“Sorry, we just ran out of hazelnut coffee,” the barista said, and (seeing my pained look) quickly asked if I’d like some French vanilla instead.
I thanked her, but declined the offer and headed home. After a long day at my desk and a drenching walk to the train, I craved the sweet warmth of hazelnut, a favorite flavor among humans since ancient times.
From prehistory to post-World War II Italy (where the chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella was developed), the little fruit of the hazel tree has been exceedingly popular, and not just with our species. Rutgers University biologist Thomas Molnar, who developed a disease-resistant strain of the plant for the Northeastern U.S., has observed that he’s never seen a food drive squirrels more crazy.
Long before modern coffee culture and treat trends, a medieval Englishwoman found herself contemplating hazelnuts in quite a different light. Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century mystic, detailed a series of divine visions she received while suffering a near-fatal illness in 1373. She recounted the 16 “showings,” many of which centered on Christ’s passion, in “Revelations of Divine Love,” making her the earliest identifiable female author in the English language.
In the first of these revelations, Julian beheld Christ crowned with thorns, then sensed the presence of the Trinity and the Blessed Mother. Afterward, she became aware that God himself clothes us in love, wrapping and clasping us “that he may never leave us” (“Revelations,” Chapter 5).
At one point, the Lord told Julian to look down at the palm of her hand, where she saw “a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut.”
Puzzled, Julian asked the Lord, “What may this be?”
The answer was startling.
“It is all that is made,” replied the Lord.
Julian marveled, fearing that something so small would surely perish into nothingness. The Lord assured her that “it lasts, and ever shall last, because God loves it.”
In that moment, Julian realized that all things have their being for one reason, and one reason alone: the love of God.
That is indeed a divine revelation, especially given the dark clouds that shadowed Julian’s world, noted Father Austin Cooper, O.M.I., in his study of the “Revelations.” The bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, had decimated anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of Europe’s population between 1347 to 1351. Social and economic turmoil ensued; at one point, three popes claimed the chair of St. Peter, while France and England were locked in a Hundred Years War.
Julian could perhaps be forgiven for a bit of skepticism, even cynicism.
Yet “part of Julian’s greatness is that she never gave way to gloom or despair,” despite such daunting conditions, said Father Cooper.
Instead, she accepted that — even with the great gift of her visions — she would never have perfect knowledge or understanding of life’s mysteries until she was at last one with God, “so fastened to Him, that there is right nought that is made betwixt my God and me” (“Revelations,” Chapter 5).
Julian was well aware of the contrast between her troubled world and Christ’s constant reassurance throughout her visions that “all shall be well.”
In a December 2010 audience, Pope Benedict XVI commended Julian’s courageous response to “an argument that never ceases to be a provocation to all believers … If God is supremely good and wise, why do evil and the suffering of innocents exist?”
The solitary Englishwoman, who devoted her largely anonymous life to prayer, bowed her head to heaven and planted her feet in eternity when she wrote, “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly hold me in the faith … and that … I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in … that ‘all manner of things shall be well.”’
Across six centuries, I’ll raise my coffee mug to this mystic who saw heaven in a hazelnut, and to the Lord whose hands hold all.
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