Laughing at the Devil is an invitation to see the world with a medieval visionary now known as Julian of Norwich, believed to be the first woman to have written a book in English. (We do not know her given name, because she became known by the name of a church that became her home.) Julian “saw our Lord scorn [the Devil's] wickedness” and noted that “he wants us to do the same.” In this impassioned, analytic, and irreverent book, Amy Laura Hall emphasizes Julian's call to scorn the Devil. Julian of Norwich envisioned courage during a time of fear. Laughing at the Devil describes how a courageous woman transformed a setting of dread into hope, solidarity, and resistance.
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About the Author
Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is the author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love; Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction; and Writing Home, With Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers.
Read an Excerpt
And after this I saw God in an instant, that is in my understanding, and in seeing this I saw that he is in everything.
— JULIAN OF NORWICH, Revelations of Divine Love
In order to understand how Julian is able to receive the vision that "all shall be well," and even scoff at the Devil himself, it is helpful to think about how she views time. The word from Middle English that Julian uses in this epigraph, the word Elizabeth Spearing translates as "instant," is the word poynte. Spearing gives a helpful footnote on this word, explaining that it can mean "a point of space or of time" (Julian 1998, 181). Julian has a vision of God that is concentrated, seen through the aperture in the universe that is Jesus's overflowing gift of blood on the cross. Her imagery is layered. The poynte of seeing that allows Julian's insight is her focus on the cross as an extravagant gift that situates every space and every moment. As I will explain in chapter 2, on truth, Julian sees God's disposition toward all that was, is, and will be fully disclosed, through the cross, as a gift of love.
Here is how Julian does not see time: in the commonsense way many readers in the early twenty-first century in the United States see time. Most of the people in my corner of the world have a background picture in their head of time moving upward, albeit in fits and starts. Most of the people around me are "progressives" of either the right- or the left-leaning variety, expecting that things will be "better" if "we" just get with the program. That program may be funded by a conservative or a liberal think tank and be advocating for either the Democrat or the Republican on the ticket, but the basic arc of time in our minds is upward, pushed by a combination of human initiative and, for some of us, God's providence.
I do have a few rare adults in my life who do not know what day of the week it is and who generally do not think of time as progressing forward and upward toward a goal. One friend seems to let time just wash over him, or past him, or something. He just is, rather than seeing himself on a plotted line with an arrow at the end. He is peculiar. I also have a few friends who see themselves on a plotted line with an arrow at the end, pointing downward. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, whether due to climate change or the Federal Reserve or the technologizing of everything around them, sometimes combined with a plotted interpretation of the apocalyptic Book of Revelation in the New Testament. These arrow-pointing-downward people seem strange too (in a different way than my friend who lets time wash over him), in that they are suspicious of any political movement or any sort of large, social-media-fueled project to change these things for the better.
This is the normal that makes nonprogressives seem peculiar or strange today: To be a good citizen in the United States means getting your fingers typing and your phone buzzing and your feet marching to try to push the world upward for the better.
At the turn of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century in England, there were writers on both sides of the arrow perspective. There were people who saw England as possibly going to the dogs (or, more literally, to the human beings relegated to the lower classes) and people who thought the plague was God's punishment for upsetting the proper order of things. There were also people determined, against the impossible odds, to push for radical changes — political, spiritual, and what we might now call feminist. Jumping ahead to read Julian politically today requires a shift. Her writing does not really serve well what many think of as conservatism or progressivism today: the conserve-things-against-chaos project or the change-the-world-for-God's-sake project.
Julian's way of seeing time through the cross is an antitrajectory way of seeing. If you think about time as moving forward toward a goal, you are thinking in a way that has become common sense in most of the United States. But Julian's vision situates each one of us as defined through this prism, a nontemporal miracle that was a gift in time that changes time itself. This vision of hers, seeing all of us in the "instant" or poynte that is Jesus, is in contrast to common sense today. It was a game-change answer to anxieties about change during her time.
I want to connect Julian's view of time to a sense of order in medieval England. In part due to advances in the structure of ships, there was more mobility from Europe to England around the turn of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century, and, in a port city like Norwich, it was increasingly difficult to determine just who was who. Sumptuary laws were supposed to keep each human being dressed in a class-based costume assigned to them. The laws were to make sure that one announced oneself visually as a peasant, maid, farmer, or landowner, and as precisely which level of landowner in the English aristocratic system. Think of it as a rule against walking around in economic drag, pretending to be someone you were not officially, by birth and title, supposed to be.
With the usual mobility of a port city, however, Norwich saw travelers coming and going whose station was not immediately knowable. Residents did not know for sure how to situate these people in space and time. Some people saw changes like these as an opportunity for an overhaul of the feudal system. Others saw the same ambiguity as a sign of impending anarchy. Julian concentrates a different way of perceiving time and perceiving people in time. She concentrates the yearly cycle that is the Christian calendar year — from Advent to Lent to Ordinary Time — into a poynte. She receives a vision from God that time and space are like an instant. This vision has political import, but her visions do not warrant what many activists on either the right or the left in the United States would now think of as hope. For Julian hope is not an affirmation that all things shall be well, incrementally, toward a change or toward a resolution of the political order that you can point to as progress.
