Advent with A Kempis XV

Chapter 15: Works Done with Charity

“If we had a spark of true charity within us we would surely perceive the emptiness of all earthly things.”

In Revelations of Divine Love, the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich had a vision of a small round object, no larger than a hazelnut, in the palm of her hand. Because it was so small, Julian worried that it might disappear into nothingness. The small object, God told Julian, was all of creation and although it was small and fragile, God told her that it has lasted and will continue to last because of his love. However, instead of affirming creation after this optimistic vision, Julian actually encourages her readers to “delight in despising…everything created.”

Grace Jantzen offers a helpful analogy in understanding Julian’s ascetic response to the hazelnut vision: Imagine a lover writing a tender letter to his or her beloved. Now imagine the beloved recipient falling in love with the letter so much that the author of the letter is forgotten. Of course this would be heartbreaking for the lover who wrote the letter.

When we seek solace in the creation rather than the Creator, as we are wont to do, we end up falling in love with the love letter rather than the lover who wrote the letter. We so easily grow attached to the divine expression of love rather than to the divine. As a result, we end up breaking God’s heart and failing to satisfy our souls, which Augustine so eloquently confessed, “are restless until they rest in You.”

“True charity,” according to Kempis, does not damn the world but rather sees it as an expression of God’s love for humanity. Because it is so easy for us to fall in love with the love letter rather than the lover, Kempis and Julian use strong language to warn us not to attach ourselves to the letter.

“If we had a spark of true charity within us,” we would not seek solace in earthly things, but in the Creator of all earthly things. “If we had a spark of true charity within us,” we would not confuse the love letter with the lover. And “if we had a spark of true charity within us,” we would know that all of creation is meaningless and empty apart from the love of the One who created and sustains it.

“God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me, and I can ask for nothing which is less which can pay you full worship. And if I ask anything which is less, always I am in want; but only in you do I have everything.”[1] A Prayer of Julian of Norwich


[1] Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. trans. Julian of Norwich Showings Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1978), 184.

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