One of the last face-to-face gatherings I had the privilege of facilitating before this time of social distancing was a weekend at the Trinity Retreat Center exploring the writing of Julian of Norwich. Although she was the author of the first book (that we know of) written by a woman in English, her given name is lost to history. We call her Julian after the cathedral of St. Julian, where she practiced what today we might consider an extreme form of social distancing. She lived alone for many years in an anchorhold, a small, stone structure appended to a cathedral in Norwich, England. The Rule of St. Benedict says that “solitaries,” such as Julian, represent the highest form of monasticism. The calling, he said, suited only the most spiritually mature.
That maturity is evidenced in the two forms of interaction she maintained during her isolation. (We might do well to follow her example.) One window in her space opened to the church, so she could nurture her connection to the divine in worship (similar, perhaps, to the way live-streamed services let us participate via our screens). For human connection, another window opened to the busy street. People came up to it for spiritual guidance. Much like our friends, families, and co-workers with whom we need to stay connected today, the folks she spoke with were living through a time of disease (bubonic plague), never-ending conflict (the 100 Years War), and religious division that often turned violent (“heretics” were burned at the stake a stone’s throw from her space). Although her written insights were inspired by a series of visions she had while seriously ill in May 1373, it’s fair to say that they were tempered and informed by the hours she spent in spiritual conversation. We might think of it as similar to the fieldwork modern-day seminarians do in hospitals and parishes to round out their classroom studies.
Her most famous saying, “All shall be well,” sprang from this immersion in suffering. She repeated the phrase so often it became the connecting fiber of her writing. She even expanded on it. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and you shall see it for yourself, that every manner of thing shall be well.” If those words can appear trite in times of suffering, it’s worth asking how they came out of such a time. What makes them more than a medieval “Don’t worry, be happy”?
That’s the question Julian herself wrestled with for twenty years. Ultimately, she understood that at the heart of her visions there was a bold assertion about the fundamental nature of reality itself. God is love. Yes, we know the Bible says that (1 John 4), but what if God is really love? Nothing but love? What if God is never angry, never condemning, always seeing the pure, unblemished beauty that lies deep in every human being? We, on the other hand, are often angry, condemning and harshly judging both others and ourselves. (By the way, Julian also says that the process of self-accusation can be helpful if we learn from it and don’t get stuck there.)
Think of the love of a mother for a child. That’s another image Julian is famous for: God as a mother. How would our lived experience be transformed if we believed that God constantly attends to us with a mother’s unconditional love, patiently waiting and encouraging us to see ourselves for the wonderfully made, glorious creatures that we are, no matter how often we mess up, or how drastically?
Julian’s fellow Christians were told that they experienced violence and disasters because God was angry. She offered a different perspective. Today we often hear that at the heart of all human behavior is cold-hearted competition for scarce resources—the survival of the fittest. Looking around at human behavior, this view can seem persuasive. If we shift our gaze, however, we can also find evidence that at the heart of existence is love, with all the actions and attitudes it engenders—compassion, care, altruism, self-sacrifice, kindness, and generosity. Looking from individuals to families, communities to nations, we can all name instances where humans act not out of self-interest but out of selflessness. We care for the common good, we build up others, and we share concern for the most vulnerable among us, for generations yet to be born, for nonhuman life, and the planet itself.
Julian saw clearly how difficult it is to rely on love:
God wants us to consider and enjoy love in everything. And this is the knowledge of which we are most ignorant; for some of us believe that God is almighty and has power to do everything, and that he is all wisdom and knows how to do everything, but that he is all love and is willing to do everything—there we fail. And it is this ignorance that is the biggest obstacle for God’s lovers, to my sight.
Theologian Karl Raher wrote about the kind of evidence that could testify to the Resurrection. He said that no amount of apostolic witness would convince us, unless we’ve experienced the risen Christ in our lives. The same could be said of love as the heart of reality. One of the richest conversations during our recent Julian retreat was about how difficult it is to believe in love, particularly unconditional love, when you haven’t experienced it. Some of us have had reliable figures in our lives who’ve shown us just what love is: parents, teachers, other family, mentors, spouses and partners. Some haven’t.
One way we might spend our extra time in this period of sequestering is by meditating on who those people have been for us. While evolutionary science dictates that our minds skew toward negativity because that attitude kept our ancient ancestors alive, can we instead dwell on the people who have been loving, kind, and inspiring to us? Can we hold them in gratitude? Can we send them our thanks? Can we let our inner state of gratefulness color our dealings with others?
At the same time, can we ask who needs our love? Do we have a close relationship that yearns for healing? Are there neighbors who cannot work during this time and need support for their families? Are there distant people we’ll never meet whose lives have been disrupted? Can we contribute to their well-being? Are there fault lines in our society that we each might, in some small way, help to bridge? To say that the best way to find love is to give it is a cliché, but only because it’s true.
Julian’s message across the centuries is that, if the ultimate power in the universe is love, then all will be well. It has to be. And if we center our lives in love, then we shall see it for ourselves, that all manner of things will be well.