, just like in the last game, we see the inherent connection between knightly identity and the violence always just one step away. Gawain rebuffs her, saying that while he does have nice big muscles, he doesn’t take gifts not given freely. If she demands a kiss, he will courteously supply it. And so she does, and he does. And she teasingly doubts him again, wondering aloud why such a renowned knight is not schooling her in love-talk while her husband is away. Gawain cleverly says that he should be learning from her, not vice versa, and dodges the attempt. And so finally they kiss again, and she leaves, and he heads off to mass.

Bertilak and Gawain exchange their winnings again, kissing twice and proffering boar meat. But at the feast that night, the Lady is so flirtatious with Gawain, that he is 

maddened and amazed, 
but his breeding forbade him from rebuking a lady, 
and though tongues might wag he returned her attention
	all night. (Armitage, 1660-1663)

Dawn of the third day. Bertilak hears mass and leaves to go hunt a wily fox. And the wiliest fox, Gawain, finds himself again with the Lady in his bedchamber. He had been in fitful sleep, dreaming of the Green Chapel and the coming blow. This time, the poet tells us, the Lady is dressed to truly impress. I read in Middle English:

No hwef goud on her hede, but the hayer stones
Trased aboute her tressour be twenty in clusteres;
Her thryuen face and her throte throwen all naked,
Hir brest bare before, and bihinde eke. (1738-1741)

That naked expanse of skin dazzles Gawain with flowing, warming joy. And the poet warns us that he stands in great peril, unless Mary will save her knight. Gawain knows the boundary between chivalrous flirtation and adultery is thin, but he swears he won’t pass it. They kiss, and the lady begs him to give her a gift to remember him by, or at least to take a gift from her. 

You may be familiar with this system of knightly behavior. Think of a movie you’ve seen with a tournament scene. The one I embarrassingly immediately think of is Disney’s Robin Hood, with the archery tournament. Fox Robin Hood in disguise takes Fox Maid Marian’s handkerchief and wears it proudly as a token of her esteem and affection. Knights wore the token of their lady, secretly or proudly, and in return they won whatever tournament in her name. Often, such tokens signified fealty to the wife of their lord—sometimes they signified more.

The Lady tries to give Gawain a ring, and when he refuses, she offers something smaller. She unties a girdle, a belt or lace, from around her body. It is green, trimmed with gold, and tries to give it to him. But she urges him to take it: “If you know, Gawain, of the power this girdle possesses, you wouldn’t say no.”

‘“For the body which is bound within this green belt,
as long as it is buckled robustly about him,
will be safe against anyone who seeks to strike him,
and all the slyness on earth wouldn’t see him slain.”
The man mulled it over, and it entered his mind
it might just be the jewel for the jeopardy he faced…’ (Armitage, 1851-1856)

The one condition upon taking this green, life-saving girdle is not telling her husband. Gawain agrees, and kisses her. He hides the girdle away, and goes to confession so that if he dies on the morrow, he will be clean. Fully and frankly, the poet tells us, Gawain confesses his sins. 

This part always confuses me. The priest pronounces him clean. But did Gawain tell the priest of his lie of omission in keeping the girdle? Does it not count as a sin? The poet gives us no clear answers. 

And he and the Lord exchange winnings, and Gawain merrily feasts. He believes he has weathered the temptations of Bertilak’s castle without dishonoring his host and damaging his own reputation. Yet in the back of his mind, he cannot escape the recognition that he will face his doom the next day. Will he live? Will he die? Is the girdle truly magical? He has broken the rules of one game. Does it matter? Only tomorrow can tell.

If you have questions or thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can tweet at me or comment on Instagram, or even send me an email at oldbookswithgrace@gmail.com. If you’re enjoying this series, I’d really appreciate it if you shared, or subscribed, to help others find this series more easily.

A Beheading at a Feast: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt I

The beheading. Take a look at this image in the digitalized manuscript.

Today we dive into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! I’m so excited to journey through this wonderful fourteenth-century poem with you. On the last post, I discussed some of the background and context of the poem, so you can go check that out if you missed it. 

Welcome to what the poet calls Fitt I, the first part of the poem. And we are plunged into—Troy? Isn’t this poem set in England with King Arthur? From Simon Armitage’s translation:

Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the traitor who contrived such betrayal there
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth… (Armitage, 1-4)

This traitor, the poet writes, is Aeneas. The poet goes on to do some serious namedropping: post Troy, Aeneas’s ancestors go on to found Rome through Romulus, someone named Ticius builds Tuscany, Langobard builds Lombardy, and finally, Felix Brutus founds Britain in this mythology of civilization-building. What in the world are we doing here?

Our medieval poet would have heartily agreed with the 20th century Southern gothic novelist William Faulkner, whom I heartily hated as a youth: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As Faulkner’s characters are haunted by their past, so Arthur’s court, we understand before even meeting him or his round table, is haunted by its legacy and forebears. What is this legacy? Treachery and violence. Hm, rather ominous.

We begin every story, every life, with echoes of the old behind it. My culture likes to forget this. Americans do not wish to remember the haunted past, but our poet reminds us that we are never without it. It matters because it shapes how we see the world, how we make decisions, and the substance of our values. Though as we will see, Gawain and his friends of Arthur’s court, including Arthur himself, frame themselves as the pinnacle of chivalry, constantly striving for perfection as men and as knights, they have been born from betrayal. The poet won’t let us forget it. 

To get uncomfortably theological for a minute: this is another portrayal of the hard reality of original sin, the doctrine that we are born into sin. Medieval people had loads of theories on why this was, including some regrettably bonkers ones, like that sex itself transmitted sin. But I think this poet illustrates it better. We simply can’t escape, through our own good deeds or perfection, the evils of our forebears, whether those are literal or cultural ancestors. I must face, by the grace of God, the evils that my ancestors visited upon the earth, rather than pretend the damage is over and confined to that past. My ancestors, not that long ago, practiced slavery. My cultural forebears, until very recently, used asbestos and polluted freely. I as a person face the consequences of those intentional and unintentional sins today. So the treachery of the ancient past hangs over Gawain in his quest to be the consummate knight:

And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand. (Armitage, 16-19)

It’s Christmas at Camelot. Feasting, jousting, jokes, singing, and gifts abound around the Round Table. Queen Guinevere is radiant; King Arthur is young and strong. The names around the table are already renowned for their acts of daring. And among them is Sir Gawain.

The poet launches into a genre we are familiar with—at least if you read People Magazine. He spends a LOT of time describing the feast, from the clothes worn to the food consumed. He is showing how wonderfully stylish and up-to-date the court is—important for an obscure poet of the Northwest, not London, to show that he’s up to speed with the latest fashion in clothing and food. The Gawain-Poet is very fond of that move, and we will see it time and time again. He has a lot of fun with description. It’s probably the part of the poem least to our modern taste, but only because we don’t have the fourteenth-century sense of what is cool. It is like me describing to a current thirteen year-old the aesthetic of MySpace in 2004—slightly wasted.

But into the marvelous, elaborate description comes something from another world, with the impact of a volcanic eruption. The doors of Arthur’s Great Hall open suddenly, and in trots a massive warhorse, with an enormous knight astride it.

a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,
a hulk of a human from head to hips,
so long and thick in his loins and his limbs
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed	
		it seemed.
		Amazement seized their minds,
		no soul had ever seen
		a knight of such a kind—
		entirely emerald green. (Armitage, 136-150)

I have to give you a little dose of Middle English, because it’s just too wonderful:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enker grene.

Overall pure green! And moreover, unlike the portrayal in recent movie on this poem, this knight is handsome, broad of shoulder and slim of waist, sounding like a massive, graceful professional athlete. He’s not Shrek; he’s emerald-toned Lebron James. The poet goes into another of his long descriptive passages that reveal the elegance and coolness of the Green Knight’s raiment. His armor is impeccable, rich fur spills out of his cloak, gold edges brighten the green fabric. He wears no helmet, meaning that he’s not literally about to fight someone. Yet in one hand, he holds “the mother of all axes,” as Armitage memorably puts it, a giant, gleaming, green weapon. In the other, he holds a branch of holly, both appropriately festive and declaring his current lack of interest in killing someone.  

