Julian and the Hazelnut
“And in this [sight], he showed a little thing the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand as it seemed to me, and it was as round as any ball. I looked therein 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 it seemed to me it might suddenly have fallen into nought for its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasteth and ever shall, because God loveth it. And so hath all things being by the love of God.”
In the First Revelation, Julian is suddenly shown, through an imaginative vision, a perfectly round hazelnut lying in the palm of her hand. How many times she had held, cracked, and eaten raw or roasted hazelnuts, ground them with a mortar and pestle to make a paste or sauce, pressed them to produce flavorful hazelnut oil, followed a recipe calling for a quantity of butter or lard “the size of a hazelnut,” or saved one half of the nut covering to use as a makeshift measuring spoon for salt and spices. The uses of hazelnuts were so many and frequent in fourteenth century Norwich, the trees on which they grew so ubiquitous throughout the countryside that one would pick the hazelnuts up off the ground as one walked among the hedgerows between fields. Hazel tree branches were used to make wattle and daub homes, farm fencing, even strong but flexible bows for arrows. In fact, the hazelnut had been around so long (since 7000 BCE, during the Mesolithic Period) and had become so commonplace, so utterly ordinary, that Julian did not understand what the import of its imaginary presence in her palm could possibly mean.
She looks more deeply with the inner eye of her understanding and asks the first of many questions in her text: “What may this be?” She makes very clear that she was answered not specifically from the Lord’s mouth but in a general way, through an illumination given directly to her mind. The response was short, direct, precise: “It is all that is made.” The moment is stunning in its simplicity and grandeur. Julian realizes in a flash how precious the little nut is, simply because it exists, and, as such, it encapsulates “all that is made.” But how could it be “all that is made” if it is so small and so innocuous? Why, it could so easily fall into “nought,” or complete nothingness, because of its very littleness, disintegrate into the earth unnoticed, as Julian had seen so many hazelnut casings turn to compost in the garden. It is as if Julian’s inner eye became a floating telescope, zooming out to view infinite space, revealing the minuteness of planet Earth in the immensity of the cosmos. What power allows such a tiny thing to exist at all and cares enough to sustain it in existence? She is approaching the ultimate metaphysical question: How is there anything at all? Again, she is answered not by externally spoken words but by a voice within: “It lasteth, and ever shall, because God loveth it.” And in the same way do all things exist or “have being” from moment to moment, solely because of the love of God.
Some people, as they lie on their deathbeds, see their lives pass before them in a flash. Julian sees all creation enclosed in the symbol of a little hazelnut, as miniscule in God’s eye as a tiny round ball floating in space. Nevertheless, the smallness does not mean the hazelnut is any less loved by God for being so little and so ordinary. It is loved equally with suns and moons and stars, all the wonders of nature, and the uniqueness of human beings. In the course of future Revelations, Julian will experience again and again this ever-present, all-pervasive reality of love that alone sustains creation. Rather, creation is nothing else but the expression of Divine Love. Here Julian is given a glimpse into a universe upheld not by physical matter, whether in microcosm or macrocosm, but by the fact of the all-pervasive love of God.
Julian understands three properties of the hazelnut. Not its hardiness, usefulness, and tastiness. Rather, “the first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God protects it.” This trinity of hazelnut attributes strikes her mind with great clarity. Still, she is not sure what the meaning of its sudden appearance in her imagination could be, here and now, for her: “But what is that to me?” she asks, in internal dialogue. The answer comes immediately: “Truly, the maker, the protector, the lover.” Consideration of the humble hazelnut raises Julian’s mind once again to the contemplation of Trinity as creator, protector, and eternal lover revealing itself not only in the reality of Jesus Christ, but in and through everything that is made.
Now, in a rush of ardor, Julian expresses her life’s longing for God. She laments that until she is “substantially oned,” that is, united to God in the very ground of her being, with nothing created interposing itself between herself and God, she cannot have any rest or peace. She feels she must become “fastened” (in her heart) to Christ on the cross, so that there is nothing standing between her and him. This may seem a startling conclusion. Is Julian suddenly denying the holiness and goodness of the “hazelnut,” which she has just understood represents all of creation? How could she? She has seen that it is created, protected, and loved in being by God. But she knows that it is still not God, nor can it ever be. And no matter how good and true and beautiful creation appears, it can never satisfy the soul’s yearning to be “oned” with the One by whom all is created. No creature can ever become God for her. She cannot substitute a hazelnut for a heaven.
