September 25, 2020

The Three Desires of Julian of Norwich

When Julian was a young girl, she expressed to God three desires:

The first was minde of his passion;

The second was bodily sickness in youth;

The third was to have of God’s gift three wounds.

In other words, she wanted to understand and always remember Christ’s passion.  She wanted to come close to the door of death while still young enough to profit from what she might see through it.  And she wanted to participate in Jesus’ sufferings through her own wounds.

This is as far from the prosperity gospel as it’s possible to get.  When we move from the extreme of the prosperity gospel to the comfortable center of modern Christianity, we can imagine praying to be spared from suffering or for strength in suffering; but not many of us ask God to wound us and bring us to the brink of death.

Should we?  Perhaps Julian’s prayer is an example of medieval extremism on the opposite end of the spectrum to the prosperity gospel, while balanced Christians should aim for the sane middle ground.  Her seeming fascination with mortality and illness may be a neurotic reaction to living through the Black Death.  But I don’t think that’s the case, because she’s not alone in her embrace of suffering.  The saints throughout the centuries have been not just willing but avid to suffer with Christ and on his behalf.  And when their prayers are granted, they like Julian pass on to us a message of joy and grace.

I don’t pray for suffering.  My most heartfelt pleas are to avoid it, and my most thankful prayers are for my physical comforts.  Am I missing something?

What do you think?


  1. I don’t think we should pray for suffering when we are repeatedly encouraged by Scripture to pray for relief from it. That said, we should pray “Thy will be done” knowing full well that God will allow us to endure hardships for the sake of our faith in Jesus and test our love and devotion to him and wean us from self. In other words, I think we should pray for the strength and courage to endure suffering that will inevitably come.

    Great questions, Damarius.

    • I think I agree that praying FOR suffering seems a bit extreme and counter to many notions in the Bible. That said, to AVOID suffering seems counter to many notions in the Bible, too. I think Jesus modeled these two concepts himself when he prayed for another way, but walked obediently to suffering on the cross.

      • …and there was that most difficult of commands to pick up our cross and follow him.

        Now there’s a post topic worthy of more discussion.

  2. This is an interesting question. I believe that the ideas of redemptive suffering and penance (as an act of humility) are missing from so much of our Christian experience these days. This is especially true in our age of advanced medical care, less and less manual labor, and all manner of creature comforts. I know personally that I somehow think I have a right not to suffer, and I’m surprised and sometimes resentful when I do.

    But to be fully united with Christ, we have to embrace our suffering, just as he did throughout his ministry, especially during his Passion. St. Paul instructs us to share in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his Body, the Church, and to bear our sufferings patiently and with good humor.

    Can I go as far as Julius in asking for suffering in my own life? I’m afraid I’m not that courageous. The most I can muster right now is not wasting any suffering I do have – and using it to unite more closely with Jesus. Again, I have to say that God gave Julius a special grace to desire the suffering she did have, then gave her a deep and profound spiritual experience corresponding to it. We are not all called to that, but I think we have to be grateful to the saints who were and are. They show us deep truths that we might not otherwise see.

  3. Aidan Clevinger says

    I believe very strongly in the fact that God will use suffering to purify us and to make us despair of ourselves and trust in God. But I don’t think there’s any glory in seeking suffering; on its own, suffering is something to be avoided if it’s possible to do so without sin. The value in suffering lies, not in the pain itself, but rather in how we handle the pain; and even then, the ideal is not the mere endurance of suffering (though that is courageous and strong), but rather to endure suffering with faith in Christ and hope that God will use it for His own purposes. The only value to be found in suffering is that it can be used by God to lead us to repentance, faith, and submission. Thomas Merton has excellent things to say about this in “No Man is an Island”.

    As far as praying for suffering is concerned, I’ll paraphrase Luther: “The crosses that we choose for ourselves are not crosses”. Pain can bring us to God only when we don’t desire it and don’t seek after it; because then, in bearing up under it with faith, we are stepping out of our will and bowing to God’s.

  4. Living in a restrictive, Middle East country, I was shocked by a Christian friend who suggested we pray for more persecution. He knew what he was talking about, having been imprisoned and beaten for converting, and spoke wistfully of that time as he felt it had brought him and others closer to God. As a soft, suffering-averse Westerner, I couldn’t relate, but it certainly made me think!

    But I stiill don’t think we should actually pray for suffering.

  5. Interesting comments from everyone. In a way, I see sharing the sufferings of Christ as one of the most concrete ways we can unite ourselves with him and his Body.

    If a soldier fights a harrowing battle with his comrades, the bond that results lasts a lifetime. They all experienced the same struggles and sufferings, and it unites them forever. Or think of the hurricane survivors who are struggling together to rebuild their lives. They all have a common bond in the sufferings of the storm, which no one else will be able to understand.

    St. Ignatius said, “If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.”

    If we want to go deeper with Christ, do we dare ask for suffering? I’m not there yet, but I can see where it can be infinitely valuable.

    • I do not believe like St. Ignatius or some of the many medieval saints who thought that our suffering brought holiness.
      We are but filthy rags before the high holy God. Was not the reformation awakened by a Monk who use to castigate himself and starve himself and allow himself to freeze because he had the medieval mind set that his suffering would bring him close to God. IT was not until he studied scripture and realized that the just shall live by Faith. Some of these medieval saints were extremest and I believe were consumed with their own suffering instead of realizing what we had in Christ. I am not a proponent of the Modern prosperity Gospel. I believe God allows suffering and in that suffering we may sometimes be awakened because we are so desperate that we can only look to God. I once heard of a group that was praying for the persecuted church. The persecuted church responded that they were praying for the American church. The answer was because they had nothing their Jesus was huge. But because the American church had so many material things and distractions that their Jesus was small, I believe when you follow Jesus truly their will be persecution which can cause suffering. I do not believe the Bible promotes us to pray for suffering. I believe the Bible says when we follow God persecution will follow.. Jesus said when trouble comes our way will we stand on the Rock or will we be swept away as if on sand. Some children learn by listening other children need to fall on their faces. Some Good Children get cancer and other sicknesses. I cannot explain that except that when Jesus returns he will wipe away all our tears. Praise be to God the Father Son and Holy Spirit!!

  6. Suffering does have a great value in that it adds a stark contrast to our choices, forces us to see them better, makes them less abstract. Much of the abstraction and distraction of life is filtered out and our choices become clear. Will you feed your bitterness or seek joy? Will you grumble about what has been taken or thank for what has been given? When your resources are diminished, your priorities also become quite clear, there is no complicated budget or flow chart now, what will you do with the $5 to your name or the one activity your illness will allow you a day? Now making the right choices isn’t EASY, but it is more simple.

    I think I’d pray for that, not the suffering itself. How God grants your prayer is up to him.

  7. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Doesn’t look like Jesus prayed for suffering.