The Three Medicines of Julian of Norwich

An essential part of the contemplative life is to heal the spiritual wounds which have injured us throughout our times here on earth. Some of these wounds are ancient and come down to us from the ages. Some of these wounds were acquired through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Some of these wounds may even be self inflicted. There are many different medicines which may help to treat them, but there are three medicines that are what you might call panaceas – that means they are good for treating everything. According to Julian of Norwich, these three medicines are: contrition, compassion, and true longing for God. In her own words Julian described it like this,

“By contrition we are made pure, by compassion we are made ready, and by true longing for God we are made worthy. These are the three means, as I understand it, by which all souls come to heaven – that is to say, those who have been sinners on earth and are to be saved. For every soul must be healed by these medicines.”

The three medicines Julian names are there to heal us and return us to a state of recollection, which is the goal of the contemplative life. By contrition, we leave behind our vices, by compassion we establish virtues, and by developing a true longing for God we refocus our entire being towards the Good and the Beautiful. The medicine of contrition, it should be noted, is not the same as repentance. Contrition is often thought of as a feeling of guilt and remorse over our sorrowful and sinful state, but Julian puts a much more healthy spin on it when she says,

“Sin is the sharpest scourge that any chosen soul can be struck with, a scourge which lashes men and women and utterly shatters them, and damages them so much in their own eyes that sometimes they think themselves unworthy of anything except, as it were, to sink into hell, until contrition seizes them through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and turns bitterness into hopes of God’s mercy. And then the wounds begin to heal and the soul to revive.”

Julian turns the traditional notion of contrition on its head. Rather than being a fear of God, it is actually hope in God’s mercy. It is a liberation from the illusion that because of sin we are unworthy of anything other than hell. The medicine of contrition heals the wound which tells us that we are not worthy because of our vices. Of course, this does not mean that our vices are not something which we should feel sorrow over. Rather, it means that this sorrow need not include a feeling of worthlessness as if we are so wretched that God cannot love us. True contrition fills the heart with hope as it simultaneously realises that we have wounds which need to be healed. The reason that the awareness of our wounded nature (which is imperfect humility) leads us to hope is because of God’s great compassion, which is the second medicine we are to take.

The compassion of God is unwavering and always present. Therefore, the medicine which we take is really about becoming aware of this truth. After taking the medicine of contrition, which reveals our wounds to us, we take the medicine of compassion which reveals to us the truth that God never stopped loving us despite our wounds. God does not see our vices as something which reduces our value or makes us worthless, but rather God sees our vices as something which we ourselves suffer from. Our sin is less of a failure and more of an illness which hurts us and which God feels pity for. The cure for this illness is the peace and love which have always (and will always) resided within us as part of the image of God which we bear. Julian described it so well when she said,

“For he regards sin as sorrow and suffering for those who love him, to whom he attributes no blame, out of love. The reward that we will receive will not be small, but it will be great, glorious, and full of honour. And so shame will be turned into honour and greater joy. For our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not prevent him from loving us. Peace and love are always in us, being and working, but we are not always in peace and love. But he wants us to pay attention to this: that he is the foundation of our whole life in love.”

The magnificent healing power of the first two medicines brings us to the final third medicine: a true loving desire for God (which is the same as perfect humility). When, through contrition, we have realized how wounded we actually are and, through compassion, we have realized how our wounds are easily and willingly healed by God, we are left with such awe and reverence that we cannot help but desire God with all our being. This desire is the key to contemplation. It is the center around which the contemplative life turns. When our entire being is filled with a true loving desire for God, then we will have healed the ancient wound which fills us with false desires. The clarity which comes from a single minded pursuit of divine love is at the heart of the contemplative life and there is nothing worth desiring more, either in heaven or on earth.

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