If we are to enter into Mother Julian’s understanding of prayer as part of Sheila Upjohn’s invitation to discuss prayer in our Lent Book, The Way of Julian of Norwich then it might help to reflect on what that would have meant for her and her contemporaries. That, in turn, invites us back to a way of praying – and worshipping – which we lost at the Reformation, and which latterly practices such as Lectio Divina have revived.
Mother Julian’s world was not one where lay people read the Scriptures, it was one where they listened to them. Julian was literate, but it is unlikely that she had a copy of the Bible or read it herself. Her engagement with prayer would have come through her experience of church. A rood-screen such as the one illustrated above, from the Norfolk church of St Mary the Virgin at Tunstead, would have provided a rich source for prayer, illuminated as it was with pictures of the Saints. Above it would have hung a cross with the crucified Christ upon it – just the sort of crucific which her curate would have shown to her on what all assumed was her death-bed. It is the first thing which catches your eye if you enter a church which has one.
It is there because it was at the centre of the devotional life of the ordinary church goer in fourteenth century England. Christ was the “man of sorrows” who took upon Himself the burden of our sins. In contemplating the Cross, which usually had upon it an image of the suffering Christ, the church goer was invited to enter into His suffering. The medieval Church, prompted by St Anselm and others, counselled people to think upon the Passion of Christ as a means of evoking His love and, thereby, contemplating how we might respond to a love that great. The Franciscan St Bonaventure, and the Cistercian, St Bernard of Clairvaux, both understood from personal experience the intense feelings which could be inspired by the contemplation of Christ’s suffering upon the Cross. By this process our sinful nature could be moved to a more fitting spiritual state where we could more readily see ourselves as recipients of Divine Love. There was an encouragement to meditate on the words of Scripture by concentration on the Holy Rood. This, it was held, would encourage each of us to enter into an emotional engagement with Christ. The imagery in the church was an aid to meditation. Much was lost when a churchmanship which took words to be the be all and end all, destroyed such images
If we know this, we can see Julian’s “showings” not as some strange vision, but rather as part of what was then a devotional norm. She would have been used to meditating on the sufferings of the Lord. She herself tells us that as a girl she had wanted to receive the “three gifts” of Christ, namely: to have the “mind of his passion”; to have:
“bodily sickness in my youth at 30 years of age”; and to “have God’s gift of three wounds”. She had wanted “a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily pains of our saviour and of the compassion of our lady and of all his true lovers who saw him in his pains, for I wanted to be one of them and suffer with them.”
In this, she would have been at one with many pious lay people. She sought no special vision, just to enter into the “true mind” of the Passion. This her near-death experience gave her.
But instead of her “true mind” coming from contemplation of the Rood and its Screen, it came in the form of a mediation on the crucifix shown her by her priest. Viewed in that context, we can see Julian’s “showings” as themselves the finest example of late medieval contemplative prayer. The whole of her book is a prayer.
As we enter into Lent, we shall explore how we can make use of Mother Julian’s prayers to enrich our own.
#lentbookclub is on Twitter as #LentBookClub, Facebook as https://www.facebook.com/groups/LentBookClub, and is using The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn which can be bought here rather than Amazon. It runs from Ash Wednesday 20210219 to Easter Sunday-ish 20210404 and we are doing a chapter a week, roughly. Folk who are blogging about this are Graham, at https://grahart.wordpress.com/, Andrew at https://www.shutlingsloe.co.uk/, Eric at https://sundrytimes2.wordpress.com/, Soobie at https://soobie64.medium.com/, Ruth at https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/. Come join the pilgrimage with Julian to Norwich!