"All Shall Be Well": The Gospel of Love According to Julian of Norwich
By Mark S. Burrows, Ph.D.
We know little about her life. Even her name remains a mystery to us, since we know nothing of it. We call her after the name of the small parish church in medieval Norwich, St. Julian’s, where she spent much of her adult life as a woman who had taken a lifelong vow of prayer. Her vocation would not have been at all unusual for the England of her day: she would have been one of hundreds of such women (and men) across the country, living in small cells built onto the side of great cathedrals or small parish churches like hers. Her life would have been shaped by prayer, prayer, and more prayer, embodying what the American poet Maurice Manning describes in a little poem taken from a long sequence entitled “Lent”:
To be involved in silence and yet
to listen to it,
to wander in the midst of nowhere, not
to know or hunger
to know, to be in constant prayer
though not to be through
with praying, to stand in the blaze of beauty to be
silent with you.
This is as close a description, to my mind, of what Julian’s life might have been like, judging at least from what she reveals to us in the single text she wrote—or had written—as a record of the “showings” she received on a particular day in May, 1373. There, she introduces herself as “a simple, unlettered creature” who “wanted to live to love God better and longer so that [she] might through the grace of that living have more knowledge and love of God in the bliss of heaven.” High aspirations, indeed, this longing “to be in constant prayer/ though not to be through/ with praying.” And, as a result, “to stand in the blaze of beauty to be/ silent with you.”
Silence marked the duration of her praying hours, but she also, as an anchoress, was available for conversation with folks who came to her window seeking comfort, advice, encouragement. One might say that she served as a spiritual “anchor” for the perplexed and burdened of her day, just as her writings continue to function in this way for us in ours. What can we hope to learn from her, or perhaps with her? Perhaps this: how “to be involved in silence and yet/ to listen to it,/ to wander in the midst of nowhere, not/ to know or hunger// to know. . .”
She received sixteen visions in a brief period of intense physical illness during her thirtieth year. On the surface, many of the “showings,” as she called them, were devotional images quite conventional for her day: the bleeding head of Christ, crowned with thorns; the scourging of Christ’s body; Christ’s final suffering and death, etc. Others were thematic in nature: a glimpse of Christ’s heart “split in two for love”; an understanding of Jesus as “mother”; a view of God as “all sovereign life,” and so forth. Such themes were not entirely original to Julian, reflecting theological themes familiar in the day.
What was original and what makes Julian stand out among theologians of her day—and ours—is the originality of how she dealt with such questions. For her vision of God and of our human condition was audacious, to say the least, an inspiration that has only grown in recent times. For at the heart of her vision is her celebrated image of something “the size of a hazelnut,” the meaning of which she captured in the now familiar phrase, “And all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.” How she arrived at this daring conviction is a story worth exploring, considering how her vision mines a deep vein of scripture rooted in the apostle Paul’s assurance that nothing can separate us from divine love, and in Jesus’ radical notion that everything belongs in what she calls God’s “keeping."
The text she left us is stirring to read, shaped by the courage and imagination by which she approached the deepest existential questions through a handful of simple metaphors. Poets know to do this. And, in this sense, one could understand Julian as a “poetic” thinker. But that does not mean “theology lite.” Rather, this form of reflection took her—and takes us as her readers—into an apprehension of God’s love capable of transforming us. This confidence is what led her to conclude her “book” of showings with the call to “perform” it ourselves, inviting us to take up the vision of wholeness she received and animate it within our lives. This will be the work we will begin in this retreat, trusting to journey with Julian’s “showings” into the depths of the mystery we call God—and our very selves.