Friday, 5 September 2008

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. – Julian of Norwich

Patrick Comerford

Over the last few weeks, as I faced up to personal difficulties, and continue to wrestle with them, my mind keeps returning to those reassuring words from Dame Julian of Norwich:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

When she wrote those words, Dame Julian of Norwich was expressing her attitude toward life and her spirituality. Julian’s spirituality is filled with hope and confidence in the God “who loves us and delights in us,” the God who “will make all things well,” the God who created us to live fully the life we have been given.

Those words were going around in my head yesterday afternoon after going to the opera .

And then, as I went looking for another book in Hodges Figgis in Dublin city centre this morning – Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s new book, St. Paul’s Ephesus (Collegeville: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 2008)) – I accidentally stumbled on a new edition of a delightful little book, All Will be Will: Julian of Norwich (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2008), compiled by Richard Chilson.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) is one of the greatest English mystics. When she was 30, she suffered a severe illness and, believing she was on her deathbed, had a series of intense visions that ended on 13 May 1373. She recorded these visions and then reflected on them in theological depth 20 years later in Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love – the first book written in English by a woman.

Julian’s positive outlook does not come from ignoring suffering or being blind to it, but arises from the clarity she attained as she struggled with her own questions. This struggle gave her the ability to see beyond the pain and suffering and to look into the compassionate face of God. Only this gazing could reassure her that – despite pain, and sorrow – in God’s own time, “all shall be well.”

Julian had a heartfelt belief in a God who loves and graces us with an abundance that only God can give. And God’s love and grace placed Julian’s words before me again this morning.

According to Julian, the unfathomable mystery of love is the supreme sign of the reality of God, and sin is necessary so that we can become, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “instruments of love in the hands of God.”

T.S. Eliot adapted these ideas in Little Gidding (the fourth of his Four Quartets), when he wrote:

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well …

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well


Mother Julian wrote: “What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never, know different, without end.” (342)

Her optimistic theology speaks of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion as opposed to law and duty. Suffering is not a punishment inflicted by God, but God loves and saves everyone. Her great saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” reflects this theology. It is one of the most individually famous lines in all theological writing, and is one of the most well-known phrases of the literature of her era.

Julian asked: “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?” (227).

This was God’s response to her: “And so our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see for yourself that every kind of thing will be well. ... And in these words God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and peace.” (229)

Despite these present problems, I am sure God wishes me to be enclosed in love and rest and peace, and that I will see for myself that every kind of thing will be well. And I thank God for the friendship and love I have in life.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College