I’ve always loved the best-known saying of Julian of Norwich … “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I like its profound simplicity, its steadfast optimism, its relentless hope. Many times it would come to mind, but tonight I realized that, although I often quoted the saying, I really didn’t know much about the sayer. I knew Julian of Norwich lived in England in the 14th century, that she’s considered a significant Church figure and important Christian mystic. And, based on her persistence in proclaiming that “all shall be well,” I had an image in my mind’s eye of her as the very personification of “positive attitude,” serene and unwrinkled, wearing an unflappable Mona Lisa smile, gliding through medieval Norwich as though powered by an invisible skateboard hidden by her long dress.
Well, tonight curiosity got the better of me and I decided to look her up on Wikipedia, and to put her Great Saying in context by reading whatever I could find of her writings.
It turns out Julian was an anchoress which, I understand, is the female equivalent of an anchorite, a type of Christian ascetic. An anchorite is someone who chose to become a recluse devoted to solitary communion with God. They would live in complete seclusion in what amounted to a cell built against one of the walls of their local church, spending their days in prayer, contemplation and praise. Although some anchorites could, apparently, move freely between their cell and the adjacent church, it was more common for the cells to be walled up when the person entered the anchorite life. Food, holy communion and other necessities were passed to the person through a small window in the cell. Most of these people, once they had chosen to become anchorites and entered their cell, lived in there for years and years, and never again came out of their cells alive.
So, Julian “All-Shall-Be-Well” Norwich lived all alone in a cell. She could never go for a walk, she could never put her arms around another person, and she could never, ever, ever come out. No wonder she had to tell herself three times that all would be well.
I also learned that this famous saying is part of Julian’s larger writings, titled Revelations of Divine Love, which are the documentation of her multiple visions of Jesus Christ. (It’s worth mentioning that Julian’s writings are believed to be the first book written in the English language by a woman.) This idea that “all shall be well” seems to be a theme of these visions, something the Lord Jesus repeated to Julian over and over and over again. In fact, Julian’s Great Saying, it turns out, were not the words of Julian herself, but the words of Jesus to Julian.
On hearing Jesus say these words, Julian responds, “Ah! good Lord, how might all be well, for the great hurt that is come, by sin, to the creature?”
Jesus’ answer, as is so often the case, takes my breath away with its beauty and loveliness and glory and power. Here’s what Julian writes about how Jesus answered her question.
“And to this our blessed Lord answered full meekly and with full lovely cheer, and showed that Adam’s sin was the most harm that ever was done, or ever shall be, to the world’s end. And also He showed that this sin is openly known in all Holy Church on earth. Furthermore, He taught that I should behold the Glorious Satisfaction, for this Amends-making is more pleasing to God and more worshipful, without comparison, than ever was the sin of Adam harmful. Then signifieth our blessed Lord thus in this teaching, that we should take heed to this: For since I have made well the most harm, then it is my will that thou know thereby that I shall make well all that is less."
OK, in plain English, here’s how I understand it:
Jesus assures Julian that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. But Julian cannot comprehend that. “How can that be, Lord, because look at the great damage that sin has done, and is doing, to us all?”
Jesus answered (full meekly and with full lovely cheer!) that Adam’s sin was the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of the world, or that ever will happen in the future of the world. While it’s hard to believe that eating an apple could ever be the worst thing that could happen, the point is that “Adam’s sin” kick-started a machine that has never stopped gaining momentum. Adam’s sin started a stone rolling that would gather moss across centuries and continents, would never stop rolling, would never reach bottom. Adam’s sin was the start of something big.
However, even though Adam’s sin was the worst thing that ever happened, Jesus says it isn’t even comparable in terms of magnitude to the best thing that ever happened – the best thing being Jesus’ own “Glorious Amends-Making” that came about through His life, death and resurrection. Jesus’ “best thing” is powerful enough to redeem not only Adam’s sin, but the sin of all mankind, from all time, from all places, from all of the sins ever committed. The good that Jesus brought dwarfs the bad that was done by Adam, even though what Adam did was the worst thing ever. So, if the impact of the two events were shown on a bar chart, the harm done by Adam’s sin would look like a puny bar of soap compared to the skyscraper of the good done by Jesus’ Atonement. The two are “without comparison,” Jesus said to Julian. The Glorious Amends-Making of Jesus is more pleasing to God than ever was the sin of Adam harmful to man.
Then, Jesus says, “If I have made amends for the worst event that has ever occurred in all of human history, how will I not also make right every single other thing that goes wrong, no matter how small or great it seems to you? I have corrected the worst, so you can be sure I will correct the rest.” It’s like St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “Since God didn’t spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won't he also give us everything else?”
All shall be well, Jesus told Julian. He repeated it three times. In fact, if you look at the text, he repeated it way more than three times. You can count on it, Jesus said, even though you may not understand it and even though it may not feel like it. Even if you’ve lost your job or your child is sick or your marriage has ended – all shall be well. Even if you’re sick or exhausted or addicted or abandoned or destitute – all shall be well. Even if you’re living in a cell and the door is sealed shut and you can never go out and you can never be free – even then, all shall be well. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.
I love this God who makes all things well. I love this God whose specialty is turning reality upside-down, making the impossible possible, the painful beautiful and the ridiculous sublime. I love this God who appeared to a woman, when everybody knew women don’t write books. I love this God who says, don’t worry, eternity is way longer than your pain, my power is way bigger than your problem, and my love for you is way greater than whatever you’re up against now. All shall be well, my precious beloved, all shall be very, very well.