In the middle of the 14th Century, a young woman prayed a prayer that was to transform her life. We know nothing about her, not even her real name, and yet her life and writing were to inspire many thousands of people as the centuries passed.
Her prayer was to have a greater understanding and feeling for the event of the crucifixion of Christ. She wished that she might have been with Mary Magdalen to see with her own eyes how Christ suffered. She also prayed for illness, that she might have all kinds of pain, in order to be closer to God. These sound like very unusual prayers to our 21st century ears and minds, but in medieval times, where suffering, pain, terror and death were an ever present part of life these kind of prayers were not uncommon. They may have passed into the midst of time, if it weren’t for the fact that a few years later, God granted those prayers.
Aged 30, the woman became seriously ill, so ill in fact that she wasn’t expected to live and the priest was called to give her the last rites. During this illness, she had a series of visions in which she did as she had requested, see the crucifixion of Christ, in glorious medieval technicolour. She got better and spent the rest of her life as an anchorite, living in a cell attached to a church, interpreting and writing down her visions. That writing still survives today, inspiring many with its sense of God’s presence, and enabling countless people to gain greater understanding of the truly radical nature of God’s love. You will recognise who I am talking about… Who am I talking about? Julian of Norwich.
I’ve told you this story because I’m interested in the transformative nature of prayer. I can think of a number of examples of where prayer has transformed my life – although perhaps not so dramatically as Julian of Norwich! I’m sure too you have your own stories of how prayer has made a difference in your life – and I’d love to hear more of those stories!
Our readings today tell us more about transformation and the power of God to make a difference in our lives. Jeremiah speaks of those who trust in the Lord being like a tree planted by water, sending its roots out into the stream. It’s a beautiful image – the tree being fed and nurtured by the living water that is God. But it’s also an active image – the tree must send out its roots to receive that nurturing. How do our roots of faith and trust in God grow? Of course it’s through connecting with God in prayer – prayer is the living water through which our faith grows.
This may sound fluffy and easy, but it isn’t. Love is rarely fluffy and easy. It’s a painful and demanding task of self-awareness. Jeremiah reminds us of the parched desert, the drought that forces the tree to reach out its roots. We cannot grow, our leaves do not stay green, without the self-awareness that comes through prayer, the drought that strips away all that cushions us from truly knowing ourselves, and our absolute need for God.
Our gospel reading reinforces this concept. In the beatitudes which we know so well, we are reminded of some of the things that cushion us from knowing out need for God – our physical securities of money, of health, of food. Those who don’t have those cushions; the poor, the hungry, those who suffer with illness or who are oppressed – they are the ones who know their need for God. Rock bottom is the solid foundation of faith. The parched wilderness forces our roots to reach for the living water.
Luke tells us that a great multitude of people from all Judea came to hear Jesus and to be made whole, that all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out of him and made them whole.
We touch Jesus through our prayers, prayer simultaneously illuminates our need for God and draws us towards the wholeness that comes from our connection with God. But how do we pray authentically? I bet I am not the only one who sits down to pray and ends up thinking about what I need from Sainsbury’s! It’s a fact of life that for most of us, life is one long express train, which gets fast and faster until we are hanging onto the the straps for dear life. What we need is to intentionally and deliberately put thebrakes on, slow the train down to allow our minds to settle.
There are spaces in all of our days in which we can practice the presence of God, tune ourselves in to an awareness of the divine. It might be while walking the dog, stirring the soup, dusting the sitting room, or simply with a cup of tea watching the rain drops on the window. Any space in which we can bring ourselves, our awareness into the present moment and notice God. Just as a bowl of muddy water, when allowed to settle becomes clear, so too our chaotic thoughts, when allowed to settle, make space for God’s living water.
Julian of Norwich comments towards the end of her writing that ‘when we know and see, truly and clearly, what our self is, then we shall truly and clearly see and know our Lord God in the fulness of joy’
So this week, I urge each one of you to find that space, let the chaos of your thoughts settle and practice the presence of God. In that presence your life can be transformed and we move ever closer to the wholeness of our union with God.