Julian of Norwich’s Invitation to “Pray Interly”

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Readings for the Feast Day of Dame Julian of Norwich

Isaiah 46:3-5

Psalm 103:1-4, 13-18

Showings Ch. 5

John 4:23-26

This sermon was preached at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on May 8, 2014

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

As a freshman at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, I sat in a classroom that usually pulsated with nervous excitement and energy due to weekly quizzes and a desire to impress fellow classmates with thoughtful comments and questions. However, on this one particular day, the class sat hushed under a dark cloud of uncertainty. It was not because of an impending midterm or final exam. In fact, the profound fear and terror within each student made quizzes and grades and even college itself seem trivial. We all sat silent, wondering if anyone would even attempt to articulate our existential insecurity. Studying British Literature, we appreciated the power of language yet also knew its limitations and that it could only capture the foam on the surface of our fear.[1] Our professor, who was often eloquent but now dumbstruck, invited us to share our thoughts. After more silence, one young woman finally broke the hush. She read a passage from the reading assignment that was due that day. And that passage somehow held all of our fear, anger and confusion as if the author knew exactly what we were feeling. The reading that was due on that day, September 11th 2001, was a selection of passages from the book of Showings by the first known woman of English letters; and her words, more than any other words of assurance that we heard that day, clothed us with hope.

They were the words of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English mystic whose prayer life has been described as “bold and broad.” Her boldness in prayer was affirmed by Christ who appeared to her in sixteen visions. Even in receiving the divine revelations, Julian continued to pray boldly, 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 one vision, Christ said to her, “Pray interly.” The word “interly” is a Middle English hapax legomenon, which means it is a word that only occurs once in all of the Middle English literature that we have. It is a powerful word with polyvalent meaning. To pray interly means to pray inwardly or interiorly, with all of the emotions and questions of the inner life. And praying interly also means praying entirely, with the whole self, with the body, with the physical life. As a result of praying interly, Julian experienced God in the joy of laughter, in bodily pain and sickness and even in the wondrous process of human digestion! And it was praying interly, praying with all the questions and emotions of her inner life, that propelled her deeper into the divine visions in such a way that she could articulate them to us; and bring comfort and solace to a classroom full of terrified college students and (perhaps) bring hope to us today.

The Gospel this morning provides an example of someone praying interly, recounting the climax of a long conversation between Christ and a feisty 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 up the word “interly” best: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.” John’s Gospel, the Psalms and Julian of Norwich all invite us to bring our whole selves to God in prayer, even those parts of which we might be ashamed. God wants it all. …

During Julian’s lifetime, the Black Death was wiping out more than a third of England’s population (and more than half of Norwich!); the Hundred Years’ War was underway, claiming young people’s lives, and followers of the heretic John Wycliffe (known as the Lollards) were being burned at the stake throughout England. Climate change, famine, and peasant revolts convinced many that the world was nearing its apocalyptic end. And on top of all this, the people were quickly growing disillusioned with the Church and her leaders, who were proving just as power-hungry and abusive as the political leaders of the day, squabbling over rights of succession.[2] It was in this context that Julian prayed interly by asking God why he allowed such sin and suffering. And God held Julian in her questions, not giving her pat answers, but offering her images and invitations into deeper love and trust.

These images and invitations came to her in the midst of a miraculous cure from what initially seemed to be a fatal illness. She then spent about twenty years unpacking the meaning of this mystical near-death experience. In order to devote herself solely to this project, she made the decision to permanently immure herself in an anchor-hold or anchorage, which is a room attached to a church, with one window facing the altar and another window facing the world outside. It would be like converting this light-switch room into a small apartment with two windows, where someone has chosen to live for the rest of her life. So if you think you’re at church a lot, an anchoress was at church 24/7 for her entire life.

When she was not offering spiritual counsel to visitors, Julian was praying, reading, and eventually writing (in her own Middle English) the insights and images she received from God. In her visions, God responded to her bold questions with invitations to deeper trust. One invitation repeats like a refrain throughout her Showings. Numerous times, God gently reminded her, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.” Authors such as T. S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and Thomas Merton have found immense comfort in these words and have cited them in their own spiritual classics. However, what I love so much about Julian, is that she still was not satisfied with this. She looked out her window and saw that all was not well. So she continued to pray interly, saying, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures? And here I wished, so far as I dared, for some plainer explanation through which I might be at ease about this matter.”[3] Julian dared to talk back to God, telling God that his response wasn’t good enough. And God, who appeared to appreciate her authenticity and her commitment to praying interly, responded with more revelations of love. God continually pointed to the Cross, the central image around which all of the other visions revolve. Yet through the visions, Julian interpreted the Cross very differently than Anselm of Canterbury who understood Christ’s work on the Cross as essentially paying a debt that humanity owed to God, a debt made when humanity insulted God’s honor due to sin. For Julian, however, there is no wrath in God. She wrote, “For I saw most truly that where our Lord appears, peace is received and wrath has no place; for I saw no kind of wrath in God.”[4] If there is no wrath in God, then the work of the Cross is no longer about the paying of a debt to a dishonored (and apparently insecure) deity. Instead, the Cross is God’s compassionate response to our own wrath and violence, which we so often tend to project onto God. The Cross, instead, is God’s willingness to hold us no matter what, even if it means receiving our wrath and violence.

Throughout her visions, Julian continued to experience God as a friend, a lover, a king, a kind nurse, a courteous knight, as clothing, as a castle, as a cave, as a brother, as a father, and most of all, she experienced God as a mother, as the one true Mother. Julian’s understanding of Christ as mother reminds us of how God reveals Godself to us as a mother in the Scriptures. Jesus himself identifies as a mother when he longs to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37), the same children who he says kills prophets and stones those sent to them. In seeing Jesus as mother, Julian sees Jesus as one who longs to hold us and everything that is within us, not just the nice parts.

And in the Isaiah passage we just read, God describes how He carries His people in his womb and how He will continue to preserve His people because He made us and because He loves us, just as He keeps the entire universe in His love and protection like a hazelnut in the palm of his Hand.

Julian of Norwich invites us to pray interly, pray entirely, wholeheartedly, with our whole selves, our physical bodies, our doubts, our questions, and our emotions. Whether we’re feeling sick or bored or frustrated or disappointed, we are invited to give it all to God in prayer. If we have big, burning questions about the problem of suffering or about the grueling and confusing process of ordination or about what the hell we are doing here at seminary or about what the hell we will do after we graduate, Julian’s example encourages us to bring all of that to God. Although we might not get the rational, watertight answers that we might be seeking or expecting, I promise that we will get revelations of love.

Finally, I want to invite you to take a hazelnut. You may take it as a reminder of God’s revelation to Julian that all creation is held within the palm of his hand. You may also take it as an invitation to appreciate God within your body by simply eating the delicious hazelnut. And you may also take it as a reminder that God holds all that is within you and invites you to pray interly, with your whole self because if God can hold the entire universe in the palm of his hand he can certainly handle all that is within us.

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

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[1] Homage to Paul Ricoeur who said, “Language only captures the foam on the surface of life.” Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory (Fort Worth TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 63.

[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] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 29, trans. Colledge and Walsh (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 227.

[4] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 49 Colledge and Walsh, 264.

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