The English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is remembered on May 8 in the Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches and on May 13 in the Catholic Church.
This week, let’s pray a beautiful prayer attributed to her.
In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving. You are our mother, brother, and Savior. In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvelous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich has taught me many things about hope, faith, and divine love. Recently she’s also taught me the value of words. I was reading Julian’s work, the Revelations of Divine Love, when I came across this sentence: “Prayer ones the soul to God.” This passage awakened my inner grammar queen. The last time I checked, “ones” wasn’t a verb.
Evidently Julian didn’t read the same grammar books that I did. Examples of oneing infuse her work, such as:
In our making God knit us and oned us to himself . . .
And the conclusion of this idea:
By the virtue of the same precious oneing, we love our Maker and seek God . . .
Julian’s oneing would not have sounded as jarring to her audience as it does to us. “To one” was a Middle English word meaning to unite or to join. But words change. If used today, oneing would constitute an egregious case of verbing — the act of turning a noun into a verb. You’ve probably seen many examples of this. Adulting is hard. Or, It’s time to introvert!
I think this is why some translators of Julian’s work don’t use her original wording: they’re concerned that she’s breaking today’s grammar rules. These translators often change the word “oned” to “united.” So, Julian’s phrase “prayer ones the soul to God” becomes “prayer unites the soul to God.”
But I much prefer Julian’s strange little verb. How much lovelier oneing is than uniting! The unfamiliarity of this word makes me pause, reread, and really grapple with its meaning. Uniting implies a joining of forces, but oneing suggests a knitting together that can never be undone, a union so seamless that you can no longer distinguish its individual parts.
Oneing implies more than intimacy. In the works of Julian of Norwich and other medieval mystics, it describes union with God himself. It encapsulates the mystery of our creation and our very being. Oneing is divine, in every sense of the word.
Not all examples of nouns-cum-verbs are as poetic as oneing. But Julian’s treatise has made me look at words differently, especially the trend of verbing. I haven’t always appreciated this trend. But thanks to Julian, I’m looking at it with new eyes. I’m ready to be surprised and disrupted, ready to see something new and possibly divine in the way we use words and break the rules. I’ve been bejulianed.
Perhaps we could all stand to be bejulianed. In an age of increasing verbiage and decreasing attention spans, we need language that disrupts; we need words that teach us about ourselves and the world instead of words that fly under our radar. In fact, it’s a thrill to discover that the English language can still trip us up. So when you see a strange word, perhaps even an example of verbing, pause, reread, think, and imagine. Above all, ask yourself this question: have I been oned with the divine today?
A version of this post originally appeared in the journal Upwrite.
The English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is remembered on May 13 (in the Catholic Church — and on May 8 in the Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches).
This week, let’s pray one of her beautiful prayers:
In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Savior.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvelous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.
Last week, we explored Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase, “All will be well.” We found that it refers to the “necessity” of sin and God’s grand plan of salvation. It points us to the end of time, when God’s purposes for the world will be accomplished. But I want to emphasize that Julian’s saying is also full of comfort for the here and now.
In the Showings, Julian continues to marvel and reflect on the idea that “all will be well.” She says:
He [God] wants us to know that he takes heed not only of things which are noble and great, but also of those which are little and small, of humble men and simple, of this man and that man. And this is what he means when he says: Every kind of thing will be well. For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten.(231-232)
How I love this thought. The smallest thing will not be forgotten. We have a God who sees the small and the simple. And that means that he sees us; sees you and me. God delights not (just) in grand gestures and great deeds; he notices the humblest acts of faith. He loves not just the heroes and saints; he loves this particular man and that particular woman. He loves us in all our marvelous idiosyncracies. In our unique presence. Our ordinariness. And in our insignificance.
This passage on smallness reminds me of one of Julian’s earlier visions. God showed Julian something no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of her hand.
Julian says, “I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made.” (130) God preserves such a small thing, Julian writes, because he created it and loves it.
In something as small as a hazelnut, the whole world can be contained. In something as small as you and me, God finds something of incredible value. Something worth rectifying the world for.
We have to wait until the end – until God’s time – to see exactly how he will rectify every thing, both large and small. But we have this consolation now: we are not lost. We are not forgotten. God takes heed of us. We are swept up in his plans to make all things well.
Julian says that in God’s promise to make well even the smallest of things, we find rest and peace. We are powerfully comforted.
Do you believe, as small and insignificant as you are, that “all will be well” both for the world and for you? I leave you with Lady Julian’s encouragement:
“Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fulness of joy.”
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.
We best know Julian of Norwich for saying: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Despite her optimism in this statement, Julian lived in the late 1300’s in England, facing plague and violent warfare, to say nothing of a church hierarchy that could turn on her in light of her visions of Christ.
At the age of 13 in May 1373, Julian suffered a severe illness and experienced a series of sixteen “showings” or visions of Christ. These visions revealed the love of God in ways seemed to run counter to the assumptions about God during her time, but she managed to both live a quiet life as a female hermit and to put her experiences down on paper. Julian was the first woman to publish a book in English: Revelations of Divine Love.
She is remembered by biographer Amy Frykholm as a mystic who embraced suffering–almost to the point that one would raise an eyebrow. However, the depth of her compassion for others cannot be separated from her embracing of the sufferings of Christ and the suffering of others.
Julian’s compassion grows out of her passion—a suffering both in and of the church, but a suffering that nevertheless reveals the love at the heart of the church. Julian gets God’s love not because she retreated from the world and focused on spiritual things, but because “she chose Jesus over the bliss of heaven.”
Contemplating a crucifix that began to drip blood onto what she thought would be her deathbed, Julian saw and later wrote about a vision of God that was revolutionary to the church authorities of her day—indeed, to many church leaders in our own time.
May we have eyes to see the suffering of others around us.
May we remember that the cross wasn’t just the means of our salvation. It was the way of life that Jesus modeled and expected us to follow.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…