Friday, May 8, 2009

The Feast of St Julian

Today is the Feast Day for St. Julian who lived from 1342 to about 1416 in Norwich, England. She was a spiritual recluse and anchoress who devoted her life to prayer. Julian is now revered as one of the world's great mystics, a woman who had several profound, direct experiences of God.

Julian believed her mystical experiences were not meant for her alone, and that she was called to share them with the rest of us. And so she did.

Julian wrote extensively about her encounters with God, especially one that took place in 1372 when she was about thirty years old and extremely ill. In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian described the messages she received from God during this experience. They range over many topics including the nature of God, the nature of God's Creation, sin, suffering, evil, and on and on. One topic she writes eloquently about in this account is prayer.

Julian said, that when we pray, we do not always have an easy time of it "...because we are not sure that God listens to us. We think this is because we are so unworthy and because we don't feel anything, for often we are as dry and barren after prayer as we were before." She sympathizes with these universal human feelings and says, "This is how I have experienced it myself."

But she goes on to reveal what she learned from her direct encounter with God about prayer. She reports that God revealed these words to her: "I am the ground in which your prayer is rooted. First I want you pray and next I make you want it. After that I enable you to pray and so you do pray. How, then, can you possibly not have what you ask for?"

This is an astounding idea, that God is the source of our very desire to pray. What, then, of the "dry and barren" feelings Julian speaks of, feelings that sometimes follow our attempts to pray?

Julian says that God instructed her: "Pray inwardly, even if you don't enjoy it; it helps you even if you don't feel it or see it. For when you are dry and barren, sick and weak, your prayer is especially pleasing to me, even though you don't enjoy it very much. That is true of all prayer made in faith."

So why, then, does God want us to pray? Is it that God wants us to feel dry and barren? No, Julian says in her teaching - the reason is that when we pray, we are doing what God wants us to do. In the very act of prayer we become closer to God, united with God, even, by living out God's desire for us.

So, on this feast day for St. Julian we celebrate the life of a woman who was drawn into a close relationship with God and then devoted her life to teaching us all that she learned through that relationship.

The quotes provided here are taken from Karen Armstrong's summary of the writings of four medieval mystics, Visions of God which includes more extensive excerpts of Julian's writings. The book is highly recommended for those interested in further reading about Julian and mysticism.