Yesterday, we looked at how Julian of Norwich oriented herself towards her faith and desires. The things she knew were a little weird — wanting to witness Christ’s Passion and a near-fatal illness — she asked for on the condition that God not give them to her if they weren’t good for her; and the things she knew were representative of the kingdom of God — true contrition, loving compassion, and longing for God — she prayed without condition. On May 13, 1373, at the age of “thirty and a half years old,” she received her wishes, and during a very severe illness, her feverish hallucinations took the form of a series of sixteen visions of Christ on the cross (Ch 2, 3).* When she later reflected on this experience in her writing, she called them “a revelation of love [of] Jesus Christ, our endless bliss” (Ch1). Julian’s experience was full of contradiction. Many of the things she saw where horrible, and yet the overall message was one of beautiful and expansive love. Today, as we start to dig into the text further, I’d like to look at two images of love and comfort from Chapter 5, in what is not only one of the most famous passages in Julian, of the entire canon of Christian mystical literature.
The first ‘showing’ was of flood flowing from under Christ’s crown of thorns and streaming down his face, “freely and copiously, a living stream …” (Ch 4). But in the midst of this bloody vision which she experienced as a ‘physical sight’ she also had a ‘spiritual sight’ of God’s love. She writes:
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, 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 was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And it was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being though the love of God. (Ch 5)
It’s the second of these images, the hazelnut, that gets the most discussion, but on this reading, what stuck out to me was the first, the image of Christ as our coat. The idea of Christ as clothing is at least as early as Paul (and probably even earlier), and has been an important part of Christian baptismal imagery for as long as we have records, but Julian plays with it here in an interesting way. In the biblical usage, the image highlights the transformation that takes place upon conversion (and daily after that). In Romans 13.14, Paul urges the Romans to avoid various kinds of sin and “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” And in Galatians 3.27-28, he writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But as deployed by Julian, the image instead highlights comfort: Christ “wraps and enfolds us for love.” This is a lovely complement to the biblical and baptismal image. For as much as Christianity is about transformation, the challenge that such change represents is unsustainable if that’s all there is. Just as we need rest as much as we need hard work, our hearts need comfort as much as they need transformation.
This leads us once again to the famous image of the hazelnut, from which Julian understands three things: that all things are made by God, loved by God, and preserved by God. But this is not just an image of divine providence for her. As much as it is an image of God’s care for the kosmos, she also recognizes that this has consequences for her life. For how can she put her trust in anything so small and fragile instead of the great and loving God who creates, loves, and sustains it all? She writes:
For this is the reason why our hearts and souls are not in perfect ease, because here we seek rest in this thing which is so little, in which there is no rest, and we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise, and all good, for he is true rest.
So in both this images we see this balance of comfort and challenge. The image of the coat reminds us of the transformation that our faith requires, but also of the comfort of God’s love. And the image of the hazelnut reminds us that everything is loved and sustained by God, but also that nothing that small and contingent can ever satisfy the longings of our hearts.
And so, in this Lenten season, let us carry the truths of these images with us. Let us not forget that we are called to be transformed but are also loved deeply just as we are, and that the whole world is beloved by God but that only in God will we find the true rest we need.
I’ll end today’s reflection with Julian’s prayer at the end of the chapter:
God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me, and I can ask for nothing which is less which can pay you full worship. And if I ask anything which is less, always I am in want; but only in you do I have everything.
* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.
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