All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
(Julian of Norwich, 1342-1430)
To someone immersed in the experience of suffering, the belief that “all shall be well” may seem the height of absurdity.
How can anyone aware of the abundant disparities in this life, or who has received more than their fair share of pain from the varied circumstances they’ve experienced, possibly agree with this statement?
For someone with firsthand knowledge of a miscarriage of justice, where a purveyor of misdeeds is exonerated while an innocent man or woman is judged guilty, to accept ‘all shall be well’ may be difficult.
How can one possibly believe a good outcome will ultimately arise out from devastation, whether in the world around us or in our own lives? A more commonly accepted philosophy is ‘wait for the other shoe to drop’, to expect something bad will be coming around the corner, sooner or later. Not to expect that goodness will surely follow.
Upon discovering that those same words - “All shall be well” - were spoken by a woman living 600 years ago, we might assume she must have lived a much simpler and less troubled existence than what we are facing in the 21st century.
And yet the one who originally spoke these words grew up in a world not only without modern medicine, indoor plumbing, or electricity - but in a time of economic turmoil and political upheaval in the midst of the Black Plague, a pandemic so virulent that it claimed between 25 and 50 million lives.
Despite these conditions, she found a way to meet the suffering laid out all around her with a radical optimism born from a deep abiding faith. Known as one of the great English mystics and anchorites (someone living in seclusion for religious reasons), Julian of Norwich authored Revelations of Divine Love, among the earliest English language works by a woman. The great 20th century poet and Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot even borrowed her famous phrase for his Four Quartets.
Why do people continue to read her teaching, so many years after her time on earth? Even if difficult to comprehend, it can be illuminating to spend time in the company of those who live a life of ‘radical optimism,’ as they remind us of the possibility of a more gracious life, a way to re-frame our situation - no matter how bleak things may seem in the present moment.
What Julian of Norwich impresses upon us, whatever our circumstances, citizenship or century, is of an outcome towards which we are headed which may defy our logic and reasoning. A possible future which gives us a breath of hope, a potential expansion to our awareness providing a new perspective and outlook.
If there were an effective panacea - not for a biological virus, but for an endemic pessimism weighing down the entire world - it might be as simple as these words from Julian of Norwich:
All shall be well.