Julian of Norwich was one of England's most significant mystics. Mother Julian was an anchorite in the Middle Ages and lived through the Black Plague. She wrote the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.
Her writings and beliefs are superbly optimistic! 600 years on, they speak to our times. If you like this philosophy, surround yourself with Optimists and subscribe or join the Centre for Optimism.
Who was Mother Julian? Pope Benedict Explains:
Pope Benedict XVI in his General Audience 1st December 2010
It is known that she lived from 1342 until about 1430, turbulent years both for the Church, torn by the schism that followed the Pope’s return to Rome from Avignon, and for the life of the people who were suffering the consequences of a long drawn-out war between the Kingdoms of England and of France. God, however, even in periods of tribulation, does not cease to inspire figures such as Julian of Norwich, to recall people to peace, love and joy.
As Julian herself recounts, in May 1373, most likely on the 13th of that month, she was suddenly stricken with a very serious illness that in three days seemed to be carrying her to the grave. After the priest, who hastened to her bedside, had shown her the Crucified One not only did Julian rapidly recover her health but she received the 16 revelations that she subsequently wrote down and commented on in her book, Revelations of Divine Love.
And it was the Lord himself, 15 years after these extraordinary events, who revealed to her the meaning of those visions.
“‘Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love.... Why did he show it to you? For Love’.... Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 86).
Inspired by divine love, Julian made a radical decision. Like an ancient anchoress, she decided to live in a cell located near the church called after St Julian, in the city of Norwich — in her time an important urban centre not far from London.
She may have taken the name of Julian precisely from that Saint to whom was dedicated the church in whose vicinity she lived for so many years, until her death.
This decision to live as a “recluse”, the term in her day, might surprise or even perplex us. But she was not the only one to make such a choice. In those centuries a considerable number of women opted for this form of life, adopting rules specially drawn up, for them, such as the rule compiled by St Aelred of Rievaulx.
The anchoresses or “recluses”, in their cells, devoted themselves to prayer, meditation and study. In this way they developed a highly refined human and religious sensitivity which earned them the veneration of the people. Men and women of every age and condition in need of advice and comfort, would devoutly seek them. It was not, therefore, an individualistic choice; precisely with this closeness to the Lord, Julian developed the ability to be a counsellor to a great many people and to help those who were going through difficulties in this life.
We also know that Julian too received frequent visitors, as is attested by the autobiography of another fervent Christian of her time, Margery Kempe, who went to Norwich in 1413 to receive advice on her spiritual life. This is why, in her lifetime, Julian was called “Dame Julian”, as is engraved on the funeral monument that contains her remains. She had become a mother to many.
Men and women who withdraw to live in God’s company acquire by making this decision a great sense of compassion for the suffering and weakness of others. As friends of God, they have at their disposal a wisdom that the world — from which they have distanced themselves — does not possess and they amiably share it with those who knock at their door.
I therefore recall with admiration and gratitude the women and men's cloistered monasteries. Today more than ever they are oases of peace and hope, a precious treasure for the whole Church, especially since they recall the primacy of God and the importance, for the journey of faith, of constant and intense prayer.
It was precisely in the solitude infused with God that Julian of Norwich wrote her Revelations of Divine Love. Two versions have come down to us, one that is shorter, probably the older, and one that is longer. This book contains a message of optimism based on the certainty of being loved by God and of being protected by his Providence.
In this book we read the following wonderful words: “And I saw full surely that ere God made us he loved us; which love was never lacking nor ever shall be. And in this love he has made all his works; and in this love he has made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting... in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end” (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 86).
The theme of divine love recurs frequently in the visions of Julian of Norwich who, with a certain daring, did not hesitate to compare them also to motherly love. This is one of the most characteristic messages of her mystical theology.
The tenderness, concern and gentleness of God’s kindness to us are so great that they remind us, pilgrims on earth, of a mother’s love for her children. In fact the biblical prophets also sometimes used this language that calls to mind the tenderness, intensity and totality of God’s love, which is manifested in creation and in the whole history of salvation that is crowned by the Incarnation of the Son.
God, however, always excels all human love, as the Prophet Isaiah says: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).
Julian of Norwich understood the central message for spiritual life: God is love and it is only if one opens oneself to this love, totally and with total trust, and lets it become one's sole guide in life, that all things are transfigured, true peace and true joy found and one is able to radiate it.
I would like to emphasize another point. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the words of Julian of Norwich when it explains the viewpoint of the Catholic faith on an argument that never ceases to be a provocation to all believers (cf. nn. 304-313, 314).
