All Will Be Well…And Hell.

During the COVID quarantine, my friend and I read some of Julian of Norwich’s work. My friend had heard the saying, “All shall be well,” but was unaware of its origins. I was more than happy to introduce her to St. Julian, which felt especially fitting during lockdown.

Julian of Norwich’s most often quoted text is “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” You find it on plaques, in frames on walls, scribbled on notes, decorating notecards, and spoken in times of discomfort and difficulty. Unfortunately, most of the time it comes across as a pat on the arm as a “there, there, things aren’t so bad.”

Julian herself knew that things, indeed, were that bad. She lived in Norwich, England from the end of the 14th century to the start of the 15th century. In her lifetime, she watched her country face the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the Suppression of the Lollards. People around her died daily, many after suffering a horrific illness. 

Julian herself nearly died at age 30, inspiring her to write her visions of the divine. She spent her days as an anchoress, confining herself to a small cell that was attached to the church in Norwich. There she visited with people through the window of her cell that faced the courtyard. She had no interest in publishing her writings, preferring to write anonymously instead. Thankfully, her works were collected and published by others, making them the oldest existing texts written in English by a woman.

Yet, despite her strength, determination, faith, and clear sight of the suffering around her, we prefer to boil her down to a platitude, one that is regularly misapplied. Too often I hear Christian siblings yoke to Julian different takes on the same bad theology: “there is no need to worry or be anxious today because everything is fine! Or will be. God is in control so why cry today?” This, then, evolves into a judgment of those who show their anxiety and concern. “What is wrong with them? Their faith must be weak. Don’t they believe? How embarrassing for them…”

Julian didn’t speak out of naivete but wisdom born of faith. The world around her was suffering. She had suffered. Her most famous quote was intended not as a platitude but a prayer, not celebrating what is, but what will be. We will suffer, and mightily at times. Life is full of challenges and difficulties, which are heavy burdens to bear. Faith does not require denial of this suffering. Instead, it gives us strength when we find ourselves overwhelmed and drowning.

Our family has been cautious and diligent about COVID precautions these past three years; not hyper-vigilant but still careful. My son finally came down with the illness a couple of weeks ago and felt terrible. He is not one to hold back on expressing his discomfort and during his illness he openly lamented his condition. We heard how he felt tired and sick and how lousy it was to be stuck in his room for a week. (Funnily enough, he did not lament missing school for a week). 

Out of habit I said, “You’re ok.” To which he responded, “No, I’m not!” Fair enough.

A Few days later I heard a podcast during which the speaker emphasized the importance of acknowledging a child’s feelings and not dismissing them by saying, “You’re ok.” My immediate thought, “Well, damn. Add that to the list of things I seem to have handled poorly as a parent.”

I realized that my saying, “you’re ok,” sounded to him like, “nothing is wrong with you.” It was the equivalent of him feeling terrible while I looked on and patted his knee saying, “all shall be well.” In the middle of the mess of life, those words do not sound comforting but like a denial of the difficulties. We intend to provide words of reassurance but too often they come across as dismissive. When we are uncomfortable, in pain, and suffering, we don’t want to hear the words, “it’s ok.” It’s not.

As my friend and I read Julian during lockdown, Julian’s ability to weave spiritual insight into poetic and fantastic language felt like magic and faithfulness, not denial. In the years that have passed, we come back to this phrase again, sometimes daily. When one of us is struggling, the other will listen, provide support, then say, “all will be well.” Sometimes the other will respond, “it just might be hell first.”

Days after my son had recovered from COVID, he had a mishap on his go kart that left him bruised and scraped up a bit. Again he lamented his discomfort and again I said, “You’re ok.” To which he predictably replied, “I am not!” But this time, I was ready.

“I know right now it doesn’t feel like it. What happened was scary and unsettling and I’m so proud of you for how you handled it. You’re sore and will be for a few days. But you will be ok. This hasn’t broken you or killed you. It banged you up and knocked you around and scared you. But it didn’t break you. And you learned you are stronger than you thought and can get yourself out of a challenging situation. I’m proud of you.” I then let him stay home from school the next day.

“All will be well,” or “you’re ok,” or even “I’m ok,” can take on the faithfulness of the hymnody of Judeo-Christian scripture. Time and again we hear the ancestors of our faith use present tense for events that have not yet happened. My favorite example is the Magnificat, the song Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth while she is pregnant with Jesus. She sings about God’s commitment to his people and how the child she carries will accomplish great acts of justice and mercy. But she doesn’t use the future or even present tense. She, instead, holds such deep belief in the power of God that she speaks as if the deeds have been accomplished, in past tense:

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things 

(Luke 1:51-53)

But as we know from the Gospel stories, Mary’s faithfulness did not immunize her against the heartbreak of losing her son. She followed his ministry and then stood at the foot of the cross and grieved the death of Jesus. She did not lose her belief but she also did not pretend that her faith made her impervious to emotional, mental, and even spiritual pain.

As I move through this life, I try to understand and live by the same lessons I hope my children will learn. In the midst of the worst stress and when the emotional load seems too heavy, I ask myself, “Will this break you?” Then I repeat to myself, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well…it just might be hell first.”

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