Julian of Norwich believed ‘All will be well.’ Would she say so today?

Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. (Wikicommons)

“But all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” On May 13, the popular feast day of my beloved Julian of Norwich, I was struck again by her insights. To be honest, it is not really her famous “all will be well” line that captures me, though it has clearly captured our collective memory. (Whether this is because of Julian or T. S. Eliot’s echo of her words in his Four Quartets, I am not sure). It is a magnetic line, as much in its soothing, repetitive sound as in its assurance of a future reality beyond our grasp. Today, it is a deeply grounding promise in the midst of a chaotic, painful world. Somehow, despite our current experiences, all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.

And yet. All is not well. There is growing awareness that our current public health crisis will continue, in waves, for God knows how long. Educational institutions struggle to prepare for the looming unknown. The economic situation is staggering. The federal government is a bungled mess. The church at times seems paralyzed. And the recent murders of black Americans are forcing yet another reckoning with systemic racism in this country.

Somehow, despite our current experiences, every kind of thing will be well.

And me personally? I am both comforted and disturbed. I am grateful to have a happy home life, a stable income, a natural inclination toward solitude, a steady sense of hope. In my community, I see acts of bravery, generosity and love regularly. And yet concern, grief and helplessness have become my daily, heavy clothing. Living through current events in the midst of this virus that takes our breath away, I find it hard to catch my own breath. No, in general, things do not feel well.

Julian would understand these mixed feelings. In context, her revelation that “all will be well” was not soothing, at least not at first. It was shocking. By her account, she took in the divine words “heavily” and “mournfully” and with “very great fear.” Her instant response was, essentially, how could this possibly be, given the reality of pain, suffering and human frailty? Or in her words: “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?” According to the final chapter of Showings (the long version), she then spent 15 years and more isolated in her cell, immersed in a deep, faithful struggle to comprehend the divine meaning of these words. Just imagine. Fifteen years contemplating that one line.

Concern, grief and helplessness have become my daily, heavy clothing.

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No, it is not the famous line itself that pulls me. Within our current reality, what attracts is the embeddedness of it within her life-long struggle to comprehend its meaning. Julian’s life was devoted to and absorbed by divine encounter. She received a series of 16 “showings” or revelations of God’s love when she was around 30 years old, the mysteries of which slowly unfolded into more profound understanding and insight. And when true understanding finally emerged, when the divine finally revealed the meaning of “all will be well,” her description of this revelation is electrifying. She explains it this way

Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end. So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.
Julian’s life was devoted to and absorbed by divine encounter.

In other words, how can it possibly be that all will be well? Through love—not that fleeting feeling but the divine itself, a power and an action that beckons and encompasses everything, even the enormity of human frailty. Without context, without the awareness of Julian’s life-long struggle and spiritual quest, that comforting famous line—all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well—runs the risk of becoming mere platitude, its sharp edges dulled by overuse. When T. S. Eliot drew her words into his masterpiece The Four Quartets, he understood its scandal and its depth. He described love and sin as two forces or “fires.”

These words are equally meant to shock, to dare, to impel us into action.

“Sin is Behovely,” he wrote (quoting Julian), and yet “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” through Love. How will this be? Through the purification of our motives and our desires, describes Eliot in his fourth quartet, and the only way to purify these is to be “redeemed by fire from fire.” Writes Eliot: “Who then devised the torment? Love.... We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.”

So all will be well, yes. This is surely a salve, particularly in a unique historical moment like the present, when things seem so fractured, when global suffering is as transparent as deep-seated inequality and dysfunction. And yet it is equally meant to shock, to dare, to impel us into action. For with the medicine comes the mirror, the accompanying challenge: How can it possibly be that “all things will be well” in this crisis and in this mess of human greed, corruption, indifference and deadly racism?

Transformation will happen within and through our world for “all things” but not without our own inward work and outward response. Julian’s is no passive promise, no kumbaya statement. It necessarily involves human action, human purification—Eliot’s “torment” devised by Love itself.

From within her small, monastic cell, Julian’s revelation calls for the expansion of our collective memory to hear her question, “How can that be?” echoing in the promise of “all will be well.” The question then impels us inward and forward, introspection re-sharpening that well-worn line to become as much of a stimulus to action as it is an assurance that “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

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