However, the Green Knight is rather rude. “Who is the governor of this gang?” he laughingly snarls into the faces of the startled knights. This question is more meant to offend then to discover—clearly he showed up at the Round Table and expects to find King Arthur. The guests sit in silent shock. All he wants, the Green Knight insists, is to play a game. If the knights of Arthur’s court are as worthy as he’s heard (and he notes they don’t look particularly impressive), then they will happily grant him this game. 

if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red-blooded enough 
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him a gift of this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.
I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts? (Armitage, 285-291)

In twelve months and a day, his game-playing partner will have to meet him for his side of the blow, announces the Knight. The hall is dead silent. Wouldn’t you be, if green Lebron challenged you to strike him and twinklingly announced he’ll strike you in return afterwards? Green and grinning, the Knight announces that he knew they were all cowards. 

The young, brash king leaps up in anger and says he’ll happily do it. But our Gawain intervenes, speaking for the first time. “It’s not fitting for a great king to respond to the challenge, let one of his lesser men do it instead,” gently argues Gawain as he talks Arthur down. 

What’s the big deal? It’s just a game, right? Why not let Arthur do it, or why not laugh the Green Knight out of the hall and refuse to play this psychotic game (warily and from a distance, of course)? But here we begin to touch on something that will run through this poem, in a vein to its heart: the question of honor, closely related to what the poet calls courtesy. 

For medieval knights, courtesy was far more than opening the door for a woman or saying please and thank you. It was part of the chivalric code of honor, part of knowing what was appropriate for a knight to say and do. From large issues (like when it was appropriate to kill someone) to small issues (conversation at the table), honor and courtesy ruled their behavior. It’s unfitting that Arthur answers this challenge when he has knights, lesser in importance, to do it for him. So Gawain steps up.

Arthur tells him to hit cleanly and then he won’t have to worry about the following blow, because the Green Knight will be dead. Bold assumption that he can die, Arthur, given that the man is green and seems a little out of the ordinary. Gawain introduces himself and takes the ax. The Green Knight bows, baring his neck. Gawain takes a mighty swing and—“The scharp of the schalk schindered the bones.” (424) What a bone-chilling, brilliant piece of poetry! “Scharp” is sharp, an adjectival noun that describes the axe blade, schalk is man, and schindered broke. But the cleverness comes not from the mere fact of alliteration—think of the swooshing noise that a blade makes as it whistles through the air, the shear as it encounters wind, then flesh, then bone. We can hear Gawain’s deadly stroke in those creepy “sh” sounds of the very line. But that’s the thing, his mammoth swing is not deadly at all.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair. (Armitage, 428-436)

What a vivid scene! The head literally rolls around the floor and the lords and ladies of the court kick at it. I’ve always wondered whether that was in arrogant mockery, or in horror, like kicking when you see a mouse, that a head was bouncing about on the rushes of Camelot. It doesn’t matter too much, because that head does not stay there. The massive, tree-trunk legs stride forward uncommanded, and the headless torso scoops and gropes for the head. He grabs his head by his own hair and swings gracefully back into the saddle. 

I just adore the creepy cleverness of this poet. For from then on, he refers to the body as “he” but the head as “it”:

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;
to the noblest at the table he turned the face
and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead… (Armitage, 444-446)

If I wasn’t worried about bursting your eardrums as you listen, I’d scream in delighted horror right now. Happy Halloween, everyone!

The ominous “it” reminds Gawain that he must get to the Green Chapel, to receive his just desserts in this terrifying little game, next New Year’s morning. The body with the dangling head gallops out of the hall, putting even Washington Irving’s headless horseman to shame, as the horse’s hooves strike the stone of the floor and bring forth fiery sparks. 

But the spirits of this group cannot be dampened on Christmas. After a moment of awkward silence, laughter and excited chatter fill the air again, and people feast and dance until dawn. The poet’s voice of the poem warns Gawain: you must not forget your appointment nor delay, no matter how overwhelming your dread.

I have one major, looming question about the Christmas game. Did Gawain have to behead the Knight? I can imagine an alternate world where Gawain nicks the Green Knight’s skin with the giant blade—a blow, and an answer to the challenge, but without the excessive violence. After all, the giant knight uses words like blow, barlay, strike, stroke. He never actually uses the specific language of beheading. Did Arthur’s advice to end it without fear of retribution unduly influence him towards more bloodshed, more violence? And of course the Green Knight implicitly condones Gawain’s choice by deliberately baring his neck. Gawain takes these suggestions and controls his fear, the fear of the return blow, with what he thinks ensures his safety: a blow so final that it makes a return impossible. He’s wrong about the finality of his beheading, of course!

But I want us to tuck this question away and to ask what it might mean. How lethal should this game be? Is it more like a duel to the death, a grim game in its own right, or more like twelve year-olds shooting each other with paintball guns? Does the game have imaginative flexibility, where that answer—the amount of violence—depends on the ear, the fear, the company, and the values of the person being challenged? I find it brilliant and fascinating that the poet gently links Gawain’s growing fear and the court’s challenged pride with a parallel, unnecessary increase in violence. We only see and ask these questions retrospectively. In the moment, Gawain feels like he has to behead him. Yet I think by leaving this space in intention, the Gawain-Poet means us to ask such questions. He’s a playful poet, one who asks his reader to remember, and to question. We the readers play our own game of interpretation.

Coming up in Fitt II: some super medieval fashion and a journey into the wild with our hero Gawain. Of course we will talk about those things, but we are also going to think hard about how our lives embody our values, or don’t, and how we handle that conflict. You can listen to the podcast of this text below:

A Lovely Brief Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

An illustration from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the British Library.

I’m happily back in my wheelhouse with this new series on the fantastical medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

I first want to address the elephant in the room. We all have limited time in our lives. So why read this (or any) medieval poem together, or listen to me discuss it? After all, there’s an endless amount of other things we could be reading or consuming, philosophy, theology, literature, the Bible, the latest work of literary beauty, or a comforting old friend of a novel. Let me make a case to you for Gawain.

I have now been studying medieval literature for a decade. And nothing, outside of Jesus and my family, has more opened up to me my humanity in both its created beauty, community, and profound limitation. The humanities are called the humanities in part because in reading works from a time alien to us, we learn our human selves locked in these fascinating, other human histories and moments. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a profoundly human poem, which is kind of hilarious given that it’s about mythical kings and queens, monsters, sorceresses, beheadings that don’t stick, a strip of cloth that possesses magical powers. But what makes discovering our shared humanity with all its gifts and curses alongside medieval folks more fun is all that magic stuff, and the absolutely stunning poetry which is its vehicle. Plus, it’s spooky season, and this poem is delightfully spooky without being scary. So let’s read Gawain and discover ourselves, consider the image of God and human imperfection, think hard about what we put value in, find friends and teachers who lived seven hundred years ago, and also have a lot of fun in that process. We’re all Gawain, as you shall see.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century. To put that in context, the poet writes at least two hundred years before Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet, at least one hundred and twenty-five years before Martin Luther ignites the Reformation with his theses. He is writing during a particularly calamitous and dramatic time in England. The church is divided over who the pope is in the great Papal Schism, England and France are constantly at war, oh and bubonic plague just killed a third of Europe in what we now call the Black Death. Ethical issues over war and violence? Corrupt secular and religious power? Living through a pandemic? This all sounds very relevant. We can perhaps barely begin to imagine what life looked like when a third of your friends and family had just died from a grotesque and painful illness. Yet none of this appears directly in the poem. It is set in the fantasy of the ancient past, the world of King Arthur and his knights.

It is New Year’s Day, and the court has gathered to feast. Arthur and Guinevere are in their youth, strong, beautiful, full of righteous conviction about what knighthood and virtue mean. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is the hot young thing of that hot young court. He’s known for his bravery, chivalry, courtesy, way with women. Into this dazzling setting strides a massive knight upon his horse. And from head to toe, he’s green. And he’s rather rude. Here we begin this strange little poem.

We all know about King Arthur today. The legend lives on. But in the fourteenth century, Arthur was even more wildly popular. Arthurian legends could be best compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, the comic and film behemoth. Within Marvel, there are multiple storylines, wildly varying foci and personalities even within the main characters, even different universes and outcomes, but it’s all understood to be part of the mythology of Marvel Comics. The tales of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Round Table were the fourteenth-century Marvel, with different storylines, styles, emphases, and characters, but all taking place within this commonly recognized England of the distant, legendary past. Also like Marvel: some of these poems and songs are powerful and well-crafted, and others are definitely more like cheesy B-movies.

