"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." (Chapter 27)
Like a discoverer who's been told of a stunning vista that lies ahead of her, I've finally arrived at the promised destination. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" was the first phrase that I connected wtih Julian of Norwich and one which prompted this sojourn into her writings. And so, when I came upon it in Chapter 27, I was eager to understand that context in which it appeared. What I found was a bit surprising, to say the least.
Julian begins this chapter by musing that the only thing standing between us and God is "sin." For God's love is constant, yet we cannot see Him in His beauty and glorious love because of sin. She then wonders, as many have before and since, why God has allowed sin to enter into the world at all, a question that is often referred to as "the problem of evil." "This stirring," she says, "was greatly to be shunned, and nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed for it without reason or discretion. But Jesus, that in this vision informed me of all that I needed, answered by this locution and said; "Sin is necessary, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
I was struck by the fact that in all the times I have heard this phrase quoted, never once have I encountered the preamble to it - "sin is necessary." This is more than I bargained for, and will take some time to unpack. It seems there are deep theological implications if I take it in certain ways, and today is not the day to dig into those.
But, I have been living out a possible interpretation of these words, to see how it fits, trying it on for size. Here's how it goes: "Stuff happens. Mistakes get made. Even if we try our best, there's still junk. Sometimes it's atrocious, sometimes it's petty, sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it comes despite our best efforts to do well. No matter what or why, God stands behind this promise that all shall be well, no matter how big or small."
It's a reality check to my idealism - no matter what, people (myself included) are going to mess up. So I shouldn't be surprised if bad stuff goes down. But it's also an unbelievably amazing promise to hang onto. God promises to clean everything up. To restore what was lost and to reconcile what was torn apart.
There's more in this chapter to ponder, and big questions to wade into, but as I've been living my "normal life"-taking care of friends, planning a wedding, trying to write a blog, I'm taking comfort in this: stuff happens, but God's got it covered.
"In God's sight we do not fall, in our own sight we do not stand. As I see it both are true. But the deeper insight belongs to God." (Julian of Norwich)
When inspiration seems lacking, it's time to outsource. Robert Llewelyn's book "All Shall be Well
", (mentioned here
) has been a treasure chest of insight. In recent reading I've come across some golden nuggets well worth pondering. As Llewelyn interacts with Julian's writing, he spends several chapters responding to the quote above. Believing God's love desires us to become more and more the people we were created to be, Llewelyn explores that movement toward deeper freedom. At times our steps may seem counterintutive, or even morally wrong. He explains himself in this passage from Chapter 4:
"That we should always speak the truth, and that it is wrong to tell a lie, has probably been a part of Christian training from earliest years...but it needs to be taught with sympathetic understanding...for the fact is that our relationship to truth is expressed better in the words of Jesus "I have come to bear witness to the truth", than in the speaking of the truth as we commonly understand those words. Happily the two normally coincide, but when they are in conflict it is how we may best bear witness to the truth which we must try to decide. Thus if a father 'tells a lie' to conceal his child's whereabouts from a man brandishing a knife, it would not be correct to say that truth for the moment had been set aside, but rather that truth had been vindicated because the deeper truth in this situation is that life is sacred and is not to be placed at the disposal of evil men...Bonhoeffer argues in his Ethics
that if a boy, who is asked by his teacher in front of the class if his father comes home drunk at night, replies 'untruthfully' that he does not, then truth has been vindicated because the boy has witnessed to the deeper truth, that a teacher has no right to ask such questions before the class."
The insight that "bearing witness to the truth" may be different than "telling the truth" helps put a new lens on "living truthfully". Llewelyn further goes on to say that in seeking the deeper truth, we may end up breaking a law that we thought was true, bringing a sense of guilt. Here, we trust in the grace of God, who realizes that we, to the best of our ability, are seeking to follow God in our actions. And even if we feel like we are not standing, as Julian says, yet we can be assured that in God's eyes we cannot fall.
