Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with 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 methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.
This is one of the famous images from Julian’s writings, the vision of the smallness of all of creation. Now, one argument some atheists use is that they can’t believe in the God of the Bible because it and he are too small; now that science has revealed to us the vastness of the universe, the notion that a transcendent entity would care particularly about the doings of some beings on a dust-mote of a world that is utterly insignificant in the scale of things is ridiculous, and the legends of a tribal god who protects his own particular people are just that – the legends of a tribal deity. In this kind of presentation, it was easy for people ‘back then’ to believe because they had no idea of the real size or importance of things; they all (mediaevals included) believed in a flat earth beneath a dome of sky that was the only thing there was, so naturally they believed the creator deity was intimately involved with it. The corollary of this argument is that the wonders and marvels of the vast, infinite universe revealed to us by science are more than enough to enthral and fascinate the seeking mind, and no deities need apply.
As C.S. Lewis discusses in his “The Discarded Image”, that’s not necessarily so. Educated people of the mediaeval world knew the earth was round, had a good idea of geometry, and were perfectly aware that the earth was small in comparison to the stars, while the distances between the earth and the stars were computed to be vast by their standards (an example from the “South English Legendary” says that if you travelled 40 miles per day, you would not reach the stars in 8000 years, a distance of at least 116 million miles). So Julian was probably as familiar as most people of her time with the notion of the celestial spheres, which is why she would have had a shrewd idea of the relative size of the earth and the heavens. Note that she says “all that is”, that is, the entire visible creation – this includes the starry heavens as well as the earth beneath. And it is not some huge, impressive array that a god would naturally be interested in, as our forebears are assumed to have conceived of their place in the universe – it’s a small thing, only as big as a nut, that looks like it would fall apart.
All that preserves it is love. This is the keystone of Julian’s revelations and what she wishes to pass on to us, her fellow-Christians: God is love, God loves, we are loved.
For this was an high marvel to the soul which was continually shewed in all the Revelations, and was with great diligence beholden, that our Lord God, anent Himself may not forgive, for He may not be wroth: it were impossible. For this was shewed: that our life is all grounded and rooted in love, and without love we may not live; and therefore to the soul that of His special grace seeth so far into the high, marvellous Goodness of God, and seeth that we are endlessly oned to Him in love, it is the most impossible that may be, that God should be wroth. For wrath and friendship be two contraries. For He that wasteth and destroyeth our wrath and maketh us meek and mild – it behoveth needs to be that He [Himself] be ever one in love, meek and mild: which is contrary to wrath.
And so Julian explains one of her showings, that God is not angry with us but merciful and loving. This is the hardest and simplest part of her message, the thread that runs continuously through all she sees and all she meditates upon, the thing that she herself found difficult to understand; why, if we are sinful beings, does God not justly hold us blameworthy for our failings?
This is part of what she has been meditating on for twenty years, in her ongoing pondering and deepening of understanding:
And because of this great, endless love that God hath to all Mankind, He maketh no disparting in love between the blessed Soul of Christ and the least soul that shall be saved.
Before Luther and his forensic justification (dungheaps covered with snow), Julian sees our human nature in the human nature of Christ, God made Man, and how He redeems us by being the price of our salvation. And, as He shares our sinful human nature without sin, we are taken up into His sinless nature. We are justified – but she does not speak of “justification”, or of the legal transaction whereby guilt is assigned to the innocent victim. It is the Trinitarian love of the creature that saves us.
Neither does Julian except herself from the common run of life:
God brought to my mind that I should sin. And for pleasance that I had in beholding of Him, I attended not readily to that shewing; and our Lord full mercifully abode, and gave me grace to attend. And this shewing I took singularly to myself; but by all the gracious comfort that followeth, as ye shall see, I was learned to take it for all mine even-Christians: all in general and nothing in special: though our Lord shewed me that I should sin, by me alone is understood all.
And therein I conceived a soft dread. And to this our Lord answered: I keep thee full surely. This word was said with more love and secureness and spiritual keeping than I can or may tell. For as it was shewed that (I) should sin, right so was the comfort shewed: secureness and keeping for all mine even-Christians.
So even a visionary consoled by the sight of Christ is not going to be exempt from human failings. Why? Because sin is nothing in itself, what matters is the pain that results from sin, and the pain is caused by the breaking of the relationship between ourselves and God.
We suffer the pains of causing harm to ourselves and to the one who loves us. He suffers that pain for love of us. Pain and suffering do not always come through sin, Julian tells us (and so the idea that all suffering is a direct consequence of punishment for sin is rebuked). But God permits, for His own purposes, those He loves to have some suffering in their life in order to break them of self-will and attachment to earthly affections. And other suffering comes because of the natural course of life; bereavement, illness, loss in all its forms – this is fruitful when we make use of it, to unify it with the passion of Christ, and to endure it patiently not because we think it will win us merit, but because life is short, eternity is forever, and the bliss of union with God will make all our earthly suffering like an eyeblink to be forgotten.
Julian is not telling us all “Give up everything and run to become a cloistered contemplative!” She is saying “I was shown these things and I tell them to you for your help.” She knew sickness and pain and the everyday travails of life. Her world was no less complex and difficult a place than our present world; war, plague, economic uncertainty, political upheaval, personal loss – she lived not in a sheltered, unworldly separation from secular life (either before or after become an anchorite) but in the everyday struggle between the demands of earning a living and trying to make sense of the faith you learned as a child and hear preached every Sunday.