Julian of Norwich’s Hope in a Pandemic

“God Wants Us to Know that He Keeps Us Equally Safe in Joy and in Sorrow”

This post comes to us from Nathan White. White serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith and Resilience, which seeks to connect theology and social scientific scholarship with communities of faith.

If the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?

(Ps 11:3)

The psalmist posed this query almost three millennia ago, yet given our present circumstances, a modern sage might ask a similar question. Surrounded by uncertainty, pandemic, disasters, political unrest, and polarization — are “the foundations” indeed being shaken?

Recent calamities come atop already-occurring tectonic shifts in Western culture: from the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” to the distrust of organizations that once were the pillars of society, a shaking was already taking place. Current events have but made these shifts all the clearer. Strikingly, these crises affect not only our nation’s physical health but also more fundamentally its mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It seems that the “resilience” of our society itself is in question.

What is the place of religion during this tumultuous time, and how should people of faith respond? Some have suggested that the Christian faith is a detriment to societal flourishing and should be jettisoned along with the detritus of modern societal structures. But such an approach may prove too hasty. Even in terms of the scientific capital prized by our era, much research indicates that religion and spirituality can aid individuals to live enriched lives amidst adversity (Cook and White, 2018). Yet such data can tell us little about why this occurs or, more specifically, how these benefits are inculcated. A richness and depth exist in religious practice that cannot fully be captured by these measures — and perhaps it is this depth that also must speak into our own age.

Ours is not the first society to seem on the precipice of disintegration, or even to go over that edge. Whether we consider the destruction of Jerusalem, the sack of Rome, or any number of pandemics throughout history, societies have gone through many deaths and rebirths. Yet the people of God have endured through it all. There is much to be learned from the past, and Christians today need to draw upon our rich history, especially from those whose circumstances mirror our own, such as the anchoress Julian of Norwich.

The woman known as Julian of Norwich lived as an anchoress during the 14th century in the English coastal town of Norwich. Her lifetime was one of significant upheaval during which, in addition to the strife of the 100 Years War, internal political upheaval, and the Great Schism in the church, the Black Death was tearing Europe apart. For years the Black Death ravaged Europe, including Norwich, in a pandemic so deadly that a third of the population and half of the clergy in Norwich died (Jantzen 1987:7–8). It may have been this disease to which Julian nearly succumbed at the age of 30; her presumed deathbed, however, became a place of revelatory transformation. She recorded these experiences, both immediately afterwards and then again after some 20 years of reflection, and is thought to be the first woman to have written in English.

Portions of her reflections, often titled Revelations of Divine Love, are well known. “[A]ll shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (ST:20) is an oft-repeated phrase. But far from merely being a trite platitude, this truth was a product of suffering, revelatory experience, and years of prayerful reflection. This aphorism encapsulates only a partial view of the robust theology that Denys Turner regards as “one of the most exhilarating, moving, disturbing, and inspiring works of theology in any age” (2011:xix). What, however, might a woman so removed from our own era have to pass on to us? Julian’s lessons, gained through years of prayerful contemplation, can indeed also become ours — if we but listen and take them to heart.

Julian, writing in her “Short Text” probably very soon after her own deathbed experience, relates that “everything seems insignificant … in comparison with [Christ’s] love” (ST:18). Living amidst plague, war, and upheaval, none of Julian’s difficulties weighed more heavily upon her than Jesus’ love. This love was demonstrated most clearly on the Cross, where “our Lord Jesus … suffer[ed] for love more than all men could suffer” (LT, XX:66). This was a willing and unspeakable sacrifice, made more present to Julian by the suffering around her, and yet also, in Julian’s thinking, not an inordinate cost: “Then Jesus, our kind Lord, said, ‘[…]It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that I ever suffered my Passion for you’” (LT, XXII:68).

