Windows on the World

“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.” So wrote Julian of Norwich some six centuries ago in her book, “Revelations of Divine Love.” That book, a spiritual and mystical primer, is the first known manuscript written by a woman in the English language, a feat rarely celebrated today.

And as to Julian, not only is her accomplishment eclipsed by brighter lights, even her name is a mystery. “Julian” is the name of the church where she lived as an anchoress, so where the building’s name ended and her’s began is impossible to say. And what is this “anchoress” idea?

It was not uncommon in Julian’s lifetime for a person to take modified religious vows. Said individual would not withdraw to the traditional monastery or convent, but would be a saint while remaining connected to society. Apart from the world, yes (the vows taken were similar to a funeral mass), but he or she was also a part of the world.

Take Julian as an example. Her living quarters, called an “anchorhold,” had two windows. Through one she looked into the world of her church, took mass, participated in the congregation, and received her meals (both physically and spiritually). Through the other she looked out on the world of Norwich, received daily visitors, took in the news of the land, and gave spiritual direction to others.

Maybe this, with her unflinching belief in the inexhaustible love of God, was the source of her hope, the impetus for her to say something as radical as “All shall be well,” because all things were not well in her day. There was war, of which her city was a violent center; the Black Death ravaged the English countryside, a pandemic unequaled in human history; and starvation was a continual threat – to her – and most everyone who was not supremely rich.

Yet, by linking the “sacred” with the “secular,” by connecting her spirituality to her society, and by looking at the worlds outside her windows, she found and practiced hope. See, a faith that is exclusively reclusive, that looks only to itself, is of no good in building a healthier world. It is only a type of self-absorbed navel-gazing.

Likewise, a faith without reflection, without the time to grow, question, and “work out one’s salvation,” will never have the substance or gravitas to make any beneficial impact whatsoever. Such a faith is frivolous and shallow; a trite, rootless, bombastic repetition of talking points from a pulpit or pundit, repeated hundreds of meaningless times.

Such polarities are of no help and no hope. What is needed is a faith of integration: It looks curiously through the windows. It is connected to both worlds. It joins the inner life of spirit with the outer life of service. This faith creates space where people and communities can connect freely with the love of God; and maybe, as Julian believed and practiced, this is the beginning of making all things well.