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In his introduction to Elizabeth Spearing's translation, A. C. Spearing explains that Julian's perspective "abolishes temporal extension" (Julian 1998, xxxi). The form of her visions collapses what we usually think of as storytelling. She defines the story of God's grace in such a way that her images are more like layer upon layer of transparencies with images on them rather than a story that moves from beginning to end. Julian's understanding of providence is different from the one I have heard often used by praying Christians around me. She does not affirm that "God's wise providence," as she puts it, is the way God pulls human beings along toward resolution through a series of small or large victories. In her later reflection on providence in the Long Text she explains, "I saw God in an instant [or poynte], that is to say, in my understanding, and in seeing this I saw that he is in everything. I looked attentively, seeing and recognizing what I observed with quiet awe, and I thought, 'What is sin': For I saw truly that God does everything, no matter how small. And I saw that truly nothing happens by accident or luck, but everything by God's wise providence" (LT: 11, 58).
"God's wise providence" is not an affirmation pulled along toward resolution through a series of victories, whether minute or remarkable, private or public. From Julian's perspective, accident is eliminated because she sees time itself through that small opening, that little camera lens, which reveals everything defined and situated by the cross. Her understanding of time is not that God works through discernible episodes wherein loss (tragic or slight) brings forth blessing (profound or precious).
I do not mean to be cruel toward people who tenderheartedly offer a perspective to others or who try for solace to see the world this way themselves. In the midst of personal grief or large-scale tragedy, it can sometimes console people to look for signs that pain is being transformed incrementally into blessing. These consolations can sometimes come in the "at least" form, as in "at least" the pain was not worse or the death toll higher, or whatever "at least" consolation works. This can be combined with the silver-lining perspective, whereby one tries to find the arrow pointing upward out of pain. But this is not the way Julian has been given by God to see time. Julian pulls all that might be cast off as "accident or luck" through the central, focal point of the cross. She does not attest that there are clearly discernible arrows in our life moving up and away out of pain. Even more important, she does not tell me that my pain results, ultimately, cumulatively, in God's victory. The cross pulls all time inward toward Jesus. And the infinity of the cross redefines counting. For Julian there is no sense in measuring or seeking something that could be considered cumulative. God does not give her a vision of 1 + 1 + 1 times a googolplex = BETTER. God wishes for us wellness, but this does not mean that, if we suffer or work hard enough, we will find concrete results of prosperity.
Another way of describing God's providence comes closer to Julian's perspective but is slightly and dangerously off-focus. This is the "we cannot know, but God knows" line. The person touting this view seems to be trying to justify something most people would say is bad but using a sham version of providence as cover for his actions. One example from a Hollywood movie, the 2007 film Charlie Wilson's War, is useful in a "how-not-to-think" sort of way. ACIA operative purportedly told a Texas politician, Charlie Wilson, a story about how a "Zen master" keeps saying "We'll see" about some twists and turns in the life of a boy with a horse in a village. The villagers in the story think they can name things as "good" or "bad" for this child, but the Zen master stands above it all and suggests there will be true knowledge only by maintaining an imperious "We'll see." The scene is meant to cast a haze over the machinations of the CIA in Afghanistan, and the "We'll see" suggests a "we" that will eventually see, like God, the outcomes of manipulating the present for the sake of a possible future. This "We cannot know" plus "God is on our side" version of providence is made from two-thirds up a ladder, looking down at something like a village and mere villagers — silly people who think they know how to name as good or bad that which is going on in their home.
This is not how Julian sees providence. While the CIA operative in the movie is a man, and a man with obvious, worldly power, this false way of seeing and talking in the world is not gender-specific nor reserved only for secret agents. I have heard devout churchwomen say something similar when talking together about someone else's pain. They seem truly to believe that they will end up on the right side of God's holiness ledger. "We will see" becomes an alliance with a deity who holds out wisdom and leaves the rest of us befuddled and beset by grief. Providence is not, for Julian, a ladder up which we can climb in order to see better what those little people on the ground cannot see.
Julian does not say "We will see" in this piously snooty way. She says that she has seen, in the present, a vision of all that will be. All that will be and all that has been are reckoned with God's love.
We see now, today, through the insight of an instant, the poynte through which everything is cast. Through this prism of thought God does not move temporally from A to B to C through time. Neither does God move a cast of characters from location 1 to 2 to 3. Julian perceives "God's wise providence" in an eye blink or, as in the most famous of her images, compressed into the form of a smooth, small nut. This question of God's real love, here and now and not some day in the land of "We will see," is not an academic puzzle for Julian. The material import of what she sees and thinks about is in her own blood and bone, as she focuses on Jesus's blood poured out for her on the cross. A. C. Spearing explains that Julian "apprehends" God's way of seeing "not as theory but as experience" (Julian 1998, xxxi). Her vision that "all shall be well" is a way of seeing that is from God's perspective, is about God's "familiar" love, and she feels it in her bones.
