Prayer in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations
Feast Day 8th May
Prayer is what removes the obstacles in us that obstruct and hinder the free operation of God’s grace. Julian has three chapters on prayer, 41– 43, but the spirit of prayer pervades the Revelations. So we learn more of those deeper realities of prayer from other parts of the book.
She says that prayer brings us from a condition of merely ‘longing for God’ into a condition of union with him. ‘Prayer unites the soul to God.’ However like God the soul may be in essence and nature (once it has been restored by grace), it is often unlike him in fact because of sin. Prayer proclaims that the soul should will what God wills; and so it strengthens the conscience and enables a person to obtain grace. It is because human nature is sinful that we meet difficulties on our way to union with God, even though we want God. So God teaches us to pray what pleases him, so that from time to time our will should be in accord with the will of God. ‘Our Lord God’s will is that we should have a real understanding of prayer …’ (ch 42).
There must be a serious effort from time to time of ‘turning’ our will into the will of God. In our experience there will be times when we ardently long for God, but other times when hardness and dryness might be inclined to inhibit our prayer. Julian had been through such water and fire, so she knew that this is the time to pray and points out that it is through these practical difficulties of life that the soul is ‘made pliable and obedient to God’. Union with God cannot remain something we merely aspire to, it must be expressed in obedience, an obedience by which a person lives, works and does what God wants him to do.
This way of union with God, by being obedient to what he requires, is deeper than union through mere longing. That is why it is more acceptable to God. ‘God accepts his servant’s intention and effort, whatever our feelings. It pleases him that we should work away at our praying and at our Christian living by the help of his grace’ (ch 41). ‘So he moves us to pray, for what it is he wants us to do. For such prayer and goodwill – and it is his gift – he rewards us eternally … so does the soul by prayer conform to God.’
Julian means by prayer, not the prayer of asking, but the quality of prayer that unites us to God in a union of wills.
The Fruit and End of Prayer
The kind of prayer that Julian is talking about is what establishes a deeper union between God and ourselves than mere desire or longing. Mere desire and longing need to be tested for authenticity. In themselves alone they do not require special effort or sacrifice. It is when the soul is ‘turned’ to God in prayer that this ‘longing for God’ is put to the test. Then it is discovered whether that ‘longing for God’ is real and sincere in a much more demanding sense. ‘Prayer is the deliberate act of the soul. It is true, full of grace and lasting, for it is united with and fixed into the will of our Lord by the inner working of the Holy Spirit.’
Prayer is what brings us into a very high degree of union with God, but also enables us to experience higher graces. Here we enter into a lived experience of the mysteries of Christ where we begin to perceive and know some of the secrets of God. It is a condition of life in which we grow in progressive unification with God. So it is not asking for things, or trying to bend God’s will to our needs, but the way in which we progressively grow in union with God. God is the cause of our prayer and Julian keeps telling us to be confident in this fact that the grace of God goes before us at all points. ‘When we cry Abba, Father, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit’ (Romans 8.16). ‘I am the foundation of your praying. In the first place it is my will 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.’
So when we pray we follow the movement of God’s will, and by this uniting of our will to his we give him pleasure. When we realize that God not only inspires our desire for union, but is also the principal agent in its realization, we become aware of our own insufficiency and give ourselves up to trust in him for himself alone.
Arthur Middleton is tutor at St Chad’s Durham, a writer and a retreat conductor.