The Foundation of Prayer

Prayer is a strange thing. It can take on so many different colours. There is repentance, there is thanksgiving, there is worship, contemplation, petition and intercession. All of these (and others) have their own motivation, and yet they are all recognizable as prayer. We might broadly define prayer as simply ‘relating with God’, whether with words or without. Today I’d like to look at what Julian of Norwich believed God had revealed to her about prayer and see how we might apply that in our own life.

At the start of this series, we saw how Julian oriented herself to her own prayer life. There were three things she wanted in her life of faith: to witness Christ’s passion, to release her earthly attachments through a near-fatal illness, and to cultivate the qualities of contrition, compassion, and longing for God (Ch 2). But, she understood that these desires were not all of the same kind. And so the first two she prayed with the condition that God only grant them should they match God’s will for her life; whereas the third she prayed without condition. What was the difference between those desires that led her to pray differently about them? The third desire was essential to her relationship with God, to faithfulness, and salvation. It was a particular manifestation of the universal calling of the faithful to bear good fruit in our lives. So, she knew this already to be aligned with God’s ultimate will; no condition was therefore needed. For the purposes of this post, let’s call this ‘Prayer-1’. The other two, on the other hand, were things she wanted for her life; they were certainly ‘spiritual’ in nature, but her faithfulness or salvation did not depend on them. They were ‘optional’ things. And therefore, they warranted the condition that she only wanted them if they were aligned with God’s will for her life. We can call this type of prayer ‘Prayer-2’. If we look back to the different kinds of prayer mentioned in the first paragraph, we can see that they all fit into these two categories: things like repentance, thanksgiving, worship, and contemplation belong to Prayer-1, for they are essential parts of the life of faith; things like intercession and petition, which are about practical concerns for ourselves and others in our daily lives ‘in this world’, even if they happen to be ‘spiritual’, belong to Prayer-2. As much as we may want to have visions, or find a good job, or a spouse, or for a loved one to recover from an illness, these things are not essential to the life of faith and are therefore contingent and conditional.

I’ve begun by looking back at this teaching because Julian’s fourteenth revelation, on prayer, might be confusing if we don’t differentiate between these two classifications of prayer, one which definitely expresses the heart of God for us, and one which may or may not do so. It says a lot about the difference between our own culture and the culture traditionally promoted within monasticism that when we think about God answering prayer, we tend to think about Prayer-2 — God giving us what we want; whereas when they wrote about prayer, they thought about it primarily in terms of Prayer-1 — God uniting us to God for all eternity.  About this revelation, Julian writes:

After this our Lord revealed about prayer, in which revelation I saw two conditions in our Lord’s intention. One is rightful prayer; the other is confident trust. But still our trust is often not complete, because we are not sure that God hears us, as we think, because of our unworthiness and because we are feeling nothing at all; for often we are as barren and dry after our prayers as we were before. And thus when we feel so, it is our folly which is the cause of our weakness, for I have experienced this in myself. (Ch 41)*

There are few things worth drawing out of this preamble. First, it’s interesting that Julian doesn’t expand on what she means by ‘rightful prayer’. At the risk of reading into the text, I think it’s likely that by this she meant just the kind of discernment she undertook when she differentiated between what I called Prayer-1 and Prayer-2. It should be noted that Prayer-2 is not bad — it’s perfectly reasonable to want things in this world, especially things like secure housing, employment, companionship, or health, things which revolve around genuine human needs and are therefore, broadly speaking, within the general category of what is within ‘God’s will’. But, they are not the ‘one thing needful,’ as Jesus would put it to Mary and Martha (Luke 10.42). Second, is how relatable her comment about the difficulty with ‘confident trust’ is, how “we are not sure that God hears us … because we are feeling nothing at all.” Certainly, as I look back at my own Dark Night experience, that sensation of not being heard is what most sticks out as having been the most alienating. But third, according to Julian, this feeling is a mirage, “it is our folly.” And I can relate to this too; for while I cannot over-exaggerate the extent of that feeling of abandonment I experienced at the time, it is also true that, paradoxically, in hindsight that experience is actually filled with God’s presence and was a time of intimacy that I couldn’t recognize as such at the time. While the actual content of my prayers at the time where a mixture of Prayer-1 and Prayer-2, in denying Prayer-2, God answered Prayer-1, using that experience of alienation to further the ultimate goal of communion and faith.

Julian continues:

And our Lord … said: I am the ground of your beseeching. First, it is my will that you should have it, and then I make you to wish it, and then I make you to beseech it. If you beseech it, how could it be that you would not have what you beseech? (Ch 41)

All true prayer, she says, is grounded in Christ, from beginning to end, from motivation to fulfillment. This is a consequence of her belief that God is present in all of creation, urging it all towards its ultimate end in divine communion. When we are motivated to pray, it’s because our conscious minds have come into alignment with that divine spark within us. And this desire will, ultimately, be fulfilled (”How could it be that you would not have what you beseech?”). And so, she concludes:

For he says: Pray wholeheartedly, though it seems to you that this has no savour for you; still it is profitable enough, though you may feel nothing, though you may see nothing, yes, though you may think that you could not, for in dryness and in barrenness, in sickness and in weakness, then is your prayer most pleasing to me, though you think it almost tasteless to you. And so is all our living prayer in my sight. (Ch 41)

And, in the next chapter:

Our Lord wants us to have true understanding … that we know the fruit and the end of our prayer, which is to be united and like to our Lord in all things. And with this intention and for this end was all this loving lesson revealed, and he wishes to help us, and he will make it so, as he says himself, blessed he be. (Ch 42)

I like that she ends on this note of absolute confidence. It’s reminiscent of Isiah’s refrain, “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” and the ‘mic drop’ moment at the end of Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones: “I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.’” And it is fully in keeping with the sensibility in Julian’s visions, with their understanding that not only will “all things be well” but “I [God] will make them well.”

So then, what does Julian’s wisdom have to offer us today? In her words, “rightful prayer” — discerning between our desires for ourselves and God’s desires for us and praying accordingly — and “confident trust” — understanding that no matter how dry and barren our prayer may seem to us that God delights in it and will use it to our advantage nonetheless. And so let us take these two postures to heart, trusting that God will make it so in our life.


* 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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