Thursday, 29 May 2014

Voyage to a Beginning

Reflections on Julian Prayer

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
R.S. Thomas, The Bright Field
Nicholas Roerich, The Miracle (1923)
State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

We live, it many respects, in increasingly polarised times. Existing faultlines - both in society at large and within religious communities - between liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive - appear to be widening exponentially. We are quicker to take offence, it often seems, than in days gone by. Building bridges between people of differing political opinions certainly feels more difficult than it used to. It is all too easy, under the influence of social media, to demonise those we do not agree with, while never meeting them face to face and never engaging with the human reality behind the screen.
In the specifically Christian milieu, these tensions can be seen and felt in the push-pull dynamic between a crude, restricting literalism on the one hand and an ultra-liberal 'hollowing out' of the Gospels on the other, where the Resurrection, the Ascenson, the Virgin Birth and the miracles of Christ become mere 'stories we tell ourselves to give our lives meaning.'

When my wife and I founded the South Manchester Julian Prayer Group in October 2013 we had precisely this conflict in mind. 'Only Connect' was our key phrase. How, we asked ourselves, can we reach across the fissures, bring peace to the contemporary 'culture wars' (individually and collectively) and arrive at a place of silent equanimity, a point beyond argument, disputation and dogmatic assertion, a base from which we might move forward into the world - not to fight, kick and bite - but with genine confidence, trust and love?

The Julian Meetings began in 1973. They are an ecumenical exploration of shared, contemplative silence in the tradition of the Christian mystics. A short reading, in the South Manchester group, (either an extract from scripture or a piece of poetry or prose), leads us into thirty minutes of communal silence. A similar reading, followed by a short spoken prayer, concludes the meeting, ushering us back into the world with clarity of mind and a sharpened sense of vision and purpose.

Not every Julian group will follow the above format exactly, but the principles are always the same: to foster a climate where our chattering minds are stilled and space is created - however fleetingly - for a different voice to make its presence felt - the 'still, small voice' that spoke to Elijah on Mount Horeb, the 'still, small voice' that guides us to the heart of who we are, calming the storm inside, bringing us back to ourselves, encouraging us and calling us on to the fulfilment of our unique vocation in the world. This is the 'still point' from which all things flow and move, the 'still point' which T.S. Eliot gave unforgettable poetic expressuion to in in Four Quartets:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The Julian Meetings take their name from Julian of Norwich, who was born in 1342 and died around 1420. On 8th May 1873, during severe illness, Julian received a series of sixteen visons of Christ, which she referred to as 'showings' in her subsequent book. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, a woman devoted entirely to the religious life, living permanently in a cell attached to a church in the heart of Norwich.

Julian meditated, for twenty years, on the visions she had received, and began to give a written account of her experience in the first book known to be written by a woman in English, The Revelations of Divine Love. All this time, from the window of her cell, she had been giving daily counsel and comfort to the burdened and distressed of the city.

Revelations of Divine Love has become a classic of contemplative, Christian spirituality. A point worth reflecting on, however, is that, despite her seclusion, Julian's world was no cloistered, 'chocolate box', Olde-England cruise. The Hundred Years War raged, on and off, for the entirety of her life, while the Black Death took the lives of many in her city. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 reminds us that issues concerning poverty and the redistribution of wealth were as germane in Julian's day as they are in ours. Her fourteenth-century setting was every bit as tempestuous and marked with
polarisation and conflict as our twenty-first century world. Despite this, she insists in her writings, that God should be seen, first and foremost, as love:

'Woulds't thou know the Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning.'
Her best known words, born from great physical suffering (and also quoted by Eliot in Four Quartets):
'All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well'
are arguably needed even more in our depression and anxiety-ridden era than in her own. She sends us out about our business with joy in our hearts. 'Live gladly,' she enjoins us, 'because of His love.'
The Julian Meetings are by no means a cult of Julian of Norwich. We do not offer prayers or devotions to her, but we do attempt, as best we can, in our shared, silent prayer, to engage with the spirit she reveals to us in her life and writings. We see in Julian's story a dedicated life of contemplation blended with profound compassion and understanding of the people of Norwich who passed by her window every day. This mingling of the spiritual and the earthly encourages us in our responsibility to be 'in the world, but not of it.' The silence we share in the Julian Meetings becomes our 'bright field,' 'lit bush' and our 'pearl of great price.' We bring it back, like lantern bearers, to our conflict-ridden world.
All of us, whatever our political persuasion, cultural stance, or dogmatic position can share in this silence. No prior qualifications are required. All of us can reach the same 'still point'. We sit in our circle, with Christ as our magnetic north (as He was for Julian), and take a first, tentative step in reaching out and touching what is real and essential in ourselves and each other, beyond argument and beyond disputation. It is a voyage to a beginning. From there, we can venture out into the world with no need to prove ourselves right or win all the arguments all the time. Anxiety's hold is weakened. Peace - a hard-won peace and therefore true - begins to build in our hearts.
The great Truth that our silence points to is wide, generous and capacious. In the rousing words of the Czech philosopher, Vaclav Benda, a colleague of Vaclav Havel in the human rights movement, Charter 77, and written at a time when Communist rule seemed an inevitable and eternal fact:
"It is not enough merely to look out for one's soul and believe that Truth - the Truth which in a particular place and time took on human form and walked among people and assumed their suffering - is no more than a position which needs to be maintained.
If the chief form of the present political evil is a restrictive heaviness that all citizens carry on their shoulders and at the same time within them, then the only possibility is to shake that evil off, escape its power, and to seek truth. Under such circumstances, every genuine struggle for one's soul becomes an openly political act, and a creative act that, because it is no longer merely 'defining oneself' against something else, but rather a jettisoning of ballast and opening oneself up to what is new and unknown, Christians can and should become one of the means by which this potential is revealed and made manifest."
He Comes in Colours
by Craigie Aitchison
at the Waddington Custot Galleries
Please contact me via Twitter or the comments section below if you are interested in attending the South Manchester Group.
For more on Julian Prayer and details of your nearest group please feel free to visit


At 17 February 2015 at 05:33 , Blogger Michael Cayley said...

I was very pleased to find this. I now run Facebook and Twitter accounts for the Julian Meetings nationally, and have posted links to this blog entry. Ann Moran, who oversees the national JM website, would like either to post a link to this, or copy it, on the website and in the associated web forum. Would you have any objection?


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