At the beginning of this post, I would like to ask you to kindly take a moment and pray for a seminarian here in Louisiana named Joel. He needs a heart transplant and will likely have the surgery within the week. Thank you.
Speaking of prayer, I read a book over Christmastime that I stumbled on at our Public Library here in Metairie — Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich by Veronica Mary Rolf. It’s a fascinating, historically contextualized examination of the theological writings of the first woman to “do” theology in English. Julian, who lived as an anchoress in Norwich, England during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, received a series of “shewings,” revelations from Christ that gave her profound insights into, among other things, the meaning of evil and suffering in God’s plan and the nature of divine love.
Dr. Nancy Warren, who was on my dissertation committee, first introduced me back in 2006 to the vast scholarly work done on Julian. She also introduced me to a fascinating phenomenon among medieval Catholic women (which endured more or less up to the 20th century) who “did” theology: women theologians grounded their public ‘teaching’ authority within the church not on their scholarly training but in their personal and private ‘revelatory’ experience of the Trinity, Christ or the saints. Any application of theological reasoning by female theologians was fundamentally grounded in those immediate mystical experiences. Theirs was truly what one might call a “visionary theology,” as it drew its power and content from distinctive, vivid and often wild experiences of revealed beauty and power and truth from the World to Come. From St. Hildegard of Bingen’s rich allegorical visions to St. Catherine of Siena’s densely theological Dialogue to the mystical pyrotechnics of St. Faustina Kowalska’s Diary, the holy women of medieval and modern Europe have been the troubadours of what we might now call an “experiential theology,” reminding the Church of the inseparable link between scholastic forms of rational reflection on divine revelation and real-time interior and transformative encounters with the revealing God that constitute theology’s soul.
Among her many “shewings,” Julian received from Christ profound insight into the meaning and power of “beseeching” or intercessory prayer. One point in particular really struck me. Christ says to Julian,
I am Ground of thy beseeching: first it is my will that thou have it; and after, I make thee to will it; and after, I make thee to beseech it and thou beseechest it. How should it then be that thou shouldst not have thy beseeching?
The basic point: if you feel the impulse to pray for the genuine well-being of yourself or others, that impulse came from Christ’s indwelling Spirit who stirred within you the desire to ask-seek-knock. So, Jesus says to her, when you feel a stirring to pray for someone or something, pray earnestly as you can be certain God wants this good sought. Though, as Christ at another time said to Julian, always include in every prayer some version of the phrase found in the Pater noster, “Thy will be done.”
Julian, reflecting for 20 years on these words of Christ, added an even deeper insight,
Beseeching is a true, gracious, lasting will of the soul, oned and fastened into the will of our Lord by the sweet inward work of the Holy Ghost. Our Lord Himself, He is the first receiver of our prayer, as to my sight, and taketh it full thankfully and highly enjoying; and He sendeth it up above and setteth it in the Treasure, where it shall never perish. It is there afore [before] God with all His Holy continually received, ever speeding [the help of] our needs; and when we shall receive our bliss it shall be given us for a degree of joy, with endless worshipful thanking from Him.
Here Julian describes intercessory prayer as both “lasting” and “fastened” to God’s will, which means that true “beseeching” is persevering and is submitted to God’s providential will. Julian also paints an image of Christ as gratefully receiving and enjoying our petitions, which I found very encouraging as a way to sustain fervor in my repetitious prayers for consistent intentions. But it’s Dr. Rolf further comments on this text that opened for me a truly fresh take on prayer:
According to Julian’s understanding, Christ receives our prayer personally and intimately. He gratefully and joyfully places it in a spiritual “treasury,” where it will be a constant source of benefit to us on earth. When we come to heaven it will be returned to us as an added source of joy, with the Lord’s own eternal thanksgiving…cf. Mat. 6:19-20.
This dazzling insight reinforced one of my own most treasured theological notions: nothing good that is given to Christ by us is ever lost. Nothing.
This is one of the reasons the Offertory stands as such a crucial moment in the midst of the celebration of Holy Mass: it’s when and where we place “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8) at the feet of Christ who “sendeth it up above and setteth it in the Treasure, where it shall never perish.” There and then, in the Offertory of the Mass, we ask Christ in his heavenly Liturgy to take up and make his own “all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise” here on earth, so that “we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over all things to the Father” (Gaudium et Spes 39). Everything in this life that we do in faith, hope and love into — no matter how disastrously it fails or how brutally it is rejected in this world — bears fruit a hundredfold both now and in eternity. All that is entrusted to the divine-human Heart of Jesus, to Him who mends every mortal breach that stands between time and eternity, is caught up into the imperishable glory of His Resurrection.
But more to my point on prayer, Julian speaks specifically of our beseeching prayers as enduring beyond the fleeting moment they are lifted up to God. Once offered up, these prayers, like eternal flames lit in heaven’s Sanctuary, remain undying, having been rendered by Christ ceaselessly grace-giving and joy-wielding in the eternity of God. So, not only are none of your rightly-intentioned prayers ignored by God, neither are they ever forgotten or set aside, burning as immortal pleas before the Face of the Almighty. Every whispered prayer, every tearful cry uttered in the darkness, every joyous surge of love and longing desire sent up to God for his glory and the well-being of others endures always and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
As my former spiritual director used to say of my written poems and prayers, “Write them well and with care, since they’ll be sung forever in heaven by saints and angels.” And to his counsel that I write them “well and with care” he would add, “because if their not your Guardian Angel will have to edit them.” lol
That last comment always made me think further of how careful I had to be in what I did, said and prayed. For better or worse, all of it will be awaiting me after death, laid bare before the all-seeing eyes of Christ. Or it made me think of those mysterious words of St. Teresa of Jesus,
More tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones…so be careful what you pray for.
He’s very, very attentive.
I will leave you with a worthy prayer to pray, written by Bl. John Henry Newman. The text is below, but if you wish, watch and listen:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life