Welcome to Lent, the time of year when we shine the light of the Gospel into our own hearts in humble self examination. As I mentioned on Sunday, this year, our guide through Lent will be the wonderful English mystic, Julian of Norwich — in thirty-nine short, daily reflections. Over the twenty years since I first read her words, I have returned to them time and time again and found that they never cease to provoke thought, contemplation, and prayer. And so she is a perfect person to guide us through this season of contemplation and repentance. Today, on this Ash Wednesday, when we ‘remember that we are dust’, I’ll be looking at how Julian prayed and what she says about the disposition of her heart.
Julian of Norwich was a fourteenth-century anchoress, a type of monastic who lived alone in a cell in the church walls, having taken vows of solitude and stability in addition to the normal vows of poverty, obedience, and so forth. This was a rare vocation, which required a thorough vetting and discernment process, so this tells us a lot about Julian’s character. Long before she had her visions, she was recognized by her community as being both called to live out her faith in a rather extreme way and mentally stable enough to handle it. But it seems she wasn’t satisfied with the of extremity anchorite life, and so she prayed for three further things: a tangible experience of Christ’s suffering on the cross, an illness so severe it would feel like death itself, and what she calls ‘three wounds’: “true contrition, … loving compassion, and … longing with my will for God” (Ch 2).*
If these seem like strange things to pray for, don’t worry — Julian thought so too. Years later, she admitted that it “seemed to me that this was not the ordinary practice of prayer.” The second prayer strikes us as particularly strange and extreme; but it seems as though what she was wanting from such an experience was to really experience, albeit in a very dramatic way, the same reminder of mortality and humility that is at the heart of today’s Ash Wednesday celebrations. She wanted to know she was dust, to the point of hearing the last rites prayed over her. But again, she recognized that this was beyond the pale of normal Christian piety, and so she put a condition on them: “Therefore, I said: Lord, you know what I want, if it be your will that I have it, and if it be not your will, good Lord, do not be displeased, for I want nothing which you do not want” (Ch 2).
This is a wise example for all us as we approach our own spiritual lives: not to focus on outcomes, but on openness to what is best for us. It’s not that we shouldn’t have desires, or seek divine blessings and peak religious experiences, but that they aren’t the point. We would do well to follow Julian’s lead and hold what we want in life and what we want from God with an open hand. True prayer is always like Jesus’ in the Garden of Gethsemane: “…not my will but yours be done, O Lord.” This attitude takes trust, trust that God is good even when we are disappointed, when the even simple and good longings of our heart are not met, or when it feels like the world is crumbling around us. It is, as Julian puts it, to trust that “we are preserved in love by the goodness of God just as truly in woe as in well-being” (Ch 1). It is to remember at all times that Jesus Christ is “our endless bliss” (Ch 1), irrespective of our lot in life.
Ultimately, no matter what we pray for, it is in the service of the bigger and better goal of becoming more like Christ. And this is Julian’s third prayer: for the three wounds of contrition, compassion, and longing for God. These terms provide a nice summary of the whole life of faith:
- Contrition: Awareness of the ways we fail to show up in our relationships with God and others that leads to genuine repentance, which is more than saying ‘I’m sorry’ but is a commitment to a new way of life.
- Compassion: An active expression, in attitude, word, and deed, of empathy, kindness, mercy, and grace to those around us.
- Longing for God: Awareness that both of these are not ends in themselves but are to be humbly directed towards God and God’s Kingdom.
When I first encountered this text, I was put off by the fact that she calls these positive things ‘wounds’. But the more of life I experience, the more I realize how apt this turn of phrase is. For all three of them require vulnerability — to be open to seeing the hurt we cause others, to be open to extend a hand to others, and to be open to the real feelings of divine absence that longing for God can reveal. And vulnerability so often in our world means being hurt, and sometimes hurt deeply. These are wounds, but the best kind of wounds.
And so, on this Ash Wednesday and as we embark once again on our Lenten adventure, may we keep Julian’s example in mind. May never be afraid to express to God the deepest longings of our heart, but do so with an open hand and open heart, praying that God’s will not ours be done and trusting that God is always good. And may we always direct the desires of our hearts towards the ultimate end of being made like Christ, through true contrition, loving compassion, and longing for God. Amen.
* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.
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