“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 paralysed. And the recent murders of black Americans are forcing yet another reckoning with systemic racism in this country.
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.
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.
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Mahri Leonard-Fleckman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the Religious Studies Department at the College of the Holy Cross. She is the author and co-author of three books, including Ponder: A Contemplative Bible Study for Year B, forthcoming from Liturgical Press.
With thanks to America Magazine, where this article originally appeared.