Despite the poem’s incredible virtuosity, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was not a blockbuster “bestseller” of its day, like The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. While The Canterbury Tales survives today in about one hundred manuscripts from the medieval era, only one copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives, and it rests in precious solitude and solicitude in the British Library. This poem is older than the printing press, so it appears in a handwritten manuscript called Cotton Nero A.X. with three other poems—Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness—that scholars assume are by the same poet(For what it’s worth, Pearl might be my favorite poem in the entire world. I love it so much I named my eldest daughter Margaret, which means pearl. Sometime we will read it together in this space.) You may be able to see the manuscript if you go to visit London, peering in at the precious artifact in its climate-controlled box with bulletproof glass. But for those of us stuck in the States or elsewhere, you can look at the digitized manuscript if you’re curious.

You probably have noticed that I have yet to mention the poet’s name. That’s because we have no clue who wrote this. There are theories but nothing close to definitive. It’s likely that the poet was a cleric of some kind, because he had an education and knew Latin quite well. I do say he, though we don’t know for sure, because of the poems’ content and the high level of education evident in the poetry—sadly, women just did not have the same access to books and education that men did. I would love to get to Heaven and be wrong on that one. Some scholars believe that he had read the latest Italian poetry, like Boccaccio and Dante, and it influenced him. He was not a Londoner nor a Southerner. He lived in the Northwest of England, and he writes in a dialect from that area in Middle English. 

Middle English is what scholars call the English of the Middle Ages, and it looks and sounds very different from today’s English. This English already is fairly difficult for readers today to understand without some training and practice. But one can still struggle through some medieval writers like Julian of Norwich or Geoffrey Chaucer without a ton of experience, because the dialect of these writers was London or close to it, which is the linguistic ancestor of modern standard English. This poet’s Northern dialect makes his writing far more difficult. Today our regional differences in language have become so smoothed out by the dominance of radio and television. But imagine a world where it took days to get from town to town. Neighboring regions in England could sometimes barely understand one another. It’s like when I, a clueless Arizonan, went to Boston when I was twelve and stared blankly when a woman at a donut shop asked me for my order with her thick, incredible New England accent. She laughed at me and said, “You’re not from here!”

In a perfect world, you’d be able to pick up this poem and enjoy it by itself, but the language barrier makes it far too difficult. Here are lines 1998-2005:

Now neȝes the Nw Ȝere and the nyȝt passez,
The day dryuez to the dark, as Dryȝtyn biddez.
Bot wylde wyderez of the worlde wakned theroute;
Clowdes kesten kenly the colde to the erthe,
Wyth nyȝe innoghe of the north the naked to tene.
The snawe snittered ful snart, that snayped the wilde;
The werbelande wynde wapped fro the hyȝe
And drof vche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.
 

Pretty incomprehensible, right? If you’d like to hear this read aloud, it’s on the podcast. You may have noticed that strange character that looks like a three. It’s called a yogh, and it didn’t survive into modern English. These lines describe a particular moment: Gawain is waking up in bed on the morning he faces potential death, and the world outside, New Year’s Day, is shatteringly cold, snowblown, and unwelcoming. I’ll share a translation with you in a minute, but let’s sit with this wild, snapping, weather poetry for a moment. Did you note the repeating sounds in lines? “The snawe snittered ful snart,” is one of my favorite lines in this poem, with its “sn” repetation sounds like a horse snorting and pawing in the snow, like a man sniffing with drippy nose as snowflakes catch in his eyelashes. The entire poem is alliterative like this, to varying extents. Each line has a letter or sound that it repeats again and again, both at the starts of words and prominently in their middles. 

In English, alliterative poetry is a much older tradition than rhyming poetry. Rhyming poetry in English comes originally from French and Latin sources—languages with an abundance of end-rhymes in their words (as you may remember from high school Spanish or French classes). English doesn’t offer such wealth in rhyming. Instead, early English poets created rhythm and harnessed sound through alliteration, as in the famous poem Beowulf.

Here’s Simon Armitage’s translation of the same lines:

Now night passes and New Year draws nere,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
 But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man’s very nature,
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills,
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.

As with any poetry written in a different language, translations cannot fully reproduce the original. But Armitage’s, though not literal, gets very close to the sound and feel. He uses alliteration to great effect. If you’re wanting to follow along with the poem, be careful what translation you use—make sure it’s alliterative to get closer to that original poem. However, that’s not necessary at all. I’ll be working to make this poem accessible to you whether you’re reading or not, so I hope you’ll think with me about this medieval poem regardless.

For those who are going to read: I’d recommend either Armitage, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s as a fun second place. There are also free translations online if you’d like to follow along with ease. For those who are not going to read, welcome! I’m so excited you’re here to think with me and enjoy the Gawain-Poet.

We may never build a time machine that can take us back into the past. Old books are the closest thing we have. Poems like these are a precious gift. Not only is Gawain constantly beautiful and even funny at times, it’s a window back into a time so different from and yet so similar to our own. How are we special today? How are we not at all? How can we confront our hidden biases and beliefs about being in the world? How can we learn to live a virtuous life? How can we face our failures and our triumphs without letting either define us as creatures of God? These are the questions I hope to think about with you, led by our sneaky, anonymous poet-friend from depths of the fourteenth century. Come along with me, let’s enter King Arthur’s castle on New Year’s Day, sidling in behind the giant green knight on his enormous green horse. No one will notice us in his wake.

You can also listen to this series wherever you get your podcasts.

What’s Coming Up on Old Books With Grace…

Be sure to follow me on Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace, for the latest updates and fun little surprises

Happy fall, friends!

I’ve been on hiatus, getting my three kids back to school and working on some other projects. But Old Books With Grace will be returning soon, on September 29th, with new guests and conversations and two new series this fall.

We are kicking off the new school year with a conversation on Sept. 29th with Haley Stewart, of the blog Carrots for Michaelmas and the podcast Fountains of Carrots. Haley is a writer with a passion for her Catholic faith, literature, and being with her family. She is finishing up a book about Jane Austen and the good life–and that’s what we are going to chat about! I can’t wait to continue some of the conversations started through the Summer Old Book Club’s reading of Persuasion this summer (you can catch up on those on YouTube on the Old Books With Grace channel or on the podcast platform of your choice).

Do you like contemplation on human nature, the complex clash of values we all face in our decision-making, and a hefty does of magic in your literature? I am super excited about the fall series that will begin on Oct. 6th on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s just the poem to shiver a bit, think a lot, and curl up with a cup of tea when it’s beginning to get a little crisp outside. A knight, green from head to toe, shows up unexpectedly at the great Christmas feast of King Arthur. Gawain, the young knight, beheads him at the Green Knight’s challenge. The consequences are complicated and cast into question Gawain’s own values and beliefs. It’s spooky, mysterious, challenging, swashbuckling, and provocative. I love it. The recent movie, The Green Knight, is based on this fourteenth-century masterpiece. I thought you might to think with me about the original, real deal poem. It’s in a fairly inaccessible fourteenth-century dialect of English, but thankfully, there are loads of thoughtful translations that you can order if you want to follow along. The renowned poet Simon Armitage has recently done a beautiful copy illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, if you like your books to be as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. There’s also J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic translation. I have an older copy of this one, and the cover is truly hideous, so you can spring for the opposite of Armitage! I will likely use the Armitage alongside the original Middle English in the series, but you can go for whatever translation you’re interested in.

Find the hideous Tolkien and the beautiful Armitage. I’m a little embarrassed at how many copies of this poem I own.

Be sure to sign up for email updates so that you don’t miss a post in this series! Or subscribe on the podcast. I can’t wait to get back into my roots: medieval poetry and theology, and I hope you join me.

Read an Old Book During Advent

Reading by the Christmas tree

Many of us are facing a Christmas season that looks unlike any other. This difference can feel very painful in a time of year that emphasizes tradition so much. Perhaps you even have more time, without all the Christmas shopping and parties. Start a new tradition this year: read an old book during Advent.

