“The goodness of God is the highest prayer and it cometh down to the lowest part of our need.”
This sentence from the 6th chapter of the Lady Julian’s Revelations summarizes a large part of her teaching. It was not of petitionary prayer that she wrote, but of contemplative prayer, the mystic’s desire to be “oned to God.”
Julian of Norwich was a great bhakta, a devotee, who lived at Norwich in the 14th century as an anchoress. While still a young woman she had prayed, long enough ago to have forgotten about it—that she might be given the grace to
(1) understand the Passion of Christ:
(2) suffer physically while still young;
and (3) have as God’s gift three wounds: the wound of true contrition; the wound of genuine compassion; and the wound of sincere longing for God.
Forgetting all about the first two requests she nevertheless dwelt continually on the request for the three wounds.
When only thirty years old she had a sudden illness so severe that she was thought to be dying. Her parish priest administered the last rites, and then placed a crucifix before her, that she might gaze on it and be comforted in her last moments. Though quite convinced that she was dying it came to her mind that she wanted to experience her Lord’s Passion with him; not to observe it, but to share in it with Him.
It was then that she was granted her revelations, the first fifteen of which appeared within a period of five hours, and the last one on the following night. Vivid descriptions of the Passion that she saw are interspersed in her book with different kinds of “shewings,” some “ghostly” some “word in mine understanding” shewings that in five hours covered most of the experiences of the mystical path. Julian recovered from this illness immediately and is thought to have lived for about forty years afterwards. A short version of her experiences is considered to be what she wrote down at the time, a more reflective version was probably written after twenty years of meditation and prayer over her “shewings.” Practically nothing is known of her personally, but of the conciseness and delicate beauty of her mind there is evidence in every chapter of her Revelations of Divine Love.
Her whole book is concerned with the soul’s relationship with God. She saw the revelations as light which deepened her under standing of the truths of her Faith and showed her more clearly how “we may know Him and love Him and cleave to Him.” Always she leads the reader’s attention away from herself and her experiences towards God; she was very conscious that the revelations by themselves did not make her better than her “even-Christians.” “Because of the shewing I am not good, but only if I love God the better”, she wrote.
The fruit of the revelations was a purer faith and a completely trusting love in God, and these prove the genuineness and the worth of her experiences. Looking at herself she considered herself as naught; but in as much as she was united with her fellow Christians, she was “hopeful.”
It was in the first revelation that God showed her the “little thing, the size of a hazelnut” which is quoted so often. On regarding it thoughtfully and asking, What is this ? the answer came, “It is all that is made.” And in that “little thing” she saw three truths (she was very fond of grouping things in threes!:
(1) that God made it;
(2) that God loves it;
(3) that God sustains it. And yet so small a thing!
So, she wrote, must we realize the littleness of the created world before we can know God. “The cause whereby we be not all in ease of heart and soul is that we seek here rest in those things that be so little, wherein is no rest.” True, the world, “large, fair and good” only appears little in the presence of Him who made it. Nevertheless the vision of God can only be known if the world is “wilfully naughted.” Julian emphasizes the wilful naughting, but urges the soul to take the positive attitude. Yearning for God, cleaving to Him, fixing all our attention on Him, not on our own fitful progress. “He willeth not that we be wretched over self: but He willeth that we hastily intend unto Him.” Our attitude must be one of “beseeching,” asking boons of a lover, for “He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us, claspeth us, and all beclotheth us for tender love.”
But longing and yearning are not enough; aspiration is of no value without effective love. The soul must be made clean by contrition; made ready by compassion; and made worthy by true longing. It is prayer that turns aspiration into the union of our will with the will of God. Only then can the soul pray in earnest, “God of Thy goodness, give me Thyself: for Thou art enough for me, and I may nothing ask that is less.” As the soul yearns for God, so does God long to possess the soul. “He hath made us only to Himself”; so to yearn for Him, to work towards this union is to do His will.
“I am the Ground of thy beseeching” or in a modern translation, “I am the foundation of your praying. In the first place My will is that you should pray, and then I make it your will, too, and since it is I who make you pray, and you do so pray, how can you not have what you ask for?” The end of creation is for the soul to be absorbed in God; it is only by seeking God that the soul finds satisfaction.
This petition to be given God Himself is “the most worshipful to God,” for by petitioning thus we recognise our true end. Until we recognise that He is “the Ground on whom our prayer springeth” and that we only receive what we do by His grace, we will never trust Him enough.
At one point Julian asked some particular knowledge of a person she wanted to help, but instead of being given it she was shown that it was knowledge in general, not particular information that she was to have. This is “more worship to God.” God is Infinite, so by contemplating all things in Him, and not in their particularity, we live in a larger dimension, closer to Him, more like Him. “If we pray and see not that He doeth it, it maketh us heavy and doubtful, and that is not His worship.”
Both our love and our trust must be large hearted. Julian was shown her own soul large as the eternal world, and that although God was in all things, yet He only took up His dwelling in man’s soul. This large hearted trust is very necessary to carry us over the deserts of dryness that all alike go through at some time. When the soul is “tempested and troubled, and left to itself to unrest” that is the time when our trust and prayer make the soul pliable and obedient. Devotion to God is simple enough in times of consolation, but when the soul feels nothing, sees nothing and imagines itself as doing nothing, then prayer does the most good. This is the time when the light of God works in us, but not so that we can recognise it; we are being purified by the “naughting” of self love and self satisfaction. Now the very basis of faith is to “take it; believe it; hold on to it; comfort yourself with it; trust it.”
Union through this obedience is steadier than aspiration, which is “ful lovesome to the soul.” In dryness “we abide Him steadfastly for His love, without grudging and striving against Him” but the aspiration ful lovesome to the soul can easily lead to presumption. Julian learned to be “in dread for unsureness of myself” and so was free from presumption, spiritual pride.
From the prayer of aspiration Julian was led to what she terms “beholding” that is, not seeing, but being steadied in contemplation. Prayer, for the time being, ceases, “but all our intent with all our might is set wholly to the beholding of Him.” She writes of clearly and plainly beholding God in this contemplation, of a “new, gracious, lasting will of the soul oned and fastened into the will of our Lord.”
For this experience the creature is “lifted up above its natural capacities” and so it becomes impossible to express it in human language. It is the result of a special grace, not to be earned, but He “stirreth us” and “draweth us unto Him by love.”
This Divine Love was the conclusion of Julian’s revelations. She was asked
“Wouldst thou witten thy Lord’s meaning in this thing?
Wit it well: love was His meaning.
Who shewed it thee ? Love.
What shewed He thee? Love.
Wherefore shewed it He? For Love.”