Here’s something written by (or perhaps I should say inspired by) Julian of Norwich:

Our soul must perform two duties:
    the one is, we must reverently wonder and be surprised;
    the other is, we must gently let go and let be,
        always taking pleasure in God.

(That’s Julian of Norwich, Showings, long text, chapter 47, tr. Brendan Doyle, Meditations with Julian of Norwich, 1983.)

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was a visionary Christian mystic who lived in the city of Norwich, in England, about six hundred years ago. She was an anchorite, a sort of public hermit, sealed into a tiny room of the church, living out her life in a service of prayer for the community. (If you don’t know her fascinating story and her inspired writings, check out the summary of resources at The language in which she wrote was Middle English—the language of Chaucer—and while it looks something like the English we know, it can be hard to understand. Here’s the passage we just saw, this time in the original language:

Tweyn poynts longen to our soule be dett.
    On is that we reverently mervelyn.
    That other is that we mekely suffryn,
        ever enjoyand in God.

That word dett is related to our modern words debt and duty, so the translation is something like “two duties belong to our souls”. Then one duty is to reverently mervelyn—that is, to reverently marvel, wonder, or be surprised—and the other duty is to mekely suffryn.

That’s a tricky one: that verb suffryn could mean to suffer, in the common modern sense, the sense of experiencing or enduring pain; or sometimes it just means to allow, to let something happen. That’s a usage that persisted almost up to the present day. In the King James version of the Bible, translated two centuries after Julian of Norwich, Jesus says, “suffer the little children to come unto me”—and though almost no one uses “suffer” that way anymore, we still understand that Jesus just means, let them come. (It doesn’t imply that there’s any suffering involved in welcoming those little pains in the neck!)

What did the Lady Julian mean by mekely suffryn? There have been a dozen translations, and they don’t always agree here: they range from “meekly suffer” to “humbly endure” to “let go and let be.” Because the phrase is followed by ever enjoyand in God, I guess it isn’t just about suffering in the modern sense. Maybe the author intended some ambiguity there; maybe she means that our souls should accept whatever happens, good or bad. Let go and let be. Endure it if it’s bad, but either way, enjoy God’s companionship as part of it.

But, sorry—I’m geeking out about the translation problem. Let’s go back to Brendan Doyle’s very free and poetic interpretation, and let’s focus on what Lady Julian calls, in that version, the two duties of the soul.

First, to reverently wonder and be surprised. To me, this suggestion is itself surprising. It seems almost un-Christian; what I was taught in Sunday School was sort of the opposite of surprise.

I was taught Christianity as a revealed truth. Christianity was this body of things revealed once and for all to the saints: things believed to be known, and required to be believed. Christianity was the Ten Commandments. Christianity was creeds that hadn’t changed since the fourth century. Christianity was learning your catechism. Christianity was the Lord’s Prayer. Christianity was the Christmas Pageant. Christianity was the old hymnal and the organ. There was nothing about Christianity that would have surprised my parents, or their parents, or their parents. Christianity was stability: from age to age the same.

What Christianity was not, emphatically not, was surprising. The world was surprising, and not in a good way: violent, disappointing, always changing, riddled with evil. But over against the world, Christianity was constant, unchanging, comfortingly free of surprises. And yet here’s the Lady Julian telling us, back in the Middle Ages, that it is our soul’s duty to reverently wonder and be surprised. How can we understand this?

We might start with the natural world. We might look at the dawn and reverently wonder. We might be surprised by the colors of the sunset. We might reverently wonder at the beauty, the diversity, and the ornery persistence of life on this planet. We might be surprised by the new insights science brings us into the vastness of creation: hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and at least a hundred billion galaxies in our universe, and more and more planets around those stars being discovered, and who knows what wonders on each of those planets.

The natural world is full of marvels and surprises, so this first duty of the soul is a natural fit for the scientific spirit. We see something astonishing in the heavens, and we say Wow, let’s build an even bigger telescope so we can figure this out. We see the humbling power of the sun, and we say Let’s figure out how to do that same fusion reaction, here on earth. We’re always trying to learn more, always trying to understand (and control) things, always being surprised by new discoveries.

