Advisory: This sermon contains nuts – Julian of Norwich and the Command to Love

IMG_0555On our way back from an Easter break in Norfolk, we called in at the Church of St Julian in Norwich. This is where the medieval mystic Mother Julian of Norwich had her cell as an anchorite. This meant that she was walled up in the cell attached to the church for 26 years between 1390 and her death in 1416. Once she entered it, she was not allowed to leave on pain of excommunication. She literally lived in that room for the rest of her life and was not allowed to leave. It is likely that she was even buried under the floor. This was so stark that before entering she would have attended her own funeral Mass in the church and received the last rites. When she went in, the door was sealed with wax seals and her only contact was through a small window where she could receive food and Communion. It was a solitary life of prayer and reflection. Today the site of her cell has a deep stillness and peace about it – a place to sit and reflect.

While she was in there she wrote of visions she received when desperately ill some years before and these are known under the title of ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. They are a classic and she is remembered in the church’s calendar this coming Tuesday – 8th May.

One of her writings reflects on a hazelnut, which is why I have given these to you. As she looked at it in the palm of her hand she saw this as a powerful symbol of God’s love, holding creation as in the palm of his hand – and you might like to look at the one I gave you as it sits in the palm of your hand as I read this passage from her writing, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:

“And in this he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; the third is that God cares for it. But what is that to me? Truly, the maker, the carer, and the lover. For until I am of one substance with him I can never have complete rest nor true happiness; that is to say, until I am so joined to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.” (Chapter5)

God made it, God loves it and God cares for it – the Maker, the Lover and the Carer. The world, indeed the universe, is fragile and vulnerable. It is tiny in comparison to the vastness of space and eternity, even more so for us than for Mother Julian. But ultimately it is loved and that love is the source of our deepest hope in Jesus Christ. It is held, it is cared for by the maker, redeemer and sustainer of all things.

Our Gospel reading mentioned love seven times, in a short passage (John 15:9-17). As the Father loves the Son, so he loves the world. We are to abide in his love and outside of that we are estranged from the very purpose and heart of the created universe. And this love continues to move and touch. As we are loved so we are to love. The Commandment that Jesus gives is to love one another. And to ram home that point he repeats it, just in case the disciples haven’t heard him or weren’t listening properly. This is a direct command. We are who we are, who God calls us to be, when we abide in his love and the sign and outworking of this is the love we show for one another. Grumpy, gripey, grouchy and fractious as we can all be, love is the answer. And in that love we blossom and flourish. We know it for ourselves. We should know it for others.

Julian of Norwich went on in her vision of the hazelnut to talk about how much we are to be of one substance with God. We will never have complete rest or happiness outside of this. Or to use the language of John’s gospel, we are to abide in that love. This is where we are to dwell and know we dwell, where we have our home.

The poet William Blake also thought about the world being seen in something small and through it to see infinity.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

As we look at the hazelnut, resting in the palm of our hand, we find the love of God visible for us. Just as the hazelnut is small it has great potential to grow as a seed into a giant tree. The love which brings and triggers awe and wonder, delight and thanksgiving, brings a glimpse of the eternal and the hope that comes into this fragile and small world. We are looking at eternity in the palm of our hand, to the love of eternity and at the eternal love of the creator.

Julian of Norwich’s time was turbulent. The blackdeath had ravaged and disturbed people deeply. They were very conscious of the reality and ever presence of death. She would have heard the burial carts trundle past outside her cell. The Peasants’ Revolt led to many public executions and her bishop, Henry Despenser led troops to quell rebellions, including in Peterborough, so he was no quiet man of gentleness! A mob attacked Peterborough Abbey and Henry Despenser rode to the aid of the Abbot, leading to 400 people being slaughtered in what is now Cathedral Square, including women and children. So with that background her mystical and hope-filled vision of God loving, rather than hating and threatening, the created world is all the more powerful. It was a similar world to Jesus’, where public executions and summary reprisals could bring death at any moment. So the advocacy of love calls for a putting away of fear and panic, to rest secure and trust in God’s underlying and enduring love. Just like the hazelnut is held, so are we.

Jesus’ command is that we love one another. It springs from the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. In that love we flourish and find our true fulfillment. As we gaze on the hazelnut in the palm of our hand we become aware that we are held in God’s love and care as maker, lover and carer. As we abide in that love so that love is to reach out to everyone we meet.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 6 – Sunday 6th May 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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