Julian of Norwich’s Spirituality of Prayer

Readings for the Feast of Dame Julian of Norwich:

(Acts 16:9-15)

Hebrews 10:19-24

Psalm 103:1-4, 13-18

John 4:23-26

This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Sunday May 9, 2010.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Amen.

Today we celebrate one of my favorite English mystics, Julian of Norwich, a 14th century anchoress whose prayer life has been described as “bold and broad.” [1] Her boldness in prayer was affirmed by Christ who appeared to her in sixteen revelations of love. Even in receiving the divine revelations, Julian continued to pray with her whole self, not holding anything back. And Christ continued to draw her deeper into his love, encouraging her to pray with all that was within her. In a vision, Christ said to her, “Pray entirely, wholeheartedly, earnestly, even if you feel nothing. Bring that nothingness to me in prayer. If you’re feeling dry, barren, empty, weak or sick, bring all those parts of your self to me. I want it all.”

The Scriptures we just read all capture Julian’s spirituality of prayer. The Hebrews passage calls us to enter the Holy of Holies “in full assurance of faith,” with “confidence” and courage, knowing that God loves and accepts everything about us and wants us to bring our whole selves to Him in prayer. The Gospel passage recounts the climax of a long conversation between Christ and a Samaritan woman. Christ responds to the woman’s bold questions, petitions and theological reflections with an invitation for her to bring her whole self to him, even those parts of which she was ashamed. And when she does bring her whole self to him, warts and all, he lovingly reveals his divine self to her: a revelation of love.  And Psalm 103:1 sums it up best: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.” Hebrews, John, the Psalms and Julian all agree that if we want to go deep in our spiritual lives, if we want to experience God in new and life-changing ways, then we need to bring our whole selves to Him in prayer, even those parts of which we might be ashamed. God wants it all. In order to whet our appetite for the spiritual deep end, I want to share with you some of the beautiful insights that Julian of Norwich attained as a result of bringing her whole self to God in prayer.

Julian lived as anchoress in England, which meant that she lived enclosed permanently in a room (called an anchor-hold or anchorage) attached to a church with one window facing the altar and another window facing the world outside. Imagine converting our sacristy or our vesting room into a small apartment where someone has chosen to live for the rest of her life. If you think you’re at church a lot, an anchoress was at church 24/7 for her entire life.

During Julian’s lifetime, the plague was wiping out more than a third of England’s population; the Hundred Years’ War was underway, claiming young people’s lives; and the Western Church was just as confused and schismatic as ever, split between three popes.[2] Famines, peasant revolts and violent crusades led many to believe that they were living in the end of times. In this context, Julian prayed with her whole self, which meant bringing to Jesus her doubts and questions. Why is there so much suffering? Why do you allow it? If you knew sin was going to bring about such misery, why didn’t you stop it from happening in the first place? We’re often ashamed or afraid of asking such questions, but if these are our questions then praying with our whole self involves bringing these questions to God, the way Julian did. God held Julian in her questions, not giving her pat answers, but offering her images and invitations into deeper love and trust.

One invitation into deeper trust repeats like a refrain throughout her visions. Numerous times, God gently reminds her, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.” Still praying boldly with her whole self, Julian explains to God how difficult it is to trust in his goodness in the midst of such suffering. And again, God responds to her with a revelation a love. Julian writes, “He showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered…it lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”[3] In a hazelnut-sized object, God shows Julian the universe and assures her of His love and protection.

As Julian continues to pray boldly with all that is within her, God continues to respond with these revelations of love. In these divine showings, Julian is told that there is no wrath in God, a radical and even heretical belief at the time. She also learns the mystic truth that “Between our souls and God, there is no between.” And she shares a powerful parable about a Lord and a Servant, which tackles the problem of suffering in a profoundly unique way. In her visions, Julian experiences God as a friend, a lover, a king, a noble lord, a courteous knight, as clothing, as a castle, as a cave, as a brother, as a father, and most of all, she experiences God as a mother, as the one true Mother. Although not the first Christian theologian to describe Christ as Mother, Julian is the first to make the Mother Christ image central to her understanding of God. In fact, Julian’s view of motherhood is so high that Christ is the only One who truly embodies it, no matter how wonderful our earthly mothers might be. Julian’s own mother was present to her when she was severely ill in her anchor-hold and some scholars suggest that Julian herself was a mother whose husband and children died from the plague before she took her anchoritic vows. Julian knew motherhood well and knew that even mothers are fallible human beings. She writes, “This fair and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.”[4] In her understanding of God as Mother, Julian drew closer to the divine as she prayed with all that was within her.

Growing up, I remember when my mom would tuck me into bed and I would start talking about the day or what was on my mind. I always felt a safety and freedom in that space to share all that was going on within me. And I would sometimes ask my mom questions and tell her things that were bothering me. And my mom’s responses were similar to God’s responses to Julian’s questions. Like God, my mom did not give me pat answers; instead, her presence communicated love and care and an empathy that spoke to a deep place in my heart, assuring me, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”

On this Mother’s Day, Julian of Norwich invites us to bring our whole selves to God in prayer and, in doing so, discover in Him our True Mother, who will hold and love all of our parts, even those of which we might be ashamed. In God’s maternal love and care, we are encouraged to pray with all that is within us. If we’re feeling sick or bored or frustrated or disappointed, we are encouraged to give it all to God in prayer. If we have big, burning questions about the problem of suffering or the mystery of the Trinity or any of the honest questions that the young confirmands are now asking in Confirmation class, Julian’s example encourages us to bring them to our Mother Christ. We might not get the rational, watertight answers that we’re seeking, but I promise that we will get revelations of love. In the midst of anxiety, chaos, sickness, and death, Mother Christ calls us to “pray entirely, wholeheartedly, and earnestly” just as he called Julian. Because in that holy space of prayer, God shows us the universe held in the palm of his loving hands as he tucks us in with the assurance that all shall be well.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within us, bless our holy Mother Christ. Amen.

[1] Clifton Wolters, trans. Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 39.

[2] In what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity” or the “Great Schism” of the Western Church, Pope Urban VI claimed to be pope in Rome while Pope Clement VII claimed to be pope in Avignon. In a failed attempt to resolve the conflict, church leaders elected a third pope, Alexander V at the Council of Pisa in 1409. Finally, the conflict was resolved at the Council of Constance in 1414 with the election of Martin V.

[3] Edmund Colledge O.S.A and James Walsh S.J. trans. Julian of Norwich: Showings (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978), 130.

[4] Colledge, 299.

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