Dwelling in the Love of the Crucified Lord:
St. Anselm and Julian of Norwich on the Work of Discipleship

By Deanna Briody

Alcuin of York, in his composition on “How to Use the Psalms,” writes: “Nothing else in this mortal life can enable us to draw near to the presence of God than to abide in his praise” (Douglas Dales, A Mind Intent on God: The Prayers and Spiritual Writings of Alcuin: An Anthology [Canterbury Press, 2004], p. 44).

This concept — drawing near to God by abiding in praise — provides a sort of archetypal ideal that can help us better understand other spiritual writers of the Medieval Church. St. Anselm and Julian of Norwich are two medieval writers who expound Alcuin’s ideal in their writings and display its brilliance in the fabric of their lives. In the eyes of Anselm and Julian, abiding in the praise and love of God is the beginning, the means, and the ultimate end of discipleship, and the movement of faith circles from heart to head and back to heart (and back to head). The work of the Christian, once wooed, is to consciously and constantly abide in the love that surrounds him. It is this habitual recollection of Christ — ever dependent on Christ himself — that results in “an unquenchable hope” and a righteous life (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition [Cowley Publications, 1986], p. 50).

This Year’s Winners

The seventh annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition attracted papers from a range of students at Anglican seminaries and university divinity schools.

Deanna Briody of Trinity School for Ministry took the top prize with her paper, “Dwelling in the Love of the Crucified Lord: St. Anselm and Julian of Norwich on the Work of Discipleship,” which TLC is pleased to publish.

The other winners were:

  • Second place: Andrew Rampton, Huron University College, London, Ontario: “With Angels and Archangels”
  • Third place: James Stambaugh, Virginia Theological Seminary: “Kenosis, Perichoresis, and Desire: Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation for the Anglican Communion Today”

We are grateful to the judges of this year’s competition: Zachary Guiliano, associate editor of TLC and editor of Covenant; Douglas LeBlanc, associate editor of TLC; the Rev. Mark Michael, interim rector of St. Timothy’s Church in Herndon, Virginia; and Hannah Matis Perett, assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.

In both Anselm and Julian’s conception of Christian discipleship, nothing happens apart from God’s love and gracious action on our behalf. In this way, divine agency claims inarguable primacy over human agency. This becomes evident by even a cursory overview of Julian’s revelation on prayer, in which she hears the Lord declare, “I am the Ground of thy beseeching” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Shewings [catholicspiritualdirection.org, accessed Feb. 15, 2016], p. 44).

Julian’s interpretation of this is an appropriate overlay of her theology as a whole. She claims (1) that the source and catalyst of our desire for God is God himself; (2) that we must allow our will to be turned toward God’s; and (3) that the end of prayer and of the Christian life is “that we be oned and like to our Lord in all things” (ibid.). We will return to this third point, the end of the Christian life, later, but it is important to notice the place of absolute dependency in which this places the believer. God’s love alone allows and sustains our movement toward him. With that in mind, God as the ground on which walks our faith serves as a powerful metaphor. This has a base and practical application: we must not hesitate to pray, Julian insists, for even the weakest prayer walks on solid ground.

Anselm, though differing in style, echoes Julian in content. He, too, identifies God as the source and catalyst of faith: “‘Lord, before you is all my desire,’ / and if my soul wills any good, you gave it to me …. / Give me what you have made me want: / grant that I may attain to love you as much as you command” (Anselm, The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm with the Proslogion [trans. Sister Benedicta Ward; Penguin Books, 1973], p. 93).

Anselm’s prayers are replete with this kind of humility. There is no questioning that, according to Anselm, only with God is the love of God possible.

Anselm’s frequent acknowledgment of the heart’s powerlessness to love God in the way the mind knows is right sheds light on the intersection — or, more appropriately, the labyrinth — of cognition and affection through which these saints maneuver. If one were to map faith’s route, it seems that it reaches the believer first through the heart, then travels to and makes a home in the head, and must be pulled in a ceaseless loop back to the heart. This delicate dance is more explicit in Anselm than in Julian, as Julian tends to spend the vast sum of her time in the region of the heart, to the occasional neglect of the head. Even she, however, implies their synthesis. On several occasions she describes truths that she “knows in … Faith, and believe[s] by the teaching and preaching of the Holy Church” (Revelations of Divine Love, p. 11) — dogma, in other words, on which her intimate revelations, so concentrated in the region of emotion, are built.

