A few years ago, we had a feature on The Upper Room’s website called “Ask Julian.” Visitors to the website could submit questions to Julian. The questions were answered by “Julian’s friends” and posted back in a sort of “Dear Abby” for spiritual questions.
In creating the feature, I was inspired by Julian of Norwich, who was a mystic in Norwich, England in the 14th century (1342–1416). Julian’s book, Revelations of Divine Love, is thought to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman. Called to be an anchoress, she lived about forty years in a cell attached to The Church of St. Julian.
As I looked at the questions submitted to “Ask Julian,” I imagined Julian in her cell, opening her window to the world and listening to the questions of the heart brought to her by those from the outside world who sought her counsel. I imagined Julian as the patron saint of counselors or therapists or spiritual directors. Grounded in her faith and her vow of stability, she made room for those who came to her with their hearts, loves, losses, ponderings, brokenness, and stories of life.
Each time I logged in to the website to see the new questions submitted to “Ask Julian,” I felt like I was entering a holy space. The honesty and vulnerability of the questions astonished me. They were questions of the heart. Questions too personal, too deep, too tender to talk about with a spouse, a friend, a teacher. But these pilgrims sitting at their computers could ask these questions as they sat next to Julian’s virtual window.
Over several years, we collected hundreds of questions from people hungry for answers. There were more questions than we had the capacity to process. After several years, we removed “Ask Julian” from the website. But the questions of these anonymous visitors still are with me. In their questions, I hear deep yearnings; I see hearts that are hungry for spiritual nurture.
The questions from these seekers revealed to me several things:
1. Even though we live with many questions, we are often not comfortable carrying those questions for very long. We want answers—the right answers. We want answers that will stop our fears and ease our doubts.
I am trying to be a good Christian. One of the things that I worry about is making God mad at me by not being the perfect Christian. Therefore, I am afraid to confess my sins to God. I worry that if I repeat the sin, God will be upset with me. How can I get beyond this?
2. Questions can cover up the real issues. When we peel back the top layer of a question, examine what is underneath, we might find another question, a fear, an assumption, a misconception.
Please teach me how to deal with unanswered prayer. It is the desire of my heart to become a mother. My husband and I have been struggling with infertility issues for several years now. And our prayers to create a child of our own flesh and blood continue to go unanswered. We are hurt and angry by our circumstances. Why must this pain continue for so long? We are losing hope.
3. We, as religious leaders, cannot assume we know what our congregants know and don’t know about the spiritual life.
I am embarrassed to say, but we never said grace in my family, and I now want to start. What should I say during grace?
4. Many people live with fears and doubts and often have nowhere to turn with them.
I have a desire to get back to the church. However, I have kept away because of my past behavior. Twenty years or so ago, I attempted suicide several times. I have thought this was an unforgivable sin. Is there a point in returning to the church given my history of suicidal attempts and thoughts of suicide that still exist? Is there hope of being forgiven and rejoining the human race?
Living in questions rather than answers is not a comfortable place for many of us. Some people are plagued by questions, are driven into anxiety by not knowing. And in a culture where we are accustomed to being able to find out answers to nearly any question just by typing it into Google search or asking Siri, living in the questions is quite a counter-cultural practice. Why settle for living in the questions when there are so many answers at our fingertips?
Choosing to live with questions, with a basic curiosity about life and its mysteries, can lead us from judgment and anxiety into wonder. We’re invited to muse on life’s mysteries, open to possibilities that God has for us. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, … you will … live your way into the answer.”1
I imagine that Julian probably had a lot of questions during her life. She lived in the time of the Bubonic Plague, the “Black Death.” Her message spoke of love in the midst of great fear and suspicion. While church leaders were proclaiming that the plague was God’s punishment for sins, Julian spoke of God as the loving Mother, “the light and grace that is all blessed love.”2
Despite a life of experiencing or witnessing trauma, Julian didn’t spend time asking “Why?” She spoke with a confident optimism that God said to humankind, “You will not be overcome. . . . And all shall be well.” 3
Still, today, we live in a world full of questions that cannot be answered. A time when many are hurting and hungering, when injustice and oppression seem to have no end. In our lives, when we are feeling vulnerable, unloved, and unlovable; when we wonder if God is really present in our lives, we need to hear Julian’s story. She said:
Christ showed me something small, about the size of a hazelnut, that seemed to lie in the palm of my hand as round as a tiny ball. I tried to understand the sight of it, wondering what it could possibly mean. The answer came: ‘This is all that is made.’ I felt it was so small that it could easily fade into nothing; but again I was told, ‘This lasts and it will go on lasting forever because God loves it. And so it is with every being that God loves.’ I saw three [things] about this tiny object. First, God made it; second, God loves it; and third, that God keeps it.4
For more, try this spiritual practice also by Beth A. Richardson: “Asking the Questions — Sitting in the Silence”
Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent.
Photography by Klaudia Piaskowska / Unsplash
1. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
2. Julian of Norwich, Encounter with God’s Love (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1998), 49.
3. Julian of Norwich, Lesson of Love, tr. Fr. John-Julian (Lincoln, Nebraska: Writer’s Club Press, 2003), 81.
4. Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, tr. John Skinner (Evesham, UK. and Arthur James, Ltd., 1996), 9–10.