In this season of sheltering in place, where fear and anxiety loom large, I have noticed a number of preachers, teachers, writers and others hearkening back to Julian of Norwich, the late medieval English mystic, and her oft-quoted assertion that “all shall be well” in response to the world’s problems.
Should we believe her?
“She does not deny or minimize the sorrow and suffering she and her community experience. Neither should we.”
Julian chose the spiritual path of an anchoress – a devoted follower of Jesus who was literally walled in from the world. Julian lived in about a 12-square-foot room with windows but no doors. These rooms attached to churches. One window opened to the sanctuary, so she could participate in worship. The other window opened to the outside world.
Though physically set apart, anchoresses were far from socially isolated. While they spent extended amounts of time in prayer and contemplation, with a window to the world, anchoresses would know all the major events happening in their communities. They offered a listening ear and a kind word to spiritual seekers in their communities.
Julian’s sheltering in place as an anchoress came during the Great Pestilence, later known as the Black Plague. It killed up to 60 percent of England’s population. Amid the devastating plague, working conditions became more difficult for peasants. When they resisted and demanded better treatment, they were brutally silenced by the authorities. Many were killed. The bishop even brought the head of a peasant sympathizer to Norwich as a warning to all who might resist.
While the situation in the United States amid a modern era pandemic is not as drastic, we can intuit parallels to Julian and her time.
Julian of Norwich has been known by Christians through the centuries for her refrain, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” For some of us, this declaration seems trite at best, ignorant at worst. How could she honestly proclaim “all shall be well” when the world around her was falling apart? And how can we possibly make such a statement today when our world is falling apart?
How do we dare proclaim “all shall be well” to those who are carrying the grief of losing loved ones to COVID-19, a burden made infinitely heavier by knowing their dear one had to die alone, except perhaps for the company of one or two medical personnel? How do we say “all shall be well” to doctors, nurses, EMS personnel and others who are not only overwhelmed and exhausted but have put their own health and well-being at risk as they care for persons infected with the coronavirus? Or to those who were already trying to survive on the wrong side of America’s economic divide, including those who have lost minimum wage jobs that barely paid rent and put food on the table? Or to persons whose lives are now even more vulnerable to abuse and trauma at home? Or to high school seniors who have missed out on in-person graduation activities? Or to those persons experiencing loneliness and despair? The list goes on.
Julian, who chose sheltering in place as a way of life, has reminded me in this era of a global pandemic that it takes time to process our experiences, especially those that inflict trauma and pain. We may look at our experiences one way now, but view them differently in a year or in 10, 20 or 30 years. Julian writes her first account of her visions after she undergoes a life-threatening illness – perhaps a form of the plague. Then, 30 years later, she takes the draft out again, looks it over and resumes writing. The book expands from 25 chapters to 86 in its final form, most often bearing the title A Revelation of Love.
Why does this matter? I imagine Julian mouthing the phrase “all shall be well” in the earlier version, but not fully believing it to be true. We’ve all done that, right? Prayed aloud even as our doubts increased. Hummed reassuring hymns and quoted scriptures of peace while our soul is in turmoil. Sometimes, our expressions of hope and faith mix with doubt and uncertainty. This was true for Jesus, and I imagine it was true for Julian. It is definitely true for me. We may not believe fully what we say or sing. We struggle to get the words out, hoping beyond hope that they are true.
Julian’s second version, written well after her illness, reflects an expanded and deeper sense of what it means to say, “all shall be well.” She does not deny or minimize the sorrow and suffering she and her community experience. Neither should we. Even in her rewrite, she “wished … for some plainer explanation through which I might be at ease about this matter.” Don’t we all? She affirms God’s love and compassion, even as she struggles to make sense of her illness. Perhaps she was also attempting to bring a good and hopeful word to workers suffering injustice, to people grieving the loss of loved ones, to a church broken by divisions and a country beaten down by war.
“If in this moment we cannot shout ‘all shall be well,’ perhaps we can whisper it with Julian.”
Even 30 years after that first draft, Julian was likely still deeply perplexed by what she had undergone herself and witnessed in the world outside her cloistered room. Nevertheless, she claims “the smallest thing will not be forgotten,” for that which God created, which bears God’s fingerprints, will be redeemed. For the Lord says to Julian, “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me … and I shall make everything well.”
I don’t know how confidently Julian believed these words God had given her when she wrote them in her second draft. Maybe she murmured them over and over again. Maybe she expressed gratitude for God’s faithfulness to her, even as she doubted.
If in this moment we cannot summon the voice to shout “all shall be well,” perhaps we can whisper it with Julian, with Jesus and with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, believing amid our fears and doubts that God responds in love to faith as tiny as a mustard seed.
Perhaps you can whisper the words even now: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
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