05/14/17 – Praying “Interly” with Julian of Norwich

Happy Mother’s Day! There is much to celebrate today. Along with Mother’s Day and some celebrations and thanksgivings, today we also celebrate the Feast Day of my favorite English mystic. She is the author of the first text written in English by a female that we know of; and, according to Thomas Merton, she is the greatest English theologian.[1] Her name is Julian of Norwich.

She was a 14th century English anchorite, which meant that she lived enclosed permanently in a room (called an anchor-hold or anchorage) attached to a church with one window facing the altar and another window facing the world outside. It would be kind of like converting our sacristy into a small apartment, where someone has chosen to live for the rest of her life. (So next time you think you’re at church too often, think of Julian of Norwich who was at church 24/7 for her entire life.) During an extreme illness, she experienced a kind of near-death experience in the form of sixteen visions, which she called “Showings.” She wrote about these visions and understood them as revelations from God. While receiving these divine revelations, Julian was not simply a passive recipient but rather an engaged participant, praying boldly, seeking God’s face, asking questions, not holding anything back. And Christ seemed to appreciate this and continued to draw her deeper into his love, encouraging her to pray with all that was within her. In one vision, Christ spoke to her and said, “Pray interly.”[2] The word “interly” is a Middle English hapax legomenon, which means it is a word that only occurs once in all of the Middle English literature that we have. It is a powerful word with polyvalent meaning.[3] To pray interly means to pray inwardly or interiorly, with all of the emotions and questions of the inner life. And praying interly also means praying entirely, with the whole self, with the body, with the physical life. When Christ said to Julian “Pray interly” he was saying, “Pray entirely, wholeheartedly, earnestly, even if you feel nothing. Bring that nothingness to me in prayer. If you’re feeling dry, barren, empty, weak or sick, bring all those parts of yourself to me. I want it all.”[4]

The Scriptures we just read also invite us to pray interly. The passage from Hebrews calls us to enter the Holy of Holies “in full assurance of faith,” with “confidence” and courage, knowing that God loves and accepts us and wants us to bring our whole selves to Him in prayer. The Psalm calls us to “seek God’s face”; and the Gospel this morning provides an example of someone praying interly, recounting the climax of a long conversation between Christ and a feisty Samaritan woman, to whom we were introduced a few weeks ago, during Lent (4th Sunday). Does anyone remember the name that Church tradition has given to this feisty Samaritan woman? Photini, which means the “Enlightened One.” Photini boldly brought her questions and confusions to Christ and Christ responded to Photini with an invitation for her to bring even more of herself to him, even those parts of which she was ashamed. And when she did bring her whole self to him, warts and all, he lovingly revealed his divine self to her: a revelation of love: “I am he, the Messiah, the one speaking to you.” The Scriptures invite us to bring our whole selves to God in prayer, even those parts of which we might be ashamed, to pray interly as Julian prayed.

Now during Julian’s lifetime, the Black Death (the Bubonic Plague) was wiping out more than a third of England’s population (and more than half of Norwich!); the Hundred Years’ War (between England and France) was well underway, claiming young people’s lives; and followers of the heretic and Bible translator John Wycliffe (known as the Lollards) were being burned at the stake all throughout England. Climate change, famine, and peasant protests and revolts convinced many that the world was nearing its apocalyptic end. And on top of all this, the people were quickly growing disillusioned with the Church and her leaders, who were proving just as power-hungry and abusive as the political leaders of the day, squabbling over rights of succession. [5] In this context, Julian prayed interly, which meant bringing to Christ her doubts and questions, asking God, “Why is there so much suffering? God, why do you allow such disturbing people to be in positions of power?” Often, we ourselves can be timid or afraid of asking God such questions, but if these are our questions then praying interly means bringing these questions to God, the way Julian did. And God held Julian lovingly in all of her questions, not giving her pat answers, but offering her images and invitations into deeper love and trust.

One invitation into deeper trust repeats like a refrain throughout her visions. Numerous times, God gently reminds her, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”[6] Authors such as T. S. Eliot,[7] C.S. Lewis,[8] Annie Dillard,[9] and Thomas Merton have found immense comfort in these words and have cited them in their own spiritual classics. However, what I love so much about Julian, is that she still is not satisfied with this. She looks out her window and sees that all is not well. So she continues to pray interly, saying, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?” She continues, “And here I wished, so far as I dared, for some plainer explanation through which I might be at ease about this matter.”[10] Julian dares to talk back to God, telling God that his response isn’t good enough. And God, who appears to appreciate her authenticity and her commitment to pray interly, responds with more revelations of love. God continually points to the Cross, the central image around which all of sixteen visions revolve. Yet through the visions, Julian interprets the Cross very differently than previous theologians like Anselm of Canterbury who understood Christ’s work on the Cross as essentially paying a debt that humanity owed to God, a debt made when humanity insulted God’s honor by sinning. For Julian, however, there is no wrath in God. She writes, “For I saw most truly that where our Lord appears, peace is received and wrath has no place; for I saw no kind of wrath in God.”[11]  She writes, “I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and he forgives that in us.”[12] If there is no wrath in God, then the work of the Cross is no longer about the paying of a debt to a dishonored (and apparently insecure) deity. Instead, the Cross is God’s compassionate response to our own wrath and violence, which we so often tend to project onto God. The Cross, instead, is God’s willingness to hold us with love no matter what, even if it means receiving our wrath and violence.