Every year at Christmastime, I read an old book that has nothing to do with Christmas: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I know others who do something similar: I have a good friend who reads Augustine’s Confessions every year. I got into this habit probably ten years ago, and I have really loved having my own private tradition. I settle down next to the Christmas tree after my kids are in bed, pour myself a glass of wine or make some tea, and read. 

I encourage you to pick a book this year in order to create your own Christmas tradition. It can be one you’ve already read, or a new one. Personally, I’d recommend one that you’ve already read and remember loving. You might not be a book re-reader, but revisiting something read before and loved well can be very soothing. Or you could choose something you’ve always wanted to read and never tackled. If that’s the case, it may take you a few tries to find something that you want to read again every Christmas. 

Obviously, you could choose anything you want. But here’s a few qualities that I think really make this a special tradition. Consider selecting…

An old book (at least a century old). Old books take us outside of ourselves and outside of our current, dominant ideas and concerns. They concern themes like love and transformation—things  we still care about today—but explore them in their own terms and contexts. Rereading old books brings these themes to life in new (or rather, old) ways in our lives. They can speak truths to us in unexpected ways, or tell us about our histories and pasts. There’s something especially lovely about reading an old book in Advent, a season where old and new come together in strange and special ways.

OR a book you loved in your childhood. If you’re not particularly excited about the idea of an old book but like the idea of rereading a book each year during Advent, a great alternative is to select a book you read when you were young. Perhaps you loved Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings. I think it can do some similar things to reading an old book—removing you from your current situation, making space for new questions that you wouldn’t necessarily ask now, revealing unexpected sources of joy and deep thought. Bonus points if it’s both old and a book you read as a kid (Anne of Green Gables, anyone?)!

A book with themes of redemption, transformation, growth, love, forgiveness, hope, etc. You can certainly choose a book with an explicitly Christmas setting, like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Henry Van Dyke’s The Other Wise Man (both great choices!)But I think there’s something really fun about picking a book not normally associated with Christmas, but with “Christmas-y” themes like those I’ve listed above. These themes outside of the Christmas context can encourage you to consider those ideas in a different light. It makes for a rich, thoughtful Advent season.

A book that suits your life right now. Not much of a reader, or have young children that keep you from reading often? Take your own commitments and abilities into account. Choose a short book; don’t spring for the heavy-duty brick. There’s no inherent value in extra length! Or listen to a book on tape. This practice shouldn’t be too aspirational, it is more about creating moments of celebratory quiet, meditation, peace, and joy during Advent. Set yourself up well.

Some potential ideas:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke
  • Phantastes by George MacDonald (any of George MacDonald’s books would be a great choice!)

Many of these fit my personal taste of what I like to read at Christmas—social or domestic stories about change and relationships. You may prefer some other style of reading for your reading tradition. The glory is that if you do this tradition, it’s ultimately your own to shape. So you can choose whatever book you really love! If you like poetry, you could also pick a couple of poems, especially if you want something even shorter.

Do you have a book you read every year at a particular time? I would love to hear if you end up doing this tradition, too.

Week 8: Chapters 66-86 of Julian of Norwich’s Long Text

Here we all are together, at the very end of Julian’s showings. Wow! Thank you so much for traveling through this amazing book with me. 

I find this ending so interesting. Let’s do a short recap.

Julian recounts one last showing: her image of Jesus dwelling in our souls, as a king in a great city. Our souls will never be at rest until Christ endlessly dwells in them. Then, she returns, as it were, to waking life. But this ending of the revelations is not peaceful at all for her. The mental and physical agony of her sickness returns. She is terrified by sights and smells of the devil. And, most troubling to her in the long run, she denies the truth of her showings. She tells a priest that she thinks that she “raved” throughout the night. He, on the other hand, believes that her showings were real and sent by God. From this mistrust, Julian moves into a meditation on what she understands as the greatest dangers to receiving God’s love, for those who believe in him: impatience and despair. She then discusses the relationship between love and the different types of fear. Contrary to how we often think, she sees what she calls “reverent” fear and love as connected. Julian further explains why it is important to us to know not only God’s love, but also our own sin and recognize it. She sees our suffering in this life as penance. And she writes that this entire book is meant for us to learn how to know ourselves and know God. 

I am going to focus on three aspects of this ending, which is so rich that I cannot begin to hope that I will cover it well! The first is the temptation of the devil and Julian’s lack of belief in her own visions. The second is this idea of living, as suffering, as penance. And the third is the very, very end of the book, some of the most stunning and mysterious English ever written.

Julian undergoes two temptations and one failure after the majority of her showings. The first temptation is her self-doubt. She starts to think that she has been raving rather than having true spiritual experiences. This confession of doubt is remarkable, in my opinion. It acknowledges the reality of coming back down to Earth. Life does not primarily consist of challenging and at times ecstatic visionary moments. Discernment of truth is very difficult. Julian here practices humility as she confesses her doubts and shares them with us.

And, of course, her encounter with the Devil. Compared to some medieval religious writing and visionary materials, it’s pretty amazing that we made it this far without running into Old Scratch. The idea that the Devil, or demons, tempted you on your deathbed was widely accepted in the Middle Ages. And it is no surprise that Julian experiences this unwelcome presence while she is also struggling in the aftermath of her showings. Julian undergoes spiritual struggles, both inward and outward, while she begins the twofold challenging work of healing from her illness and interpreting what has been given to her. 

Idea number two: that penance is unnecessary, because our whole life is penitential. Julian mentions this suffering-as-penance-as-living idea in several places, but a good place to go is Ch. 81: 

For he regards us so tenderly that he sees all our life here to be penance; for the substantial and natural longing in us for him is a lasting penance in us, and he makes this penance in us, and mercifully he helps us to bear it. For his love makes him long, his wisdom and his truth and his justice make him to suffer us here, and he wants to see this in us in this way. For this is our loving penance, and the greatest, as I see it, for this penance never leaves us until the time when we are fulfilled, when we shall have him for our reward. 

Chapter 81

We’ve talked about penance before, and the medieval penitential system. For Julian to say that our living itself is penance is pretty wild. She is effectively arguing that no one need sit in the stocks, buy indulgences, or take a pilgrimage to Rome or Canterbury to punish or purge themselves of their sins. She takes a pretty radical stance in her contemporary church. Of course, punishment is too simple of a definition for penance, though we often align them. When Julian talks about our life as penance, she does not mean that our life is a punishment for our sins, as we often think of penance. The great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, can give us a much more helpful perspective on penance. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy and lived about 80 years before Julian was writing these words. Dante’s famous poem is a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and then Heaven. Purgatory stemmed from the medieval doctrine that we need purgation—or penance—from our sinful, earthly life before we are fit to meet our maker face-to-face. While the damned went to Hell, the saved went to Purgatory on their way to Heaven. If you hadn’t done enough penance on Earth for your sins (true for almost everyone except the very greatest saints, medieval people thought) then you would go to Purgatory. So the ideas of penance and purgatory are linked in the medieval imagination. 

Some theologians and writers portrayed purgatory as a place of torment: a sort of minor league Hell staffed by angels only slightly less cruel than demons. But Dante portrays it differently. Purgatory is not punitive; Purgatory consists of discipline and trial, making someone fit for the kingdom of God. Dante’s Purgatory is a refiner’s fire, cleansing impurities in an act of love and education. People in Dante’s Purgatory are assigned to tasks based on the sins that they struggled with most in their lives (not an unusual idea). For example, when Dante enters the part of purgatory where the prideful struggle to learn humility, he encounters giant portrayals of humble people. Mary and other saints line the sides of a narrow path and are imprinted on the path itself. The prideful walk, saddled with onerous burdens, along this difficult way. They are so heavily burdened that they cannot look up, though they can see the saints who practiced humility. They are learning, literally, how to not think so highly of themselves, to understand themselves as created, needy, and limited. When they reach the end of this journey, they find themselves lighter, able to look up towards the heavens, not bowed towards the ground. It was their pride that kept their necks and backs curving inevitably towards the ground. But their struggles and their viewing of the humble on the path itself reminded them of who they were, and in whose footsteps they followed. Dante believes in the reality of purgatory, but his depiction of purgatory is also a metaphor for how growing out of our sin works. Freed by the grace of God from our sins, it is still not easy for us to act with love. For most people, we still struggle with particular temptations, even when we know we are freed by Jesus from them through his love.  We practice goodness, reclaiming it, cultivating new ways of being in the world. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, virtues are, by their very definition, difficult. To be patient during anger goes against the grain; to be gracious while judged is very hard.

