‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
(Julian of Norwich 1342 – 1416)
All shall be well! So says Julian of Norwich, according to her most famous quote. But what could a 14th century Christian mystic from Norwich possibly know? In the modern world where we face a climate crisis, serious biodiversity loss, and 1% of people have well over half the world’s wealth while others struggle to eat, her words seem naïve at best, possibly deluded. And that’s without considering the personal struggles that many of us face.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Norwich with some other Methodist ministers, to visit the place where she lived and to learn more about her life and her writings. We know about Julian because of the book she wrote, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, which is the earliest surviving writing we have by a woman in the English language.
When Julian was about 30 she became very ill and expected to die. It was while she was seriously ill that she experienced a series of powerful visions of the passion of Jesus Christ. This experience is probably the reason she became an anchorite. Being an anchorite was a kind of monastic lifestyle. She lived the rest of her life in the confines of a small single room – her cell. But instead of being shut away in a convent, her cell was built on the side of a parish church in the heart of the city.
Her cell had three windows. One through which her maid could pass her meals. A second into the church, so that Julian could take part in the worship. And a third which looked out on to the street, and where anyone could come and speak with Julian.
The 14th century was a hard time to be alive. In the middle of the century the Black Death swept across Europe causing the death of 75-200 million people. Something like 50% of the population of England died and the disease returned in fresh outbreaks over the following decades. It’s hard to imagine.
Death was an ever present part of life. Julian herself is thought to have lost a husband and a child. She was far from naïve about how difficult life can be. Her window onto the street was on a busy thoroughfare near the port of the second biggest city in England. There would not be many aspects of life she wasn’t aware of.
Her book was written in two parts, the first is a short account of her visions written soon after she recovered from her illness. The second, written much later in her life, is a longer account of the visions with her lifetime’s reflections and insights.
As for ‘all will be well’ – it was Julian’s deeply held conviction that, through God’s love and in God’s time, all things will indeed be well, however hard life might be that this moment. In the meantime Christians keep a window on the worship of God and a window on the struggles of the world and continue to speak of the divine love that creates, renews and sustains us.