“And then he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought: ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came: ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled that it could last, for I thought that it might suddenly have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind: ‘It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.’ And so all things have being through the love of God.”
These words were written by a woman known as Julian of Norwich.
She lived in the 14th century, and is the first woman we know of to have written in English. Her biography is uncertain, although it is thought she may have been a wife and mother who lost her family, possibly in one of three bouts of the ‘black death’ that reduced the population of Norwich by about one third during her lifetime. At the age of thirty she became very sick herself, and during this illness received sixteen ‘showings’ from God, which she recorded in a small book.
Subsequently she became an anchoress, meaning that she lived in a small room adjoining the church from which she took her name. She spent the rest of her life in this room. It had a window into the church, and another on to the outside world. She had a couple of servants who brought her food, and a cat who kept the rats from coming in to nibble at her ears. She spent her time in prayer and in advising the parishioners who came to her with their troubles, something she is said to have done with great wisdom and compassion.
She also wrote a longer commentary on the first small text describing the ‘showings.’ In this commentary she grappled with the problem of how to reconcile the message of unlimited divine love she had received in her visions, with a world in which she was acutely aware of human suffering and conflict – the fourteenth century saw the 100 years war between England and France, harsh suppression of the Peasants Revolt against taxation during years of famine, and an intensity of religious rivalry and doctrinal controversy that would make the Holocaust references and ad hominem attacks of the recent debates over climate change look like polite conversation.
It was this later effort to make sense of her revelations of divine love, and their meaning in the human world, that made Julian one of the greatest of all theologians (in the judgment of Thomas Merton, among others). She began with her experience of divine love as all-encompassing, blissful, and unlimited, with no room for anger or judgment, or for craving or confusion. Then she grappled with the multiple questions that flow from the seeming incompatibility or inaccessibility of this kind of love in a human social world in which anger, craving and confusion so often seem to be the elemental components of experience and expression.
Her vision of creation as a ball the size of a hazelnut, sitting in the palm of her hand, is perhaps the most famous of the images she has left us. It has particular resonance at a time when space exploration has given us images of the earth as a tiny ball and awareness of global warming has led us to see the future of this small planet as resting in our hands. Julian's message is that it is divine love that ultimately sustains the world, but also that this love needs to pass through us - we need to stop blocking it with greed and anger and ignorance.
If only we manage to do that, then to my mind Julian’s teachings suggest that the awesome analytic and creative power of science and the human capacity for social and political cooperation will be able to operate unhindered, and as she put it:
“All shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.”
(With thanks to John and Joy O’Connor for introducing me to the thought of Julian during a wonderful day at their house recently.)