Anselm lends further clarity here. Though he frequently illustrates the “wedding” of heart and head (English Spirituality, p. 49), in his theology-laden yet intensely devotional prayers, it takes its most definite shape at the end of “Meditation on Human Redemption.” He writes: “I pray you, Lord, make me taste by love what I taste by knowledge; let me know by love what I know by understanding. … Do what I cannot. Admit me into the inner room of your love” (Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm, p. 237). Again we see a naked dependence on God as Anselm requests, in essence, that his affection and cognition be pulled into closer union.

This climactic desire — dwelling in the “inner room” of God’s love — is the goal of discipleship, according to both Anselm and Julian. The work of the disciple, to say it another way, is to continually abide in the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. In pursuit of this end, Anselm and Julian exemplify what Martin Thornton calls the “habitual recollection” of Christ and him crucified (English Spirituality, p. 51). Commenting on the central role of such recollection, B.L. Manning writes: “The medieval Christian was a man of one event. The Passion of Christ was his daily meditation” (quoted in J.R.H. Moorman, A History of the Church of England [Morehouse Publishing, 1980], p. 126.

Though not at all anomalous, then, Anselm and Julian nonetheless show a certain distinctiveness in their reflections. Anselm for one seems to believe that, while it may be the “daily meditation” of many, Christ’s salvation must be thrust before our eyes and lit like a match upon our consciousness. For this reason, he opens his “Meditation on Human Redemption” with a charge to heightened awareness. “Rouse yourself and remember that you are risen,” he writes. “Realize that you have been redeemed and set free. Consider again the strength of your salvation and where it is found. Mediate upon it, delight in the contemplation of it. Shake off your lethargy, and set your mind to thinking over these things. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer” (Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm, p. 230).

And certainly Anselm heeds his own advice. His prayers meditate on the crucified Lord, and in many stanzas he grieves over his Savior’s suffering, describing the nail-pierced hands, the showering blood, and the bitterness of gall (ibid., p. 95).

Likewise, Julian’s entire composition of Revelations of Divine Love is built on the first of her showings, that is: “His precious crowning with thorns” (Revelations of Divine Love, p. 1). Later she describes Christ’s crucifixion as the sole object of her sight. “All that was away from the Cross was of horror to me,” she writes (ibid., p. 3). With Jesus placed precisely at the center of all meditation, both Anselm and Julian seek to dwell in the fullness of God’s love, manifested and displayed in all its awful glory on the cross. Paul Molinari describes this meditative tendency in their writing as a way to arouse within the believer the joyful “consciousness of being the object of his Creator’s love” (quoted in Gordon Miller, The Way of the English Mystics: An Anthology and Guide for Pilgrims [Morehouse Publishing, 1996], p. 92). Note, however, that never does this consciousness become a mere act of the human will. Human agency remains at the ceaseless mercy of divine agency; even our consciousness of the crucifixion walks on the ground of God’s love.

What remains, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about Anselm and Julian is their ability to hold the whole of faith together, not divorcing and often not even distinguishing between any of those dualities that are so easily split apart in the post-medieval world. Thus, just as head and heart are wedded, so is faith and works. There is, as Thornton says, a “moral element, the practical doing of God’s will” that cannot be ignored (English Spirituality, pp. 48-52). Both Julian and Anselm contend that as the soul abides in the praise of God, as the mind dwells on the cross of our Lord, as the heart sits in the love that is ours in Christ, man is made like the One he worships. Anselm illustrates this concept all throughout his prayers, but Julian expresses it best and most succinctly. Recall what she identifies as the third purpose of prayer and the end of the Christian life: “That we be oned and like to our Lord in all things. … With His grace,” she writes, “He maketh us like to Himself in condition as we are in kind: and so is His blissful will” (Revelations of Divine Love, p. 44).

If we look at the lives of these saints, we see that their theory — that when we bask in the love of God without, it gradually becomes the love of God within — proves true. Their lives were fruitful on both ends of discipleship, in becoming disciples themselves and in the forming of others into the same. Julian stood at the window of her cell, ministering and counseling to any who passed. Anselm copied his prayers and so arranged them “that by reading them the mind may be stirred up either to the love or fear of God” (Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm, p. 90). They sought for the conviction of their minds to become the habit of their hearts, and to consummate itself in the labor of their hands, put to work in the service of others.

It is clear — and a deep comfort, I must add — that the love of God is both beginning and end for these holy saints. Every step of the path of discipleship rests on that immovable ground. As we abide in God’s love revealed in Christ, we are transformed from mere likeness of kind to pure likeness of condition. According to Anselm and Julian, this is the end of theology, the hope of discipleship, and the goal of the Christian life: to live in the love of God; in living in it, to be made like it; and in being made like it, to know it with ever-more heavenly fullness.

Dwelling in the Love of the Crucified Lord

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