(more after the break)
"This vision was a lesson to my understanding that the continual seeking of the soul pleases God very greatly...The seeking with faith, hope and charity pleases our lord, and the finding pleases the soul and fulfills it with joy." (Julian of Norwich, Chapter 10)
This morning found me in a quandry. I was pondering the quote above and my mind was going in circles: Am I really seeking God? Am I seeking Him wholeheartedly? What does it really mean to seek God? How will I know when I've found Him? Should I do more? No answers came readily to mind. All I knew was that I was feeling, once again, less than spiritual, less than confident, and certainly not ready to write a post that would be of help to anyone, including myself. "God," I prayed, "I know You want me to seek You. Help me know what that looks like."
I picked up Llewelyn's book, "All Shall be Well," my companion reader to Julian's own writings, and started reading a chapter that begins by discussing the "wrath" of God. The church of Julian's day taught that God was a God of Judgment and Retribution. But in all of her visions, Julian is only shown a God of love and compassion. After much pondering and prayer, she concludes that what we see as God's "wrath" is nothing but our projection of our own distress onto God, for the face of God is always towards us in love. It is true that we fall, but never outside of God's love. She is given this revelation as an example:
"I saw two persons in bodily form: a lord and a servant...The lord is seated in solemn state, at rest and in peace. The servant is standing by his lord respectfully, ready to do his master's will. With love, gracious and tender, the lord looks upon his servant and sends him to a certain place. Not only does the servant go, but he darts off at once, running at great speed, for love's sake, to do his master's bidding. Almost at once he falls into a ditch and hurts himself badly. He moans and groans, cries and struggles, but he cannot get up or help himself in any way. Yet, as I saw it, his greatest trial was that there was no comfort at hand; for he was unable so much as to turn his face to look upon his loving lord, in whom is full comfort; and this, although he was very close to him. Instead, behaving weakly and foolishly for the time being, he thought only of his grief and distress..."
It was then, as Julian says, that I had an "inward showing." I saw that I was like that servant, eager to follow God's desires, wanting to learn and grow, and digging into Julian of Norwich in an attempt to broaden and deepen. But in my desire to "make progress," I can often fall, especially when I imagine that seeking God depends more upon me than upon the working of the Holy Spirit in me. And when I'm stuck it's easy to get down on myself, and the focus subtly shifts from God to me. But as I was reading this story, I suddenly stopped and looked up and back. And there was God smiling - at me and the predicament I often place myself in. I saw that what I seek is always there: God's love, consistently and graciously pouring out on me.
Like a father looks at his young child, face contorted in concentration with a new task, and smiles with great delight on the earnest efforts, so God loves that I'm seeking Him in new ways. And today, I saw that smile.
"This above all causes the soul to seem small in its own sight: to see and love its maker. And this is what fills it with reverence and humility, and with generous love to our fellow-Christians." (chapter 7)
This morning, I wandered to another book in my stack: "All Shall be Well" by Robert Llewelyn, a priest, retreat conductor and chaplain at the Julian Shrine in Norwich until his death in 2006. In his exploration of the spirituality of Julian of Norwich, Llewelyn writes about the process of becoming purified in soul. It involves, he says, an embracing of humility.
Llewelyn encourages us to live our lives in the presence of the God of love, to focus on His compassion and kindness. As we seek to do so, we become aware of things like envy or jealousy, anger or lust. The temptation is to hide these feelings or motivations, to suppress them in a desire to seem more holy (or healthy) than we are. It's as if one goes to the doctor and then refuses to name the symptoms.
But God will have nothing if not ourselves filled with Him. He welcomes us to come into His presence, to sit and notice what is not of love (what causes us dis-ease). But then He takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes toward Him. He invites us to sit under the fountain of His boundless compassion and desire for our good. It is humbling to admit that we are filled with thoughts and beliefs that are less than generous, like crusty residue on a forgotten bowl, set aside from last night's dinner. But God's love desires to flow and flow, dissolving, rinsing, gushing through our lives.