Small Space, Big Impact
Julian of Norwich
by Claire Law
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To reflect on the life and teachings of Julian of Norwich, and their significance for us today.
Preparation and materials
- You will need the PowerPoint slides that accompany this assembly (Small Space, Big Impact) and the means to display them.
- You will also need a piece of paper displayed on the floor, measuring about 3.5m².
- Finally, you will need one reader for the ‘Assembly’, Step 10, who will need time to rehearse prior to the assembly.
- Show Slide 1.
Welcome the students to the assembly.
- I wonder which classroom in this school we think is the smallest. Perhaps some of the staff feel aggrieved that they have a tiny classroom, and not as much space as they’d like! But which room do you think is the smallest?
Listen to a range of responses.
- What about cars? I wonder what types of car we can think of that are small.
Listen to a range of responses.
An obvious one that might come to mind is the Mini Cooper.
Show Slide 2.
Or perhaps a Smart car.
Show Slide 3.
Not forgetting the Peel P50, which is thought to be officially the world’s smallest car.
Show Slide 4.
- So, why have we been thinking about small spaces? Well, I wanted us to get a sense of what life was like for someone who opted to live in a tiny space.
Today, we are going to find out about a woman known as Julian of Norwich. She lived in a tiny space by herself during the Middle Ages, and chose to live a life that was dedicated to prayer and solitude.
- Show Slide 5.
Little is known about Julian of Norwich’s early life - we don’t even know if Julian was her real name. However, in later life, she came to live in what’s called a ‘cell’: a tiny space that is connected to a church. That church was called St Julian’s and was in the city of Norwich, so she came to be known as Julian of Norwich.
The church was destroyed in bombing during the Second World War, but was rebuilt after the war. A chapel was added in place of Julian’s cell.
- Julian is thought to have been born around 1342. A few years later, the Black Death - a bubonic plague pandemic - struck Europe. During Julian’s lifetime, there were several outbreaks of plague and the disease is thought to have killed as many as three-quarters of the population of Norwich.
When she was 30, Julian became seriously ill and was close to death herself. Around this time, she had a series of religious experiences that deepened her faith in God. She wrote an account of each vision shortly afterwards, and these writings were later published under her name in a book called Revelations of Divine Love.
Her writings are unique because they are the earliest surviving English language works publicly attributed to a woman.
- At some point after experiencing her visions, Julian chose to move into a cell in the church. The cell was a tiny space about 3.5m², enclosed by walls on all sides.
Show the paper on the floor or hold it up for the students to see.
Imagine spending several decades living in a space as small as this. Julian is unlikely ever to have left her cell; many people in the Middle Ages who chose to live a life of prayer like this had the entrance to their cell bricked up, so they were walled in.
The purpose of living in this way was to remove distractions so that the inhabitant could focus on their relationship with God.
- We know that Julian continued to have contact with people through a small hole or window in her cell. She became recognized as a type of spiritual counsellor: someone people could speak to about their problems.
She offered a form of support based on her belief in God’s love. People would travel to hear her speak about God’s love for them, and how God cared about the small details of their lives as well as about any large problems that they were experiencing.
- Julian lived the rest of her life in this small space. She is thought to have died in her seventies, having spent many years living this life. However, despite living in such a small space, Julian had a huge influence. Today, many people still find spiritual comfort in reading her book.
Show Slide 6.
- There is a short passage in Julian’s book where she writes about a small, round thing about the size of a hazelnut, which God shows her in one of her visions. Something so small might be overlooked by some people, but Julian describes carefully studying it and experiencing a sense of God’s vastness and great love as a result. In the tiny nut-like thing, she senses God’s huge love for everyone and everything.
Show Slide 7 and ask the prearranged student to read the passage.
- When Julian studies the item closely, she concludes that it helps us to better understand God’s love. She shares her belief that God made the little thing as part of his creation, and that God loves the things that he has created, and cares for them.
This same message of God’s love and care for creation was something that Julian shared with people who visited her. Her approach is a lovely example of how we can find wonder in unlikely places.
Time for reflection
Let’s take a moment to connect with a sense of wonder that can emerge from small details. Julian of Norwich was studying an item the size of a hazelnut; for us today, let’s consider our fingerprints.
Encourage the students to hold out their index finger so that they can see the details of the skin clearly. Point out that a fingerprint is about the same size as a hazelnut. When we look closely at the skin on our finger, we can see its patterns, swirls and shapes. Our fingerprints are unique: no one else has the same ones as us right now, and no one in the past has had the same fingerprints as us either.
Explain that you are going to consider the passage from Julian’s book in relation to fingerprints rather than the small object that Julian was describing. She said, ‘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.’
Tell the students that you would like to change Julian’s words slightly. She writes about ‘it’, but as we are people, we are going to use the word ‘me’: ‘In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made me. The second that God loves me. And the third, that God keeps me.’
Encourage the students to reflect silently and respectfully on how these words make them feel.
Repeat the revised words and ask the students, ‘What thoughts, feelings and ideas emerge as you consider these words?’
Pause to allow time for thought.
Most of us live in spaces and places that are much bigger than Julian of Norwich’s cell,
Yet we can learn a lot from her example and reflections.
Julian reminds us that there can be wonder in the smallest places and things. Even an object the size of a hazelnut can remind us of your love.
Our fingerprints can also act as a reminder that we have been created in love and are loved by you, the God who knows us.
Please help us to be alert to the simple, small ways in which we can see signs of love in our world.
Please help us to give love and care through our small, everyday actions.
Please help us to remember regularly that we are loved by you.