Last week, I took a pause from the Lenten series-within-a-series on the mystics in order to focus on keeping Holy Week.
While Lent is over, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to linger a bit in the mystics, and particular Julian of Norwich, who made an appearance in my post on Friday, but deserves a bit more attention, both because of her message and because of how foreign her sensibilities are to our own.
Reading ancient and medieval writings always involves a strange dance of familiarity and strangeness. One of the most jarring ways the chasm between contemporary and medieval perspectives on the world reveals itself is in medieval people’s fascination with sickness, death and dying. I think of this every time I read the Showings of Julian of Norwich. As a young woman, her greatest desire was to understand Christ’s sufferings through a serious illness. And, I suppose we can say that God answered her prayer. During the course of an illness so severe that she was given her last rites, she saw visions of sixteen scenes from the Crucifixion. These scenes were often gory, but also juxtaposed with images and feelings of great tenderness and love. After she recovered from her illness, Julian spent the next twenty-five or so years of her life pondering the depths of what she had been shown.
Today I’d like to reflect on probably the most famous excerpt from her Showings of Divine Love, because its message is particularly apt for us right now in the Easter season:
I saw that he is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand.
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the Creator and the protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me. (Ch 5 (long text))
This is one of the most stirring reflections on divine love and providence in the history of Christianity. First, God’s love for us is shown as a warm, protective garment that wraps us up and snuggles us in, keeping us safe from harm. It’s a lovely, maternal image of God.
Her vision then moves on to the famous image of the hazelnut. She asks how something so small could even exist, and God answers that it — and by extension everything — exists and persists simply out of God’s prodigious and extravagant love.
Finally, she determines that if something so small exists because of God’s love, then nothing could possibly separate her from God.
This last piece is a theme we have seen over and over again in this series on knowing God: Experiencing our infinitesimal smallness compared to the vastness of God’s infinity, far from leading to a kind of nihilism, fills us with wonder and joy at the vastness of God’s infinite love for us. Our smallness doesn’t make us unimportant but all the more important in that we are created, cherished, and sustained entirely by God’s love.
But Julian goes a step further: because everything in all creation is so insignificant compared to God, it’s impossible for anything to separate us from God. Anything that could — whether death or life, angels or authorities, things present or future, powers, height or depth, or anything else (Rom 8.37f) — is but a speck of dirt floating across the Sun in comparison.
This is such an important message for us to remember in this strange season of double-vision, in which our hearts are torn between the joy of Easter’s Good News and the grief over the state of our world and anxieties for its future.
We are not alone.
And more importantly, we are loved.
We are loved with a love so strong that nothing can overcome it.
We are loved with a love so bright that nothing can dim it.
We are loved with a love so big that nothing is anything compared to it.
We are loved with a love that is nothing less than God. (For God is love.)