The saying ‘All will be well’ is central to the thought of Julian of Norwich. I’ve been enjoying reading a small book exploring her thought, The Gift of Julian of Norwich, written by Karen Manton and illustrated beautifully by Lynne Muir.
Julian lived in the late 14th century and into the 15th, and received a series of visions or revelations from God which she recorded as ‘showings’. This book explores some of the central ideas and explains their significance.
Julian’s full affirmation, as often quoted, is:
All shall be well;
All shall be well;
And all manner of things shall be well.
This saying indicates a complete confidence in the presence of God in all things, no matter what happens—and Julian had plenty of illness and difficulty which might have provided the basis for saying that all things are not well. What then is the basis of such confidence and is it really believable?
I am here only going to touch on the very beginning of an answer. In a sense these issues are too important to imagine one could answer them in a few hundred words! Surely they merit a week or two, or perhaps a life time!
Manton explains that at the very basis of Julian’s confidence is the conviction that God is actually in everything: she says ‘I it am’, and this is affirmed of everything, and then the affirmation that everything is loved and sustained by God.
Furthermore, these thoughts are expressed through clusters of triple-affirmations, in each instance linked to the character of God as Trinity.
So at the outset we find a short reflection or ‘showing’ relating to a hazelnut or something as small as a hazelnut. It is small and insignificant, vulnerable and easily destroyed. But in such a thing Julian sees the character of all things and the basis of her belief that all will be well. ‘In this thing I saw three properties:
The first is that God made it,
the second is that God loves it,
the third that God keeps it.
But what beheld I therein?
Verily, the maker, the keeper, the lover.
So here is both a revelation of things and of God, in the one showing. God is the ground of all that is, the creator; God loves all that is, the lover, and God sustains or keeps all things, ‘the keeper’.
The next section of the book offers a theological explanation of the significance of these ideas, both for Julian and for us. Manton explains that for Julian there are ‘three persons, one truth’. But this ‘truth’ is reality as appropriated. It’s an abstract truth, an eternal proposition as perhaps Plato might have imagined. This truth is received and therefore something in which we participate. Julian’s word for this engagement in the truth (and thus in the life of God) is ‘oneing’. So it is not just that God says ‘All things will be well’ but also ‘You shall see yourself that all manner of things shall be well’. The basic idea here is that the life of faith draws us into a sense of being with God and indeed in God, such that we sense we are alive in God. Manton explains it like this:
According to Julian, our relationship with the Trinity is ever increasing, through being unified, knitted and ‘one’ (being made one) with the divinity. This is the reality each and and woman lives in, but we do not always recognise it. In the Trinity it is also the ‘oneing of all humankind’, the knitting and unifying of all humanity deep within God. Thus the one is also the many, and all are interconnected. The infinite diversity of nature and creation is brought into communion through the infinite substance and nature of God as Trinity.
Clearly one of the challenging issues with Julian’s thought is the question of the nature of evil. If she asserts that God is in everything and everything is in God (not the same thing as pantheism, incidentally) does this mean that she thinks nothing is finally evil or alien to God? Is evil unreal, or an illusion? Well, no she doesn’t think that, though one has to say that she does not really deal with these questions in a metaphysical or analytical way so much as in term of her ‘showings’ and thus spiritual engagement. This is for a later reflection and post!
For now, I am challenged to consider this fundamental assertion: that in all things we are with God, and all things are God’s. There is a profound implication there for ecology: it is not just ‘our’ environment, and it is not ‘our’ world. Rather it is a world in which we belong, as one part, along with all God’s creatures. But that belonging has the character of relationship, as Julian suggests. Such belonging is about receiving, loving, caring, and allowing ourselves also to be gifted, loved, cared for, and ‘knitted into’ the ultimate unity, the one life of all life, the being of the living God. Wow!