Would you ever have expected that an Englishwoman born a few years before the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population, who experienced her own near-fatal illness and spent much of her life isolated in a tiny cell, would become famous for the words “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well”? Such was Julian of Norwich: mystic, anchoress and author of what was probably the first book in the English language to be written by a woman.
Lady Julian’s insistence that “all will be well” is, considering her circumstances, something of a miracle. And it reminds me of one of the most profound spiritual truths: it’s all in your point of view. Easy, even trite to say, but oh so hard to believe, and harder still to live. In the last few months I’ve been caught up in a family member’s medical crisis, the sort of thing that shoves everything else to the side and forces you to focus on the possibility of losing someone greatly beloved. As usual, I found adrenaline to be incompatible with contemplative prayer. In the scary, painful times, I learned to keep it very simple: “I love You. I trust You. I thank You.” When things quieted down, I could relax into prayer-as-usual: an exchange of love in which the fullness of one heart flows into the other.
But regardless of where we were in the crisis, one thing I’ve known for a long time remained true. Whatever is going on around or within me, when I look into the face of Christ it is impossible to doubt that all will be well. “My peace I give to you,” Jesus said, adding that this is not peace as the world understands it. It’s not the absence of troubles but his own presence, the incarnation of Peace itself, that makes all things “well.”
Everyone who’s been a Christian for five minutes knows this. The thing is, spiritual growth is not linear; it’s more like a spiral, in which you keep coming back to the same lessons only on a deeper level. I’ve been wondering for a long time what I can actively do to grow deeper in God. I know that being faithful to the spiritual disciplines I practice is key. I know that being in community is critical. If we even try to try, even if we fail often, in time these things will transform us.
Yet there’s something else we can do: we can hold that gaze more and more steadily. The longer it goes unbroken, the more deeply we’ll settle into the certainty that all will be well. So now it’s just a question of learning to hold that gaze while life is going on all around us. But even Lady Julian had to do that, because of the three windows in her little cell, one faced right onto the town.