In God there is no forgiveness

Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English anchorite and mystic, writes that in God there is no forgiveness. This, on first hearing, sounds unpromising. Are we faced by a deity so uncompromising that there is nothing that we can do to be saved except the impossible practice of perfection? Or a deity so arbitrary in their judgements that salvation is a lottery?

But, in truth, Julian is expounding two simple and related truths. The first that it is in the nature of God to be unchanging and that second God's forgiveness is the unconditional ground on which we all stand. Forgiveness simply is the reality of God.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Beatrice Bruteau's "Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World" when she draws our attention to the unconditional love that God offers and the invitation is, as Bruteau puts it, to 'relax back' into it, to allow it to unwind the complexities of our own defensive egos, with their endless, wound up, complex descriptions of 'how we are' and in doing so discover who we are. We discover that we are divine ourselves and our selves are divine. We are the dancer and a particular, precious dance, wholly and uniquely ourselves.

What Bruteau wants to do is to demonstrate that a traditional 'non-dual' view of reality, drawing on Vedanta, can be modified through both an evolutionary and trinitarian lens, to capture diversity in unity, the unique nature of each person bound together in an enfolding unity. And to make this view not only comprehensible but practically useful (and in 136 pages).

This she does, I think, triumphantly. It is a model of lucid compression.

For me the most beautiful and compelling part is where she discusses the dynamic between God's unconditional love and our own tendency to imagine that it is not - we must win it, deserve it, outsmart it - anything but simply accept it as the ground we dwell in. We spend so much energy building up descriptions of our selves in order to justify and compare our existence to our selves and others, to show that we are 'worth it', when we could settle back into our worth, our divine imaging, and learn to dance with our descriptions instead.

That we need to be described is an essential feature of being in time but the need to identify with them is not for we are the dancer as well as the dance. Our essential self is timeless and beyond all descriptions. Seen from this perspective, our descriptions become simply that - experiments - that should pass as soon as their usefulness is over - and never become closed or complete. We are an actor passing through our plays - each one a real and meaningful encounter - but none ever the final truth. Such a liberation it is when we catch our selves out in some drama in which we have fully disappeared only to realise it is not, nor ever can be, the whole story; and, we look at the situation we find ourselves in with renewed, wider attention and compassion.

Bruteau writes of this from a clear, uninhibited, Christian perspective but one that is always open to worlds of other perspectives. In her skilful hands, Christian life becomes ever more deeply simply life, described whole, and a Christian life open to the amendment of deeper insight as it proceeds, an evolutionary way, not a closed way. It is a delightful achievement told in the quietest of clear voices.

Bruteau is not, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes here the best known of twentieth century contemplatives, though she knew and indeed mentored many of them, but she deserves to be, I feel, better known and more deeply appreciated. Her writing style - clear, calm, wry not emollient nor especially personal, takes a little getting use to, as does its blend of philosophical rigour and spiritually applicable content but once acclimatised she reminds me most of the early Church Fathers where theology, cosmology and spiritual insight come as a bracing whole and where 'knowing' is absolutely linked to the quality of 'being'.


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