Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich, the saint remembered in the Church calendar last Friday, 8th May, could have been slightly overlooked in view of the fact that her day has also become the anniversary of V.E. Day.  These things happen.  A date will mean different things to different people, or we just have to share; such that those who have been born on Christmas Day must celebrate their birthday differently to others.

So let us bring Julian to mind this morning, as we continue church online and begin Christian Aid Week.  There is much that can and has been said about this great visionary of the English Church, as we likewise acknowledge is the case with the other spiritual writers of the fourteenth century, that graced the Church in this land, and are still avidly read today.

But, let us just take one thought from Julian and her contemporaries for turning over in our minds as a thought for the day:  She, and the others: William Hilton, Richard Rolle, the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing, and, if we trespass into the fifteenth century, Margery Kempe, all remind us that prayer is primarily concerned with God and not with our need.  

It seems to me that this is a balance that can easily be tipped by us the other way.  We have cycles of prayer and lists of people and situations to pray for; we look to ourselves and the guidance and strength that we require for our lives, and for our commitment to others.  All of this can build, layer upon layer, as we concentrate upon what we need in order that we may faithful, and serve God and our neighbour in the way we should.  This is all entirely praiseworthy and right.

So, how is it that we hear from fourteenth century English Christian visionaries, caught up no less than us in a fragile and tenuous existence, that the first concern of prayer is God?  I would like to introduce the two words ‘mercy’ and ‘grace’ at this point.  These are qualities of God that show us things in a gentle light; a calm light; a light that shines through our frenzied activity, and calls us into God’s silence and peace.  If our principle focus is not on God, but on what we see we as our need for ourselves or those who are in trouble, then we pray in our own light, not in that of God’s mercy and grace, which shows us our failings and leads us to desire God before all things.

Julian wrote, “By contrition we are made clean, by compassion, ready; and by a genuine longing for God, worthy.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love - Penguin edition 1966, p.120).  Now, she is not making a comprehensive theological statement here, the whole context must be read and studied carefully, but this inclination to a primary approach to God in prayer by contrition, compassion and longing, is a good example of how we seek to understand mercy and grace, before turning our thoughts to what we desire for others, and even for ourselves.

John Mann