If God is supremely good and wise, why do evil and the suffering of innocents exist? And the Saints themselves asked this very question. Illumined by faith, they give an answer that opens our hearts to trust and hope: in the mysterious designs of Providence, God can draw a greater good even from evil, as Julian of Norwich wrote: “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly hold me in the Faith ... and that ... I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in ... that ‘all manner of thing shall be well”’ (The Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 32).
Yes, dear brothers and sisters, God’s promises are ever greater than our expectations. If we present to God, to his immense love, the purest and deepest desires of our heart, we shall never be disappointed.
“And all will be well”, “all manner of things shall be well”: this is the final message that Julian of Norwich transmits to us and that I am also proposing to you today.
More Insights into Mother Julian
She is a great optimist and firm believer in the ultimate goodness of God. She does not see wrath in God, but she suggests that wrath is part of the fear in our own hearts which we project onto God. Almost a universalist and certainly an optimist, she teaches in her famous phrase borrowed by T.S. Eliot, that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
For those versed in Catholic spirituality, Julian’s quietly joyful trust in God’s goodness points forward to the merciful visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Faustina Kowalska. Her utter reliance on the goodness of God (whom she envisions as having the tenderness of a mother) points forward to a similarly sweet and homely warrior of the Spirit, Thérèse of Lisieux. In our own age, threatened by plague, economic uncertainty, barbarism, religious wars and corruption, Julian’s quiet optimism and faith are a sweet tonic which brings re-assurance, hope, and a quiet confidence.
Sister Anna Maria Renolds in "Julian of Norwich: Woman of Hope"
"Most students of the Revelations are struck by Julian's optimism. This is not surprising since optimism is a quality that pervades her writings. What is surprisingly, however, is the fact we take this aspect of Julian's book for granted. We think of England in the 14th century as a country full of colour, song, dance and merry-making. We tend to ignore the dark side of Medieval life: The prevalence of disease, the savage and vindictive punishments which could mean having a hand or a foot struck for theft or allow offender to be blinded or mutilated, the cheapness of human life. The close of the Middle Ages was, in fact throughout Europe period of violence, cruelty and pessimism."
Final year Students of the United Theological College 2007
Julian's theology was optimistic, speaking of God's love in terms of joy and compassion as opposed to law and duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as was the common understanding. Julian's ground-breaking theology was that God loved and saved us all. Popular theology magnified by current events including the Black Plague and a series of Peasant Revolts assumed that God was punishing the wicked. In response, Julian suggested a far more optimistic theology, universal salvation. Because she believed that beyond the reality of hell-fire is yet a greater mystery of God's love, she has also been referred to in modern times as a proto-universalist. Even though her views were not typical, local authorities did not challenge either her theology or her authority to make such faith claims because of her status as an anchoress. As part of her differing view of God as compassionate and loving, she wrote of the trinity in domestic terms and compares Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and merciful.
Ever since I was introduced to her writing I have been intrigued by Mother Julian’s life style as an anchorite and also by the wisdom within her texts. Her most famously quoted saying is of course, ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.’ That seems to me to be our modern interpretation on a more difficult theme. One translation gives a more subtle and consequently more difficult offering, she feels that god has told her, ‘I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all things shall be well.’ However we have to stretch for the deeper understanding I feel that there is an optimism in the whole passage that gives comfort through some darker times.
Mirabai Starr quoted by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM in "A Radically Optimistic Theology"
"The medieval English anchoress Julian of Norwich bequeathed us a radically optimistic theology. She had no problem admitting that human beings have a tendency to go astray. We rupture relationships, dishonor the Divine, make unfortunate choices, and try to hide our faults. And yet, Julian insists, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.”
Dr Janina Ramirez
Julian lived through a time when the church was divided, communities were imploding and death was indiscriminate. Yet in the midst of this chaos she wrote a calm, optimistic and loving book. In it she stresses that God sees no sin, he is both mother and father, and that love is the root of everything.
Julian’s writing, and contemporary accounts of discussions that she had with various people, all point to her unfailing optimism in times of adversity and isolation—something that feels pertinent for many of us at the moment. Her legacy is about faithfulness in the face of turmoil and truly believing, as she wrote, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Rev Joan Wright Howie
"How can we live well when so many suffer? Fourteenth Century mystic Julian of Norwich offers a radical optimism amidst the ravages of the plague. She ‘All will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.’ Living in the life of God, fosters a sense of wellness in all things. This sense of wellness in knowing God, provides a foundation for actions that transform the world."
