No Inconsequential Thing: A little perspective on life from Julian of Norwich

For a man regards some deeds as well done and some as less so, but our Lord does not regard them so … For the best of deeds is well done; and the smallest of deeds which is done is as well done as the best and the greatest. And they all have the property and the order ordained for them as our Lord had ordained from before the beginning (Julian of Norwich, Showings, LT 11).

Over face masks and coffee, a friend and I were having our regular meet-up to catch up and just hang out. And, as we always do, we got around to talking about life in general, how we’re feeling, and the emotional toll isolation is taking on us. The conversation took a turn not too uncommon for people past a certain age: the significance of our lives, what it all means, what legacy we’re leaving behind, and what impact we’re having now. Were we making a difference in the world? As Christian men, we were trying to put that into perspective from God’s point of view: have we fulfilled the purpose God put us on this planet for – and is that even a legitimate question? Is this a healthy way to look at our lives; is it consistent with our experience of God thus far?

Truthfully, both of us were feeling a bit “inconsequential.” Neither of us was living the life we had envisioned for ourselves when we were younger, and neither of us was leaving any particularly impressive legacy behind. We weren’t Michelangelos or DaVincis. We weren’t Mother Teresas or Jonas Salks. We weren’t turning the world upside-down making it a better place.

Perhaps we were too much under the influence of the pandemic funk, that general malaise that seems to infiltrate the moods of so many people we know. Stress, free-floating anxiety, low-level fear always in the background. And I couldn’t help but think of the lines from that famous poem by Walt Whitman that seemed to capture that sense many of us feel, “O Me! O Life!

O Me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

What good, indeed? We each were barely scraping by doing the little things, the little acts of kindness that our scarce time and resources permit.

But then I remembered an image, a vision a 30-year old woman had about seven hundred years ago. Julian of Norwich had a revelation that realigned her perspective on life, on creation, on God, on everything. And it was encapsulated in the image of a small, delicate ball, about the size of a hazelnut, held in the palm of her hand.

“He wants us to know that he takes heed not only of things which are noble and great, but also of those which are little and small, of humble men and simple… For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten”
(Julian of Norwich, Showings, LT 32).

A little context

A little historical context will highlight how this is even related to us, and why it’s important.

In 1373, Julian was stricken with an illness which she believed would end in her death. What strikes me as an interesting correspondence with our situation is that she expressed almost a resignation about it, a longing to leave this earth which echoes the world-weariness people many years her senior sometimes experience. A sudden, unexpected desire to live took hold of her, and it surprised her: “not that there was anything on earth which it pleased me to live for … but it was because I wanted to live to love God better and longer… It seemed to me that all the time that I had lived here was very little and short … [and] I thought: Good Lord, can my living no longer be to your glory?” (LT 3).

Life was difficult, there wasn’t much to hold her here, but she thought maybe she should live longer to learn to love God more.

When the priest held a crucifix above her head so that she could take comfort in her savior as she passed, she had a series of visions which revolutionized the way she saw her life and everything else in the world. She spent the next 20 years of her life writing about them, explaining them, with the goal of sharing a vision of God as Love that would help people overcome their fear of God, their fear of sin and judgment, and help them through the despair many of them were feeling.

Europe at the time, and particularly Norwich, England, where she lived, was undergoing conditions similar to what we are currently experiencing, only worse. The Black Plague swept through her home town three times during her lifetime, killing more than one-third of the population. And the priests, those who were relied upon for consolation in this life and blessing for the next, those who were supposed to make sense of the calamity and discern God’s will, about half of them died as well. There were floods, wars, power struggles in the Church and in their civil governments, social instability and uncertainty, food shortages, and financial insecurity. One historian describes it more graphically,

People died, horribly and suddenly and in great numbers. It was so contagious that one contemporary witness describes how anyone who touched the sick or the dead immediately caught the disease and died himself, so that priests who ministered to the dying were flung into the same grave with their penitents. It was impossible for the clergy to keep up with all those who required last rites, and to die unshriven was seen as a catastrophe of eternal proportions. Nor could the people who died be buried with dignity.

