Sermon #45 (3rd January 2021 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
‘All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.’ Sarah expressed some unease about Julian of Norwich’s well-known saying earlier in the service, and it’s a saying which brings up rather mixed feelings for me too. There have been too many times when things have been hard and that phrase has been quoted at me – ‘All Will Be Well’ – and I’ve thought ‘Nah, mate. Too soon.’ Because for me, I think, it’s all in the timing.
Almost by definition, people trot out this phrase when all is clearly not well. When times are unusually hard. About eight months ago, as the first wave of Covid hit, quite a few congregations were doing services on this very topic and looking to Julian of Norwich for comfort and inspiration. So why’s it taken us so long to get round to it? One reason, perhaps, is that there’s something to be said for looking reality straight in the eye – feeling, acknowledging, naming the not-OK-ness – and saying a heartfelt ‘All Is Not Well’ before we rush to Julian’s famous words of consolation. And this is in keeping with an honourable religious tradition – the practice of lamentation – of honestly voicing our woes, and railing against the sufferings and injustices of our world.
If we are in too much of a hurry to tell ourselves that ‘All Will Be Well’, before we’ve fully faced up to horrible realities, it might make us less likely to usefully engage with that which is not well. Perhaps we might actually need to take some action in relation to the source of our suffering – to protect ourselves or others, to get help or support, to somehow get out of harm’s way – or perhaps it’s a situation where recognising that something is not well, really engaging with it, rather than burying our heads in the sand or waiting for someone else to come and fix it, might spur us to band with others to bring about social or political change and make things a bit better. For me, this stage comes first: facing up to what is not well and giving voice to our grief about it. To deny or minimise suffering does a kind of injustice to those who are going through it, I reckon.
And it seems that Julian herself might not have disagreed with me on this! Just a few months ago Matthew Fox published this neat little book [hold it up] titled ‘Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond’ – referencing the fact, as Sarah mentioned earlier, that Julian lived through the time of plague which wiped out about 25 million people in Europe… so we might have quite a lot to learn from her right now. And, turns out, her starting point is not ‘All Will Be Well’ (although she does get there in the end). In this overview of Julian’s writing, the first chapter is titled ‘Facing the Darkness’, and Fox writes:
‘The first thing we must learn… is the bluntness and directness with which [Julian] faces suffering. She is teaching us not to sentimentalise, cover over, or (like many politicians) go into denial about the suffering we are undergoing as we face both the coronavirus and climate change. We should not run from the sorrow, fear, and grief, but we should stay connected to our feelings. Only the truth will make us free, and we must confront that truth directly. James Baldwin put it this way; “Not everything faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
So Julian encourages us not to run from the bad news or cut ourselves off from our distress. These can be the engines powering our creative response to the situation we find ourselves in. And it’s only in the last chapter of the book that Fox comes to Julian’s famous saying. He writes:
‘Julian’s most remembered refrain is that “all will be well, all manner of things will be well.” [But] Julian dismisses all wishful thinking and instead demands that we face the dark directly for what it is. At the same time, because she does not live exclusively in the world of human affairs, she is open to what lies deeper in us and what might come after the darkness of a pandemic… Who knows the possibilities that await a renewed humanity, one that has gone through the fire of the dark night together? Julian counsels us to face our lack of energy… and with it our despair, and feelings of helplessness. She encourages us to roll up our sleeves and get to work – to both our inner work and our outer work, our spiritual work and our political work, our mystical and our prophetic work… we can see in Julian’s vision of the future not a naïve optimism or wishful thinking, or a spiritual bypass, but a deep call to action…. Our wellness as a species and the wellness of the earth itself… is relative to our waking up and doing the work.’
Now that’s an understanding of ‘All Will Be Well’ that I reckon I can get behind. It’s partly about doing the inner work – facing our despair and helplessness honestly – also choosing to notice what is still good in our lives and in life itself – the bits of well-ness that remain and which we can connect with, pay attention to, and be grateful for, even in the midst of such tough times. At the very least we can say ‘well, we’re still here’. And while there’s life, there’s hope. It’s also about doing the outer work though. Putting our shoulders to the wheel in whatever way we can to help make things better for others and to serve the common good. Right now that might include wearing masks and staying home; checking in with people who are isolated; employing a bit of critical thinking and challenging misinformation or denial you encounter; engaging in neighbourhood mutual aid schemes or supportive communities – like this one. This sort of outer work is love-in-action; and it’s not just virtuous in terms of benefitting society; in times when we feel helpless, doing something constructive is a form of meaning-making, a way to keep our own spirits up, and hold on to a deeper sense of purpose in our lives.
So perhaps we might see Julian’s words in a different light – not an overly optimistic prediction that everything will be alright in the happy-ever-after – but as a call to action. Let us commit to this inner and outer work and perhaps Julian’s words will come true: All will, indeed, be well. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
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