And we don’t need fancy telescopes or fusion reactors to be surprised. God is at work all around us, and reverent wonder may take us by surprise at any time: in the song of a bird, in the birth of a child, in the touch of a loving hand. God is the source of life and love. Is it any wonder that God’s path is strewn with wonders? And Jesus himself was a reverent marvel: surprising, shocking, and subversive. Is it any wonder that the way of Jesus still calls us to reverently wonder and be surprised?

To marvel at God’s gifts, in the physical world and in the spiritual realm—that seems natural to me. (At least, it seems natural when I’m paying attention!) The second of the Lady Julian’s two duties of the soul is more of a stretch: to gently let go and let be, always taking pleasure in God.

This seems, again, so unlike the Christianity I learned as a child! Let go and let be? That sounds like one of those trendy New Age religions, not like the Christianity I grew up with. We have dogmas, not conjectures; we don’t “let go” of our beliefs. We have the Great Commission, to baptize all the world; we don’t just “let be”—we don’t let Buddhists be Buddhists or let Muslims be Muslims, and we certainly don’t let heretics be heretics. In fact, our history has a broad streak of not letting go and letting be—of militantly insisting on our own correctness and power.

But the truth that the Lady Julian shared with us is that letting go is a necessary part of our journey with God. It’s a hard part of the journey—for me, at least. Marveling at God comes naturally to me, but letting go? Humbly accepting my own ignorance and powerlessness? That part takes work. It’s not easy for me to accept ignorance—I’m always trying to understand things. And it’s not easy for me to accept powerlessness—I’m always trying to fix things. (In my former career I was pretty good at fixing computers; as a pastor, I keep discovering that it’s rarely in my power to fix people.)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand and control things. In fact, that’s part of what we’re all called to do: to figure out what’s wrong with this world, and to do our best to help fix it. But the plain truth is that there will always be more to learn than can be learned, and there will always be things about God that we cannot comprehend, and there will always be things going on around us and inside us that we can’t control. At some point, we have to let go and let be; we have to say, “Dear God, I don’t understand what’s going on here, and I can’t seem to control it, but I’ll just do my humble best for you, and I trust that you’ll be my friend, whatever comes.”

Letting go and letting be can be a pleasure. Shrugging off the heavy responsibility for getting to the bottom of everything, for understanding everything, for fixing everything—that can be a blessed relief. In that restful moment we can smile, remembering that all the wonders of this world are in God’s surprising hands and not our own.

So there we are:

Our soul must perform two duties:
    the one is, we must reverently wonder and be surprised;
    the other is, we must gently let go and let be,
        always taking pleasure in God.

Julian of Norwich was a Christian, and her message is an important part of the Christian tradition: important, and neglected. It’s not something children are learning in Sunday schools around the world, nor is it something being preached from many pulpits. We tend to emphasize the intellectual content of Christianity: our scriptures, our beliefs, our creeds and catechisms, our prayers and hymns, our understandings of God and Jesus Christ. That side of Christianity is very wordy,

And so am I—as you know, I’m sure, from all my wordy writing and composing. But what I think the Lady Julian points us to is different side of Christianity—one where words are hardly necessary.

To reverently wonder: that requires only openness, and perhaps no words at all, no more utterance than a little gasp of surprise. To let go and let be, always taking pleasure in God: that requires only humility, and perhaps no more utterance than a little sigh of release and trust. In human relationships, we know this dynamic: the dynamic of good friends who enjoy just being together, without always having to do anything or say anything. The Lady Julian teaches us this same dynamic for our friendship with God. Words are not always necessary; all that’s necessary is that little gasp of surprise, and that little sigh of release.

I’ve written a hymn inspired by this teaching. (I tried not to put in too many words, but, well … you know me.) It’s called “Marvel and Let Be.” There’s a recording of it below, and the sheet music, as always, is available for in our Free Stuff area.