The Whole World in the Palm of Her Hand

IN THE PREVIOUS “SHOWING,” of Christ with His head freshly crowned with thorns and bleeding copiously, we saw that peculiar comfort that Christians take in Christ’s Passion. Non-Christians might find it perverse or ghoulish to take comfort in such suffering, but we see it as a sign of God’s great love for us, and a sure indication that He cannot be indifferent to our own sufferings.

Following her vision of the wounded Christ, Julian receives a much more surprising vision of the immensity of God’s love. In Chapter 4 below, we see what is probably the most famous of Lady Julian’s visions, which can (should) comfort anyone distressed by the troubles of the world.

Comfortable Words for Christ’s Lovers

Chapter 4. The Littleness of the Cosmos

And this same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a sight ghostly [i.e., spiritual, not experienced through the senses] of His homely loving. I saw that He is to us all-thing that is good and comfortable to our help. He is our clothing; for love wraps us and winds us, embraces us and all betakes us,  and hangs about us for tender love, that He may never leave us. And so in this sight I saw truly that He is all-thing that is good, as to mine understanding.

And in this He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand; and, to my understanding, it was as round as any ball. I looked thereupon, and thought, “What may this be?”

And I was answered generally thus: “It is all that is made.”

I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might fall suddenly to nought for littleness. And I was answered in mine understanding: “It lasts, and ever shall, for God loves it.” And so hath all-thing its being through the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three parts:

  • The first is that God made it.
  • The second is that He loves it.
  • The third is that God keeps it.

But what is that to me? Truly [that He is] the Maker, the Lover, the Keeper; for till I am substantially oned to Him, I may never have love, rest nor true bliss—that is to say, that I be so fastened to Him that there be right nought that is made betwixt my God and me. And who shall do this deed? Truly He Himself by His mercy and His grace, for He has made me thereto, and blissfully restored me.

In this God brought Our Lady to mine understanding. I saw her spiritually in bodily likeness a simple maiden and a meek, young of age, in the stature that she was when she conceived. Also God showed me in part the wisdom and the truth of her soul; wherein I understood [the] reverent beholding in which she beheld her God that is her Maker, marvelling with great reverence that He would be born of her that was a simple creature of His making. And this wisdom of truth, knowing the greatness of her Maker, and the littleness of herself that is made, made her for to say meekly to the Angel Gabriel, “Lo, me here, God’s handmaiden!”

In this sight I saw truly that she is more than all that God made beneath her in worthiness and in fulness. For above her is nothing that is made but the blessed manhood of Christ.

This little thing that is made, that is beneath our Lady Saint Mary, God showed it unto me as little as it had been a hazel-nut. Methought it might have fallen for littleness.

In this blessed revelation God showed me three noughts, of which noughts this is the first that was showed me—of this needs each man and woman to have knowing that desires to live contemplatively—that it pleases him to [count as] nought all-thing that is made, for to have the love of God that is unmade.

For this is the cause why they that are occupied wilfully in earthly business, and evermore seek worldly weal, are not here of His in heart and in soul, for they love and seek here rest in this thing that is so little, wherein is no rest, and know not God, that is Almighty, All-wise, and All-good, for He is true rest.

God willeth to be known, and it pleases Him that we rest in Him. For all that is beneath Him suffices not to us. And this is the cause why no soul is rested, till it be noughted of all that is made. When he is noughted  for love to have Him that is all that is good, then is he able to receive ghostly [i.e., spiritual] rest.

Response

The first part of this chapter presents a wonderful image of God’s love for us: We are wrapped in His goodness, as if His love were a blanket that encloses and comforts us. Even more than that: He is our clothing – we are never naked, exposed to danger, at risk, because He is as close to us as our own skin.

And His goodness is in everything that He has made–yet, taken all together, the entire cosmos is less than we are in His sight. You probably have heard the song that assures us that “He’s got the whole world in His hand,” but Julian’s vision shows the whole created order, the cosmos, in the palm of her own hand, so small that she fears she might drop it.

This remarkable image introduces a paradox of perspective that is also illustrated in her vision of Mary, as young and slight as she was at the moment the Angel announced that she would become the mother of her own Maker—a revelation so momentous that Mary, recognizing her own littleness, can only give her astonished consent. Who is she to question the Lord’s choice? By acknowledging her own nothingness, she becomes greatest of all women who have ever lived or ever shall live. While still a young girl, a nobody, by her word of consent she instantly became greater than everything ever made, less only than God Himself.

