Are you overwhelmed? Do you feel yourself wanting to retreat from reality? I am with you, my friend. War, violence, refugees, the pandemic, climate catastrophes, fires, floods, droughts, division, racism and just solid injustice floods our senses and our hearts to the point of overwhelming despair.
As I think about the heartache and horror, I imagine a sponge and a rock. Both are under a constant torrent of water, of crisis overload. The sponge soaks it all in, becomes soft and pliable, and the excess flows out. The rock does not absorb the pain, but the water wears it down all the same. Some of us are sponges and some are rocks, but all of us are profoundly affected by this time of change we are living in.
“All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Maybe you have heard this phrase before and thought that it was shallow and naive and had nothing to do with the reality we are living through today. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The author who wrote these words was a survivor of pandemics.
This spring I attended a Zoom retreat with author Carl McColman who gave a presentation for the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, about Julian of Norwich. Julian’s words, “All shall be well …”, and what we know of the context of her life make so much sense in our current circumstances. Julian lived in Norwich, England, from 1342 to 1429, and from the age of seven until her death lived through wave after wave of pandemics called the Black Death. It is estimated that somewhere between one third and one half of the country’s population died from these pandemics. Without modern medicine or information, it was a time of fear, panic and desolation.
Details of Julian’s early life are uncertain. McColman and other scholars suggest that perhaps she was a wife and young mother who lost her family due to the plague and then retreated to a life in the church, and that Julian of Norwich was not her real name but instead the name of the church of which she was an anchoress. How then could she ever say that all shall be well?
Through her own severe illness and at the point of her death, Julian had a series of visions that she wrote down and was published as “Revelations of Divine Love.” Through those visions and her own meaning-making, she experienced God as good, as love, as holding us. Each of us has, in fact, a “birthright of never-ending joy.”
In one of her reflections, Julian wonders why there is sin in the world, why there is pain and death and desolation.
“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
“These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”
Jesus spoke to Julian tenderly and let her know that God’s goodness and love and hope and power are stronger and more prevalent than the pain. I need to hear these words today, in our world, in our time. I need to know that God is in the midst of all of this, bringing me to the point of hope and gratefulness.
Of course I am not the first person to figure out that Julian shared these words of hope during a pandemic and that so much of her theology is what we need to hear today. In addition to McColman’s presentation, Julian has been the topic of current blogs and even a book by Matthew Fox published in 2020: “Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic — and Beyond.”
In his book, Fox suggests that Julian of Norwich is a prophet for the 21st century. This pandemic today is linked closely to the climate change that “lies deep in the rejection of nature as sacred.” He goes on to say that “maybe Julian of Norwich, and the rich tradition of creation spirituality that she carries in her bones, heart, and mind… maybe she is the vaccine that is truly needed today.”
We keep talking about “a new normal” and it’s very, very hard to see. There is so much destruction of systems and institutions (including religious life) all around us. There are also whispers and a slim hope in my dreams that this is a time of real change. It is clear that what existed cannot continue. What is to come cannot yet be seen.
But it is time for a shift. Fox concludes that “Julian clearly gifts us with a paradigm shift for religion, from an ideology of original sin to a consciousness of original goodness or original blessings.”
I hope that this reflection of Julian and her experiences of God’s goodness and love — goodness and love that informed her words and instilled intuition that her time prefigured her own — can give you a little hope. I almost did not write this post,but as I was sharing Julian’s words and her life with my sister she encouraged me to write it. To my sister, the confident words of a survivor who lived through the worst pandemic — “all shall be well” — truly mean something. Maybe, as more of us believe this not naively but bravely, we can help to construct a world where the Earth and all humanity are considered sacred.
Perhaps in time, truly, “all shall be well.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Hennessey, FSPA, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse.