The World is (Hazel) Nuts!

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The message for July 21 centered on Julian of Norwich and her message of peace and love in a time of fear and uncertainty.  The scriptures for the day included Isaiah 43:1-7 and I John 4:1-6, 13-18

On the evening of May 13, 1373 a thirty-year-old woman lay dying in the village of Norwich, England.  That this was occurring would have caused no significant alarm amongst her neighbors… in the span of a few years, three-quarters of the population of that region had died, mostly because of the plague we know as the Black Death.  This woman had already lost her husband and at least one child.

The Christ crucified of Cardinal Baronius, Tiberio Calcagni,  c,1564

The Christ crucified of Cardinal Baronius, Tiberio Calcagni, c,1564

As she lay on a bed in her mother’s home, the parish priest was called in and gave her the last rites.  Her breath was ragged, but other than that, there was no sense in which she was responsive or even alive.  As he prepared to leave, the clergyman held a crucifix before her and commanded, “Daughter, I have brought the image of thy savior.  Look upon it and comfort thyself.”  People in the room were startled when she focused her eyes on the cross and would not look away.

The priest left, and the cross remained, and the young woman spent hours gazing at the image of the crucified Lord.  All night long, she lay there.  In the morning, her mother could no longer hear her breathing and supposed that she had died.  She put her hands in front of the woman’s face to close the eyes, and when she could no longer see the cross, the young woman started awake – and realized that she had seen a vision of Christ.

In the next few days, she regained herself, and in the following years, these visions, rather than fading from her memory, grew stronger.  She spoke, guardedly, about them – first with a spiritual advisor, a Friar who followed in the way of Francis of Assisi (about whom we heard last week), and then with a small group of trusted women with whom she would study and pray for more than two decades.

Eventually, this woman became what is known as an “Anchoress” .  An anchorite (male or female) was a person who chose to live alone (like a hermit) and had not taken religious vows (like a priest or a nun).  The key difference between an anchorite and a hermit is that hermits would go off to the desert or somewhere else to be alone, and anchorites chose to live in confined quarters in the midst of populated areas. Typically, an anchoress’ cell would be built in the wall of the local church, and it was a room with three windows.  One window, called a “squint”, looked into the church so that the occupant could participate in worship and receive the sacrament.  Another was used to allow an assistant to bring food and drink and to remove refuse.  And a third usually opened onto a porch, where people could come and seek counsel from the anchoress.

Julian of NorwichThis woman is known as Julian of Norwich.  That might be because her name really was Julian, or it might be because the church where she eventually lived for many years was called St. Julian and Edward’s.  At any rate, Julian had a profound influence in her community.  She chose to anchor herself in the midst of town, and challenged people to grow in their own faith.  In that age, one was either “a religious” or one was not.  The “religious” were the ones who joined a monastery or a convent or were in some way or another “professional” Christians.  Everyone else was encouraged to think about God as little as possible, because they’d probably screw it up somehow.  Julian, however, called her neighbors “even Christians”, and taught them to grow deeper into God’s purposes for their lives.

During this time as an anchoress, Julian recorded her visions in a book which has come to be known as The Revelations of Divine Love.  It is believed to be the first book ever to be written in English by a woman.

As she lay dying on that day in 1373, Julian’s mind had been focused on one primary issue: the problem of sin.  How could God allow sin to go on for so long?  She said that she spoke to Christ on the cross, saying, “Why did you not prevent sin from occurring?  If there had been no sin, all would be well.”  The answer she received in her vision was, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

In this series of visions, Julian came to see that the power of God is primarily the power of love.  Now, I hope that you are not too surprised to hear that, but you need to know that in her day and age, that was astounding and unusual.  If you were to go into a typical church in the 14th century, you’d see the walls and ceilings covered with images of judgment and hell. Every time Christians came to worship, they were reminded that God is really, really angry about the fact that people sin, and that this God sends terror, disease, and warfare to punish people for their sin.  And when they succumb to disease or war, then they go into purgatory or worse, everlasting damnation, because God is so mad at us.

In Julian’s life, her village suffered three bouts of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Revolt and the Great Schism…and they had been taught, by the church, that these things were all punishments sent to them by an angry God. And yet, in the midst of these cataclysmic and terrifying events, Julian came to see that God’s intention, in a single word, was ‘love’.

And one might be tempted to say, “Well, sure, it would be easy for her to say that, locked away from the ‘real world’ in an anchorage, with people waiting on you…”

Except for the fact that the very church in which she was locked away was a part of the culture of fear that was shaping the world at that time.  The Bishop under whom she served would regularly behead those people in the Diocese who were caught using the English language to speak about spiritual matters.  Those who possessed English-language bibles were burnt at the stake as heretics.

