Chapter 2: Reflection 21 – Stirring, Soothing, and Piercing the Heart

It is from Origen of Alexandria and other ancient exegetes that Bernard of Clairvaux drew and developed the image of “the wound,” particularly in his commentarial Sermons on the Song of Songs. 1 In his seventy-fourth sermon of that collection, the Cistercian Abbot demonstrates having received the breathing inheritance bequeathed to him and skillfully extends it by grafting onto it imagery from the Prophet Ezekiel. Thus, Bernard depicts the transformation of the heart when it encounters Christ:

You ask then how I knew he was present, when his ways can in no way be traced” He is life and power, and as soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul; he stirs and soothes and pierces my heart [vulneravit cor meum], for before it was hard as stone … 2

In this way, Bernard provides a helpful context for the spiritual condition of “contrition,” an English deriving from the Latin contritio, which is said to mean “a wearing away of something hard.” 3

The first of the “thre wounds” Julian requests of God is “very contrition.” 4 “Contrition” is a deeply populated word in medieval England, as the following passage from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Parson’s Tale” gives evidence: 

Contrition is the true sorrow that a man receives in his heart for his sins, with steadfast purpose to confess himself, and to do penance, and nevermore to do sin. And this sorrow shall be in this manner, as says Saint Bernard: ‘It shall be heavy and grievous, and very sharp and piercing in heart.’ First, for man has sinned against his Lord and his Creator; and more sharp and poignant for he has sinned against his Father celestial; and yet more sharp and piercing for he has angered and sinned against him that bought him, that with his precious blood has delivered us from the bonds of sin, and from the cruelty of the devil, and from the pains of hell. 5

The late medieval text, The Boke of the Craft of Dying, provides another depiction of “contrition,” one that foregrounds specific ways in which to enact, with one’s body, that transformative spiritual state: 

But the great Clerk Albert saith, speaking of very contrition: If a very contrite man offereth himself gladly to all manner afflictions of sickness and punishment of his sins, that he may thereby satisfy God worthily for his offences, much more then every sick man should suffer patiently and gladly his own sickness alone, that is lighter without comparison than many sicknesses that other men suffer; namely that sickness before a man’s death is a purgatory to him, when it is suffered as it ought; that is to understand, if it is suffered patiently, gladly, and with a free and kind will of heart. 6

From these two quotations alone, one can discern in “contrition,” that word and wound, so many of the concerns which will preoccupy Julian in A Revelation: sin, divine anger, damnation, sickness, affliction, and satisfaction. By the end of her text, these concerns will themselves be transformed, formed anew through anchorite’s deep reading, her reflective contemplation, and her practice of writing.


  1. Trappist medievalist, Chrysogonus Waddell, reveals something of the warm and relational manner in which Bernard of Clairvaux read Holy Scripture: “There is no question, then, of Bernard as a lone individual tete-a-tete with the word of God. His contact with Scripture was always a family affair in which Bernard pores over the sacred page with Origen beside him, and Augustine and Ambrose and Gregory and the anonymous compilers of liturgical texts. (Chrysogonus Waddell, “Introduction,” from Bernard of Clairvaux, Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Translated by Marie-Bernard Said. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1993, page xvi.). Bernard McGinn writes: “In 1135, Bernard began his mystical masterpiece, the Sermones super Cantica Canticorum (Sermons on the Song of Songs). Though the abbot did preach to his monks in chapter on the Song, the eighty-six sermons that he left at his death are polished literary works, a highly developed and richly rhetorical treatment of the mystical life on the basis of a spiritual exegesis of the most profound (for Bernard) book of the Old Testament, Solomon’s song of love. The abbot of Clairvaux knew what had survived of Origen’s comment on the Song, as well as the Latin commentators, especially Ambrose and Gregory, but his unfished work (it extends only to Sg. 3:4) was very much his own.” (The Growth of Mysticism, Gregory the Great through the12th Century. Volume II of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996, page 164.) And Wolfgang Reihle affirms: “With their predilection for allegorizing the Song of Songs, the Old Testament book with its rich imagery of love, [the Cistercians], and Bernard of Clairvaux in particular, were influenced by the great church father Origen …” (Wolfgang Reihle, The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England. Translated by Charity Scott-Stokes, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014, page 2).
  2. Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermon Seventy-Four,” On the Song of Songs IV. Translated by Irene Edmonds. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1980, section 6, page 91. See Song 4.9: “vulnerasti cor meum soror mea sponsa vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum et in uno crine colli tui” (Vulgate). English:” Thou hast wounded my heart, my sister, my spouse, thou hast wounded my heart with one of thy eyes, and with one hair of thy neck” (Douay-Rheims). And also Ezekiel 11.19: “et dabo eis cor unum et spiritum novum tribuam in visceribus eorum et auferam cor lapideum de carne eorum et dabo eis cor carneum” (Vulgate). English: “And I will give them one heart, and will put a new spirit in their bowels: and I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh …” (Douay-Rheims).  
  3. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross. London: Oxford University Press, 1958, page 338.
  4. 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 34-35, page 129.
  5. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parson’s Tale,” The Canterbury Tales. Modern English translation retrieved from Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website: Middle English: “Þanne it is þus þat contricioun is þe verray sorwe þat a man receyueþ in his herte for his synnes wiþ sad purpos to schryue him and to doo penaunce and neuer more to don synne. ¶ And þis sorwe schal be in þis maner as saith seint Bernad ¶ It schal ben heuy and greuous and ful scharp and poynaunt in herte ¶ First for man haþ agilted his lord and his creatour and more scharp and poynaunt. For he haþ agiltid his fader celestial. and ȝit more scharp and poynaunt for he haþ wratthed and agilt him þat bouȝt him wiþ his precious blood and haþ delyuered vs fro þe bondes of synne and fro þe cruelte of þe deuel and fro þe peynes of helle …” (The Harleian ms. 7334 of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales. Ed. by Frederick J. Furnivall. Chaucer, Geoffrey, d. 1400., Furnivall, Frederick James, ed. 1825-1910. Lines 128-132, page 603. Retrieved from the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse:;view=fulltext )
  6. The Book of the Craft of Dying and Other Early English Tracts Concerning Death. Now First Done into Modern Spelling and Edited by: Frances M. M. Comper. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1917, pages 16-17. Internet Archive: Middle English: But as þe gret clerke Albert seyth, spekyng of verry contricion: [If] a verry contrite man offerryth hym-selfe gladly to all maner affliccion of seknesse & ponysshynge of his synnes, þat he may therby satisfye god worthyly for his offensis: moch more [þan] schuld euery sike man suffer paciently & gladly his owen seknesse a-lone, þat is lyȝter withoute comparison þan many syknessis þat other men suffer; namlye sythen þat siknes be-fore a mannys deþe is as a purgatory to hym whan þat it is suffred as it ought, þat is to vnderstonde, yf it be suffred pacientlye & gladly, with a fre [kynd] wyll of herte. For as the same clerke Albert seyth: we hane neede to haue a free kynd wyll to god not only in such þingis as bene to oure [consolacion, but also in such þingis as bene to oure] affliccion.” (“The Boke of the Craft of Dying,” in Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Followers. Edited by C. Horstmann. Cambridge: D. S Brewer, 1895/1986, volume 2, page 411.)   

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