Julian of Norwich and Noughting
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 wellbeing, 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.
In the First Revelation, 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).
Norwich and Noughting
Julian knew her bustling, materialistic, and competitive city of Norwich only too well. It is possible that much of that same restless activity had driven her own life, out of necessity. Her responsibilities for maintaining a household, being a good wife, raising a child, running a commercial business, caring for servants, family members, friends, and apprentices plus the never-ending cycle of shopping for and overseeing the preparation of meals, spinning, weaving, sewing, and bookkeeping must have kept her mind and body mired in the duties of being a working woman, yet ever aching in her heart to “live contemplatively,” as she calls it . . . a life that finds its rest in God alone.
We must also consider that, at this point [the beginning of her visionary experiences], Julian still believes she is about to die. She is lamenting that she has not done enough to know God in this life. Her mind is straining to try to figure out why her imagination perceived something like a hazelnut in the palm of her hand at this critical moment. What is its portent? Could it be to inspire her to hand over to God “all that is made,” all that she has ever loved in this life, as well as her own body and soul, before she dies? One thing she knows for sure: at this point of death, she cannot allow herself to be bound to earth by ties of attachment, or responsibility, even human love. She must dare to become noughted, utterly stripped of all she holds dear, like Christ on the cross . . .
Julian’s tone, in writing about the essential noughting of the spiritual life, is never disparaging, but always gentle and encouraging. She tells the reader that God “wills” to be known, and “liketh that we rest ourselves in him.” 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 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 keeps [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.
May we be inspired to “live contemplatively” like Julian and take time each day to let go of all the unnecessary mental and emotional "stuff" that we carry about in our lives that has become such a burden . . . and just sit still for a while in silent awe of the divine presence within and without. May we dare to “nought” ourselves -- that is, empty out the closet of our mind of our habitual ways of thinking, judging, choosing . . . and clean out the cupboard of our heart, stuffed with old emotional conflicts and hurts we don’t need to revisit anymore. May we make Julian's prayer our own and gradually learn to “rest” contemplatively in the Lord who “liketh” it so much when we come to him “nakedly, plainly, and homely [simply].” He will fill us with all that we seek. And so much more.
Please Note: Excerpts above and my translations from the Middle English are from my book: Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), copyright © 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.