Julian of Norwich: Prayer unites the soul to God

In her Revelations of Divine Love, a series of profound meditations upon the revelations delivered to her during a prolonged illness, Julian of Norwich considers the nature of sin, of grace, and of man’s relation to God both in this life and the next. More specifically, a recurring theme within her reflections could be said to be how one is to live in response to and in harmony with the grace that is offered. In chapter 43, she considers the role that prayer has in effecting the union with God that is His reason for bestowing grace upon us in the first place. He confers grace upon us that we may desire not just Him, but all that He desires:

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 man’s sin. Then it is that prayer proclaims that the soul should will what God wills; and it strengthens the conscience and enables a man to obtain grace. God teaches us to pray thus, and trust firmly that we shall have what we ask. For he looks at us in love, and would have us share in his good work. So he moves us to pray for what it is he wants to do. For such prayer and good will – and it is his gift – he rewards us eternally…

…But when our Lord in his courtesy and grace shows himself to our soul we have what we desire. Then we care no longer about praying for any thing, for our whole strength and aim is set on beholding. This is prayer, high and ineffable, in my eyes. The whole reason why we pray is summed up in the sight and vision of him to whom we pray. Wondering, enjoying, worshipping, fearing…and all with such sweetness and delight that during that time we can only pray in such ways as he leads us. Well do I know that the more the soul sees God, the more by his grace does it want him.

Revelations of Divine Love (1988), pp.128-129, Penguin.

            Julian also recognises that this is not the common experience in prayer, and that we do not always feel the desire for God, nor feel His presence, so counsels that ‘when the soul is tossed and troubled and alone in its unrest, it is time to pray so as to make itself sensitive and submissive to God’ – i.e.; it is at the times when we feel least inclined to draw near to God that we should get on our knees and pray, so that our souls may be reoriented. She reflects on this point, and uses it as a means to consider the great power of God’s grace to draw all souls close to Him:

And I realised, moreover, that when we know we have got to pray, then our good Lord follows this up, helping our desire. And when by his special grace we see him clearly, there is need of nothing further. We have to follow him, drawn by his love into himself. For I saw and knew that his marvellous and utter goodness brings our powers up to their full strength. At the same time I saw that he is at work unceasingly in every conceivable thing, and that it is all done so well, so wisely, and so powerfully that it is far greater than anything we can imagine, guess, or think. Then we can do no more than gaze in delight with a tremendous desire to be wholly united to him, to live where he lives, to enjoy his love, and to delight in his goodness. It is then that we, through our humble, persevering prayer, and the help of his grace, come to him now, in this present life.

ibid, p.129.

            I think the key to this whole passage comes right at the end, when Julian states that it is through ‘humble, persevering prayer’ that we can thus draw near to God. All the reflections that precede this, on the marvellous goodness of God, His power and wisdom, the heights and depths of Providence, do indeed provide a corrective to the soul that experiences dryness in prayer. But one can only begin to consider these things in a spirit of humility; and one can only find this spirit by persevering to do so, by striving against the rebellious and prideful urges that dwell within us all. God’s gift is Himself, and it is pure gift, pure grace – He makes Himself available to us that we may be made one with Him, in spirit and in truth. But this will not take place without our cooperation, and we cannot cooperate without humbling ourselves. Here Julian distills the essence of Jesus’ words, that ‘unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3).

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