Or think of it this way: one of Julian’s favorite words for God is courteous, which was a central concept for the people of the Middle Ages. We now associate courteousness with things like table manners, which was true for medieval folks as well, but it was also so much more. Courtesy demanded appropriate behavior, appropriate attire—it was all about respect for one another. You wouldn’t send someone in rags in front of their king, they would put on their best clothing possible (even if it was their best rags) to show their respect for their king. Julian’s Jesus is homely, which means he loves us and accepts us in our rags, but he is also courteous, which Julian does not want us to forget. Our struggles here on Earth equip us to learn sacrificial love, to love like Jesus. They prepare us to face our courteous king. Like Dante’s Purgatory, Julian’s idea of penance in living is a gift of learning to love, though a difficult gift, one that we have trouble understanding.

To me, this is one of Julian’s most hopeful and most important ideas. It means that none of our lives are wasted. Last week, I quoted one of my favorite Julian lines: “For his love, he suffers us never to lose time.” Julian believes that every dreary day spent in quarantine, every struggle with temptation, every loss and suffering, will not be wasted because of the love of God. Thus, her repeated usage of the word “profitable”: “in this love he has made all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting” (chapter 86). More than anything, Julian wants us to know that in the midst of all the suffering here on Earth, the Lord’s love is unceasing and all-powerful. Nothing is beyond God’s work of redemption, from the stupid, to the mundane, to the terrible. In many cases in our lives, it is hard, almost impossible, to hope for this redemption.

Perhaps you are in the nights between the crucifixion and Easter, the terrible dark night of the soul, Holy Saturday, where the whole world seems dead or meaningless. Hope is a big ask. I’ve had moments where my life looks like it is yawning at me out of an abyss of repetition and weariness. But the ending of this Book charges us with a practice of hope. Julian’s vision remains fundamentally incomplete, God’s big task not yet finished.

If you wish, read this ending out loud to yourself very slowly: 

This book is begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as I see it… And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end. So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning. 

Chapter 86

Everything Julian has witnessed in wonder distills into the simplicity that God’s love is the meaning. This simplicity does not equate easiness. Neither should it create a Hallmark card mantra that masks the bleeding, painful wounds of living. As Julian very well knows, love does not eliminate pain, as loving itself in our world so often entails suffering (see week 3 of this series for more!). It’s not like everything is just ok and easy now, or like God is saying to us, get over it, it’ll be fine in the end anyway.

It does mean that we are not like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, who finally peeks behind the curtain of the great Wizard only to find a small, insignificant man at the controls of a machine. It is a promise of hope: that in all the twists and turns of our lives there is Love in all unexpected places. No matter how many corners you round, how often you must backtrack, or when you reach places that seem like dead ends, Love is there too. The more we grow in this promise, the more we learn to see and discern it. 

It reminds me of a part in one of my favorite prayers, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer that is also a promise and a strong shield of hope:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I hope you have enjoyed this time with Julian. Thank you for exploring her words with me this fall. Merry Christmas!

Week Seven: Chapters 58-65 of Julian of Norwich’s Long Text

Mosaic in Jerusalem

Welcome to my favorite part of Julian of Norwich’s Long Text, her famous similitude of Christ as a Mother and Christians as his children. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen in the gospels. But we are particularly accustomed, by the language and imagery of the Bible, to think of God as a Father. Humans are creatures of metaphor. these kinds of images are deeply impactful to how we conceptualize abstract, difficult ideas, like the character and action of God. When we think of God as a Father, as Jesus teaches in the New Testament, the language of fatherhood suggests certain characteristics of God. When we think of a good father, we think of a dad who loves his kids, who protects them, who encourages them, and who often provides for their material wellbeing. The biblical language of fatherhood is beautiful and enlightening. What can we learn about the character of Jesus through Julian’s depiction of Jesus our Mother?

Let’s turn to how Julian describes Jesus’s mothering. You can look at this passage in chapter 60:

Our great God, the supreme wisdom of all things, arrayed and prepared himself in this humble place [Mary’s womb], all ready in our poor flesh, himself to do the service and the office of motherhood in everything. The mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest. No one ever might or could perform this office fully, except only him. 

Chapter 60

Christ’s motherhood is specifically tied to the Incarnation. As he takes on flesh, he takes on the office of motherhood, an office, Julian says, that only he could do to the full. So it is not that motherhood on earth, our own mothers that we can immediately call into our minds, are models to help us understand Christ’s mothering. It is that Christ’s mothering is the original and only truly full mothering, childbearing and child raising, that good moms on earth provide a very small and distant echo of, the true “office” of mothering. 

If you’re a dad or if you have had a great dad, you may hesitate, even bristle a bit at Julian’s words of motherhood as nearest and most natural and loving. Let’s stop to consider the historical implications of fathering and mothering. In the fourteenth century, fathers are associated with paternal love, but not the day-to-day task of caring intimately for a child’s physical and emotional needs. Though I’m sure there were exceptions to the rule, most fathers were not changing diapers, dressing their children, being with them all day, feeding them, etc. Think also of the incredibly high mortality rate of childbirth: giving birth was risking one’s life to bring in a new life (as it still is for some today). Motherhood entailed and still entails biological, physical demands on women, who are the ones giving birth and doing the arduous labor of breastfeeding. In chapter 60, Julian focuses on these aspects of motherhood when describing Jesus’s mothering:

But our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless love, blessed may he be. So he carries us within him in love and travail, until the full time when he wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and most cruel pains that ever were or will be, and at the last he died. And when he had finished, and had borne us so for bliss, still all this could not satisfy his wonderful love. And he revealed this in these great surpassing words of love: If I could suffer more, I would suffer more. He could not die any more, but he did not want to cease working; therefore he must needs nourish us, for the precious love of motherhood has made him our debtor.

Chapter 60

Jesus is pregnant with his children, the church, sustaining them within himself. Then, he travails, an old word for labors, and this labor is filled with the most pain that anyone can imagine. Julian here draws together the passion and Christ as the laboring mother. On the cross, Jesus painfully births us into eternal life and dies. But even the passion itself, even birth itself, does not adequately testify to or fully satisfy his love. Christ tells her, “If I was able to suffer more, I would.” He has pursued suffering down to its final drop in order to bring us to life, and though he cannot die again, he will never stop in the labor of parenting.

The last phrase in the quote is striking: It is necessary, fitting, natural, for him to feed us, for the dear love of motherhood has made him debtor to us. This strong language—Christ being debtor to us—might initially make us uncomfortable or confused. We are more familiar with the language of the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to forgive us our debts. But here Julian draws again upon the biology and physicality of motherhood in order to express something essential about who Jesus is and how he loves his children. Humans are not the kinds of animals who give birth and then let their offspring raise themselves. We are hardwired to raise our children ourselves, even to raise other people’s biological children, who have needed it in varying circumstances. We become debtors to our children, desiring AND obligated to raise them both by our often surprisingly overwhelming love for these new and helpless little creatures, our bringing them into the world, as well as biologically. 

Scientifically we now talk about bonding and know about the chemicals and hormones that allow, especially after childbirth, to build foundations of human connection that last long after infancy. Mothers are awash in hormones after birth, causing their milk to come in and their fierce love for their baby to kickstart a life filled with new deprivations, like waking in the middle of the night many times or patiently soothing fussy babies time after time. I remember being so frustrated after having my oldest daughter, because my sleep fundamentally changed. I had always been a light sleeper, but when my first child was born, I started waking up if her breathing got quieter, or if she had suddenly made one of those tiny infant noises of snuffling that new babies do so often. I would get up and hold my hand over her mouth to check if she was still breathing. In doing so, I have only followed the pattern of millions of other mothers and often begrudgingly, because I was almost always upset that I had woken up, calculating immediately the slim amount of sleeping time left until I would have to nurse again. Julian had no clue about what we know about hormones. But she would’ve known that change in awareness, the waking up and holding your hand over your baby’s head.

