All Shall Be Well: Julian of Norwich and the Pandemic

When I decided to read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love last year, I was fresh from a run of a community theatre production of Mary Poppins and swelling with love for humanity, grieving the separation from my new show family.

As I contemplated the end of the little world we’d formed together, I was comforted by a vision in my mind’s eye: the cast and crew were all gathered in our backstage circle, holding hands and reciting our pre-show chant, “The theatre is magic and there’s magic in the theatre, and blessed are those who share their talents with others.” Then, we hugged and cried and readied ourselves to step into the light.

But in my vision, we were older, reunited after years apart, and we were whole, healed, and happy. No more hangups or hangovers, no bitterness or hurt feelings, no sickness or addiction. There was only love. Then the famous words of Julian of Norwich popped into my mind: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be made well.”

The vision was over in a moment, but it was so vivid and affecting that it was as if I had caught a glimpse of heaven. I determined to discover the context of Julian’s words for myself. Since Lent had just begun, I took up Julian’s Revelations as a Lenten devotional practice. I wanted to know what she meant when she said, “all shall be well.”

When the corona virus pandemic crashed into my comfortable life, my quest to understand how “All Shall Be Well” took on a new urgency.

Like most people, I tried to make the best of those early days of being shut-in. I prepared two weeks of online classes. I dutifully continued my Lenten readings. I put on makeup for zoom meetings. Then two weeks stretched into four; stay-at-home orders became mandatory. All our campus events were canceled and, like many people, I settled in to that work-from-home life. And I liked it. Online teaching was a lot of work, but I liked wearing leggings every day. I watched Tiger King, I went on walks with my husband, and I held online office hours, during which the mere sight of my students’ faces would cheer me.

But something else was happening. Preparing and teaching my classes and grading the digital piles of papers seemed to sap all my brain power and energy. I struggled to concentrate by day, and I struggled to sleep by night. I would wake at 3:00 am, unable to sleep, beset with worries great and small.

Will we find a vaccine? Will the economy recover? How many more will die? How will we grieve this enormous loss? How will I keep up this pace of working from home? Will I ever see my closest friends and family again? Hug them? Talk and shout and sing with them? If I go to see my mother, if I hug her once, if I barely see her, will I spread the virus unknowingly? Could that one hug set off a chain of illness and death?

The litany of 2020 worries played an incessant alarm in my mind, and when it did, Julian of Norwich was there for me. True, her clunky prose had some welcome soporific effects, but more than that, her revelations made eerie sense in the midst of a global pandemic, the chief symptom of which, for most people, was being shut away at home. Julian, after all, was an anchorite, a kind of hermit. She lived in lockdown, seeing very few people and her cats. And before that, she had her famous visions of Christ’s love when she was so ill that she thought she would die. Julian knew sickness and death and she knew loneliness. She also knew the undeniable comfort of a warm cat curled up and purring in her lap.

I often imagine her that way, sitting with only a cat for company, writing her famous words “all shall be well.” And that is how I finally encountered those words, in their fuller context. At three a.m., beset by the low-grade anxiety, with my sweet cat, Molly, snoring away in my lap, I finally found what I had been looking for: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The lines “all shall be well” come in the context of Julian’s struggle with the existence of sin and evil in the world. She looks at the world around her and notices that people are in pain and that sin causes suffering, and she sees no way that all could be well in this context. She asks the age-old question: how can God be perfectly good and loving (as she sees demonstrated in an overwhelming way through Christ’s passion on the cross) and still allow the evil and suffering of sin?

In her vision, Jesus answers her. “It behoved that there should be sin,” he says, “but all shall be well.” That strange word, “behoved” means “necessary” or “needful,” and “sin,” for Julian, means “all that is not good.” She has no specific definition of sin, but sees only that sin is the source of pain and suffering. In this mention of sin is no blame or guilt, as Julian notes, “These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved.”

This larger definition of sin as the source of all pain and evil and this radical removal of blame comforted me as my anxious thoughts ran their worn track through my mind. In the pandemic’s early days, when we knew a lot less about the virus, it was easy to spin out in worries about the outsized impact of one small decision. Could one face-to-face meal with my family imperil them all? What if I accidentally touch the wrong thing at the grocery store? Will that spread the virus? Blame and guilt lurked in every particle of air. But the Jesus in Julian’s vision showed no blame, for “all shall be well.”

And what is this “all” that shall be made well? Well, it includes sin, of course, as well as all the fears and worries that arise from the pain and suffering of the world. But it also includes “all manner of thing,” by which Julian means “noble things” and “great” things as well as “little and…small,” “low and…simple,” for “the least thing shall not be forgotten.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, both the great concerns of global import during a pandemic and the small concerns that are important only to me shall be made well. There’s nothing too great or too small to be transformed by God’s redemptive work. In context of the many ills of 2020, it was easy to feel guilty about my preoccupation with my own “small” concerns in the light of bigger problems in the world. How could I justify my little worries when so many had it so much worse? But in Christ, all manner of thing, both great and small, shall be made well.

But how will it be made well? Is Julian proposing a kind of Leibnizian “best of all possible worlds,” in which all that is evil turns out to actually be good in the cold calculations of a rational “optimism?” I think it’s more complicated than that. 

On one hand, Julian does seem to argue that sin and evil are all part of a larger plan to reveal God’s love and goodness. How else are we to understand sin being “necessary?” But the beauty of Julian’s view is that she never attempts to fully understand or explain away the world’s evil. She never minimizes sin and suffering. Nor does she attempt some formula whereby every horrible thing in the world can be traced back to some specific good cause or forward to some specific good outcome. Instead, she clings to the mystery of faith:

“And in these words [all shall be well] I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God.”

She goes on to talk about some “Great Deed” that God will perform at the end of days, which will mysteriously make all things well, even those horrible parts of life which seem like they could never be made well.

Julian, like many mystics, leans into mystery. This is what I love most about her work, and what may frustrate other readers. That’s the big secret? That God is going to do some big miracle at the end of time to suddenly make all things well?

Julian’s response reminds me of a repeated line that Geoffrey Rush’s character, Philip Henslowe, says in the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love. As disaster-upon-disaster threatens to derail the latest theatrical production, Henslowe is obliged to explain how “all shall be well” in the theatre:

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

That three a.m. moment with Julian of Norwich brought me back to my earlier vision of that end-of-days theatre circle. “The theatre is magic and there’s magic in the theatre,” and somehow, despite every force conspiring to make us fail, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be made well.

Even today, with hope of increased vaccination rates and herd immunity in the 2021 forecast, it can be hard to feel hopeful. Life and death go on, and it still seems impossible that “all shall be well.” But the vision of that little theatre circle stays in my mind. By some great miracle, the show comes together, the new creation is revealed, and we step together into the transforming light of love.

“And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be. And in this love He hath done all His works; and in this love He hath made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting.”

All quotes from Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love can be found here