All Will Be Well: The Radical Optimism of Julian of Norwich

For Julian, the good news is not merely the reward we will receive one day when we slough off this mortal coil and go home to God. Every moment is an opportunity to remember that we are perfectly loved and perfectly lovable, just as we are.
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"All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well." (Julian of Norwich)

Sometimes I can hardly believe what I get to do for a living. As a translator of the mystics, I plunge into the wellspring of their wisdom and remain immersed, until they have told me all they have to say. In the Hindu tradition, this is known as darshan: sitting at the feet of a saint and receiving their transmission. It can be done whether the being is still in the body or has left it. It is not an exchange that is ruled by the common laws of time and space. This flow spills across the centuries and, in my case, across religious lines.

I am Jewish by birth, not-Jewish by upbringing, and Jewish-again by inclination. I have a lifelong Buddhist sitting practice and a Hindu guru. And I translate and write reflections on the teachings of the Christian mystics. My most recent encounter was with Julian of Norwich, the medieval English anchoress (1342-1416). My new translation of her masterwork, The Showings -- an extravagant account of a series of visions Julian had during a near death experience -- came out earlier this month (Hampton Roads 2013).

We do not know much about Julian's life. In fact, that was not even her real name, but rather a reference to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich to which she attached herself -- literally -- cloistering herself forever inside a small stone anchorage built against the outer wall of the sanctuary. What we do know was that by the time Julian entered her cell she had already witnessed three rounds of Plague, had probably lost almost everyone she loved, and had nearly died herself. We also know that when she was very young she asked to bear witness to the passion of Christ. Her wish came true. The visions she had on her near-deathbed were of Christ's crucifixion, which she endured in every cell of her own body.

This kind of corporeal identification with Christ is not unique to Julian. Other saints and mystics, known and unknown, have reported similar experiences. But what is unusual about Julian's story is that Christ's death was not dreadful to her. That is, he certainly suffered and she hated to see her beloved in such pain, but he also radiated warmth, sweetness, and a kind of ineffable joy. His countenance was "friendly and courteous." And try as she might, Julian could not detect one iota of condemnation in him toward any member of the human family. She tried to line up the content of her visions with the "teachings of Holy Church" but sometimes they just didn't mesh. Like the matter of our fallen nature.

Sin, says Julian, turns out to be "no thing." This has been a controversial passage in Julian's work. But she is quite clear: "Nowhere in all that was revealed to me did I see a trace of sin," she writes. "And so I stopped looking for it and moved on, placing myself in God's hand, allowing him to show me what he wanted me to see." In Julian's exceedingly practical view, "sin has no substance, not a particle of being, and can only be detected by the pain it causes." When we make mistakes and create suffering, we humble ourselves and God loves us all the more. For those of us non-Christian and post-modern types, try substituting the word sin for shame, or blame, or even karma. In other words, we screw up, but that only opens the tender heart of the cosmos where we can find refuge and come back into wholeness.

The other startling thing about Julian's homespun theology is her view of the feminine identity of God. Julian sees the Godhead in the Trinitarian context of Christianity, but with this radical twist: the Second Person (Christ) is actually the Mother (not the Son). "As truly as God is our Father," she says, "just as truly is God our Mother." Who else but a mother, she asks, would break herself open and pour herself out for her children? "Only God could ever perform such duty." Not only that, but Julian's God-as-Mother remains available at all times, especially present in our darkest hours -- some kind of spiritual hybrid that encompasses the unconditional love of Mother Mary in the Catholic tradition, the infinite compassion of Tara in the Buddhist tradition, and the indwelling holiness of the Shekhinah in the Jewish tradition.

It baffles Julian that we don't get this. When we miss the mark, we want to run away and hide. But "our courteous Mother doesn't want us to flee," Julian says. "Nothing would distress her more. She wants us to behave as a child would when he is upset or afraid: rush with all our might into the arms of the Mother." For Julian, the good news is not merely the reward we will receive one day when we slough off this mortal coil and go home to God. Every moment is an opportunity to remember that we are perfectly loved and perfectly lovable, just as we are.

"And so when the final judgment comes," Julian writes at the end of The Showings, "... we shall clearly see in God all the secrets that are hidden from us now. Then none of us will be moved in any way to say, 'Lord, if only things had been different, all would have been well.' Instead, we shall all proclaim in one voice, 'Beloved One, may you be blessed, because it is so: ALL IS WELL.'"

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