All Shall be Well
Julian of Norwich might be considered the patron saint of pandemics.
The Black Death, which emerged repeatedly during the Middle Ages, cut a swath through her part of England in the year 1349 killing roughly one third of the population. She was a child then, and must have witnessed for herself the carts collecting bodies for mass graves. An appreciation of the fragility and tenuous nature of human life followed her throughout her years (and she lived into her mid-seventies).
As a young woman she prayed that she might achieve union with Christ by participating in his physical sufferings. She fell desperately ill, during which time she experienced a series of “shewings,” or visions. Julian reflected on these visions for the remainder of her life, composing first a short version of her “Revelations of Divine Love,” and later a longer, more extensive version of the same reflections in which she worked out arguably the most exquisite trinitarian theology to emerge from her time.
Some find Lady Julian of Norwich morbid because of her fixation on the most vivid and gory aspects of the death of Jesus on the cross, but others have found in her a spiritual beauty that is, if anything, accentuated by her attention to physical sufferings. Few of us today would dare to pray, as she did, that God would allow us to “relive Christ’s passion” in our own flesh. And fewer still would reap from such an experience, if it came to pass, the transcendent consciousness of God’s overwhelming loving-kindness, peace and compassion. But Julian’s capacity to transform physical suffering into spiritual wisdom remains valuable even in an age that equates discomfort with evil.
One might almost say that she had the courage to descend with Christ into the hellish anguish of the cross so that she might ascend with him to our world with words of enduring comfort. This woman who lived as an anchoress in a tiny cell attached to a small parish church in her hometown of Norwich journeyed infinite distances of pain, and returned again to share her good news of God’s love.
I say all of this so that her most famous words, the words that have inspired not only theologians and preachers for generations, but poets like T. S. Eliot, might be heard in their full, deep sense. These words are now available on coffee mugs and tee-shirts, conveying an insipid Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul level of spirituality when taken out of context. However, these words cost hours of sweat and pain from a disease from which this young woman barely survived.
“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” wrote Julian.
What can she mean? Her suffering was great, and she did not pray that it would cease, only that through it she would intuit a deep personal union with Jesus in his sufferings. Her death loomed before her, but she did not pray to survive, only that God would allow her to find peace in him. At a moment when priests were shouting from their pulpits that the plagues and illnesses experienced by humankind were visited upon them by an angry God who objected to their wicked ways and their false beliefs, she saw only love in God.
And I have never personally read a more perfect Christian statement of the character of God than this one which emerged from a sick bed of a devout young woman.
Let us hear her voice for a moment:
“For I see no anger except on man’s part … for anger is nothing else but a resistance or contrariness to peace and to love, and it comes either from lack of strength, or from lack of wisdom, or from lack of goodness … and this lack is not in God, but it is on our part…. but throughout all this the sweet eye of pity and love never looks away from us, nor does the operation of mercy cease.”
After recovering from her illness, Julian was visited by many pilgrims in her own lifetime. Legend has it that she lived in the tiny cell with only a cat as her companion. Someone arranged for food to be brought to her. Visitors came to a small external window in her cell to seek her counsel. A small window opening into the nave of the parish church allowed her to participate in divine worship and to receive the Eucharist. But in a larger sense, divine worship and Eucharist were the whole of her life.
These days, when anxiety and disease sweep across our land and around the world, I find myself returning to these simple words, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” not because I think I will escape discomfort or disease, but because I trust that miracles of divine love will sustain us whatever may come. As the Apostle says, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”