Already fearing the plague was divine punishment in this lifetime, many people died dreading facing that angry God and the eternal torment that awaited them in the next.

This was the spiritual condition targeted by Julian’s revelations: a God who wraps us in unwavering love, who, instead of being angry with the world, has no room for anger or wrath in his nature, and who holds all things, sustains all things – including all these wretched, terrified souls – in perfect and powerful love. Her words were God’s prophetic answer to the cries of human beings suffering under intense duress — as much now as then.

What’s with the Hazelnut?

Her vision of the “hazelnut” ties together some of the same themes we’re talking about here: Fear answered by love; feelings of insignificance and impermanence adjusted by eternal permanence; meaning and purpose in life clarified and simplified. Basically, a new perspective on life.

“It exists because God loves it.”
Painting by Reverend Ally (Used with permission)

[God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall 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 is that to me? It is that God is the Creator and the protector and the lover (Julian of Norwich, Showings, ST 4).

In this simple little vision, Julian sees all of creation, every thing, every person, and all of time, encapsulated in a tiny ball that could be held in her hand. This was God’s perspective of reality: everything that exists, all of history, fragile as it may be, held together and sustained and protected by God’s love.

It might be easy to dismiss this as little more than a nice Sunday School lesson, and it can even sound a bit naïve, but when we consider that people at the time (as now) felt the world almost literally falling apart as they watched, as everything they clung to for stability seemed to unravel, this simple image, if held in the mind and meditated on even briefly, could bring desperately needed inner peace and calm.

It is one thing to say “God is in control,” but Julian’s prophetic assertion that the delicate structure of our lives, which at times threatens to crumble in our hands, is sustained by God “and always will be” can be profoundly reassuring. And this was Julian’s intent: “in all this I was humbly moved in love toward my fellow Christians, that they might all see and know the same as I saw, for I wished it to be a comfort to them all, as it is to me; for this vision was shown for all men, and not for me alone” (ST 7).

No answers. Just comfort.

Julian does not answer the universal question of “why.” Why does evil exist? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Her best-known adage, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (LT 27), can even be off-putting as simplistic and glib. When she wondered why God had not prevented sin from happening at the very beginning, because surely then everything in history would have been well, she is simply informed that “sin is necessary,” without further clarification. “It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well …” Perhaps a clue is given, even if an unsatisfying one, that on account of sin and pain, compassion is born in the human heart for our fellow humans, and in this we experience Christ. “So I saw how Christ has compassion on us because of sin … and then I saw that every kind of compassion which one has for one’s fellow Christians in love is Christ in us” (ST 13).

Like with biblical Job, after he unjustly suffered such great loss, and hounded God for an answer, the divine response is elusive. Job doesn’t get his answer; he only gets a bigger glimpse of the God he is dealing with — and it changes his life. Julian too:  “Nonetheless in this vision Jesus informed me about everything needful to me” – which seems like a polite way of saying “none of your business — I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

We are left, in this vision of the hazelnut-sized ball of everything, only with consolation, not intellectual answers: God loves all that is made, God experiences all the pain and sorrow with us, and is present with us in that pain.

We have to find a way to be content with that, with his divine presence. It may, in fact, be the very definition of faith.

It’s all about Love…

So, there is the promise of divine support and sustenance, God with us in all things. Beyond that, Julian tells us that love is the point, the goal, of it all.

[God] is our clothing, for he is that love which wraps and enfolds us, embraces us and guides us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. (Julian of Norwich, Showings, ST 4).

Instead of seeing the world as the object of divine wrath, or even of divine neglect, there is the reassurance that we are held, clothed in tender love, and in everything that happens, big or small, happy or tragic, love is present with us and for us.

Again, no satisfying answers for the intellect, but it does speak to our human need for meaning.

What is the point of it all? Love. That we are surrounded by and soaking in Love. It is the experience of God’s love, not just intellectually appreciated but felt even somatically – in the body – that brings life meaning.

