As an old year draws to a close and we look forward to new beginnings, we often find ourselves searching for something that will bring us peace of mind.
I’ve adopted a mantra that over the years has brought me exactly that. It’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s simple, easy to remember and effective.
It is one of the most famous lines in Catholic theological writing and is one of the best-known phrases of medieval literature. Julian of Norwich claimed God himself had bestowed it upon her.
Here it is:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
I know. You’re sceptical, right?
Let me tell you about Julian of Norwich. She was an English anchoress who lived from about 1342 until about 1416. She is regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics. Anchorites were religious hermits who often spent their lives in contemplative prayer in tiny cells built onto existing churches. Very little is known about Julian’s life. Her personal name is unknown and the name “Julian” simply derives from the fact that her cell was built onto the wall of the church of St Julian in Norwich.
She may have been from a privileged family that lived in Norwich, or nearby. Norwich was at the time the second largest city in England. Plague epidemics were rampant during the 14th century and, according to some scholars, Julian may have become an anchoress whilst still unmarried or, having lost her family in the Plague, as a widow. Becoming an anchoress may have served as a way to quarantine her from the rest of the population.
There is debate as to whether Julian was a nun in a nearby convent or even a laywoman. When she was 30 and living at home, Julian suffered from a severe illness. Whilst apparently on her deathbed, she had a series of intense visions of Jesus Christ, which ended by the time she recovered from her illness on 13 May 1373.
Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened in a version of the Revelations of Divine Love now known as the Short Text. This narrative of 25 chapters is about 11,000 words long. It is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman.
Twenty to thirty years later, perhaps in the early 1390s, Julian began to write a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as The Long Text, which consists of 86 chapters and about 63,500 words. This work seems to have gone through many revisions before it was finished, perhaps in the first or even second decade of the fifteenth century.
Julian became well known throughout England as a spiritual authority. The English mystic Margery Kempe, who was the author of the first known autobiography written in England, mentioned going to Norwich to speak with her in around 1414.
Julian of Norwich lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion, as opposed to law and duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding. She believed that God loved everyone and wanted to save them all.
Popular theology, confirmed in people’s minds by the Black Death and a series of peasant revolts, asserted that God punished the wicked. Julian suggested a more merciful theology, which some say leaned towards universal salvation. Although Julian’s views were not typical, the authorities did not challenge her theology because of her status as an anchoress. A lack of references to her work during her own time may indicate that the religious authorities did not count her worthy of refuting, since she was a woman.
Her theology was unique in three aspects: her view of sin; her belief that God is all-loving and without wrath; and her view of Christ as mother. According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father. Feminist theology in our own times has developed along similar lines. The harmony Julian suggests between the motherly and fatherly qualities of Christ has greatly influenced feminist theology.
Julian saw no anger in God. Her belief in God as mother was controversial. Julian believed that the mother’s role was the truest of all jobs on earth.
For me Julian’s mantra is a positive and simple way to reaffirm that even in times of stress and trouble, all shall be well.
I wish you peace as we journey into 2014.