Friday, January 28, 2022

Julian & the Pandemic

The fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich can teach us a lot about the pandemic. She was born in 1342. When she was six years old the bubonic plague hit England. By the time she was eight the plague had killed half of the English population. When she reached twenty years of age a second wave of the epidemic swept across the land, killing a quarter of the remaining population.

We do not know much about her early life, but it is thought that she lost her husband and possibly children to the plague. When she was thirty, she became seriously ill and nearly died. While in the heat of fever she had a series of visions of Jesus that transformed her life.

She recovered from her illness and recorded the visions in two works, a shorter and a longer version, entitled Revelations of Divine Love. At the same time that Chaucer was writing Canterbury Tales, Dame Julian was writing her Revelations. They are the earliest known writings by any woman in English.

There is much that is extraordinary about her Revelations. In one of the visions Jesus hands her a tiny round object, “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut.” She asks Jesus what it is, and he replies that it is the universe. His exact words were “It is all that is made.” She is afraid that she might drop it, but Jesus reassures her saying, “It lasts, and ever shall, because God loves it. And so, all things have their being in the love of God.”

In the visions she struggles with the age-old problem of suffering. She asks Jesus about all the pain and suffering in the world and receives an answer. “See, I am God. See, I am in all things. See, I do all things. See, I never removed my hands from my works, nor never shall, without end. I lead all things to the end I ordained for them from the beginning, by the same might, wisdom, and love with which I made them. How should anything be amiss?”

This answer is followed by another one that ties the suffering of Jesus to the suffering of all people in the world. She sees “God in a point, that is to say, in my understanding, by which sight I saw that he is in all things.” The face of Jesus then changed from pain to “blissful cheer.” It ends with the most famous quote of the book: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich lived to be seventy, spending the last twenty years of her life as an anchoress. She lived through the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Our COVID pandemic and the domestic troubles we face in America today seem trivial in comparison.

So when I am anxious about what is happening in our nation and our world, I bring to mind the words of Julian: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

(Artwork is a detail from the cover of Matthew Fox’s 2020 book Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic - And Beyond)


happi said...

All is well. All is well. Even now, all manner of things is well. We are on a long road to improvement. We travel in lurches, in spurts. By gains and losses. But the longer term trajectory is clear. We travel the road to improvement. All is well now and will be even "Weller" down the road. Happi

Maryjane Pettengill said...

Thank you for sharing this.
Her teachings are rich and meaningful.