And yet this brave woman wrote a book for her “even Christians” in the common English language of her day in the hopes that they might come to see and believe that God intends each of us to grow to be like God.  As she wrote, “faith is nothing else but a right understanding and trust of our being, that we are in God and God, whom we do not see, is in us.”[1] I would suspect that it might be a lot more difficult to burn someone at the stake if I thought that there was a chance that God might be in them…

Beloved, listen to this…if the powers that be in the 14th century found that simple message of hope and trust to be threatening, how much more will they oppose it today?

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

We live in a culture that is driven by fear of the other.  Someone – one of those people­ – is coming for you.  One of those people is going to take your guns, or your job, or take money.  This would be a great country if it wasn’t for them – the welfare cheats or the Republicans or the lobbyists or the gays or the religious fundamentalists.  If it wasn’t for people like the Muslims or the pro-lifers, we’d be all right.

We are afraid of aging.  Afraid of dying.  Afraid of being unpopular, or fat, or smelly, or weird.

How much of what we do is motivated by fear of one kind or another?

To use a very contemporary example, how would our world be different if people like George Zimmerman offered people like Trayvon Martin a ride?  How would our world be different if people like Trayvon Martin felt free to walk toward someone like me and say, “Hi, my name is Trayvon…”?  How different would our world be if people didn’t feel the need to clutch their purses in the elevators, or lock their doors while driving past certain groups on the sidewalk, or avoid eye contact with someone of another race, gender, or ethnicity?

What would happen if we confronted our fears and decided that they would not rule over us?

From the Anchoress' cell at St. Julian's Church, Norwich

From the Anchoress’ cell at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich

Listen to what Julian wrote:  “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love… He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’”

Isn’t that the same message that Isaiah had put out thousands of years previous?  He did not say that God would be with us “if” the floods, or the fire, or the difficulty came.  The prophet assures us that “when” these things happen, we can know the heart of God.

We do not have to act as though the thing that we fear is more powerful than the life we’ve been given.

“Ahhh, Dave, now you’re just being too idealistic.  Maybe you’ve been in your anchorage too long.  This world is a nutty place, Dave.”

Julian saw that, too.  During one of her visions, the Lord asked her to hold something small – it seemed to her to be the size of a hazelnut.  As she turned the tiny delicate object over in her hands, she asked what it was, and learned that it was the entire universe.Julian-of-Norwich-hazelnut

I looked at the hazel nut 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, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.

What if – humor me for a moment – what if that could possibly be true?  What if God’s love is the strongest force in the universe?  What if God is crazy about you and about the other?  What if all shall be well and all shall be well and every manner of thing shall be well?  What if a small group of committed Christians in the 21st century decided to anchor themselves in a community and then to live as though God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us?

Julian saw this – in the midst of a world filled with war, disease, persecution, danger, and, most importantly, with fear.  Can we?

Can we fix our eyes on the cross and ask God for a vision of love and peace and security that rests not so much on protection from them or those people, but more on God’s commitment to the Creation?  Can we ask God for a vision like that?  And if we can, can we ask God for the courage to live it out in our own century?

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…”  Great God, shape us, your people, to live in that perfect and fearless love.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in Amy Frykholm, Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press, 2010)

Each week, I try to have a one-page handout with some information about the subject of the morning’s message.  Here is the information I shared on July 21, 2013

Faces at the Reunion: Julian of Norwich (1181-1226)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Julian was 30 years old when she received a series of powerful visions.  These came to her whilst she was so profoundly ill that she’d been given the last rites.  She recovered, and over the next four decades would reflect on these visions and eventually record them for the encouragement of the church.  Her book, The Revelations of Divine Love (or The Showings) is widely regarded as the first book to be written in English by a woman.

From The Revelations of Divine Love

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness. We need to have knowledge of this, so that we may delight in despising as nothing everything created, so as to love and have uncreated God. 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. God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for everything which is beneath him is not sufficient for us…

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? 
Know it well, love was his meaning. 
Who reveals it to you? Love. 
What did he reveal to you? Love. 
Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. 
Remain in this. And you will know more of the same.

 In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

In preparation for this week’s message, I read Amy Frykholm’s Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press, 2010). It’s a brief book and very inspirational.  The Revelations of Divine Love can be found in many places; there are several e-reader versions for under a dollar. Other resources on the life of this “older sister” in the faith can be found here:

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