In this way Julian takes on a question that a theological master from the Middle Ages had dealt with in his writing. Thomas Aquinas wrote beautifully intricate questions and answers about Christian doctrine and the lived reality of faith a century before Julian. In one of his questions he asks whether God gives us grace and then frees us from sin, or frees us from sin and then gives us grace. The basic question he is pondering is whether we are forgiven while still bound by sin or are freed from sin and then forgiven. After giving examples from Scripture that seem to answer the question both ways, Thomas says that, from God's perspective, we are given grace and then freed from sin. For God, Thomas writes, time does not move from point A to point B to point C, as if in stages of progress upward. Grace is not only abundant; grace is infinite in a way that topples over each human clock of timeliness. Julian takes this question from the master theologian of her time and collapses it. Sorting through what she has seen in her vision, she comes to the same conclusion as Thomas. She concentrates the time that God sees us into a poynte that reveals only God's love. Providence becomes a matter not of God's intent and our future safety from sin. God's intent, according to Julian's vision, is love. Period. Full stop.
What in the world does this mean? What does it mean to live in this vision of hers, that there is no "accident or luck" and also no doubt about God's loving intent?
In Denise Levertov's (1997, 51) series of poems reflecting on Julian, she writes these lines to close the first of the series of five poems about Julian's visions:
And you ask us to turn our gaze inside out, and see
In chapter 4 of her Short Text, Julian layers images in her characteristic way. The Lord shows Julian "his familiar love" as "our clothing" and as "everything that is good for us." The word poynte is given an image in Julian's vision as "a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand" (ST: 4, 7). She goes on to explain that this "little thing" has "three attributes." This "little thing" that is "all that is made," as God tells her, is made by God, beloved by God, and cared for by God. Levertov, for her part, says the little thing is "safe" in "God's pierced palm." Levertov ties together Julian's visions of our safety in Jesus to Julian's vision of the little thing the size of a hazelnut held in Julian's own hand. Julian is able to see all that is and has been and ever will be, "safe," contained, and truly beloved by God because she has, in the vision just before this one, the "red blood" of Jesus "plentifully and vividly" given, "without any intermediary." More on the "plentifully" given blood later, but for now I want to stay right at the point of time and God.
Julian does not see the grand sweep of salvation history and determine that God must have a hand in the artistry. She does not see the arc of the universe bending upward through time and culminating in a glorious revolution that must be by God's own design. She sees a little thing, so small that she wonders if it "might suddenly disappear" (ST: 4, 7). All that is. Tiny, everlasting, beloved, and cared for by God. A hazelnut?
How can this be? The world is not simple, by any sort of adult, sober reckoning. Why did Julian not see all that is as a well-wrought mechanism? Couldn't the universe be like a miraculously antique watch that runs for all time? This would make more sense and be more reassuring to the default sensibilities I have been taught to rely on, even subconsciously, about how the world works and who rightly understands how the world works. A vision of an intricate instrument would fit better with the version of deism held by the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States. If Julian had seen a well-wrought mechanism of some sort, it would have been so much more useful for the version of hope that many people have been taught to hold. If all-that-is and all-that-we-are-a-part-of is a "tiny thing," like a nut, a tiny thing that might at any point just "disappear," what does this mean?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Laughing at the Devil"
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Table of Contents
Preface. Devil: Zero xi Acknowledgments xix Introduction. Love in Everything 1 1. Time: On Poynte 19 2. Truth: Divine Delight 41 3. Blood: Spiritual Safety 61 4. Bodies: Nakedly and Truly 81 Postscript 109 Appendix. A Summary of Julian's Visions 113 References 115 Index 119
What People are Saying About This
“You might not expect to find references to Game of Thrones, West Texas, barfing bears, divorce, and Machiavelli in a book on Julian of Norwich, but you will find all these and much more in this volume. Julian of Norwich is a most unusual theologian, and Amy Laura Hall has given us a most unusual book: it is engaging and illuminating, a personal, passionate, and political reflection on and with Julian.”
“Laughing at the Devil with these two exceedingly clear-eyed women—Julian of Norwich and Amy Laura Hall—is compelling, enlightening, and joyous, all in one. The two have created texts, each for their own time, that together bear witness, at points defiant, at points mischievous, to a profoundly God-sustained world. What a wonderful, grace-filled vision.”
“Amy Laura Hall's masterful Laughing at the Devil is a rewarding joy to read, at once a profound dialogue with the great mystic Julian of Norwich, and a beautiful, raw, funny, audacious, and insightful invitation to the contemporary audience. We laugh with Hall and Julian, and we too yearn to pull closer to God not through fear and trembling, but through an aching heart bursting open with joy. This is the kind of raw, gritty, grounded, and real spiritual exploration that calls to all Christians, and to all people of faith. Strongly recommended!”