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Christianity for the Rest of Us

May 8 is the celebration of Dame Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416?) author of the first English-language book written by a woman.  She was a shadowy figure, her real name and the facts of her life largely unknown.  For some reason, she took up the life of an anchoress–a solitary nun–walled into a cell in the parish church of Norwich, from which she took her name.  On May 8, 1373, Julian was struck by a devastating illness from which she nearly died.  During the sickness, she received fifteen visions of God’s love.  For the next twenty years, she reflected on these visions, recording her insights in a book called Showings, or The Revelations of Divine Love.  

Julian’s visions are remarkably contemporary–from a broadly inclusive understanding of God’s love for all to humanity to a profound theology of God as feminine.  “The deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother,” Julian wrote, “in whom we are enclosed.”  She continued:

The mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest.  It is nearest because it is more natural; readiest because it is most loving; and surest because it is truest. . . Our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless life.  So he carries us within him in love and travail.

Of all the insights in her book, however, none is better remembered than a single remark.  In the midst of doubt, she commented, “All shall be well.  All shall be well.  All manner of thing shall be well.”

The words came down to us through T.S. Elliot’s great poem, “Little Gidding,” in which he describes contemporary quest for love as restless exploration until we come to “a condition of complete simplicity” where “all shall be well.”  Thus, the Lady Julian’s medieval assurance ends one of the most profound poems of modern doubt and faith.  And his words, borrowed from an obscure and unnamed woman, offered a vision of hope to a hopeless age.  Lady Julian, we are grateful to you.  
This post is adapted from my book, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, recently released in paperback from HarperOne.

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