All shall be well,
and all shall be well, and
all manner of thing shall be well.
Julian of Norwich
If you have yet to discover the joy of reading the radically hopeful theological writings of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, Sheila Upjohns Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery is a challenging, yet exciting, place to begin. A warning, however: As the story proceeds, the seas become more vociferous and threatening, especially for an approaching-the-millennium, postmodern Catholic.
Though little is documented about Julians life (her books were not widely published until 1902), she lived from 1343 to 1420, spending her later years as an anchoressa woman who stayed in a cell adjoining a church to live in solitude, to pray, and to counsel parishioners and townspeople (not unlike a modern-day spiritual director). There, Julian received those who would come to her for guidance.
Now, at the close of the millennium, Julian is experiencing an upsurge in popularity. While many argue that Julians resurgence is based on her feminist (a term that didnt exist in the 14th century) view of God, that of God as Mother, Julian is not the first mystic to speak of feminine images of God. And, as Upjohn discovers, Julians challenge to the world is not to look merely at God as a Mother figure, as opposed to a Father figure, but to believe that "all shall be well." This hopeful message, Upjohn discovers, takes on unanticipated meanings as to how to live with hope for the future.
With perfect clarity, Upjohn gives the reader a simple yet challenging thesis for Julians seemingly naive optimism during the plagues, wars, revolts, and schisms of the Job-like period of the Middle Ages: Julian believed in sin. Julian also believed in loving redemption. Unlike her previous books (In Search of Julian of Norwich and All Shall Be Well), Upjohn here offers a more traditionally conservative outlook on Julians writings by arguing that Julian is able to understand the redemptive nature of God because she believes in sin.
Modern society has lost the meaning of sin; therefore we cannot possibly discover the graces that come with reconciling oneself to God. We crave redemption (because we lack it), and therefore we desire Julians hopeful message. The hitch is that until we come to know sin and redemption again, we cannot truly understand what it means to believe, as Julian did, that "all shall be well." Are we willing to take the risk to achieve that end? Or do we stay fixed in our present state"all might be well, but probably not."
Matthew Fox, author of Original Blessing and the guru of creation-centered spirituality, first offered the diadem that we are not born with "original sin" but instead, through the unconditional love God offers each of us, we are gifted with an "original blessing," a clean slate so to speak. And it is this original blessing, Fox argued, that should be the basis for our relationship with God, not the chronic feeling of sin-centered guilt. Its a very attractive idea in an age of cultural narcissism, where one would hope to rid oneself of guilt of any kind. Yet it is just this story of paradise-lost that Sheila Upjohn finds is the floor upon which Julian of Norwich (in fact the entire medieval church) stands.
Upjohn is convinced that if we do not believe in the sin-redemption maxim that Julian understood, we have no way of escaping narcissism; we therefore strive for (unattainable) personal perfection, which can only bring on more of the uninvited guest, guilt. This thesis is exciting and challenging at first glance until we realize that it could turn the entire American post-Vatican II church on its head. Could Upjohn really be asking us to think about sin...again? Do we want to? Its a frightening concept, but one many still-practicing and still-frustrated Catholics might invite with open arms.
The book closes with the same principle with which it opened, with hope for the journey. "After looking through Julians eyes, our relationship with God, with the universe, and with ourselves is no longer what it was. Our eyes are focused to a different vision. And, slowly, we come to have faith that we are created and sustained by love, and that through Gods great deed, and in Gods good time."
Why Julian Now? is worth reading for the mere fact that Sheila Upjohn is the only writer on Julians works who has actually spent almost as much time in Julians shrine as Julian herself did. As a resident of the bustling port town of Norwich, England, and a committee member on the board of The Friends of Julian of Norwich, Upjohn has a more intimate knowledge of the 14th-century mystic than most medievalists could ever dream of. Her understanding of the history of Norwich and medieval faith practices is enough to keep readers titillated by new knowledge, and is humorous enough to make the book an entertaining and unique reading experience.
Through Upjohns search, the inevitable question is asked, How can Julian of Norwich present an idea so radically hopeful as "all shall be well" at a time in history where everything in it was everything but "well"? Sheila Upjohn has come up with an intriguing answerone that may tip over the entire bushel of apples that our modern faith and culture have chosen to eat.
I can only hope that it does not take until 2600 C.E. for the church to enjoy the hopeful message that Sheila Upjohn has unearthed. All shall be well.
MOLLY DELANEY is coordinator of womens spirituality programs at the Basilica of St. Marys in Minneapolis. She also performs a one-woman show on Julian.
Why Julain Now? A Voyage of Discovery. Sheila Upjohn. Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997.