Angela Tilby: Prayer is not easy during the lockdown  

15 May 2020

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THERE can be few of us who try to pray regularly who have not found our pattern of prayer disturbed by the lockdown. This is partly owing to other changes in our daily rhythms, and partly by the burden of distress and confusion which we are all carrying at the moment. Our lives have been suspended, and, in spite of the cautious changes an­­­nounced this week, there is no “normal” in sight. Meanwhile, we worry — for our­selves, for ageing parents, for school-age children, for the furloughed and those un­­employed, for the future.

There are lighter moments: I realised that I must be spiritually disorientated when, as the Dean of Portsmouth led our streamed wor­ship last Sunday morning, I realised that I had solemnly in­­structed the cat to confess his sins. The cat re­­acted by looking away, tail in the air, until the sermon, when he sat down and listened most attentively.

We should not be too hard on ourselves if we find personal prayer difficult at this time. It is chal­lenging enough to have our health threatened by a mindless micro­physical entity.

But the virus has also cast a shad­ow into our souls, creeping into our dreams and our daylight reveries, perhaps causing us to question the love of God. If prayer was once a safe stronghold, it may often now be a battleground. And yet, while my regular pattern sometimes seems meaningless, I find that the urge to pray comes suddenly in the dead of night, or in encountering the multiple, and often unknown, names on interces­sion lists, or when I watch the news.

Because of VE Day, I almost forgot 8 May as the lesser festival of the English spiritual writer Julian of Norwich. (Roman Catholics keep her feast on 13 May.) Julian has perhaps been over-celebrated in re­­cent years, and regarded wrongly as an icon of benevolent, per­mis­sive universalism.

But we will understand Julian only if we recognise the intensity of her spiritual struggle. Canon Emma Pennington has written a new guide to her writings, At the Foot of the Cross with Julian of Norwich, to be published in July by BRF. She points out not only how Julian’s vi­sions emerged from a period of extreme illness, but also how they were focused on the cross of Christ. Expecting to die, Julian’s illness led her into a profound identification with the suffering Christ.

The calm prose in which Julian records her insights are not the result of some medieval experiment in quelling anxiety, but are, rather, distilled from acute pain — mental as well as physical. She teaches us that trauma cannot always be avoided, but that it does not have the last word. Our lives may never be quite the same again, but all shall be well, all man­ner of thing shall be well.

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