Julian understands Christ’s love through this prism of the office of motherhood. It is not that Jesus has changed after childbirth and pregnancy, as women do. But Julian portrays this particular drive of mothers to protect, feed, and raise their children as a good way to understand an inherent, essential attribute of Jesus. Christ’s love for his children constitutes his very being. It is his nature. It is hardwired. And unlike me, the earthly mother frustrated at 2 am knowing I’m going to have to be up at 3am, Christ tells Julian, if I might suffer more for you, I would. This Jesus feeds his children with his very own flesh, which Julian compares to breastfeeding. Think, too, of the difference between Julian’s day and today. No Walgreens to run and grab formula if you were in a tight spot, no pumps to quickly generate milk, no freezers to stash it in. If you were the mother, your very presence was the sole lifeblood of your child (unless you were wealthy enough to hire a wet nurse). Fathers can come and go for days at a time, and did often; and I’m not talking about skipping out, I’m talking about very loving fathers going about the daily business of life. Mothers could not. Julian wants her readers to recognize a God, already weakening by taking on flesh, willingly becoming our debtor because he bears us to his love. Christ’s love is like a mother’s because his food is everything to his children; and he will not leave them—more than that, it is not in his nature to do so.

I also want to note that these physical mothering metaphors about Jesus do something else important in our knowledge of who God is, something we may overlook now because we live in a more equitable society than Julian did. We all theoretically know that God is beyond gender, but we so often use masculine language to describe him metaphorically that we naturally think of God as far more male than female. In the Middle Ages, this masculine emphasis was part of an important and church-approved sanction of widespread misogyny. Eve ate the apple, therefore women are inherently more sinful than men. Scientifically, women’s bodily functions are disgusting and lower than the noble, non-opening up and fluctuating bodies of men. Whole books were written about these things; large systems of theology predicated upon them. Julian’s adoption of the physical aspects of motherhood is a daring pushback and challenge to misogyny often embedded in official church teaching. It speaks to God’s character as the best of male and female.

***

Equally important in this passage, though I have focused on Christ as a Mother, is the role of the child. Julian puts her reader and herself in the position of the child. Julian returns to one particular image over and over, which is the child falling down and running or crying out to be comforted by the mother. She encourages us, when we fall, either through difficult circumstances and pain, or through our faults and errors, to “use the condition of a child.” Children do not hesitate to cry out for help when they fall; their immediate impulse is to look for their mom or dad when they are hurting. Adults, on the other hand, often hide themselves away in their pain, especially when the pain reveals their weakness, their limits, or their own mistakes. Julian believes that we are all fundamentally children, in our understanding of the world before we die, and that in our troubles we must, like wounded kids, run to our Mother Jesus for comfort. There’s a lot more I could say about this passage (it is the subject of a chapter in my dissertation!) but this post is already long! I will be talking about this a little bit in my advent lecture, so you can email me for the link if you’re interested in hearing more. If you want to think more about what Julian writes concerning our status as children, check out chapters 61-63 particularly.

I want to end with a quote that has encouraged me, both during my doctoral studies and now, during the pandemic and my own experimental pathways of my career. 

For at that time, he revealed our frailty and our falling, our trespasses and our humiliations, our chagrins and our burdens and all our woe, as much as it seemed to me could happen in this life. And with that he revealed his blessed power, his blessed wisdom, his blessed love, and that he protects us at such times, as tenderly and as sweetly, to his glory, and as surely to our salvation as he does when we are in the greatest consolation and comfort, and raises us to this in spirit on high in heaven, and turns everything to his glory and to our joy without end. For his precious love, he never allows us to lose time; and all this is of the natural goodness of God by the operation of grace. 

Chapter 62

I really love the last line: “For his precious love, he never allows us to lose time.” This speaks to me as a parent and as a writer and scholar. As a parent, I have to remind my children of certain things every day. My three year-old has been on a spree of hitting his sister lately and no matter how many time outs we give him, inevitably, he will hit her again the next day… or the next minute. Sometimes it feels like we are stuck in the classic Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, versions of the exact same day happening over and over and over, especially during the pandemic when we are pretty much confined to our house. After a very long day of parenting, I often lose hours on my phone, scrolling through the mindless space of social media. Then I feel stricken by guilt and like I have wasted my time. Or, I will spend so much time on a piece of writing, and then feel upset at its conclusion. It somehow never ends up being all that I had hoped for in its process. On a more intense note, I poured years of my life into a career path and vocation that I truly loved, only to find no jobs on the other end. I have wrestled with grief and discouragement and humiliation as the academic career path seems to be slipping away. Were the anxiety and the sleepless nights and the distraction from my children and the hours and hours and hours of thought and work all in vain? On my good days, I know they were not, and I value them. But on my bad days, it feels pretty sad. Perhaps you can relate in your own unique circumstances.

Julian’s words are a great comfort to me. From the stupid to the agonizing, each drop of time is redeemable and shall be redeemed. I do not know how. I do not want to be glib. I (nor Julian) have no desire to smooth over the sharp, variable, excruciating edges of people’s suffering. But I’m thankful for the encouragement.

Week Six: Chapters 51-57 of Julian of Norwich’s Long Text

First things first: in this section, Julian sees and interprets a “full misty” (very mysterious, even fuzzy) showing about a Lord and a Servant. I think this section of reading is the toughest part of A Revelation of Love. In classes I’ve taken in graduate school, we’ve spent two weeks on chapters 51 and 52 alone! And, it should be noted, this whole section does not appear in her earlier version of her book of showings (remember, there’s an earlier version of this work—we are reading her updated and revised edition!). Therefore, we know that this is one of the parts that she meditated upon for literal decades before writing it down. So prepare yourself for some brainwork in this passage. It’s ok if you just don’t get it. Honestly, I find it incredibly challenging and I have read this passage many, many times. It is also appropriate here to stop and remind ourselves of how to read old and difficult literature for a minute. 

I began this blog with a quote from C.S. Lewis that is worth remembering for a minute. Lewis argues that old books speak to us in all their errors and truths and help us to see errors and truth about our own time and place. Let’s take Lewis’s challenge anew and let this difficult passage speak to us out of its own time and place. It can be very easy when reading something theologically and historically challenging like this work to quickly jump to YES I AGREE WITH THIS or NO I DO NOT AGREE, this is bad or outdated or false! It is always important to read with the end goal of truth in mind, but let the writing speak to you on its own terms and open yourself up to be challenged by it. How can Julian’s “full misty showing” of a Lord and Servant, speak to us?

***

The difficult showing stems out of her urgent, almost despairing question: how God looks on us in our sin. What does it mean that we are sinners and yet God does not blame? Keep this question in mind. Also important: the vision is “shown doubly” to Julian; meaning both that she sees it twice, once bodily and once spiritually, and that she interprets multiple meanings therein. So let’s hold these ideas close as we think about this passage. 

Julian first sees a Lord, sitting in state. A servant looks on, ready to do his Lord’s will. The Lord sends him off. The servant runs at great speed, desiring to do his Lord’s will. The servant falls into a pit, a “slade” as Julian calls it, and suffers great pain in his fall. He becomes bruised and clumsy, weak in both reason and body, blind and forgetful of love, lonely, and unable to raise himself from the pit. Julian notes that in his woundedness, he pays heed to his own feelings and is unable to look on the Lord, focusing instead intently on his distress. He meekly suffers this woe; extra strangely, the only cause of his falling was “his good will and great desire” (chapter 51). The Lord looks on him “with double aspect”: meekly and mildly with great compassion for the servant’s pain, and with rejoicing as he contemplates the grace of gift he will give his servant. The Lord will reward his servant in his pain for his desire to serve. This servant is Adam, and his fall is The Fall. This is one interpretation of the vision.

One of the more provocative parts of this vision is that Adam’s fall does not come from a willful act of disobedience in Julian’s sight. The servant desires to do his Lord’s will all along, and the greater part of his suffering comes from his bruising and forgetfulness of the Lord’s presence as he lays in the pit of his fall. Theologian friends, any thoughts? I’ve heard that this reading of the fall is closer to the Greek Orthodox tradition of understanding sin, but haven’t looked into it myself. This willingness is also part of the doubleness of Julian’s vision—as we will discuss below—part of the aspect of Jesus.

