For the Lord, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes; who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him. So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the Land of Egypt.Deuteronomy 10: 17-19
In her account of her Showings from God, the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich wrote:
And in this he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
We read a similar revelation today from the book of Deuteronomy. We are reminded today that it is God who “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him.” That is, we are to “befriend the alien” not as a measure of our virtue, not even because God commands it but because God does it, and does so in us. What is done in us, we must do. To refuse to befriend the alien is to live a life in contradiction. We do not love the alien out of personal munificence but rather because we are aliens who are befriended, fed, clothed, and loved by God.
Julian of Norwich receives a mystical revelation of the nature of God and of life in a most “common, ordinary and unspectacular” experience of everyday life. She picks up, holds in her hand, and looks “with the eye of my understanding” at a common hazelnut. The eye of her understanding, however, is different from the “common” understanding. From the very beginning of life, we absorb the common view of what surrounds us. We understand what the world and everything in it is through the lens of the “common sense” of it. At this moment of revelation, however, Julian perceives that this common, everyday object is being shown to her by God. At first, of course, she judges its being in light of what she has absorbed of the common knowledge: “For I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for its littleness.” Yet, because she is looking to understand its deeper truth, “What may this be?”, God reveals its mystery to her. “It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”
We commonly understand that the person who knows God is joyful. Yet, that joy is a joy that is always inextricably commingled with a deep sadness. As we ponder Julian meditating on the eternal significance of the little hazelnut, we realize that everything and everyone has life and existence in the radiant love of God. This evokes at once in us great joy but also great sadness as to how we so arrogantly use the earth and each other in our everyday lives. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. describes it in God’s Grandeur.
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Recently close friends have experienced the arrival of their first child. For the past almost six weeks, they have lived the bulk of their days caring for and simply being with, in awe, this new and astounding presence in the world. As Julian, they understand, largely through the excess of love they have for her, that although in its littleness and vulnerability it could “suddenly have fallen to nothing,” this child will last and ever shall because God loves her. I suspect that they are are having an experience of an outflowing of love for their daughter that exceeds anything of which they had ever felt capable. Many years ago a former classmate of mine in the community wrote to me at the birth of his first child. He had left the religious life, in no small part, because of his sense that he no longer had faith in God in the way he had in his youth. He wrote to me, however, that if there is a God, one knows God best in the birth of one’s child. New parents understand the truth of God’s love in a very concentrated way. In this child that is theirs, they know in the marrow of their being that God made her, that God loves her, and that God keeps her. They know this truth not merely cognitively but in their very own experience of making, loving, and keeping.
Today, Deuteronomy reminds us that this child is every child. As Julian understands, this hazelnut is everything and everyone. The desperate child in Mississippi who has come home from school to discover that her father has been arrested, the child who is held for weeks in a detention center, and every child is our child and is ourself. To really understand is to be sad because in our day to day life we live as if all is mere object to our subject. We have “seared with trade” and “bleared, smeared with toil” the world. I think about how difficult it will be, having spent all of everyday with their newborn, for my friends to return to the world of life and work we all take for granted, a world of the common sense of “objects,” personal and impersonal.
Julian has an experience of deep encounter with the hazelnut, not as an object but as that which God made, God loves, and which God keeps. My friends do not need to be taught that their daughter is vulnerable and precious beyond measure. Yet, in everyday life others can become easily expendable to us. For some reason the communion that we are as beings made by, loved by, and kept by God gets easily lost to us.
Deuteronomy reminds the Israelites that because they too were aliens they are to welcome and care for the aliens in their midst. We all know that we are aliens. When we have been disregarded, or treated as expendable or discarded, we know the pain such alienation evokes. We know what it is to be homeless and powerless. What we hear today is that it is only by befriending the alien that we heal our own alienation. As Pope Francis says, “To go out of ourselves and to join others is healthy for us.”
My friend has said that when his paternity leave is over, it is going to be difficult to be separated during the workday from his daughter. As a celibate, I have never had the experience of my own child that he describes. Yet, I can understand how the love and joy he knows in being with his daughter causes a sadness when he is separated from her. In Genesis, when God creates woman as companion for the man, the man declares: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). What we call our “duty” to each other is a moral imperative because we are one. The mystic experiences the sadness my friend anticipates — knowing the truth of his oneness in love with his daughter but having to carry on in a world that often alienates us from that love and communion.
Mistreatment of “the other” is in fact destruction of ourselves, of the “fabric” of our common humanity and creaturehood. God is not a god of individualism. The love, care, and keeping of God is one that is “common to all.” Life to the full is living in that common love. I watch my friends with their daughter and I see, so much more clearly than usual, what the fully human life is meant to be. It is awe that radiates from their eyes as they hold their child. Perhaps what we call the kingdom of God would be that time and place when we all see each other and hold each other and keep each other in this way.
Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication thus turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone. If we were able to take this route, it would be so good, so soothing, so liberating and hope-filled! To go out of ourselves and to join others is healthy for us. To be self-enclosed is to taste the bitter poison of immanence and humanity will be worse for every selfish choice we make.Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #87