Chapter 2: Reflection 15 – To Die Without Dying

In her request for the “gift” of a “bodily sicknes,” Julian provides a significant amount of detail about the type of malady she requested. 1 She states that she wished that the sickness would bring her to the very point of death, so that both she and those around her would believe that she was going to die. She also prays that this sickness be accompanied by all the physical and spiritual pains that would normally accompany a fatal illness. In his notes on this section of Julian’s text, TM succinctly observes that the anchorite wishes “to die without dying” and that she is expressing as a “desire for a spiritual martyrdom.” 2 And the association between sickness and martyrdom is present in medieval religious writings, as is evidenced in the Ancrene Wisse:  

Sickness … makes the patient person equal to a martyr … Sickness is your goldsmith who, in the joy of heaven, gilds your crown. The greater the sickness is the busier is the goldsmith, and the longer it lasts the more he burnishes it, to be equal to a martyr’s through a short-lived pain. 3

In his famous An Exhortation to Martyrdom, the ancient Alexandrian theologian, Origen (c. 185-254) writes:

The person who does not refuse the ‘affliction upon affliction’ but welcomes it like a noble athlete as well immediately welcomes ‘hope upon hope,’ which he will enjoy shortly after the ‘affliction upon affliction’ … [This one] will consider with Paul ‘that the sufferings of this present time,’ with which, as it were, we purchase blessedness ‘are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ from God (Rom. 8.18). The truth of this judgement is apparent because ‘this light momentary affliction’ (2 Cor. 4.17) both is and is said to be ‘light’ for those not burdened by present hardships, since it is quite outweighed by the greater and heavier ‘weight of eternal glory’ it is ‘preparing for us’ (2 Cor. 4.17). This will happen if, when our persecutors wish to weigh down our souls, as it were, we turn our governing mind from our sufferings and look not at the present sufferings but at the prizes kept for athletes who by their endurance of these tests compete according to the rules in Christ by the grace of God (cf. 2 Tim. 2.5). 4

In his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, TM provides insight into such affliction when he writes about his father’s final days struggling with cancer of the brain in a London Hospital. Although certainly stricken by the illness, TM asserts that his father’s “intelligence and his will, unimpaired, and not hampered in any essential way … were turned to God, and communed with God.” 5 This deep communion made possible a type of refinement and purgation, wherein God gave him “light to understand and to make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul” – a soul that TM affirms as “great,” “large,” and “full of natural charity.” Thus, TM can defiantly declare: “And this affliction, this terrible and frightening illness which was relentlessly pressing him down even to the jaws of the tomb, was not destroying him after all.” 6 Then, using language which poignantly compliments that of Origen, TM summarizes his father’s struggle:  

Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity. And my father was in a fight with his tumor, and none of us understood the battle. We thought he was done for, but it was making him great. I think God was already weighing out to him the weight of reality that was to be his reward, for he certainly believed far more than any theologian would require of a man to hold explicitly as ‘necessity of means,’ and so he was eligible for this reward, and his struggle was authentic, and not wasted or lost or thrown away. 7

Thus, we can better hear the fierce courage and compassion saturating Julian’s second desire:

I would that that that sicknes were so hard as to the death … I would have no maner of  comforte of fleshly ne erthely life. In this sicknes I desired to have all maner of paines, bodily and ghostly, that I should have if I should die … save the outpassing of the soule. And this ment I: for I would be purged by the mercy of God … 8