In twenty years and more of meditation, Julian tells us she tried to carefully look at every single detail of her showing. She focuses on the limitations of Adam’s knowledge, and thereby our knowledge, in our suffering. She sees that pain blames and publishes, and the Lord comforts, longing to bring us to be with him. Moreover, she sees that the Servant, strangely, has the same amount of love for the Lord as the Lord has for him, and she begins to wonder where the Servant came from. She realizes that the Servant is Adam—all humanity—but also the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son. While Adam fell from life into death, the Son fell with Adam, into the womb of Mary, and as she writes, “that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell” (chapter 51). Jesus’s sojourn in the pit is his Incarnation, his Passion and suffering bodily, and his journey into Hell and Resurrection. Julian ends with the change in the Servant’s clothing. From rags he has now become richly clothed with a precious crown on his head, not standing on the left like a laborer, but sitting on the Lord’s right hand in peace. From this showing Julian concludes that we are so much more closely intertwined with Christ, even in our will, than we know. Also, fascinatingly, she does not abandon the language of blame. Chapter 52 ends: “And in this our good Lord showed not only that we are excused, but also the honorable nobility to which he will bring us, turning all our blame into endless honor.” 

There’s a ton here to digest. But I want to focus on the doubleness of this showing as a helpful clue for us. Julian sees this vision in multiple ways: the Servant as Adam, as all of us in our fall, and as Christ. As humans, our lives are bound and structured by time. We experience the fall and the Incarnation, both in historical time and in the narratives we tell, in separate moments. Adam fell earlier than the Word became flesh, as we experience history. We read it this way and experience life as a succession of moments, reacting to each prior moment. God, outside of the constraints of time, does not exist in this way.

Julian’s showing blasts this experience of time away to briefly and wondrously consider the relationship between the fall and the incarnation without the mediation of human lived time. Adam falls into sin; the Second Person of the Trinity falls into Mary’s womb, the weakness and pain of the body, and ultimately the crucifixion. The flesh is never without the Incarnation. This inseparability is how she is able to argue that God bears us no blame, because his excusing of our sin is simultaneous to the sin itself. God is not reactive to us in that his loving actions are dependent on our feeble workings. His love is without beginning, and exists outside of time. We are held so much more closely in God’s love and his gift of life than we realize. All her talk on the soul after the Lord and Servant showing is meant to emphasize this extreme closeness of our soul to God.

Chapters 52-57 are basically an extended meditation on this inseparability between our soul and God. She even says that there is a part of our soul eternally held in God that has never consented to sin! It’s easy for us to argue that Julian perhaps dismisses or downgrades sin here (though I personally would disagree, as she vehemently argues for our need to hate it and recognize its deadly consequences in our actions and pain). It’s simple to read Julian as a proto-liberal Protestant who simply downgrades sin or the consequences of individual action and will. I have seen many a happy literary critic and eager divinity school student do this very reading. It makes sense. Today we don’t really talk about sin all that much. Julian strikes us as perhaps less revolutionary, or more close to the edge of bland modernity, than she should. Let’s imagine ourselves as medieval parishioners during Lent 650 years ago. 

Recall, from earlier sections, the important sacrament of penance. Penance in the medieval church was a different ballgame than penance in the Roman Catholic Church today. Let’s review the steps of penance, widely known to medieval Christians: contrition, or regret for your sins, confession to your parish priest, absolution, and satisfaction, or restitution. Pick your sin: maybe you committed the sin of wrath by quarreling with a neighbor, or lust by sleeping with someone outside of marriage, or greed by habitually cheating your lord out of contributing the amount of grain you owe from your little plot you lease from him. You mentally recognize and repent of the sin, either before or during confessing it to your parish priest. Then, your parish priest tells you that you are absolved, that your specific sin is forgiven. But you don’t just walk away, feeling relieved and hoping no one overheard you confess. The priest then assigns you a task for restitution, depending on the sin itself: repaying the person you stole from, apologizing and giving a kiss of peace to the friend with whom you fought, taking a pilgrimage to a nearby shrine in repentance of your adultery. This is one of the reasons that so many avoided sharing their sins. But if you didn’t share it, you risked worse, according to the doctrines of the medieval church.

Sin had more than just its obvious consequences of hardening hearts. Common medieval teaching stated that if you did not complete a full confession, you were in direct danger of Hell if you had committed a mortal sin. You were barred from taking the Eucharist. If you did take it knowingly or unknowingly and in your unworthiness, you would be punished by hellfire or, best case scenario, a longer time in purgatory. These consequences led to other attitudes toward sin: many medieval people were caught between the public shame of exposure, and even more so, the terror of not giving a true confession and not receiving absolution. On the opposite end, cautionary tales are told by medieval preachers of those who thought they could live as they pleased and just delay their confessions until the end of their lives, at which point they would receive absolution and die well. Those sinners ended up in Hell in these examples in numerous sermons of the time. Julian notes both of these temptations in thinking about sin; she labels them despair and recklessness, and considers them as the two most dangerous temptations to sin or, as she calls it, unknowing of God’s love. 

Interestingly, Julian feels that it is our attitude towards and understanding of our sins, not necessarily the sin itself, that is most dangerous and threatening to our relationship with the Lord. In other words, God’s good work is not ultimately impeded by our sin. Sin is inevitable. God’s love is eternal. He can handle it. Our sin is technically blameworthy—we only know this because we live in time and in order to live well and have healthy relationships, we must learn to recognize our errors and our weakness in our living and lack of knowledge. In the pit initially, when she is only seeing the “Adam” version of the servant, the servant looks only onto himself, and has forgotten who he is.

Julian argues that there are two “beholdings” of ourselves, two ways to understand our sin and relationship with God: the “beholding of man” and the “beholding of God.” It properly belongs to us to “meekly accuse ourselves,” to know and acknowledge our need for God and our continual sinning through blindness; it properly belongs to God to excuse us and love us endlessly. Julian does not dismiss the importance of confession, in fact, she reinforces it. It belongs to us to know ourselves in our weakness. It belongs to us even more to love God. However, it belongs even more to God to love and know us fully, because we are “enclosed in him” as a result of both creation and incarnation. “For before he made us he loved us”… writes Julian in chapter 53. We are “known and loved without beginning,” that is to say, we aren’t eternal but created, but the love God holds us in is eternal (chapter 55).

The showing of the Lord and Servant is meant to help her hold together (not fully explain) how “sin is fitting” and “all shall be well.” Julian begins to understand that there was not ever a moment when Jesus was not with us in the pit, closer than our own pain or sin itself. 

Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son

***

If you’re still struggling to understand and/or follow some of the complex concepts in this passage, consider it a gloss on chapter two of Philippians in the New Testament. The Suffering Servant of Philippians Two is well-known by many readers of the Bible, but I thought I’d present it to you in Middle English to help make it fresh again and highlight the parallels between Julian’s words and this passage more strongly.

Therefore if any comfort is in Christ, if any solace of charity, if any fellowship of Spirit, if any inwardness of mercy doing, fill ye my joy, that ye understand the same thing, and have the same charity, of one will, and feel the same thing; nothing by strife, neither by vain glory, but in meekness, deeming each other to be higher than himself; not beholding each by himself what things be his own, but those things that be of other men. And feel ye this thing in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; which when he was in the form of God, deemed not raven, that himself were even to God; but he meeked himself, taking the form of a servant, and was made into the likeness of men, and in habit was found as a man. He meeked himself, and was made obedient to the death, yea, to the death of the cross. For which thing God enhanced him, and gave to him a name that is above all name; that in the name of Jesus each knee be bowed, of heavenly things, [and] of earthly things, and of hell’s; and each tongue acknowledge, that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my most dear-worthy brethren, as evermore ye have obeyed, not in my presence only, but much more now in mine absence, work ye with dread and trembling your health. For it is God that worketh in you, both to will, and to perform, for good will.

Philippians 2:1-13, in the so-called “Wycliffe Translation,” available on BibleGateway.com

There’s a lot here to mull over! If anything stands out to you, I would love to hear about it. 

Two parallels with Julian’s text particularly challenge me. Julian repeatedly mentions a reward for the servant’s sufferings. I don’t know how you feel about this, but I know that it makes me uncomfortable, as it makes suffering seem transactional. Julian, unlike me, is deeply encouraged by the thought of future reward. Philippians Two also considers the reward, or in Middle English “enhancing” of Jesus. If I am following my own advice about reading old books, my strong reaction makes me pause to meditate further why I feel so uncomfortable about this way of thinking about suffering. 