And in that sense, back to our earlier questions, all things can be meaningful and significant, when acted upon with love.

This can easily sound too theoretical or theological. But remember the feeling of being in love with someone, how their very presence could make you happy. It didn’t matter what you did, what activity or achievement you accomplished together, it was simply the joy, the energy exchange, experienced by being together. That is what Julian is talking about. That joy, the knowing, of shared loving presence. Not only does it bring meaning and joy to us, but it has the same effect on God. God thrills to our presence. It is entirely mutual.

Even the smallest of things …

This renders our concerns over “significance” or the “importance” of our actions and accomplishments moot. It should be a relief. A burden lifted off our shoulders.

There is no pressure to achieve great things in life, or the worry that we are not having a big enough impact on the world to leave our fingerprint or to justify our existence on this planet. Even “the smallest of deeds which is done, is as well done as the best and the greatest,” Julian reminds us. Sharing in this Love is the point of it all. It is the real goal, the ultimate purpose of our lives.

This was a revolutionary concept. Individual mystics throughout history may have known this deep truth, but at the time, when the Church was declaring the wrath of an angry God against all of us sinful and irreparably corrupt humans (and even against all of creation itself), Julian wrote these insights as a corrective comfort – and not just for the mystical few who could achieve some kind of union with God. These words were meant for all of us.

What is the point of it all? Love. That we are surrounded by and soaking in Love. It is the experience of God’s love, not just intellectually appreciated but felt even somatically – in the body – that brings life meaning.

Julian’s new perspective on reality, her God’s-eye point of view, can help us recalibrate our own sense of insignificance in the vast sweep of time.

Far from trivializing our “little lives,” this corrected vision of the nature of life suggests that everything we do is important, everything is lasting, even down the smallest smile or drink of water given.

God shows her not to place too much weight on any particular thing but to “consider him in all things” (LT 35). By seeing God “in an instant,” and everything as if it were a single point capable of being held all at once in God’s hand like a hazelnut, we can stop obsessing over the daily struggles, we can stop worrying that our contributions are not grand enough, or that our life has not amounted to more. “For by the same power, wisdom and love with which he made all things, our good Lord is continually leading all things to the same end [Love], and he himself shall bring this about” (LT 35).

In every little thing we do, when we do it in love, we are each contributing a permanent part to the grand design, to the cosmic fabric of creation being woven by God. Or, as Whitman concludes his poem we quoted earlier,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity, the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

And that is my answer now, after spending some time with Julian: There is no such thing as an inconsequential life. And there is no such thing as an unimportant good deed, no matter how small. God is holding them all in his hand. God is in them all, and they are all in God, preserved for eternity.

“He wants us to know that he takes heed not only of things which are noble and great, but also of those which are little and small, of humble men and simple… For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten”  (Julian of Norwich, Showings, LT 32).

Moment of Meditation

Understanding will never bring you peace. That’s why I have instructed you to trust in me, not in your understanding. Human beings have a voracious appetite for trying to figure things out, in order to gain a sense of mastery over their lives. But the world presents you with an endless series of problems.

As soon as you master one set, another pops up to challenge you. The relief you had anticipated is short-lived. Soon your mind is gearing up again: searching for understanding (mastery), instead of seeking me (your master).

My peace is not an elusive goal, hidden at the center of some complicated maze. Actually, you are always enveloped in peace, which is inherent in my presence. As you look to me, you gain awareness of this precious peace. (Proverbs 3:5-6; Romans 5:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:16)

 


References

Julian of Norwich, Showings. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Trans and ed. by Edmond Colledge and James Walsh. (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). [“ST” refers to her “Short Text” in which she records her visions and initial impressions; “LT” refers to her “Long Text,” where she explains and expands on the visions recorded in the Short Text.]
Wendy Farley, The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics (Louisville: Westminster John Know, 2015).
Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
Grace Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988).
Philip F. Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality: History, Theology, and Social Practice (New York: Paulist Press, 2010).