"Perhaps the most famous English recluse was the anchoress Julian of Norwich, who was enclosed in a cell in the heart of Norwich. In 1373, before she was enclosed, she had a near-death experience which culminated in a series of 15 visions of God. She recovered and lived for around another 40 years. Soon after her experience she composed her Revelations of Divine Love. The work is important not simply because it is the first in English that we can be certain was authored by a woman, but also because she was a writer of exceptional quality. Her prose is characterised by its elegant rhetorical structure. In spite of this it never feels scholarly or obtuse; instead it is a work of clarity and empathy. Given the privation of her life, the work is strikingly, almost radically, hopeful. She never explicitly refers to her enclosure. At one point she writes that ‘this place is pryson, and this lyfe is pennannce’, but she was likely referring to her life on Earth, rather than the confines of her cell.
Her work is instead suffused with optimism, exemplified by her most famous line: ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Julian’s work is a message of hope in darkness, which speaks to us across the centuries.
Bill Gervais, spiritual director and retreat facilitator, in "Remaining optimistic in a pandemic"
What I found amazing about this woman is her radical optimism. Despite having lived through many rounds of the bubonic plague, experiencing unspeakable suffering and witnessing the death of so many of her family and friends, she could coin her famous phrase, “All shall be well.” Clearly her optimistic attitude flowed from her contemplation of her visions, which revealed God as love. As she wrote: “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.”
New World Encyclopedia
"Julian's theology was particular optimistic, especially considering the times in which she lived."
Professor Martin Seligman
"I believe the world's in labour now and that we're giving birth to something new. And there are two views of what we're giving birth to.
"And one was Yeat's of a hundred years ago in which he asked, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" The pessimistic view.
"But very importantly, what I think it comes to the fore now is optimism and its importance. And there's no one better than, Julian of Norwich in 1365 in the middle of a black plague. Here's what she said. "He said, Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be distressed; but He said: Thou shalt not be overcome." And "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
"The black plague led directly to the Renaissance."
The Rev. Clint Walker, First Baptist Church, North Platte
"Joy is a grateful optimism that, as Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” It is the ability to see, stay in alignment with, and celebrate what God is doing in the world and how his kingdom is moving forward, even in less than ideal circumstances."
Bruce Everett, former CEO APAC World Commerce & Contracting
Our friend Victor Perton from the The Centre for Optimism quotes Julian of Norwich's saying "All will be well" for these challenging covid lockdown times. Now who is Julian and what does she know?! Well, Julian was an anchorite i.e. one who lives in isolation or seclusion, especially for religious reasons, but in her case she also lived through the Black Death bubonic plague with half of Norwich, including her husband and child, dying. So she knew about a global pandemic and #social isolation. In self-isolation she wrote 'The Revelations of Divine Love', the first surviving book written by a woman in English! She encouraged readers to see vulnerability as a strength writing that "Christ did not say, you shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed, but he said, you shall not be overcome." May we take the optimism in the saying that "all will be well" with the assurance that we will not be overcome!"https://thecentreforoptimism.wildapricot.org/Radical-Optimism
Poetry and Music Inspired by Mother Julian
TS Eliot poem's 'Little Gidding' Part V incorporates Mother Julian's sentence 'all will be well and all manner of things will be well'
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Sydney Bertram Carter best known for the song "Lord of the Dance" wrote "Julian of Norwich" also known as "The Bells of Norwich"
Loud are the bells of Norwich and the people come and go, Here by the tower of Julian, I tell them what I know. Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go
All shall be well again, I know. Ring for the yellow daffodil, the flower in the snow. Ring for the yellow daffodil, and tell them what I know. Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go All shall be well again, I know.
This version of "All Shall Be Well" was commissioned for the ORA Singers by the Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt.
The first performance was given on 11th July 2021 under the direction of Suzi Digby at the Gresham Centre, as part of the Live from London Summer concert series.
The piece has a rich harmonic texture that builds from and revolves around a three-part mediaeval Stella Maris Nuncuparis which dates from Julian of Norwich’s time c.1350.
A guided meditation on "All Shall be Well" guided by Victor Perton
Albion Christmas Band's cover of the Sydney Carter song "All Shall be Well"
Guitar Version of Julian of Norwich
Pope Benedict Catechism
Britt Robinson Documentary
Carl McColman talks about Julian of Norwich