“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
These words of Julian of Norwich, taken from her masterpiece of visionary theology, Revelations of Divine Love, seem almost tone deaf against our current backdrop of war and the ongoing pandemic. In a world like ours, with war criminals like Putin calling the shots, it’s so tempting to fall into either hardened cynicism or hopeless despair.
But Julian of Norwich was no naïve simpleton. Although an anchoress who had taken vows as a fully cognizant adult to wall herself into a cell built on to the back of Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England, she wasn’t living in some airy-fairy cloistered bubble. Her own age was riven by plague, war, and religious intolerance, which saw the burning of many perceived witches and heretics. Saint Julian’s Church (she took the name of the church, not the other way around) was located in a rough part of town near the river and the stinking tannery district where prostituted women and girls plied their trade.
Far from walling herself off from the world’s woes, Dame Julian had a window in her anchorage wall facing out into the street. Anyone might seek her counsel. She was famous throughout Britain for her sage advice. One of the many who poured her soul out to Julian was a desperate housewife and mother of fourteen children, who had finally plucked up the courage to walk away from an abusive marriage. This woman was none other than Margery Kempe, the heroine of my novel.
Margery had been experiencing sensual, visceral images of the divine for over twenty years. Now she had reached a crossroads in her life. She wanted to walk the mystic’s path and travel as a pilgrim to Jerusalem and Rome. But her choice to leave her family and travel the world as a solo woman was even more controversial and downright dangerous in her age than in ours.
It would have been so easy for a spiritual counselor to parrot the voice of conventional wisdom and tell Margery that her dream of pilgrimage was a self-indulgent folly and that her true calling was to serve her children as a conventional wife and mother.
Instead, Julian did something unheard of. She empowered Margery to trust herself, to trust the voice of spiritual wisdom within her own heart. She told Margery to set all her trust in the divine and not to worry too much what the world thought of her choice–if some people disliked Margery, perhaps that meant Margery was doing something right.
Julian didn’t promise Margery–or us, the readers of Revelations of Divine Love–an easy ride. In one of her searing visions, Julian received the message, “You shall not be overcome.” She wrote in her book, “Our Lord did not say, ‘You shall not be tormented, or troubled, or grieved’ but ‘You shall not be overcome.'”
Julian received her divine revelations around the age of thirty when she was deathly ill and thought she was going to die. Instead, she survived and dedicated the rest of her life to being a living witness to the exquisite divine love she had experienced.
We don’t have to be anchoresses or travel to Jerusalem to experience this deep love and wisdom. The deepest pilgrimage of all is the journey into the depths of our own hearts where divine love dwells eternally, in each one of us, regardless of our faith or spirituality. The sacred inside us can never taken from us.
The heart will always be there for us and it is only from the heart that we can bring peace and justice to our fractured world. By bringing our information-overloaded brains inline with the deep wisdom of the heart. By bringing our speech inline with the heart. By bringing all our deeds inline with the heart.
May we all be witnesses to the Divine Love within us.
“All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.