“If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
“The creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
– Selections from Romans 8
The earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman was written by a theologian, a mystic. Not much is known about Julian of Norwich, but what has survived of Julian’s work has energized the Church’s ever reforming understanding of God’s divine love.
Julian lived in the English city of Norwich. She lived through a pandemic, a civil war (The Peasants’ Revolt), and as a young woman had a near-death experience brought on by a serious illness. As a priest read Julian her last rites, he held a crucifix at the foot of Julian’s bed. As Julian faded from life to death, she had a series of visions.
Julian made a miraculous recovery and immediately began writing what she had experienced. Julian’s reporting of those visions is the only two writings of hers that have survived, The Short Text and The Long Text. Both have come to be known as Revelations of Divine Love. Julian’s brilliant theological vision of hope went against all that was true of the world around her.
Andy Dufresne might have been one of the only innocent men at Shawshank prison. If you really think about the way the events unfold in the film The Shawshank Redemption, it is never certain that Andy is innocent.
I don’t mean to suggest that Andy is guilty, but I think ‘hope’ plays a big role in our perception of his innocence. When I idiomatically break down how we know Andy is innocent, it makes me realize, I know it because I hope it.
Andy finds out from a young convict he is mentoring that another convict at a former prison told him he committed a crime with the very same circumstances as the crime Andy was accused of committing.
Do you see what I mean?
Look at the work hope does! Not just Andy’s hope, but our hope.
For those of you who have seen the movie, you can’t forget the scene when Andy tells the warden that there might be proof of his innocence.
The warden has a three-step strategy. All the way down, the warden is trying to crush Andy’s hope.
- He begins by denying that the story is genuine.
- Then, he tries to convince Andy that even if they pursue this, it is unlikely anything will come of it.
- Finally, he takes away Andy’s resources for hope. Essentially telling him that he will not indulge in this any longer, creating a dead end.
Then Andy’s hope persists by appealing to the warden’s sympathies. To put it more clearly, he assures the warden that he will not divulge the fact that he has been laundering huge amounts of money while the warden has been using the prison as a washing machine. The warden brings dirty money into the prison to get it clean, Andy’s accounting genius makes the whole racket run.
The warden, seeing that Andy’s hope is increasingly unshackled, does the only thing he knows. He tries to choke it out. He sentences Andy to a month in solitary confinement.
Confinement in another age
Julian of Norwich lived most of her life in a kind of solitary confinement. Julian was an anchorite or an anchoress. The title sounds like what it means.
During the Middle Ages, Western European churches built cells for devout followers who were called into an ascetic lifestyle. Anchorites were not priests or nuns but practiced utter abstention from all forms of indulgence. They prayed, fasted, read scripture, prayed, gave counsel to those who sought it, prayed, made clothes for the poor, read scripture, and prayed.
You get the idea. They were the desert fathers and mothers of the Middle Ages. Instead of going into the desert to seek a richer understanding of God, the anchorites found their isolation in stone castles in the corner of ancient courtyards.
We don’t have an anchorite at First Presbyterian, and as far as I know, we aren’t taking applications. However, as I continue to explore the underground hallways and find doors, I didn’t know existed I will let you know what I find.
As more has been uncovered about Julian’s life, historians have found that she was a sought-after counselor and adviser. The idea of the ascetic anchorite life was that by ‘dying’ to the outside world it gave anchorites an uncluttered, focused, and privileged understanding of God.
It wasn’t just that anchorites read scripture and prayed constantly, but they were said to have higher wisdom because they were less corrupted and influenced by what Paul of Tarsus called, “the creation subjected to futility.”
What strikes me about Julian is that her counsel, spiritual advice, and theological visions inspired a hope that wasn’t subjected to her experience of isolation. Julian’s isolation and devotion during isolation resulted in an understanding of God’s love that wasn’t about correcting the wrongs of humanity but instead in terms of joy and compassion.
What can’t be taken away
Let’s go back a few scenes. Andy was probably the only inmate in Shawshank prison to ever gain access to the warden’s office. When his opportunity came, he locked the door, put a record on, and projected it to the entire courtyard.
Nobody knew why he did it. Andy tried to convince his friends that it was his way of trying to remember. Even in solitary confinement, there are things that can’t be taken away from you.
Andy was given, “two weeks in the hole” for his stunt — “easiest time I ever did.” As Andy and his fellow inmates are talking about the stunt, a conversation develops between Andy and Red. A dialogue between hope and despair.
Andy tells Red: “We need music in here so we don’t forget. There are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. That there’s a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.”
A dangerous thing
It’s an odd paradox. The more things become not all right, the more strategies and projections seem futile, the more we realize that what we have is hope.
However, hope isn’t something that is a remainder. Hope and despair are both active. Yet, the difference between hope and despair is that hope is not reducible to the things seen. “For who hopes for what is seen?”
Rightfully, Red’s experience of being turned down for probation repeatedly has led to despair. Red replies to Andy:
“Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It’s got no place in here. Better get used to the idea.”
Hope is a dangerous thing.
Increasingly, scholars think that Julian of Norwich might have been a mother. They find it difficult to believe that someone who wasn’t a mother could have an understanding of God’s motherly love as Julian had. In Revelations of Divine Love Julian writes that hope inspires us all to know that we will be fastened and joined to God as a child is joined to their mother. For Julian, hope is the knowledge of love.
Julian was able to see God in isolation, as an anchorite, because she knew that God was closer to her than she was to herself. Julian writes, “It is easier for us to get to know God than to know our own soul … God is nearer to us than our soul, for God is the ground in which it stands.”
What Julian does well where other theologians fail is that she sees hope in the midst of suffering and isolation without redeeming the suffering or isolation.
What hope is
What is going on right now in our world isn’t ‘good.’ It isn’t as if the Peasants’ Revolt, the black plague, or Julian’s near-death experience inspired some grand theological insight. It’s that in the midst of isolation, solitary confinement, and even death, God is still God.
When understandings fail and plans of yesterday are made futile by the circumstances of today, we are to hope. We know that hope is the knowledge of love.
Julian writes, “God said not ‘thou shalt not be travailed,’ but God said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’ Julian of Norwich is perhaps best known for a charge that sums up her visions of hope. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”
When hope grows legs
“All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer damn near worn down to the nub.”
Like the rock hammer, when Andy was damn near worn down to the nub, he could only hope. The escape was risky, but he knew that if he could endure swimming through a river of … you know, he would come out clean on the other side.
Isolation, torment, and near-death no doubt changed Andy Dufresne. Yet, they never robbed him of his hope.
The last time we hear Andy’s voice in The Shawshank Redemption is through the letter he writes to Red. The hope walked around with Andy in Shawshank. It was with him in solitary confinement. When hope grows legs, it is a dangerous thing, a good thing.
It was unlikely Red would ever read the letter. He had been denied in front of the parole board every 10 years since he entered Shawshank prison.
Andy wrote it anyway. He hoped that someday Red would read it.
Hope is the knowledge of love.
“Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your Friend. Andy.”
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”