Robert Llewelyn, writing in With Pity, Not With Blame, quotes Edward Bouverie Pusey on distracting and unwelcome thoughts during prayer: "Do not examine yourself about these thoughts whether you consented to them or not. Do not try not to have them. Be not impatient to get rid of them; only desire that you should love God more." He (Llewelyn) goes on to say, "To suffer such thoughts patiently accepting yourself as you are, and looking in trustful surrender to God, is necessarily a humbling experience. For that very reason it is cleansing and healing."
This is a stunning realisation. All those feelings of envy or fear, those sexual fantasies, those thoughts of shopping lists or of our own tedious failings; these are not just not distractions to be fought against with gritted teeth, nor to be pushed down with a determined will, but they are capable of being used by God for our "cleansing and healing". Once again the psalmist had it spot on: "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119.71)
Julian of Norwich, that wisest of women of prayer, took this a whole, almost shocking, stage further. (We sometimes forget that this revered English anchoress, counsellor of Margery Kempe and quoted by TS Eliot and Thomas Merton, was one of the most radical and daring theologians and spiritual directors of any time, not just of her own.) Robert Llewelyn (ibid.), quoting her (Revelations of Divine Love, tr. Clifton Wolters, and Julian of Norwich: Showings, tr. Edmund Colledge OSA and James Walsh SJ):
'He lays on each one he loves some particular thing, which while it carries no blame in his sight causes them to be blamed by the world, despised, scorned, mocked, and rejected.' This, she goes on to explain, is that our pride may be overcome, and that united to Christ we may be made 'humble and mild, clean and holy'. In this our suffering 'our Lord rejoices with pity and compassion', a line which must be linked with the following later in the chapter: 'For he wants us to know that it will all be turned to our honour and profit by the power of his Passion, and to know that we suffered in no way alone, but together with him, and to see in him our foundation.' Being united to Christ in his suffering is central to the whole work of redemption, and our chastisement itself 'becomes gentle and bearable when we are really content with him and with what he does...' 'What penance a man should impose upon himself was not revealed to me... but this was shown, with particular and loving emphasis, that we are to accept and endure humbly whatever penance God himself gives us with his blessed passion ever in mind.' Julian adds that while we are to recognize and accept our chastening the remedy is 'that our Lord is with us, protecting and leading us into the fullness of joy'. And so we are taken to the climax of the chapter:
'Flee to our Lord and we shall be comforted. Touch him and we shall be made clean. Cling to him and we shall be safe and sound from every kind of danger. For our courteous Lord wills that we should be as at home with him as heart may think or soul may desire.'If I look back over my own life, with its at times catastrophic (at least from the world's perspective) stumblings and missteps, its meanderings and its outright sins, I can see the precision of Julians insights here. These words, which I first read many years ago, but which I have only gradually come to understand in part, transform everything.
Julian's words put flesh on the bones of Paul's famously disturbing observation "that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8.28) More than that, she is anointing our memories and regrets with hope, and with an unspeakable comfort. Of course we did not understand what was going on at the time; of course we were lost in mire and confusion... Was it not Paul too who said, a few verses earlier, "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience"? (Romans 8.24-25)
Prayer is the means we have been given, all of us, to bring to God these long memories of pain, and glimpses of sudden and frightening hope; and it is, in the long run, the means we have been given to receive his comfort. It is the great gift of contemplative prayer that we need not understand, need not find the right words - or any words - to explain to God or to ourselves what it is that weighs so heavily on our hearts, to hear Jesus' own invitation to
Come to me, all you that are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30)