All Will Be Well: The Radical Optimism of Julian of Norwich

“All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)

the-showings-julian-of-norwichMEDSome­times I can hardly believe what I get to do for a liv­ing. As a trans­la­tor of the mys­tics, I plunge into the well­spring of their wis­dom and remain immersed, until they have told me all they have to say. In the Hindu tra­di­tion, this is known as dar­shan: sit­ting at the feet of a saint and receiv­ing their trans­mis­sion. It can be done whether the being is still in the body or has left it. It is not an exchange that is ruled by the com­mon laws of time and space. This flow spills across the cen­turies and, in my case, across reli­gious lines.

I am Jew­ish by birth, not-Jewish by upbring­ing, and Jewish-again by incli­na­tion. I have a life­long Bud­dhist sit­ting prac­tice and a Hindu guru. And I trans­late and write reflec­tions on the teach­ings of the Chris­t­ian mys­tics. My most recent encounter was with Julian of Nor­wich, the medieval Eng­lish anchoress (1342–1416). My new trans­la­tion of her mas­ter­work, The Show­ings–an extrav­a­gant account of a series of visions Julian had dur­ing a near death experience—came out ear­lier this month (Hamp­ton Roads 2013).

We do not know much about Julian’s life. In fact, that was not even her real name, but rather a ref­er­ence to the Church of St. Julian in Nor­wich to which she attached herself—literally–cloistering her­self for­ever inside a small stone anchor­age built against the outer wall of the sanc­tu­ary. What we do know was that by the time Julian entered her cell she had already wit­nessed three rounds of Plague, had prob­a­bly lost almost every­one she loved, and had nearly died her­self. We also know that when she was very young she asked to bear wit­ness to the pas­sion of Christ. Her wish came true. The visions she had on her near-deathbed were of Christ’s cru­ci­fix­ion, which she endured in every cell of her own body.

This kind of cor­po­real iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Christ is not unique to Julian. Other saints and mys­tics, known and unknown, have reported sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences. But what is unusual about Julian’s story is that Christ’s death was not dread­ful to her. That is, he cer­tainly suf­fered and she hated to see her beloved in such pain, but he also radi­ated warmth, sweet­ness, and a kind of inef­fa­ble joy. His coun­te­nance was “friendly and cour­te­ous.” And try as she might, Julian could not detect one iota of con­dem­na­tion in him toward any mem­ber of the human fam­ily. She tried to line up the con­tent of her visions with the “teach­ings of Holy Church” but some­times they just didn’t mesh. Like the mat­ter of our fallen nature.

Sin, says Julian, turns out to be “no thing.” This has been a con­tro­ver­sial pas­sage in Julian’s work. But she is quite clear: “Nowhere in all that was revealed to me did I see a trace of sin,” she writes. “And so I stopped look­ing for it and moved on, plac­ing myself in God’s hand, allow­ing him to show me what he wanted me to see.” In Julian’s exceed­ingly prac­ti­cal view, “sin has no sub­stance, not a par­ti­cle of being, and can only be detected by the pain it causes.” When we make mis­takes and cre­ate suf­fer­ing, we hum­ble our­selves and God loves us all the more. For those of us non-Christian and post-modern types, try sub­sti­tut­ing the word sin for shame, or blame, or even karma. In other words, we screw up, but that only opens the ten­der heart of the cos­mos where we can find refuge and come back into wholeness.

The other star­tling thing about Julian’s home­spun the­ol­ogy is her view of the fem­i­nine iden­tity of God. Julian sees the God­head in the Trini­tar­ian con­text of Chris­tian­ity, but with this rad­i­cal twist: the Sec­ond Per­son (Christ) is actu­ally the Mother (not the Son). “As truly as God is our Father,” she says, “just as truly is God our Mother.” Who else but a mother, she asks, would break her­self open and pour her­self out for her chil­dren? “Only God could ever per­form such duty.” Not only that, but Julian’s God-as-Mother remains avail­able at all times, espe­cially present in our dark­est hours–some kind of spir­i­tual hybrid that encom­passes the uncon­di­tional love of Mother Mary in the Catholic tra­di­tion, the infi­nite com­pas­sion of Tara in the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion, and the indwelling holi­ness of the Shekhi­nah in the Jew­ish tradition.

It baf­fles Julian that we don’t get this. When we miss the mark, we want to run away and hide. But “our cour­te­ous Mother doesn’t want us to flee,” Julian says. “Noth­ing would dis­tress her more. She wants us to behave as a child would when he is upset or afraid: rush with all our might into the arms of the Mother.” For Julian, the good news is not merely the reward we will receive one day when we slough off this mor­tal coil and go home to God. Every moment is an oppor­tu­nity to remem­ber that we are per­fectly loved and per­fectly love­able, just as we are.

And so when the final judg­ment comes,” Julian writes at the end of The Show­ings, “… we shall clearly see in God all the secrets that are hid­den from us now. Then none of us will be moved in any way to say, ‘Lord, if only things had been dif­fer­ent, all would have been well.’ Instead, we shall all pro­claim in one voice, ‘Beloved One, may you be blessed, because it is so: ALL IS WELL.’”

6 comments

  1. Catherine Naylor says:

    All honor to you for rais­ing up these elders and pre­sent­ing them once more to the world.

    Might there be a read­ing and book sign­ing in Taos?

  2. Emma says:

    Dear­est Mirabai, I am so very happy to have found you again. Two years ago we shared our sim­i­lar reac­tions to the Sufi song: How painful the Lane of Love, and how we both went through the cathar­sis of great loss towards great love. How blessed I feel to be able to share once again a mutual way of see­ing these things — this time to glimpse the one­ness behind the many forms, and one way to do that is through the inner cas­tle, like the great mys­tics who reflected this in their own life. I live in the coun­try of Hadewi­jch and just fin­ished writ­ing a post about the para­doxes of love on my own blog http://www.sophiasmirror.blogspot.com
    You are so wel­come there!
    Your new book about Julian has not been released here, but your intro­duc­tion here sounds very promis­ing,
    For now much love to you, in the spirit of grace,
    Emma

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Hello Mirabai,
    It sad­dens me that I am never able to attend any of your sem­i­nars. Do you ever travel to Orlando, Florida? Please let me know so I can make arrange­ments to attend one of your work­shops.
    Many Bless­ings,
    Elizabeth

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply