The Moral Universe – Will All Be Well?

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Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

I work for a summer music festival, and my time and energy are severely limited during the five weeks when I’m working on high alert, as it were. So today I’m just going to philosophize – perhaps theologize is a better word – if you’ll bear with me.

One of my greatest sources of spiritual encouragement and comfort over the years has been the English mystic Julian of Norwich. A 12th century religious, she lived in a small cell attached to Norwich Cathedral with only a cat for company. However, a window to the outside world was put into the wall of her cell so that members of the public could come to her for spiritual counseling.
A most humble woman, Julian was known far and wide for her wisdom and for the revelations that she received in a series of visions. She eventually compiled her visions into a book titled “Showings.” While many Christians read her works over and over (as do I), she is known still even to non-religious people for one provocative sentence: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Huh? We look around the world and see the daily disasters: commercial airplanes shot out of the sky, children shot in senseless gun violence, natural calamities, the remains of racial violence and discrimination, countries seemingly at endless war with their neighbors. Things weren’t much better in the 1100s. How can anyone in their right mind have believed then, or believe now, that all manner of thing shall be well?

People who haven’t read all of Julian’s revelations will not fully grasp the meaning of her statement; even those who do will still have trouble in coming to terms with it. Julian herself had trouble believing it, and it took her years of meditation and contemplation to understand what she had been shown. Here, in simplified language, are Julian’s words that lead to her assurance:

“For our reason is now so blinded, weak, and ignorant that we cannot see the Trinity’s strength and goodness. So God tells us: You will yourself behold that all will be well. It is as though he were telling us: Take it now in faith and trust, and in the end you will see truly, in all fullness and joy. The Trinity will accomplish an action on the last day; what it will be and how it will be accomplished no creature lower than Christ knows, and so shall it remain veiled until the act is accomplished. “

Julian refers repeatedly to this secret, mysterious action that will right all wrongs, will sanctify all suffering, will wipe away all tears, will justify all who have been unjustly treated, and redeem all who might seem now to be unredeemable.

But when is “in the end”? When is “the last day”? The Gospel writers, or at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke, believed that when Jesus talked about the end days, He meant that the world was going to end in their lifetimes. It certainly seemed to them at the time that the earth was going to hell in a hand basket, as the phrase goes, especially when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the second half of the first century of the Christian era.

Personally, I believe the last day refers to our mortal deaths and that this great secret is revealed the second someone dies. I don’t believe that this diminishes human responsibility to strive to bring about the kingdom now, the kingdom of peace and beauty and connection of all living creatures; but I do believe that what is to come will make all things well, and that is what gives me hope and strength to witness to whatever is bad in this world and work to erase it.

Rollo Dilworth

Rollo Dilworth

There are glimpses of this kingdom everywhere if your eyes are fully open. This music festival I work for brings together 200 or so strangers a week for several weeks to sing the great choral classics under outstanding conductors. In the first week, we had a conductor new to us, Rollo Dilworth of Temple University’s music school. If ever a person embodied the concept that “all will be well,” it is Rollo. He immediately brought a diverse group of people into an ensemble of openness, generosity of spirit, and mutual regard who, after a week of rehearsing together, gave a performance of the great Brahms’ Requiem that was wholly transcendent. Jews, Christians, atheists, young, old, white, black, Asian, were all one working together to bring beauty to a troubled world through music.

I have to say that the choristers, whom I have gotten to know better each passing year, tend to be people who are open and generous anyway. But something magical happened that week, and the choristers themselves attributed it to Rollo’s presence. Joy and good will swept through the after-concert party like the Spirit swept through the upper room. It was a better high than I’ve ever achieved with substances.

