Late in her life Denise Levertov discovered Julian of Norwich, and found in her a deep source of healing wisdom, immense and optimistic love for her fellow humans and patience with the world and with the eternal love and purpose of the Creator. A small suite of poems weave some of the themes most resonant with where Levertov was in her own life journey.
Her conversion to Christianity was neither routine nor typical. As a poet who deiberately wrote in prophetic and political mode about the injustices, cruelties and violence scarring the world she was never going to be be content to toe any credal or ecclesial line that was drawn in the wrong place on the sand. In the early years of environmental concern she picked up on the threats to the future of the earth and to the future of humanity and wrote about the exploitations of nature, the militaristic mindset of conquest, dominance and greed.
Positively she was passionate about peace, and no more passionate about peace than about its negatives, war, inflicted suffering, systemic injustice, racism and the avoidable poverty of countries stripped of resources and labour to feed the markets and appetites of the rich powerful nations. Levertov was a poet, a prophet and a political activist whose poetry was protest against abuse of power, truth telling to the deliberately deaf and moral resistance to the market assumptions that flatten the hopes of the majority of the world's people.
So when she came to read and write about Julian, she discovered a theologically wise and and spiritually resilient guide who had looked the Black Death in the face and clung nevertheless to her faith in the Divine Love.
And that brief parable of the hazelnut - Levertov considered that image, held the hazelnut against the vast night sky, the complexity of existence, the ludicrous insignificance of humanity in a universe exploding outwards and away from all that we know, and nodded her agreement with Julian. The reesult is this poem.
The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich 1342-1416
Julian, there are vast gaps we call black holes,
unable to picture what’s both dense and vacant;
and there’s the dizzying multiplication of all
language can name or fail to name, unutterable
swarming of molecules. All Pascal
imagined he could not stretch his mind to imagine
is known to exceed his dread.
And there’s the earth of our daily history,
its memories, its present filled with the grain
of one particular scrap of carpentered wood we happen
to be next to, its waking light on one especial leaf,
this word or that, a tune in this key not another,
beat of our hearts now, good or bad,
dying or being born, eroded, vanishing–
And you ask us to turn our gaze
inside out, and see
a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and believe
it is our world? Ask us to see it lying
in God’s pierced palm? That it encompasses
every awareness our minds contain? All Time?
All limitless space given form in this
Yes, this is indeed
what you ask, sharing
the mystery you were shown: all that is made:
a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, held safe
in God’s pierced palm.