By Jim Tune
For most of us, our joy and contentment in life is highly dependent on our circumstances. This has been true of me more often than I would like to admit. I have let my fearful and petulant demands keep me from enjoying the only world God has ever made, and the one life I have to live.
Born in 14th-century England, Julian lived during the terrifying days of the Black Plague. Little is known of this woman’s life. Biographers believe she was one of many women who lost their husbands and children to one of the plagues. In addition to the dark cloud of death, this was a period of poverty, crushing taxes, famine, war with France, religious hatreds, and persecution.
In May 1373, at the age of 30, Julian’s last rites were administered on the fourth day of her illness. She suffered seven days before her mother mercifully closed her daughter’s eyelids. Nearing the point of death, Julian had a series of visions of Christ and a surge of life within her plague-racked body. It is said she wrote down 16 distinct visions immediately after they occurred. Her work, although edited and revised in the 16th century, is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in English by a woman.
There is little about her world we would consider tolerable. She had no evidence to believe her circumstances would change any time soon. Yet to a death-soaked world, Julian spoke words of life and hope. Her theology was optimistic. Her words were compassionate and joyful.
What a challenge I find in Julian, who did not insist that all would be well only if a particular set of conditions were met. Too often I am like Calvin of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, who insisted, “Happiness isn’t good enough for me! I demand euphoria!”
Thomas Merton speaks to this well: “The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.”
Julian of Norwich was not waiting for a better day in which to rejoice. There was no, I will not be happy unless. . . . Famine, plague, and high taxes notwithstanding, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”