“All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.”
–Julian of Norwich (14th cent.)
“All will be well,” says the medieval English Mystic we called Julian of Norwich. “And all will be well,” she says again. Then, in case we didn’t take that in the first two times, she repeats with lucid zest, “and every kind of thing shall be well.”
I have been reading, at Pastor Joel’s suggestion, “Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond,” by Matthew Fox. You may remember Fox from when he preached and conducted workshops at Dayspring a few years ago. He has long been my teacher. I had a heart-opening encounter with his seminal book “Original Blessing” over thirty years ago that utterly transformed my faith outlook. Fox professes a creation spirituality rooted in the Bible and nature, and cultivated by many thoughtful enthusiasts throughout the ages, including Julian of Norwich. Sadly, this spirituality of blessedness was eclipsed early on by the notion of “original sin”: Creation and humanity are not inherently good, but evil in need of redemption; a loving God is displaced by a vengeful, punitive understanding of the divine. For Christian mystics and theologians like Julian, Meister Eckhart, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi and Matthew Fox, redemption is not so much a matter of absolving sin but loving us into wholeness!
Julian of Norwich (1342-1429) was the first woman to write a book in the English language. Like Shakespeare, she even coined some English words, including “enjoy.” Perhaps best known for her exclamation, “All will be well,” no starry-eyed optimist was she; Julian lived through several surges of the bubonic plague and experienced and witnessed unspeakable suffering first-hand. Some fifty percent of the population of Europe died during the Black Death.
Julian believed that God is made known throughout Creation (nature). However, during the plague, as Thomas Berry points out, “People had no explanation for what was happening. They knew nothing of germs. They could only figure that the world had grown wicked.” Many believed that nature had turned on them and God was punishing them. It would seem that humanity transitioned from loving nature to fearing it. Julian was a hopeful and needed voice during a tragic time.
Matthew Fox considers Julian “a stunning thinker, a profound theologian and mystic, a fully awake woman, and a remarkable guide with a mighty vision to share for 21st century seekers.” According to Fox, Julian is well suited to help foster in us a spirituality that can survive the trauma of a pandemic. She teaches us not to give in to despair or blame but to find beauty and goodness even in the midst of pain and struggle.
“Who knows the possibilities,” wonders Fox, “that await a renewed humanity, one that has gone through the fire of the dark night together?” Along with the tragic death toll, the pandemic has exposed inequities too massive to be denied. We have an extraordinary opportunity to move beyond what was considered “normal.” Fox writes, “A pandemic is a time—and hopefully this applies to post-pandemic life as well—in which we learn not to take things for granted, to be still, and in that process re-evaluate our lives and our culture.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently closed his commencement address to the Boston College class of 2021 by saying,
“A year ago, when everything was shut down, I thought [this year’s college seniors] were the unluckiest generation, but they could be the luckiest. They’ve survived something hard and have the strength that comes from that experience. They enter a world that’s been interrupted and have the opportunity to create a different and more humane way of life.”
Amen! And I believe this message echoes the hope and call of Julian across the ages and applies to all of us—whether or not we’re in the class of 2021!