Consider the Hazelnut

It’s fascinating to see the dilemmas that charismatic churches are facing in the midst of the coronavirus. Chief among these is the question of whether to stay open or not. Does cancelling services imply a lack of faith? Are preventative measures bad optics for an omnipotent God? “Sensible precaution” seems to fly in the face of a tradition whose identity is built on bold, miraculous healings.1

As a charismatic who once scrawled “MORE FIRE” onto a bright orange t-shirt (an act of devotion which only Pentecostals will understand), I’m surprised at how foreign these debates feel to me. Faith-healing hasn’t been on my radar for some time. These days I find more comfort in the truth that Christ suffers with us. When we can’t breathe — either due to police brutality or a lack of ventilators — neither can he. We do not suffer alone.2

All this to say: when the reality of the current pandemic began to set in, I found myself reaching not for Kathy Kuhlman or Paul Cain, but for the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich. For years I had rolled my eyes at many of her best-loved quotes, dismissing them as kitsch. Then I took a history class and discovered that she lived through the Black Death. What once was camp took on a new incandescence — her words were anything but cheap.

Below are a few excerpts from Julian’s visions, which she received “at the point of death.”3 I’ll let her set the scene:

And when I was thirty and a half years old, God sent me a bodily sickness in which I lay for three days and three nights; and on the fourth night I received all the rites of Holy Church, and did not expect to live until day.

Not exactly “her best life now.” Julian’s body begins to fail “from the middle downwards” and darkness envelops her vision. Death is near:

After that I felt as if the upper part of my body were beginning to die. My hands fell down on either side, and I was so weak that my head lolled to one side. The greatest pain that I felt was my shortness of breath and the ebbing of my life. Then truly I believed that I was at the point of death.

With the end in sight, she prays for one of her lifelong desires: to see a vision of Christ on the cross (“I wished that his pains might be my pains, with compassion which would lead to longing for God”). God does not disappoint:

And at this, suddenly I saw the red blood trickling down from under the crown, all hot, flowing freely and copiously, a living stream, just as it seemed to me that it was at the time when the crown of thorns was thrust down upon his blessed head. Just so did he, both God and man, suffer for me. I perceived, truly and powerfully, that it was himself who showed this to me, without any intermediary; and then I said: Blessed be the Lord!

Not a vision for the faint-hearted. Held (and beheld) in Christ’s suffering, Julian offers a word of comfort:

And at the same time as I saw this corporeal sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual sight of his familiar love. I saw that he is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, for he is that love which wraps and enfolds us, embraces us and guides us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw truly that he is everything which is good, as I understand.

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what is that to me? It is that God is the Creator and the lover and the protector. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have love or rest or true happiness; until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me. And who will do this deed? Truly, he himself, by his mercy and his grace, for he has made me for this and has blessedly restored me.

“It lasts and always will, because God loves it.” Hazelnuts and all.

  1. See this account of a Pentecostal evangelist who refused to wear protective gear during the “Bubonic Plague” (sic—it was the Spanish Influenza). An entertaining read, and a source of debate in my former church circles. It’s also hosted on “Geocities.”

    See also Jerry Falwell’s insistence that students return to Liberty University despite the outbreak. Hint: it’s not going well.↩︎

  2. Crucifixion, after all, was death by suffocation.↩︎

  3. Julian of Norwich, Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). This was the first book written by a woman in the English language.↩︎

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