Of the sixteen showings received by Julian of Norwich on the 15th of May, 1373, the third immediately grabbed my theological attention:
The third is that our Lord God, al mighty, all wisdom, and all love, right also verily as he hath made all thinges that is, right also verily he doeth and worketh all things first that is done. (LT 1)
The statement suggests a strong view of divine providence and agency, flowing from God’s identity as Creator of the world. Just as God has brought into being all substances, so he also brings into being all actions and doings. How, after all, could they exist as actions if God was not doing them? The bird singing in the tree, the rock rolling down the hill, the asteroid hurtling through space, the wildfire sweeping through Santa Rosa and the Napa Valley—all are acts of the Creator, Julian seems to be telling us, at least in some sense. But in what sense? That is the first question that comes to mind. Does Julian’s understanding of divine agency make room for creaturely causality? A second question follows: What about human freedom? Am I a genuine actor or just a puppet controlled by some supreme being? To answer these questions, we need to better grasp Julian’s understanding of the relationship between God and the world he has freely made out of nothing.
Within the context of the first showing, Julian describes her famous vision of the hazlenut lying on the palm of her hand. It seems so small and inconsequential. How is it, she wonders, that it does not collapse into nothing? Clearly it lacks the power to maintain itself in existence. “And I was answered in my understanding: ‘It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it. And so all thing being by the love of God'” (LT 5). Julian comes to a threefold comprehension of the created world: “the first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third is that God kepeth it” (LT 5). The world is a theatre of love—made in love and preserved in love. Perhaps we hear an echo of the Wisdom of Solomon:
For the whole world before thee is as the least grain of the balance, and as a drop of the morning dew, that falleth down upon the earth: But thou hast mercy upon all, because thou canst do all things, and overlookest the sins of men for the sake of repentance. For thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which thou hast made: for thou didst not appoint, or make any thing hating it. And how could any thing endure, if thou wouldst not? or be preserved, if not called by thee. (11:23-26)
Solomon’s concern is the abiding mercy of the Creator who judges mankind with pity and grace. Julian, though, interprets the hazlenut as symbolizing the inability of the world to satisfy the deepest desires of the heart:
For this is the cause why we be not all in ease of hart and of soule: for we seeke heer rest in this thing that is so little, wher no reste is in, and we know not our God, that is al mighty, all wise, and all good. For he is very reste. (LT 5)
The prayer of St Augustine immediately come to mind: “Our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” We hunger for the absolute Good, yet we keep seeking our happiness in tiny hazlenuts. Surely this is madness. “This is the cause,” the anchoress reiterates, “why that no soule is rested till it is noughted of all thinges that is made. When he is wilfully noughted for love to have him that is all, then is he able to receive ghostly reste” (LT 5). Our hearts must be “noughted.” Modern translations cannot not capture Julian’s elegant phrasing:
And this is the reason why no soul is at rest until it has despised as nothing all things which are created. When it by its will has become nothing for love, to have him who is everything, then is it able to receive spiritual rest. (Colledge and Walsh)
And this is why, until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything, then he is able to receive spiritual rest. (Spearing)
Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins exegete the passage: “The very thing that God keeps from falling to ‘nought’ needs to be ‘noughted'” (The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 140). We are summoned to ascetical detachment, not to persuade the Lord to love us, but to effect the necessary liberation from the false deities to which we have fastened ourselves. The world is but a hazlenut, brought into being by Love, held and sustained in the palm of Love; but it is not the Love for whom our hearts cry out.