Julian is echoing the thought of St. Augustine here: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” This was a common theme in medieval literature. Julian knows only too well that we continually grasp at what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and hold in the palm of our hands. Too often, what we seek after with such inveterate determination distracts us from the love and service of God, our ultimate destiny. Our ever increasing earthly needs and goals can mount up like a thick wall between the soul and its Creator. We think we are striving after what will make us happy until we either get it and realize it cannot satisfy our fundamental longing, or we lose it and start craving something else. Yet somehow, even though we know our wants always exceed our needs, we start the process over and over again.
“Of this each man and woman needs to have knowing who desires to live contemplatively, that he desires to nought all things that are made in order to have the love of God that is unmade. For this is the cause why they who are occupied willfully in earthly business, and evermore seek worldly well being, are not completely at ease in heart and in soul: for they love and seek here rest in this thing [the hazelnut] that is so little, where no rest is within, and know not God, who is all mighty, all wise, and all good. For he is true rest.”
Julian discerns that all creation, even in its most awesome beauty, is only the size of a hazelnut in the sight of God. She realizes that the very “littleness” of the hazelnut (i.e., the world) shows us it is necessary to nought everything that is made “in order to have the love of God that is unmade.” Only God is great enough to satisfy our soul’s deepest desire. What does Julian mean by this word, nought? The word was not known before the twelfth century, when it meant, literally, “nothing.” In medieval mystical literature, noughting implied the deliberate letting go of attachment to self, as well as the renunciation of worldly goods and concerns, in order to attain a deeper spiritual union with the divine. Noughting was the essential way of purgation, before illumination and spiritual union with God could be achieved. . . . The sense in which Julian uses the word implies a self-denial, a turning away from human selfishness and its obsession with finite, ever-changing, always-decaying goods that can distract the soul from seeking the infinite, unchangeable, and everlasting good. In modern terms, we could say noughting involves a negation of self-centeredness in order to become more focused on the “other,” an absolutely necessary component of learning to love. For Julian, it means letting go of the unnecessary in order to focus on the one thing needful (Lk 10:42).
Here, Julian tells the reader that God “wills” to be known, and “liketh that we rest ourselves in him” (5:24–25.141). Julian will use this intimate term, “liketh” (meaning “enjoys”), often in her text. It is her way of conveying the certainty she feels that God was speaking to her mind directly, telling her what to impart to her evencristens. She adds that the Lord derives very great pleasure from an innocent soul that comes to him “nakedly, plainly, and homely.” This is the kind of noughting Julian means: dropping every distraction and becoming a little child again, rushing into the arms of its loving parent and resting there: “for this is the natural yearning of the soul by the touching of the holy ghost, as by the understanding that I have in this shewing.” Inspired by this meditation, Julian pours out all her heart’s longing in prayer:
“God, of thy goodness give me thyself. For thou art enough to me, and I may ask nothing that is less that may be full worship to thee. And if I ask anything that is less, ever will I be wanting. But only in thee do I have all.”
Julian is sure that this petition is most comforting to the soul and completely in union with the will of Our Lord. She also tells us that the ultimate gift of God’s goodness, for which she prays, extends to all his creatures and all his holy works, and will continually surpass itself for eternity. Then, again in words reminiscent of St. Augustine’s, she writes: “For he is eternity, and he has made us only for himself and restored us by his precious passion, and ever protects us in his blessed love. And all this is of his goodness.” Thus in noughting herself, Julian anticipates receiving, in exchange, the boundlessness of God.
In these deeply troubled times of anxiety and sorrow, when we are overcome by fear and doubt, may Julian’s prayer become our own daily prayer. In letting go of all that plagues us, may we, too, drop into the boundless love of God: our creator, protector, and eternal lover.
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.