Throughout her visions, Julian experiences God in the joy of laughter, in bodily pain and sickness and even in the wondrous process of human digestion! She experiences God as a close friend, a lover, a king, a kind nurse, a courteous knight, as clothing, as a castle, as a cave, as a brother, as a father, and most of all, she experiences God as a mother, as the one true Mother. Although not the first Christian theologian to describe Christ as Mother, Julian is the first to make the Mother Christ image central to her understanding of God. In fact, Julian’s view of motherhood is so elevated that Christ is the only One who truly embodies it, no matter how wonderful our earthly mothers might be. Julian’s own mother was present to her when she was severely ill and some scholars think that Julian herself was a mother whose husband and children died from the plague before she took her anchoritic vows. Julian knew motherhood well and knew that even mothers are fallible human beings. She writes, “This fair and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.”[13] Julian understood Christ and even the Trinity as a whole as our mother and this understanding reminds us of how God reveals Godself to us as a mother in the Scriptures. Jesus himself identifies as a mother when he longs to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37). And in the Isaiah passage we read, God describes how He carries His people in his womb and how He will continue to preserve His fragile and vulnerable people because He made us and because He loves us.

In one of her visions, Julian experiences the tender love and maternal protection of God through a tiny hazelnut-sized object. She writes, “[God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered…it lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”[14] In a hazelnut-sized object, God shows Julian the universe and assures her of His love and protection.

On this Mother’s Day, Julian of Norwich invites us to pray interly, pray entirely, wholeheartedly, with our whole selves, our physical bodies, our doubts, our questions, and our emotions. Whether we’re feeling sick or bored or frustrated or disappointed, we are invited to give it all to God in prayer. If we have big, burning questions about the problem of suffering or about the current presidential administration or about the future of this church or about difficulties in our own personal lives and families, Julian’s example encourages us to bring all of that to God. Although we might not get the rational, watertight answers that we might be seeking or expecting, I promise that we will get revelations of love. As the 20th century Anglican philosopher Austin Farrer put it: “God does not give us explanations; God gives up a Son.”[15]

Finally, I want to invite you to take a hazelnut. You may take it as a reminder of God’s revelation to Julian that all creation is held within the palm of his hand. You may also take it as an invitation to appreciate God within your body by simply eating the delicious hazelnut. And you may also take it as a reminder that our true Mother God holds all that is within you and invites you to pray interly, with your whole self because if our Mother God can hold the entire universe in the palm of his hand he can certainly handle all that is within us. In the loving embrace of our Mother God, Julian tells us that “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Amen.


Prayer for Mother’s Day:

Mother God, we give thanks for the special women who have born us, who have nurtured us, and who have prayed for our well-being. And we give thanks for all who have been mothers to us in their own unique ways and also for the opportunities for us to embody maternal love to others. May our hearts overflow with gratitude to them and to you, who formed and knitted each of us in a mother’s womb.



The Lord’s Prayer for Mother’s Day and Lady Julian Day


Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

[1] “There can be no doubt that Lady Julian is the greatest of the English mystics. Not only that, but she is one of the greatest English theologians.” Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 140. Also see Merton, Seeds of Destruction (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1964), 275.


[2] Julian of Norwich, Showings Long Text, Ch 44 in Colledge and Walsh, Julian of Norwich: Showings (Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1978), 249.

[3] See Daniel London, “‘Pray Interly’: Julian of Norwich’s Spirituality of Prayer” in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology. Vol 49. Issue 3. Spring 2015, pp. 14-24.

[4] Colledge and Walsh translation: “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 not feel that. Pray wholeheartedly, though you may feel nothing, though you may see nothing, yes, though you think that you could not, for in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and in weakness, then is your prayer most pleasing to me, though you think it almost tasteless to you.” (Ch. 44, 249)

[5] In what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity” or the “Great Schism” of the Western Church, Pope Urban VI claimed to be pope in Rome while Pope Clement VII claimed to be pope in Avignon. In a failed attempt to resolve the conflict, church leaders elected a third pope, Alexander V at the Council of Pisa in 1409. Finally, the conflict was resolved at the Council of Constance in 1414 with the election of Martin V.


[6] Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 27. Colledge and Walsh, 225

[7] “And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one” T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Little Gidding” V:255-259.

[8] “‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (HarperCollins: San Francisco, 2001, originally published 1946) , 140.

[9] See Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper and Row: New York, 1977).

[10] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 29, trans. Colledge and Walsh (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 227.

[11] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 49Colledge and Walsh, 264.


[12] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 48Colledge and Walsh, 262.

[13] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 60Colledge and Walsh, 298-299.

[14] Edmund Colledge O.S.A and James Walsh S.J. trans. Julian of Norwich: Showings (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978), 130. Chapter 4, Short Text.


[15] “The Word of God brings upon human pain and strife the consolation of eternal love. It is often thought that the Christian preacher is called upon…somehow to prove that the intolerable evils which ravage the earth are only the price of greater good. But the answer naturally provoked by such explanations is that of the suffering woman: ‘That makes it no better; it hurts just the same.’ Or even: ‘If that is what God’s love does, then for God’s sake let me have a taste of his wrath.’ No, God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: ‘Peace upon earth, good will to men…and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead that we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.” Austin Farrer, The Essential Sermons (SPCK, 1991), 204.