The second is the very end, which I tend to skip when I read in Modern English: working out your own faith—and then knowing that it is actually God that “worketh in you” both to will and to act. Julian’s Lord and Servant probes this simultaneous work through its vision of both Adam and Christ in the Fall. I’m still thinking about this, as well. 

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on this tricky section, either through the Contact page on the menu above or through the comment section. Next week, we will cover my absolute favorite part of Julian’s writing, Jesus our Mother—a good refresh from the rigors of the Lord and Servant sequence!

Week Three: Chapters 15-26 of Julian of Norwich’s Long Text

Welcome back to our eight week series of reading Julian of Norwich together! This week, I am covering chapters 15-26 of Julian’s Long Text, also sometimes entitled “Revelations of Divine Love.” If you’re new, feel free to hop right in or go back and read previous weeks and the historical background I’ve also posted. You’re invited to follow along in the text or simply read what I’ve posted here. Thanks for thinking with me on this magnificently rich and often challenging book!


Christ on the cross, with a grieving Mary and John recording the gospel. From the Ramsey Psalter. Source

I have to confess my dominant thought when I read this section:

Ugh, why does Julian talk about suffering so much?

In chapter 15, she talks about her own suffering. She goes back and forth between two intense emotional states. At first, she is filled with spiritual delight. Then, suddenly, she is oppressed and utterly weary of her life. This pattern continues, exhausting and confusing. She is shown that regardless of her feelings, she is held in the same steadfast love.

In chapter 16, Julian watches Christ vividly dry up and become almost corpse-like on the cross. I will never forget leading a discussion on this section in a reading group with a hospice care nurse. She told the group that Jesus’s drying up in this section made her nauseous because it reminded her so much of what happens when people die in hospice as their bodies fail. Julian feels like this is the greatest pain of Jesus’s passion.

In Chapter 17, more pain of drying and death. Jesus thirsts. Julian cries out and wishes she had never asked to share his suffering (remember her request, from the very beginning of her writing, to share Jesus’s pain). She intensely feels his suffering and feels like her own pain is worse than death. Then, she realizes that her pain in watching comes from her love of Christ. And this pain is different from the hell of despair.

In Chapter 18, Julian witnesses Mary suffering with Christ as he suffers. Then, she writes on how all creation suffered with Christ on the cross.

Ok, we get it—Julian is really absorbed by the problem of pain. Julian’s focus on suffering makes me very uncomfortable. It feels like a medieval relic in a bad way, like self-flagellation and guilt complexes. Yet, such discomfort can illuminate our biases and perceptions as modern-day readers. Culturally, we are very good at avoiding suffering and sharply question anyone who focuses on it. What is she trying to tell us with this focus on suffering, both ours as God’s creation and Christ’s? Chapter 19 helps us to enter into Julian’s meditations on suffering.


In Chapter 19, Julian hears a voice that seems friendly telling her to look away from the crucified Christ and instead up towards heaven. This call to look away is actually an invitation to bypass suffering. To look up to heaven instead of attending to Christ’s life and death is a temptation for all of us as we try to navigate our world without suffering at all. We reject our mortality and our vulnerability for narratives about our strength and triumph. But love itself opens us up to suffering.

To love someone invites suffering of all different kinds. Lest you mistake me, I am speaking of healthy, loving, functional relationships, not abusive ones or ones that lack healthy boundaries. The easiest kind of love’s suffering to identify is the pain of loss. The week after the death of his father, my husband felt like his chest was being ripped open, like Prometheus of Greek myth. Every day when he woke up, he found it hard to breathe. His chest felt physically heavy, a distant sympathetic echo of his father’s fatal heart attack. But would he have loved his father less in order to avoid that pain?

It is not only death that invites love’s suffering. Marriage is often painful, the pain of mutually submitting your precious minutes, your sovereign will, and your private thoughts to another person’s needs and desires. To love and cherish in sickness and in health is costly. Parenting is even more that way. I have never felt less my own person than during pregnancy and my children’s infancy. Nothing belonged to me while I was breastfeeding. My body sustained someone else and I couldn’t just do my own thing. My body, mind, night, and day were bent to the will and needs of a tiny person with no sense of privacy, space, or time. I was so thankful for my children and loved them deeply. But as an introvert with high needs for quiet solitude, I suffered—sometimes cheerfully and sometimes angstily. I suffered willingly because I cherish them and want them to be loved and safe and healthy. And my suffering is a drop in the bucket compared to the parents who lovingly sacrifice everything for their children with special needs or who care for their aging parents.

In our culture, we generally agree that suffering is to be avoided at all costs. Seek it out, and you are considered masochistic. But the pain of love and life together is not inherently masochistic, it is just how human love works. Julian’s refusal to look away from Christ on the cross in chapter 19 indicates her embrace of the vulnerability of love, of the pain of love, and her assent to sharing in this pain of Jesus. “And thus I chose Jesus for my heaven.”

To love is sometimes to be metaphorically crucified. Julian writes of all of creation participating in the crucifixion with Jesus, suffering in love. And equally, they share in his exaltation and bliss. Now things are beginning to perhaps make more sense. Julian’s intertwining of suffering and joy, and the strange, almost whiplash visions she has that go back and forth between these poles of feeling, help us to understand the properties of human and divine love here on earth. Love is not, despite what our culture tells us, something that always makes us feel good. Instead, love reveals us to ourselves in both our vulnerability and createdness, as well as our strength and eternal being.

This is also why it is important that Christ tells Julian, “If I could suffer more, I would suffer more” (Chapter 22). Once, when I was teaching this section to a reading group, one of the participants said, “It doesn’t help me to know that Jesus suffered more than anyone! Why would that be a comfort to me?” This question is very fair. To Julian, it matters because every drop of suffering we have, we share with Jesus. Pain is the great isolator. But it is known by him intimately and thus he can find us even in our worst pain, self-inflicted or caused by others, mental or bodily. When I suffered from prenatal depression, pregnancy-caused hormonal misery that my husband could not share with me, I read this passage and recognized that Jesus shared it with me. As the psalm tells us, even in the valley of death, he is with us.

In the midst of our suffering for love, we can recognize that however much our love and losing those we love pains us, the crucifixion remains the height of love. If God hadn’t suffered more than anyone else for our love, it would mean that we love each other or love ourselves more than he loves us. That is comforting—that when I look at my little baby and the love wells up in me so fiercely that it almost hurts, the Lord looks at me the same way.


Afterwards, when the Lord asks Julian if she would like to see Mary, she eagerly assents. Julian understands Mary as a mirror held up to ourselves, as the emblem and model of how much we are loved by God and how much we can love him in return as his people. And, Julian notes with emphasis, Mary is the only specific created person that Julian ever sees. It is as if God says to Julian, “do you wish to see in her how you are loved?” (Chapter 25). She writes that she doesn’t see Mary bodily, but instead comprehends “the virtues of her blessed soul, her truth, her wisdom, her love, through which I am taught to know myself and reverently to fear my God” (Chapter 25). I love that—in Mary, we are taught to know ourselves.

Julian then shifts to a showing of Jesus more glorified than she had ever seen him before, the resurrected Christ. Jesus, beyond suffering, reveals himself in his eternal fullness. I have to switch to the Middle English here because his words are so much more powerful and strange (I have adapted the spelling for ease in reading). Alternatively, you can listen to me read it aloud here:

…I was learned that our soul shall never have rest til it comes into him, knowing that he is fullhead of joy: homely and courteous and blissful and very life. Often times our Lord Jesus said: “I it am, I it am. I it am that is highest. I it am that thou lovest. I it am that thou likest. I it am that thou servest. I it am that thou longest. I it am that thou desirest. I it am that thou meanest. I it am that is all. I it am that holy church preaches to thee and teaches to thee. I it am that showed myself to you.”

Chapter 26

The “fullhead” of Jesus is a good word for me this week as I worry about my country and my family continues to wrestle with grief and a tense election looms. In living my daily life, this week I am praying to choose Jesus for my heaven and not try to bypass all of the tough things. Perhaps you would like to pray Julian’s words this week as well.