Every kind of thing will be well
07/04/2018 § 5 Comments
In meeting for worship the other day, I found myself wrestling with the condition of the world — not only the political developments that dominate our daily headlines, but also the relentless acceleration of climate change and its ill effects, and the insane sleigh-ride of militarism, materialism, and cynicism which most of the world is currently on. I was feeling the familiar dryness in the mouth that comes in the midst of the temptation to give up hope —or the fear that hope is no longer an option.
All at once I found myself remembering the famous line from Julian of Norwich: “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” ** In my melancholy mood, I quickly dismissed this as arising from a simple reflex need for comfort, yet it kept returning with urgency, as though I were being shown a door I needed to unlock.
I am not the first one to challenge this statement on its face. More than one person has seen it as troubling (see here, for example). Julian herself was puzzled by it. It seems important to point out that in her account these are Christ’s words, not her own, and they lead Julian into much hard thinking, meditation, and frank challenge back to the Lord: How can this be, given the way the world is? She does not find it easy to square this apparently optimistic claim with the evidence of brokenness which she could see all around here, in 14th century England, a land of war, plague, and hard living.
Just as these words of her testimony came to my mind in the midst of a grieving meditation, they came as the word of the Lord i the 13th revelation, as she came to see that her longing for unity with him was hindered by “sin.” She notes that in thinking of this word, it brought to mind
all which is not good…his tribulations, his death and all his pains, and the passions, spiritual and bodily of all creatures. For we are all troubled.
— what we glibly label “the problem of evil.” Typically for a post-Augustinian, she sees that the whole world was “bent” by Adam’s sin. She says (I am paraphrasing), Why didn’t you just prevent sin from getting started? Then all would have been well. But now, just look at things! Look at me!
Christ answers, “Sin is necessary” or even “serviceable” (one version has “behovable”), but “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.” Christ assures Julian that, since sin is a necessary part of the system (if I may put it so), she will in the end will be freed from shame for her sin.
Julian comes to see that sin as she construes it is an intrinsic part of our embodied life: as creatures, we err, misunderstand, struggle with or yield to our passions, suffer the costs of being mortals. If we recognize and accept this, we thereby acknowledge the limits of our own strength and wisdom. Our approach to the full freedom promised in the Gospel comes through the work of Christ’s light, our participation in his sufferings and trials, and the transformation that comes thereby. The truth of our condition, and the truing of it with God’s help, is how freedom comes. In all this, “sin” plays the role of symptom, warning, and indeed guidance or task-setting for the God-hungry soul. Yet even then, some of how “every kind of thing will be well” remains a mystery to Julian.
In the last few days I have been led further. I do not share the view that human sin broke the whole world, in the usual sense. I don’t believe, as some fundamentalists do, that before the expulsion from Eden tigers ate nice vegetables, and there were no intestinal parasites or disease. I believe that human ill-doing is not inherited, but a fresh creation by each one of us in our own lives. Moreover, we bake some of it into our customs and institutions, so that every child that is born, whose self develops in society, gets the evils that society (from the most intimate to the global) has in its fabric as a free inheritance, an addition to the load that comes from just being an embodied spirit.
Some of that ill-doing, ill-seeing, ill-thinking, shapes our relation to the rest of creation, and so our sinning imposes costs and penalties far beyond what would be needed for our well-being. Alas, how often we only see errors in hindsight, and how powerful are the defenses we create to deny them and their consequences!
Now, I happen to take seriously the idea that a central revelation of the Divine is in the world around us, its patterns, processes, limits, and diversities. The laws of physics, the processes of life, are at work in the ways that the world is responding to human activity such as climate change and ocean acidification. By all that science can tell, the land, sea, and air, and the multitudious species according to their inscape, will respond to the brief perturbations caused by industrial society as they have responded to shifting continents, asteroids, and massive volcanic events. As the processes act or metamorphose, they will do so without reference to humans’ comfort or sense of security. It seems to me that this reading of natural revelation is consonant with God’s answer to Job, which among other things teaches that earth and its creatures have their own integrity and power. The world is not human-centered!! So, leaving aside humans, every kind of thing will be well, according to its nature.
But as for humans, our dual natures mean that we as animals are participants in the transformations or even cataclysms which we precipitate. Since these may well be catastrophically hostile to our society and its confidences, how will “all be well” for us, participating as we must with an awareness that is burdened as well as enriched by memory, imagination, art, and dreams?
My sense of how hope is renewed and maintained rests in the experience of the presence of God. God is not something I manufactured to my own tastes, because I could not manufacture what I encounter; the God I know a little was hardly reflected in my up-bringing, my society, my family, or the teaching of the Church as it came to me. That One is in the prophets and the gospel, though I knew that Spirit before I read them, and could take comfort that others knew already what I was coming to taste and hear and see. God is a persistent visitor and host, puzzle and answer, troubler and peace-bringer, home and journey.
As I keep in awareness of that Spirit, I can live more truthfully and less fearfully, and experience the sanctity of sanctuary. That involves living in the cross, just as Julian saw — being willing to see my alienation, multi-mindedness, and self-service, and accepting the re-forming that Christwork brings. From that place, I can answer the call to some service, make some testimony to the Gospel, and its implications for myself and my neighbor. So here there is hope in both rest and service.
What is hard is the recognition that this work is an individual work, though it has social consequences. The evidence of the saints and sages of the past is that no matter how enlightened and free one person may come to be, and no matter how inviting and moving their example and their words, they still are only possible helps and guides on a path I must walk myself.
This, I take it, is the consequence of human awareness of individual identity, and so the task and the work that arise from our human inscape is unavoidable. In it is the kind of freedom and centeredness in which I can say “all will be well” — but here “all” does not mean “My lifestyle, my expectations, my self-regard, my friends and family” — I cannot guarantee their well-being inwardly, and we know too well that outward ease is no guarantee of spiritual or emotional health.
So now I can see how Julian’s testimony makes sense in the world as I understand it, and I can draw some nourishment from her certainty and her struggle, which in some ways is not so different from mine.
** I am using the Colledge and Walsh edition of Showings in the Paulist Press series “Classics of Western Spirituality.” See here for an excellent brief introduction to Julian’s life and message.