  1. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, Lines 18-25, page 127. Fuller quotation: “For the secunde, come to my mind with contrition, frely without any seeking: a wilful desire to have of God’s gifte a bodily sicknes. I would that that sicknes were so hard as to the death, that I might in that sicknes undertake all my rightes of holy church, myself wening that I should die, and that all creatures might suppose the same that saw me. For I would have no maner of comforte of fleshly ne erthly life. In this sicknes I desired to have all maner of paines, bodily and ghostly, that I should have if I should die, all the dredes and tempests of fiends, and all maner of other paines, save the outpassing of the soule. And this ment i: for I would be purged by the mercy of God, and live more to the worshippe of God because of that sicknes, for I hoped that it might be to me a spede when I should die. For I desired soon to be with my God and maker.” (Ibid., pages 127 and 129).
  2. Image One below is of TM’s apparent notes on Chapter 2 of Julian’s text. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Paul Pearson, Director of the Bellarmine University’s Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky, for making available a scan of these Notes. For a helpful overview of the early development of the concept of “spiritual martyrdom,” see Alfred C. Rush, “Spiritual Martyrdom in St. Gregory the Great.” Theological Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, 1962, pp. 569-589, Professor Rush explains: “In the early ages of the Church the martyr was the Christian ideal, the perfect imitator of Christ. It is known that when the age of persecution came to a close, the monk came to the fore, to take the place of the martyr as the acme of perfection. The monk was regarded as the brother of the martyr. Even in the era of persecutions, however, there was already formulated the idea of spiritual martyrdom. Although spiritual martyrdom came to be regarded as embodied perfectly in monasticism and consecrated virginity, nevertheless it was also early applied as an ascetical ideal to the living of the Christian life among the rank and file of Christians. Spiritual martyrdom applies primarily to those who do not, or who actually will not, undergo actual martyrdom of blood. To those who do not attain the privilege and the grace of dying for Christ at the hand of the persecutor, an ideal is set up: they can be spiritual martyrs. In other words, they can be witnesses to Christ by the goodness of their lives; they can fight the good fight by the struggle within their own consciences, within their own heart, between the forces of good and evil, between the forces of virtue and vice. In this work they can emerge victorious with the laurel of virtue, with the crown of Christ-likeness. It was this life that came to be called spiritual martyrdom, white martyrdom, the martyrdom of peace, martyrdom in intention, martyrdom of conscience, daily martyrdom, and bloodless martyrdom.” (Ibid. 574)
  3. “Ancrene Wisse” in Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. Translated by Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. New York: Paulist Press, 1991, page 115-116.
  4. Origin, Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom; Prayer; First Principles: Book IV; Prologue to the Commentary on The Song of Songs; Homily XXVII on Numbers. Translation and Introduction by Rowan A. Greer. Preface by Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1979, pages 41 and 42. Image Two below is a table containing the above-quoted English translation of Rowan Greer (1st column), the Latin text (2nd column), and the English translation of John Ernest Leonard Oulton and Henry Chadwick (3rd column). Reference the Latin text: J. P. Migne’s, Patrologia Graeca (1857–1866), Volume 11, beginning at page 563, section A, number 1. Retrieved from: Reference for the second English translation: Alexandrian Christianity: The Library of Christian Classics, Volume III. Selected Translations of Clement and Origen with Introductions and Notes by John Ernest Leonard Oulton and Henry Chadwick. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954, page 393-394: Retrieved from: One of the pivotal scriptural references that Origen uses here is taken from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “id enim quod in praesenti est momentaneum et leve tribulationis nostrae supra modum in sublimitatem aeternum gloriae pondus operatur nobis” (Vulgate); “For that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation worketh for us above measure, exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.” (Douay Rheims); ): “But that liyt thing of oure tribulacioun that lastith now, but as it were by a moment, worchith in vs ouer mesure an euerlastynge birthin in to the heiynesse of glorie …” (Wycliffe Bible) Of Origen’s text, scholar Bernard McGinn, writes: “The Exhortation to Martyrdom is important for showing how Origen’s view of mystical theory appropriated and reinterpreted the earliest Christian ideal of attaining God present in Christ – the supreme act of witnessing to Jesus by dying for him. Throughout his life, the studious ascetic insisted that martyrdom was the ideal for the believer, but his understanding of this ideal reflects his own theological vision. While he still views martyrdom as an imitatio Christi in ways not unlike those found in earlier literature … the martyr is now seen not so much oppositionally, as one who confronts pagan demonism through his speaking out for Jesus, as ‘gradationally’ … that is, as the one who brings to perfection the soul’s desire to separate itself from the earthly body and material things.” (Bernard McGinn, The Foundations for Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century. Volume I of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994, page 127)
  5. Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 92. Illness – and indeed death – are recurring themes in TM’s autobiography. His mother, Ruth, died of cancer when TM was six years old (October 1921); his father died of a brain tumor when he was sixteen (January 1931); his “live-wire” maternal grandfather, “Pop,” when he was twenty-two (October 1936); and his maternal grandmother, Bonnemaman,” died less than a year later (August 1937). Very early in his autobiography, TM recounts his mother’s illness: “And probably the chief reason we needed money was that Mother had cancer of the stomach. That was another thing that was never explained to me. Everything about sickness and death was more or less kept hidden from me, because consideration of these things might make a child morbid. And since I was destined to grow up with a nice, clear, optimistic, and well-balanced outlook on life, I was never even taken to the hospital to see Mother, after she was there. And this was entirely her own idea. How long she had been ill and suffering, still keeping house for us, not without poverty and hardship, without our knowing anything of what it was, I cannot say. But her sickness probably accounts for my memory of her as thin and pale and rather severe … [O]ne day Father gave me a note to read. I was very surprised. It was addressed to me personally, and it was in my mother’s handwriting. I don’t think she had ever written to me before – there had never been any occasion for it. Then I understood what was happening, although, as I remember, the language of the letter was confusing to me. Nevertheless, one thing was quite evident. Mother was informing me, by mail, that she was about to die, and would never see me again.’ (Ibid., page 15-16).  
  6. Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 92. In his book, TM recounts visiting his father, Owen, in the London hospital: “We went into the ward. Father was in bed, to the left, just as you went in the door. And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of his living much longer. His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead. I said, ‘How are you, Father?’ He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything. But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprung to my eyes. Nobody said anything more. I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor Father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do. When I finally looked up and dried my tears, I noticed that the attendants had put screens around the bed. I was too miserable to feel ashamed of my un-English demonstration of sorrow and affection. And so we went away.” (Ibid., page 90-91)
  7. Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 92.
  8. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, Lines18-25, page 127. Julian’s wish to be “purged” by sickness resonates with the teaching of the Ancrene Wisse: “Sickness is a hot flame to suffer, but nothing cleanses gold so well as it cleanses the soul.” (“Ancrene Wisse” in Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. Translated by Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. New York: Paulist Press, 1991, page 115).
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