By implication, God desires each of us to be equally great, by being equally open to His love. How is this to be? We, like Mary, must set all the world at nought—give it no value at all and yearn only for God. We must not cling to this “noughty” world. Julian uses this word, “nought,” as a verb as well as a noun, interpreting her vision to mean that we must “nought all-thing,” which is to say hold all the world as nothing compared to the love of God. This is not to say that the world, which God made and pronounced good, is contemptible in itself—no! When we surrender ourselves to God as Mary did, we receive all His goodness in return, so nothing that we have “noughted” will be lost to us.

As I said, it’s a paradox. But seen from the correct perspective (God’s eternal, omniscient, and all-loving perspective) it makes sense. This vision is meant to correct our perspective, to convert our gaze from the mundane to the transcendent. Because God loves the world He has made, He “keeps” it, which is to say He will never stop loving it. But if we will only love HIM above all, we will see that there is nothing in the created order to which we should cling, because God “keeps” all the goodness He has made; if we wish to possess all the good things in Creation, we should cling not to them but to their Creator. The worldly-minded cling to the things of this world, negligible as these are in the grand scheme of things. They do so because they seek to make themselves greater through possession, never suspecting that, if they would let go of such things and make God their all-in-all, they themselves would be greater than all the world.

We will never satisfy the deep desires of our hearts through worldly concerns and busyness. God is truly our heart’s desire, far greater than the world and all it can offer, and to attain Him we have simply to let go of everything else. If we recognize that God’s love and goodness already completely wrap and hold us, it becomes easy to cease our busyness and rest in Him. This is the contemplative life, and it is the life to which every Christian is called.

How many Christians really believe this and live according to their belief? Many of us prefer to believe that the contemplative life (which is simply seeking God in all things and above all things) is for cloistered specialists, while ordinary people are called to be worldly or “secular.” But Julian’s vision clearly communicates the opposite: we are all called to hold the world as nothing—even the beautiful world that God has created, not just “secular pursuits”—desiring nothing but God Himself. We must not fear “losing out” on anything if we seek God first, last, and always, because He contains all the good things that we seek.

We moderns have been conditioned to believe that our scientific knowledge of the immensity of the universe means that we, by comparison, are tiny and insignificant. Seventeenth-century Catholic French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who was also a physicist and a mathematician, gave the lie to this idea, pointing out that, rather, the vastness of the universe should remind us of the greatness of its Creator. His view is clearly more in line with that of Lady Julian’s vision than it is with the modern mindset. The significance of her vision seeing the whole created order as small as a hazel-nut in the palm of her hand is not that the cosmos is insignificant but that it is insignificant compared to any one of us, in God’s sight. God is Love and He is infinite, therefore He loves each one of us infinitely. Words do a poor job of expressing this — the word “infinity” is a cold one, hard to grasp with mind or heart — so God prefers to provide an illustration of His boundless love for us.

Paradoxically, though, we must not think ourselves great. Christ’s greatness was revealed in His willingness to “humble Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man.” He could not have shown us the immensity of the Father’s love if He had not humbled Himself so. Likewise, Mary was able to respond wholeheartedly to the Angel who announced God’s plan for her –one of unimaginable privilege, to become literally “the Mother of God”–only because she regarded herself as his “handmaiden,” a nobody who was utterly His to command, her own will completely submitted to His so that it was indistinguishable from His.

Both the Blessed Mother and her Son are our models as Christians. Not only are we to “nought the world” but also to be noughted. That is, we must not think much of ourselves but should, like young Mary, declare ourselves God’s slaves (that is the meaning of “handmaiden”), entirely disposed to do His will, not our own. As John the Baptist said, we must decrease (even to considering ourselves nothing) so that God may increase and become our All-in-All. And why wouldn’t we, once we truly recognize that “all that is beneath Him suffices not to us”?

As I write this, Holy Week is approaching rapidly. As we “survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died,” may we “count as loss” everything the world can offer, crucify our wills and worldly aspirations, and allow our restless souls to find their rest in God.

N. B. Those who are unfamiliar with the holy woman who witnessed these “revelations of divine love” will be happy to learn that Dame Julian of Norwich is commemorated in the Catholic calendar on May 13 (in the Anglican, on May 8). Although she was never formally canonized, she is acknowledged as Blessed Julian of Norwich, and it has been reported that she is on a list of those being considered for recognition as Doctors of the Church. In a general audience in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned that she is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the question of why God allows evil to exist.

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