The Hazelnut

September 27, 2020         Third Sunday of Creation Season



This past week I was participating in a prayer service on Creation. The leader showed us a picture and asked us to take a couple of minutes reflecting on what we saw. It was an ordinary picture of a very ordinary thing: a chickadee, something you could see dozens of times a day flitting past your window. Take a moment to look at the picture above. What do you see? What comes into your mind as you look at this little bird?

What spoke to me was how brave this little creature is. It is so small, so vulnerable, so unprotected in a hostile and dangerous world. Surrounded by predators, by the dangers of cold and wet weather, the constant threat of starvation, with no shelter but the branches of a thicket, it leads the most precarious existence imaginable. And yet there it is, full of life and grace – joy even, I like to think, in its exuberant energy. What courage it has, so tiny and weak, throwing itself into the adventure of life in such a dangerous world.

And I remember as a child being taught by my father to feed the chickadees, to stand with a handful of birdseed, waiting for them to venture to land on your hand. I don’t think I had the patience at that age, but my father did, and I was amazed to see the trusting birds swoop in, light on his hand, and grab a seed.

And that in turn brought to mind the lovely words of the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, her vision of the hazelnut in the hand of God. It is an image that tells us about vulnerability, about the precariousness of existence, and about the love that holds everything in its hand.

Julian knew something about the precariousness of existence. She was a young child when the plague, the Black Death of 1348, swept through her hometown. Much worse than the Corona virus, it carried off between and third and half the inhabitants of her town by a sudden and horrible death. We can only imagine the depth of the trauma that this would have inflicted on her entire generation. Later, as a young woman, she herself fell gravely ill, so that hope for her recovery was abandoned and she was given last rites. But recover she did, and in those days hovering between life and death she received a series of visions, divine revelations that changed her life. When she recovered, she devoted herself as an anchoress, a hermit living in a cell attached to a church, where she spent all her days, for decades, in prayer and contemplation. When she wrote down her visions to share with others, they became the first book written in English by a woman.

“I looked and saw a little thing in the palm of my hand, the size of a hazelnut, round as a ball.” And looking with the strange detachment of a dream, she asks herself: whatever could this be. The answer came to her: this is everything that was made. This is the entire universe. What a remarkable vision this is! Certainly Julian’s universe was a lot smaller than ours, but it was still huge. And for us: think of the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, these immensities that our minds can’t begin to imagine – and now picture all of that as a little ball, the size of a hazelnut, resting in your hand. What a perspective – it can only be the eye of God that stands outside of the universe and looks at it, as a small thing in his hand.

What strikes Julian is its vulnerability: it is so small, it is as though it could just cease to exist. Its claim on reality, its footprint in this world is so slight, that it looks like it is about to flicker out like a candle flame. Like a tiny bird, whose chances in the big world seem so small.

But her fears are met by another insight, the answer in her mind: ‘It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same everything exists through the love of God.’ The universe was not only created by the love of God: it is God’s loving attention that sustains it from minute to minute, that keeps it from collapsing back into the nothingness, the chaos from which it came.

So I invite you to stay with this image for a moment. Picutre the world, the whole reality that we take for granted as the backdrop of our lives, as a little thing, a hazelnut, a tiny bird, resting in the palm of your hand. Something so small, so vulnerable, it could just cease to exist; something that is held and sustained because it is loved by God. The force that holds the atom together, the very shape of space, the light that flashes out as energy across the galaxies, the breath of life within us that keeps our heart beating: this is not a machine, blindly and automatically running on. It is held in existence by the creative force of God, a force we call love.

What does it feel like, to see the world in this way? What difference does it make? I suppose it means that the world comes to our attention in a particular way, a way we don’t usually look at it. Usually we think of the world as a given, it is just there, always has been and always will be – it is an object we have to deal with. We take it for granted. And taking it for granted, it becomes just another thing, that we can use or abuse for our own pleasure. And that, of course, is what we humans end up doing with creation.

Julian’s vision invites us to look at it another way. Seeing it rest there in the palm of our hand, we care about it. We feel compassion for its vulnerability, we are anxious that it not slip away on us. Knowing that it is upheld and sustained by love, we share that love, we want to care for it and keep it alive.

And we recognize in the whole of reality not a thing set over and against us, but a brother, a sister, because we share the same reality of this precarious existence upheld by the love of God. Here too we tend to take our lives for granted. When we are young, we think our lives are our own, to be shaped as we choose, and we tend to assume we will live forever. And then, slowly (or sometimes suddenly, as it happened with Julian) we understand what it means that we are mortal: that we can’t really take our next breath for granted, that the blood coursing through our veins is not our doing, but a gift completely out of our control.

It is an insight that can bring us great anxiety. It can feel like our worst nightmare, to be so vulnerable, so unprotected, so out of control. Certainly the Corona virus has called forth a lot of that kind of anxiety within us. All of a sudden it feels dangerous to go out in public. We can feel as unprotected as a chickadee in the wilderness.

But that is only half the vision. As vulnerable as we may be, as precarious as all our reality may be, it is held in being by the love of God. However vast, or however small and seemingly insignificant, all that is is held in this network of God’s love. God’s eye is on the sparrow, sustains the chickadee from day to day – and when the sparrow falls, as all that is must someday fall, that too is in God’s love and care.

Picture again the hazelnut in your hand, all that is or ever was. Picture the chickadee shivering on a branch. Think of the tenderness you feel when you behold them, the care, the solicitude. Can you look at yourself also, resting in the hand of God, and feel something of that same tenderness. You are of more worth than many sparrows. You are wrap in that same care – a care you know is real, because you feel it yourself. Like the hazelnut, like all that is, you exist and will exist eternally, because God loves you.