By Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Ann Ulanov: The Modern Julian of Norwich?

Soon after publishing my translation of that medieval book on prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, I crash-landed in a counselor’s office. I had become a jittery, work-driven insomniac whose old ways of coping had failed. I was living fifteen-hour writing days, becoming eighteen-hour writing days when the rest of my family left me to visit my in-laws in England. On a good night, I slept two-to-three hours. Searching for healing, I don’t even remember how I came into the providential possession of a second-hand book offering “a psychology of prayer,” by two people I’d never heard of, Ann Ulanov and her husband, Barry.

Two Women, Kneeling — Vincent Van Gogh, 1883.

A lifelong fascination with prayer drew me to Primary Speech. By the middle of the first page, I knew here, finally, was someone speaking a language I had experienced and hungered for more of, someone carrying on the work of my much-loved medieval women mystics, whose spiritual sagacity was anchored in and fed by Scripture meditation and whose compassionate living embodied their Christly love-your-neighbor worldview. Ann Ulanov’s many books on religion and psychology are informed by her rich perspective as educator-researcher-writer-analyst-Episcopalian; she is Christiane Brooks Johnson Memorial Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary and a Jungian analyst in private practice in New York City.

Reading through Dr. Ulanov’s Christocentric oeuvre since discovering Primary Speech, I’ve been praying for the day when her nondualistic understanding of religion and psychology is mainstream for the church, as such soul concerns were for the medieval women mystics I study. The women mystics communicated their faith with a healing spiritual astuteness that is now articulated in the scientific discipline of psychology and in psychiatric medicine. These women and other mentors would be guests on my twenty-first-century version of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds, where actors played key historic individuals discussing controversial contemporary topics (an example here). My ideal host would be Ann Ulanov, moderating soul-nourishing conversation at a round table with my favorites — Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Emily Dickinson, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln.  

In Primary Speech and in interviews, the Ulanovs affirm God is in dialogue with each of us, this conversation happening mostly in Silence, Christ can handle all confessions and emotions, soul-knowledge is crucial, and sincere prayer is never a failure, no matter how it feels at the time:

[N]o language is quite so fundamental or so important as . . . the language of prayer. (vii)

All prayer begins with desire . . . what Augustine calls an affectionate reaching out to God. We long for contact, for connection at the center, that grounding that brings full-hearted peace of mind and soul. . . . This desire that brings God down to the soul is like the thirst for the water of the spirit that Jesus reveals to the woman at the well. . . . [For] the Christ we follow is the Savior, not the judge. (13, 72)

Prayer’s world is a world of honesty, where we face ourselves. . . . . [P]rayer is noisy with the clamor of all the parts of us demanding to be heard. . . . If we can let ourselves go in prayer and speak all that is in our minds and hearts, if we can sit quietly and bear the silence, we will hear all the bits and pieces of ourselves crowding in on us, pleading for our attention. (vii, 2)

We begin to hear the self we actually are emerging out of our shadow selves, our counterfeit selves, our pretended selves. We become aware of what is in us, the best and the worst. . . . Above all, we discover our fears — the fear to risk, to love, . . . the fear to lead, to stand out and be seen. (2) [my italics]

[P]rayer turns out to be our fumbling response to God’s initiative, to being touched by God. . . . What we thought was our prayer, our effort to pray, reveals itself as God’s praying through us, the Spirit showing the things of Christ to us. . . . If we go on listening, we feel God pulling us, drawing us into another current, a larger, deeper, stronger one than our usual little force. Prayer tugs at us, pulls us into a life of abundance, of unceasing abundance. (9, 20-21)

We move from knowing about God to knowing God directly. . . . We come to pray more through Jesus and the Spirit than through charted principles or proclaimed precepts. We gain more of the heritage of Christ’s passion, knowing the dying and resurrection that defy our explanations. . . . (108-109)

We live the meaning of the mystical body of Christ in [the] interconnectedness of intercession, where our pleas for others become pleas for ourselves and their pleas for themselves become pleas for us. (97)

In many ways, these spiritual observations and others in Ann Ulanov’s many books and lectures continue the gentle soul work of Julian of Norwich in her Showings, making me especially thankful for such sinewy tranquility that encourages us in third-millennium language to remember that “alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thynge shalle be wele.” (39)

About the Author

Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)

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