Because of the specific nature of the text, I thought it might be useful to attach the whole of it on the cover page for perusal at leisure if you so desire. Below is the text from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (p. 295), and under that the assumptions I make in reading the text.
The former is directly from the book, and as it is all on one page, I will refrain from noting that page every time I reference the text. If you wish examples, everything is below and will be treated as my point of reference in all situations. The latter are important so that I don’t have to cover them in the body of the essay, as they are generally logical assumptions gleaned from the reading which I don’t have the space to spend time explaining. They may be referenced for the proof, however. And in this he showed a little thing, the quantity of an hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as me seemed, and it was as round as a ball.
I looked thereon 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 marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it; and so hath all thing being by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties.
The first is that God made it, the second that God loveth it, the third that God keepeth it. But what beheld I therein? Verily, the maker, the keeper, the lover. For till I am substantially united to him I may never have full rest ne very bliss; that is to say that I be so fastened to him that there be right nought that is made between my God and me. This little thing that is made, me thought it might have fallen to nought for littleness. Of this needeth us to have knowledge, that us liketh nought all thing that is made, for to love and have God that is unmade.
For this is the cause why we be not all in case of heart and of soul, for we seek here rest in this thing that is so little, where no rest is in, and we know not our God, that is almighty, all wise and all good, for he is very rest. God will be known, and him liketh that we rest us in him; for all that is beneath him suffiseth not to us. And this is the cause why that no soul is in rest till it is noughted of all things that is made. When she is wilfully noughted for love, to have him that is all, then is she able to receive ghostly rest.
Assumptions: The “thing” is not a hazelnut It is the size of a hazelnut It is spherical All this is in Julian’s head God sent her this vision God made it God loves it God keeps it It is unimportant; seems about to disappear We seek “rest” in this “thing” Rest is impossible Rest may only be found via God God wishes us to find this rest In Julian of Norwich’s religious text, A Book of Showings, there are various passages of religious and sometimes philosophical nature. Few are as metaphorical or open to interpretation as the passage involving the “hazelnut” which is not a hazelnut.
For the sake of argument, let us say that the object in her hand represents all of the immediate thoughts and innovations of man, then read the passage detail with that assumption. The assumption that the hazelnut represents thoughts (rather than the more obvious interpretation of it as the world as a whole) has some grounding in the text. The answer given when she asks what the object is reads, “It is all that is made.” The use of present tense in the answer seems suspiciously particular. If it were the universe, why not call it “all that has been made,” or something of that nature.
Thus the assumption can be made that at any given time, present tense is what is being referred to: and therefore the present abstraction of man. The text is referring to his thoughts. These thoughts are diminutive. From the bland picture of them (they are essentially only described as “round”) to the fact that they are in her own hand, their unimpressive aspect can be intuited. She also says twice that she wonders why it did not fall “to nought for littleness.” This seems written to contrast the importance that we (as humans) place in our own originality and creativity.
In the large scheme of things, Julian says, they’re no bigger than a hazelnut in the palm of a hallucinatory hand. Yet we seek solace in the thoughts. We place so much stock in our own ingenuity, according to Julian, that we fail to notice what we should be viewing as important: God. “For this is the cause why we be not all in ease of heart and of soul, for we seek here rest in this thing that is so little, where no rest is in, and we know not our God… for He is very rest.” Between utter faith and utter doubt lies explanation. When man is unsure of a principle (such as God), he attempts to find explanation.
There is little distinction between this explanation and any other form of innovation. Explanation of cloudy concepts will ward off doubt, but the person who seeks to explain something fully will never have true faith in it- that faith will rely on the explanation. God understands this wholly, and wishes that, rather than embracing their own view of the universe, people would embrace simply him. The largest paradox in this argument is the specific text which states that God creates, loves, and keeps the object, which are these ideas which He wishes us not to embrace. Yet in any interpretation of the text, this would remain a problem, since God creates and loves the object, but wishes that man would not embrace it.
Why would He keep it alive if it only served as a roadblock to full acceptance of His doctrine? (This is a problem for another essay entirely, based not on this text, but Biblical writing and related literature.) Though God loves, keeps, and creates these ideas, He wishes us to rid ourselves of them. They are our “little” attempts to explain Him. To keep these thoughts between us and Him is to keep separation from our God.
The final irony and paradox to this argument is that God sent these revelations and ideas to Julian, which in essence separated her from Him as she discovered it. Why would He choose to do this? Yet on a similar note, why would God create man and then place him in a world where there’s a reasonable chance that he will be eternally damned? It is, for the human mind, unfathomable, and attempting to explain it is an exercise in disloyalty. All it takes is faith.
Any number of other readings are more apt to bring differing and enlightening conclusions from this highly variable text. One of the reasons it has survived the era is the intelligence with which Julian puts forth ideas that she had contemplated for fifteen years, while still maintaining the ambiguity that makes it fascinating to read deeply into even today.
- A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. Thiebaux, Marcelle. The Writings of Medieval Women. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1994.