All Shall be Well: And other things that don’t make sense
Advent with Lady Julian Week 2
I had slipped into her office to wait for our meeting, and sitting across her desk, I stared at a small plaque on a stand that read, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Julian of Norwich.” I was about twenty-seven at the time, and there to meet with a mentor about struggles I was having in my current ministry job. In the background of the job struggles was a recent miscarriage, yet-to-be-diagnosed hypothyroidism that was sapping my energy and giving me brain fog, and not to mention issues with my family of origin that were causing great emotional distress as well. So when I encountered this quote, which may very well have been my first encounter with Julian, I was immediately pissed off.
My stomach clenched, and my heart rate sped up. How dare this medieval saint tell me everything was going to be okay in the midst of everything I was experiencing? How could it possibly be well? I was spending my days off going to doctors appointments, laying down on a variety of cold exam tables in flimsy gowns with too-bright lights glaring at me from the ceilings. Or weird dark imaging rooms where the dark wasn’t a respite from the glare, but rather a different source of discomfort, an embodiment of the unknown.
Of course, this phrase from Julian taken out of context means little, just as the scripture verse, “All things work together for good,” gets taken out of context and bandied about like the oft-quoted American proverb, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Kate Bowler used the last one as a title to one of her books, adding “And other lies I’ve loved” as the subtitle.
Because it is a lie. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Some things are horrible, some things are evil, and no matter what good we build out of that, it doesn’t mean it was planned by God to teach us something.
Just because God can work for good in any circumstance, doesn’t mean that circumstance was caused by God.
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Which brings us back to the first quote, “All shall be well.” We first encounter this quote in a section of Julian’s work where she is reflecting on sin. Seeing all the damage and destruction that sin caused, she wonders why God allowed it at all. But in the vision she has about it, she hears Jesus say that “Sin is inevitable, but all shall be well, and all shall be wall, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This statement is ultimately eschatological, in that it refers to God making all things new at the end of time, but I do think there’s a sense in which it applies to our lives here in the inbetween: in between the cross and the new earth. As Jesus died, he proclaimed, “It is finished.” This too is an eschatological statement because from God’s standpoint outside the human timeline, Jesus finished the work on the cross in that moment. In our reality, we are still going the long way round to the new earth.
But we get glimmers of all being well, glimmers of it is finished, glimmers of God working for good in the midst of terrible and evil things going on around us. I think Julian understood this as well in her context. After all, the little cell where she lived was close enough to where the church in her time was burning followers of John Wycliffe at the stake for saying that the Bible should be translated into English so everyone could read it that when the wind was right, she would have been able to smell the martyrs as they burned.
And yet she was convinced enough of what she had seen that she continued writing in English, sure that her revelations were for all her fellow Christians, and scripture she quotes, she quotes in English as well.
This is most likely why her book wasn’t published or widely distributed in her day. Both it and she had to be protected from a bishop that rode into battle himself to suppress an uprising, and who burned people for wanting to read the Scripture themselves.
I’m writing this from my couch, where most of my writing has been happening in the past few weeks because I’m getting my deadlines met while a puppy sleeps on my lap. She’s ten pounds of warmth and soft ears and her weight feels reassuring as she melts into my legs. Nothing like the weight I was carrying in my body that day I first encountered Julian’s quote. There is a heaviness that sinks into your very soul when you’re carrying grief be it personal or public. And sometimes it seems as though nothing can ever be right again.
In the passage from Isaiah this coming Sunday, we see a messenger from heaven telling the prophet to “Cry out!” trying to get the prophet to share the words of comfort that God had just relayed in the previous passage. But the prophet is discouraged, responding, “What shall I cry? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…”
To understand the context of why the prophet had lost hope, we need to look at where we are in Scripture. This is Isaiah 40, traditionally considered by scholars to be the dividing point between first and second Isaiah. There are clear textual marks that show us the book of Isaiah was written by multiple people. In many of the preceding chapters, “the recurring theme… was that God could be trusted in the face of threats from the surrounding nations.” And yet if you read those chapters, you see that Israel was not willing to trust God, looking for security everywhere but God all too often. And time after time they paid for their misplaced trust, not because God was punishing them, but because they put their faith in the wrong places and the wrong people.
Now they are facing exile, and the person who has taken on the mantle of the prophet is discouraged knowing what is about to happen. And yet, here is God coming in with words of comfort, words of commitment, words that promise God is still coming.
God is always coming to the people, because as we looked at last week, God is on the side of the suffering. God comes to be with us in our suffering whether that suffering is caused by our own actions or by those of others. God comes to feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms and carry them while he gently leads the mother sheep.
Julian trusted this God portrayed in Isaiah 40 even as the world around her burned with war and martyrdoms and ethnic cleansings. She trusted that if she continued to do what she was called to do, God would take care of the rest.
Given that she couldn’t even publish her book in her day, despite her convictions that she was writing for her fellow Christians, she demonstrates to us what it looks like to do what we can in our spot in history, trusting that our work will be carried forward by those who come after. And we can see that Julian’s trust in God and her fellow Christians was not misplaced as we sit here six hundred and fifty years later with her words comforting us as our world is once again on fire.
In chapter six of the long text of Julian’s work, we encounter a lovely passage that describes how God meets us even in the lowest part of our need. “A man walks upright, and the food inside his body is shut up as if in a very fine purse; and when it is his time of necessity the purse is opened and shut again in a very decent way. And that it is God who does this is shown where he says that he comes down to us in our lowest need.”
This earthy passage about our digestion and elimination system is one of my favorite parts of her work. God is with us in the inner workings of our bodies. God is the air we breathe in and the air we breathe out. God “wishes us to be enfolded in rest and in peace.”
The prophet in Isaiah shows us a God coming to God’s people. Julian shows us a God who is longing for us, a longing that sent him to the cross on our behalf. I see a God who understands our longing for justice, our pain in our bodies when the world is not right, our grief both personal and collective in a world that operates opposite of God’s peace, opposite of mutual thriving, opposite of God, really, for God is all that is good and all that is love.
When the events of the world, or my personal stresses, or both combine to cause my heart to clench inside my chest, I stop and breathe in and I remember that God has made all things well and God is making all things well. I breathe out and remember that God wants to enfold us in comfort, rest, and peace. And my chest unclenches, and I get a glimmer, sometimes a very faint one, but a glimmer of the world that is to come.
“I wish I could still believe in God, but I can’t be a Christian anymore because of ______” Fill-in-the-blank with racism, misogyny, homophobia, toxic capitalism, and so on. I’ve had this conversation with different people almost word-for-word over and over. White American Christianity has so defined God that many people cannot separate God from the toxic theology they were taught.
But this isn’t the God I see in the Bible. The Bible shows us a God meeting people where they are and nudging them towards justice and total thriving for all: shalom. The Bible details arcs of justice and societal reform. If we understand how radical those arcs were in the context of the day, we can extend them forward into the future and figure out how to work for justice, total thriving, and societal reformation in our day.
I grew up in that first world view. Come along, and I’ll tell you the story of how I escaped, and I’ll show you a theology that I believe paints a more accurate picture: a faith for the common good where everyone thrives and no one is left out.
Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
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