Because of this, Jesus Christ captures Julian’s attention, and she returns again and again — as a kind of center point — to his love, which encapsulates the substance, content, and method of her theology. Julian calls us as readers also to turn our attention here (ST:9), and in particular to the Cross of Christ. It was here that she gained strength: “while I looked at the cross I was safe and secure” (ST:16). Just as the psalmist found stability in God amidst the uncertainty of destroyed foundations — “In the Lord I take refuge” (Ps. 11:1) — so too for Julian, safety is found nowhere other than in the Cross. As perhaps only one who has experienced a depth of suffering can relate, Julian writes,

This vision [of the Cross] was shown me to teach me — as I understand it — that it is necessary for everyone to feel in this way: sometimes to be comforted, and sometimes to feel failure and be left to oneself. God wants us to know that he keeps us equally safe in joy and in sorrow, and loves us as much in sorrow as in joy. (ST:14)

Even amid pain, the defeat of sin at Cross of Christ shifts our perspective and gives us hope:

So our blessed Lord’s meaning in this teaching is that we should take heed of this: ‘For since I have set right what was the greatest harm, it is my will that you should know by this that I shall set right all that is less harmful. (ST:21)

Julian’s reflections, influenced by her own near-death experience, seek to focus our attention not on negative circumstances themselves, but on the God who is revealed in the Cross of Christ. Circumstances, whether Julian’s or our own, will change, but a foundation exists whose stability transcends the fickleness of time. Given this, amidst our own suffering, discouragement, and hardship, how would God want us to respond? For Julian, the answer is quite clear: “For God always wishes us to be secure in love, and peaceful and restful, as he is towards us” (ST:36).

For Julian, this response is only possible because these revelations of God’s love provide “strength enough” for her and all of God’s children to face the trials of life (LT, IV:44). Yet she does not seek to evade the problems that such an account presents regarding the reality of suffering and evil. In fact, she has been suggested as one of the only thinkers who allows the full weight of an Augustinian position to be felt (Kilby 2017). At the same time, however, Julian holds that how “all shall be well” is a mystery, necessitating a paradoxically humble confidence that maintains limits on what can and cannot be known (Kilby 2017).

Indeed, when Julian questioned God regarding this mystery, the only answer that she received was “Love … Love was our Lord’s meaning” (LT, LXXXVI:164). Despite its simplicity, she found this answer to be sufficient. And perhaps this is precisely the type of answer we need, rather than one that would seem sufficient to our limited human reason. It was an answer birthed out of Julian’s pain and founded upon Christ’s suffering on the Cross — the bleeding crucifix of Julian’s revelations itself embodying this paradox of anguish and love, at once soft and fierce, tender and all-consuming.

Far from simply being quaint maxims, Julian’s claims that “Love was his meaning” and “All shall be well” were born out of a furnace of deep suffering and sorrow, distilled through 20 years of prayerful contemplation and conveyed in a spirit of humble charity. These words contain a weightiness that demands our full attention. That we can dismiss them so easily belies the depth of their wisdom.

This weightiness accosts us in the midst of our own pain. Its simplicity offends our sense of order. “How will all be well?” we query. As we look around our world, this does not seem possible. And yet the audacity of these words, written by an unknown woman centuries ago, comes as an affront to our unbelief. The answer is so simple that we are tempted to pass it off without another thought, but the substance of Julian’s encouragement is not so easily dismissed. Julian entreats us to give our attention — sustained and contemplative — to the Savior of the world, even the Savior of our world, plagued with sickness, injustice, and division.

“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” In Julian’s estimation, we can hope. Although she is certain that she — and we — will have tribulation in this world, Jesus’ words to her, “You shall not be overcome” (LT, LXVIII:143), provide certainty despite the uncertainty that is so prevalent in this ever-changing world. Therefore, Julian exhorts us, “this is what [God] intends: he does not want us to be too cast down on account of the sorrows and upheavals that befall us; for it has always been so before the coming of a miracle” (LT, XXXVI:86).