Can you imagine someone living in a cell-like space attached to the walls of the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe? There actually was a time, a rather extended period in the early Church and throughout the Middle Ages, when just such a thing would not have been an unusual sight.
The call to the faith has led several well known figures to a few surprising deeds, and mysticism among the faithful has taken on many forms. Some of them became anchorites: that they lived in seclusion inside or outside the walls of a church by means of a lean-to or hut that often wasn’t any bigger than a prison cell. From such a location, the (usually) penitent servant of the Lord, would live Christ 24/7, often answering inquiries from pilgrims. One of the foremost anchoresses was Julian of Norwich, often called blessed or saint, who has not been officially declared either.
Sometime prior to 1373 (the date is uncertain), Julian began residence in a stone hut attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. Her cell stood in place until the destruction of World War II bombings. From this place she became famous, and many travelers came for her advice, but something even more miraculous happened in May that year.
It is believed, that leading up to that time, the anchoress became gravely ill to the point that she was probably removed from her cell to provide better hospice care in her dying days. Her mother and other family members were apparently in attendance, when the priest, accompanied by a child (perhaps a server), came to her to administer the Last Rites. Another school of thought is that she did not take up permanent residence in the hut until after the illness befell her. In either case, the dreaded disease, which some historians say might have been the plague that was common to that era, became the center of a series of visions that would envelope the woman.
Called Showings by Julian, the Lord revealed his passion and death in a series of sixteen revelations that demonstrated God’s love as the nucleus of all creation. Following the revelations, it is clear that Julian was indeed residing against the church wall, and from there her fame continued to grow. Her message was that God is love, Deus Caritas Est, and that his love is all-encompassing. In these sixteen visions, it was revealed to her all manner of doctrine and reality of the Lord. She understood that love is the entire purpose of his creation. So, the anchoress meditated on the sights and thoughts for twenty years before she discussed them or wrote down the classic mystical work known today as Revelations of Divine Love.
In chapter five of her work, Julian reveals how the Lord showed his complete attachment to all of creation by his love. This is one of the most well-known excerpts from the book because of the simplicity she describes using a common hazelnut.
Julian began the revelation by saying God had shown her how his love is everything good around us. He gave her the smallest hazelnut in the palm of her hand, and she feared it was so fragile, it would disintegrate. God told her that the seed was all that was made and it would continue to exist because God loves it now and for ever. What she believed God showed her is that he made the seed, loved it, and nurtured it, sustaining it always. She expressed knowing the smallness of all creation when held in comparison to the loving Creator, to whom all things owe their existence. God derives pleasure when one comes to him recognizing that the Lord alone is sufficient for their lives. Deus Caritas Est.
Jesus used many symbols to teach his lessons and so did the Father and his prophets before him. The symbol of the nut with its smallness and goodness began in Genesis 30, when Jacob used the shoots of various nuts to control the color of certain goats he raised. This was also one of the earliest showings of the connectedness of all things. God showed everything has a place in the scheme of things, and once again, that they are by love connected.
Modern events demonstrate that the symbolic, loving nature between God and all his creation is as relevant as ever, and it’s still best described with a hazelnut. The Hazelnut Project is an ongoing effort of the Arbor Day Foundation for the cultivation of the most sensibly useful tiny thing…the hazelnut. Aside from the incredible vitamin and dietary benefits, their shells can provide a very efficient fuel, and their very nature helps to slow climate change. All of a sudden, this tiny little seed becomes a boon to humankind, an important element in our existence.
And when we began this essay, imagining someone living against the walls of the Cathedral in Santa Fe…a saint, a mystic, and her connection to a loving God, did you ever imagine we’d end up talking about the life-saving properties of even the smallest of things? That’s the way it is with God. His love entwines all creation and holds it in his arms, so that we may hear his voice in every little thing.