Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is one of the most beloved medieval mystics. She lived for much of her life as an anchoress (someone who lives enclosed in a cell) and wrote the first known book in English to be written by a woman. This book, the Book of Showings, teaches us about the fullness of divine love and compassion; it is based on a series of revelations or visions that the mystic received in 1373.
Julian’s words are oft quoted, and the most famous passage from the Showings is one you’ve undoubtedly heard:
All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.
We quote this passage when we need reassurance. When things are not going well. When we don’t have much hope for the future. I myself have quoted and tweeted it many times.
Today and next week, I want to explore the context of this famous passage. Reading Julian’s Showings, I found that “all shall be well” is not just one sentence, but a theme that spans some six chapters of the book. The passage has a larger context that is usually not considered.
That context is sin.
Julian utters her famed saying in a portion of the Showings in which she sorrows over sin. She realizes that sin is keeping her from close communion with God, and she wonders why God ever allowed sin to come into the world.
God reassures Julian, saying:
Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. (225)
There are two main things to note about this passage. First, it has an opening clause that is often omitted (“sin is necessary”). And second, we are to understand it as something that God himself said to Julian. The passage means that, despite the pain and suffering of humankind because of sin, God has promised to make things right.
In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t like the statement that “sin is necessary” and cannot pretend to fully understand it. Julian herself is troubled by this notion and persists in asking God how things can possibly be well given the destructive consequences of sin. She won’t let this issue go. For several chapters, she pesters God about it. How can it be well? How, God? And why . . . why did you allow sin to come into the world? These questions make her a kindred spirit to those of us who wrestle with tough questions. Why, God?
God doesn’t quite answer Julian’s questions. But he tells her, very tenderly, to contemplate the atonement, which is far more glorious than sin ever was harmful. And he tells her to trust him. God says to Julian:
For since I have set right the greatest of harms [original sin], then it is my will that you should know through this that I shall set right everything which is less. (228)
“All will be well” refers to nothing less than God’s grand plan of salvation – for setting right the world and the human heart. It does not mean, alas, that things will be okay tomorrow or in a particular circumstance in our life. It could be that, like Moses, we will not see with human eyes the fulfillment of God’s promise to make things “well.”
“All will be well” is not a phrase to throw around lightly. It requires a lot of faith to affirm. Look around you at the world right now. And then look at your own heart. It’s hard to believe that all will be well, isn’t it? It’s hard partly because God is keeping to his own timeline, not ours. And because he is working in ways that we cannot fathom (more on this topic next week).
As we wait on God, we work with him in the grand plan of salvation (because waiting is active, not passive). We suffer and groan. We sorrow in our sin. But we believe: in God’s time and in God’s way, every kind of thing will be well.