A Sermon by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould

“God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.” 
― Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich lived in the 14th to early 15th centuries. She is probably the best known of all the medieval mystics, writing in English. In fact, her “Shewings” of “Revelations of Divine Love” was the first book to be written by an English woman.

We know little about Julian’s personal life, other than that she lived through at least two periods of the Black Death. It was during one of these plagues in 1373 that she almost lost her life. During the night which we believe to be May 8th (which we now keep as her feast day) after the priest had given her the last rites, she experienced visions of Christ’s suffering on the cross. She also heard Christ speak to her interiorly. Later they were written down in two forms, the short one, and the long one.

Julian’s mystical writings have been called “a gospel of love”. She says that we are “created in love, redeemed by love and enclosed in love”. In God’s mind we have been loved “from without beginning”, so “in this love our life is everlasting.” She describes God’s love as “so tender that he may never desert us”. Love is the meaning of all that is.

Extraordinarily for her time, Julian reflects on her experience of Christ as Mother. She writes “Our Saviour is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” Julian is not saying that God is like a mother. Christ loves us not like a mother’s love, rather the source and origin of mother love is Christ.

As ethereal as some of this may sound, we need to remember that Julian of Norwich was a real woman living in a real world, with all its goodness and frailty, always aware of the realities and hardships of living. She lived in a prosperous port city, but it was that port city which gave easy access to deadly diseases from elsewhere.

As she reflected on the wonder of God’s love, she was well aware of the burden of sin.

“There is no harder hell than sin” she wrote, “but then sin is a no-thing.” And further, “I did not see sin for I believe it has no kind of substance. How can it when God has made all that is, out of God’s goodness?”

We know sin by its pain and suffering, but Julian is clear that the wrath and anger that we experience is not God, but ours.

“For in God there is no anger- but neither is there any forgiveness-for amazingly- God has already forgiven. There has never been a time when God has been unforgiving.”

To help us understand this, Julian says that there is a lower and a higher truth – a relative and an absolute truth –

The lower truth- what the Church has always taught – is that God forgives sin.

But for Julian there is an absolute or higher truth, and she balances the two realities in an exquisite way, being neither presumptuous nor despairing.

“For in God’s sight we do not fall: in our sight we do not stand, and both of these are true as I see it. The way the Lord sees the higher truth.”

One of the most attractive qualities of Julian is her unbounded hope. Hers was a radical hope, rather than an easy optimism. Her hope was a kind of secret, a recognition, (that in the end, even against all odds), of a hope that seizes our imaginations in such a way that we do not lose heart. And so she can say,

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented:….   (butI see) 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.”

Julian’s theology is essentially Trinitarian.  She understands “Trinity as our maker, our protector and our everlasting lover. We are enclosed and enfolded in the love of the Trinityjust as the love of the Trinity is enclosed and enfolded in us…”

“We are knit to God and God is knit to us.” We are always one -always have been- always will be. We live in the world where we fall – where we are incomplete- where we are lacking. Yet as we live in the world, we are becoming more completely one.

This vision of God unity with all creation becomes our source of hope- so that our experience of woe, fallenness and brokenness is seen always in the bigger picture of our origin – who is God, who becomes our fulfilment and our eternal place of belonging.

One of the best known of Julian’s visions focusses on a hazelnut. In her fifth vision she reveals the preciousness of all God’s creation, a tiny hazelnut, simply because it exists.

“At the same time, our Lord showed me, in a spiritual manner, how intimately he loves us….He also showed me a tiny thing in the palm of my hand, the size of a hazelnut. I looked at this with the eye of my soul and thought: ‘What is this?’ And this is the answer that came to me:

‘It is all that is made.’

I was astonished that it managed to survive: it was so small that I thought that it might disintegrate. And in my mind I heard this answer:

‘It lives on and will live on forever because God loves it.’

So every single thing owes its existence to the love of God. I saw that this tiny thing had three properties that were essential to it. The first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; the third, that God preserves it.”

Today Julian’s vision of the hazelnut speaks to us in a new way and with a new sense of urgency.

Russell Scheichart, an astronaut writes:

“A little later on your friend goes to the moon. And now he looks back and sees the Earth as a small thing out there. And the contrast between the bright blue-and-white Christmas tree ornament (ball), and the black sky, that infinite universe, really comes through, and the size of it, the significance of it. It is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realise that on the small spot, that little blue-and-white thing, is everything that means anything to you – all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective, that you’ve changed, and that there is something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.

To this end Alan Webster a former dean of Norwich writes:

“Julian’s most memorable image lives today in a new sense. It is the vision of the hazelnut: it is all that is made. For us this vision has been reinforced by the astronauts returning from the moon, a tiny thing as small as a nut and yet the ground of all humanity. Julian’s conviction was that the earth, so microscopic against the cosmos, was held together by love, and that love is its meaning.”

Fr. Philip Carter in a sermon on Julian of Norwich poses these questions:

“In her writings Julian invites us to enter what she calls “spiritual insight” or her imaginative vision.

How would it be if we were able to live from the insight that Love is our meaning?

Could we imagine “unexhausted compassion” – or love, as Julian describes it, such as there was nothing between us and the love of God?

Could we possibly embrace our lives and everything in them -just as they are – with the radical imagination of her revelation – that indwelling at the heart of its fragility and woundedness – was love, unexhausted compassion?”

And so tonight as we think of all those around the world suffering from the effects of COVID 19 at this time, we remember that Julian received her mystical visions when she was near death at the time of the plague of 1370s. Her message of hope was not written from a time of wellbeing, but from a time of hardship, illness famine, and isolation, and it is this which gives her message its relevance and reality. Her message is as real for us today as it was for people then.

Again, Fr. Philip Carter (a long time disciple of Julian of Norwich), to whom I am greatly indebted for much of the inspiration for this sermon, provides this conclusion concerning Julian’s wisdom for us in difficult and unpredictable times.

“To follow Julian – is to hold an imaginative, hope-filled, positive vision of God.”  “Not a God that is simply almighty and may do everything.  Not a God that is simply all wisdom and can do everything.  But a God who is all love and will do everything.”

“Then – in the global culture of despair – and our own difficulties and frustrations – we can say with Julian:”

“He did not say, “You will not be troubled, you will not be hard pressed, you will not be disquieted.”  But he said, “You will not be overcome.” God wants us to pay attention to these words, and always to be strong in faithful trust, in well-being and in woe, for he loves and delights in us….”

And so we may proclaim with Julian, despite the seeming absurdity of such a claim when life seems to be in endless turmoil or uncertainty,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

Fr. Philip Carter’s blog can be found at https://stmarymagdalenesadelaide.org/