The following week, conductor Tom Hall of the Baltimore Choral Society took on the daunting task not only of conducting the Bach St. John Passion, but also of insisting that the choristers, a new group, understand exactly what they’re singing in the often anti-Semitic gospel of John. Tom has written on this subject extensively and insists that a theological and historical discussion be part of the week so that the final result, the public concert, will be transformed into a declaration of unity rather than separation. Again, the choristers come from all religions, races, and political spectrums, but they are now one. That, to me, is a glimpse of the kingdom.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall

As it was in Lexington, Massachusetts, in June when the amazing bluegrass band Monroe Crossing joined with Christians and Jews to perform The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass. And so it will be in other concert halls and gatherings where people come together with a common aim and mission.

One might think I live in a fool’s paradise to believe that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” If I am, then I’m living in it with Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and, of course, Julian of Norwich, for they’ve all proclaimed the same philosophy in their different ways. As I pray each day to be a small cog in the work of building the kingdom, I think I’m in pretty good company!

 

 

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The Moral Universe – The Moses of Her People

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I’m often a few days late in remembering to change my calendar. Who needs a calendar these days? The computer, the cell phone – everywhere you look reminds you what day it is. Calendars are really for the pictures these days.

harriet tubmanThe one on my refrigerator at home features famous African-Americans. On July 5, when I took all the magnets off and lifted the page, my heart swelled when I saw the picture of Harriet Tubman. After spending a rainy Fourth of July reading, napping, and buying homemade ice cream at the Farmer’s Market, here was my real Independence Day celebration! Who better to symbolize independence than this small woman, often called “The General” by her friends, and “the Moses of her People,” who found her way to freedom and then returned to the South to help at least 300 other slaves find theirs?

 

I’ve read about Harriet Tubman in many books new and old, but seeing her picture sent me back to the bookshelf to remind myself of her particulars. Charles L. Blockson’s 1987 book Underground Railroad gathers first-hand accounts of escaped slaves from interviews, biographies, memoirs, and newspaper accounts of the day. Blockson himself is the great-grandson of an escaped slave.

Born Araminta Ross in 1820 or 1821 in Maryland, Harriet was renamed after her mother. Unusually, her family were not separated and lived together on the Brodas plantation in Bucktown. Physically strong despite her size, Harriet said in interviews that she was often hired out to plow and drive oxen, which must certainly have helped both her muscular strength and her determined character.

Harriet was known to have been deeply religious and to have had visions. (I have not yet found out whether these began before or after she was hit in the head by a heavy weight that missed the slave it was thrown at. James McBride uses a similar incident in his beautiful book about Maryland slaves, Song Yet Sung.) She trusted implicitly in God’s guidance, saying she was even given step-by-step divine instructions in perilous situations. She never claimed credit for herself for her heroic deeds; all the credit belonged to God.

When she made her break for freedom in 1849, Harriet had been married for five years to a free black named John Tubman. With the help of the Underground Railroad, she made it to Philadelphia where she met William Still. A black agent on the Railroad, Still wrote the first book about the U.G.R.R., as he called it.

In Philadelphia, Harriet worked as a domestic to make money to go back to Maryland and collect her parents. She eventually did so, bringing them all the way through to Canada. She tried to get her husband to come North, but he had become involved with another woman and she cut him loose.
Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker abolitionist and conductor on the Railroad, wrote to Sarah Bradford, Harriet’s first biographer, that no one Harriet escorted north was ever arrested or returned to slavery to his knowledge. He also mentions that she had an uncanny knack of coming to him for money for supplies at the exact time he had received money to be given to her, with no communication between them. The Anti-Slavery Society of Edinburgh was one of her supporters.

Harriet’s world was greatly enlarged by her activity, and Frederick Douglass and John Brown were among her colleagues and friends. In later years, she became involved with Susan B. Anthony and other of the early suffragettes.

Both Mr. Blockson’s book, and Scott Christiansen’s book, Freeing Charlie, relate an incident in the escape of a slave named Charles Nalle. He had been taken to Troy, New York, one of the hubs of the Railroad, when he was spotted by fugitive slave hunters. No one seems to know how it was that Harriet happened to be in Troy that day or even know about Nalle, but she suddenly appeared and manacled herself to him, literally pulling him out of the hands of the police.

Harriet Tubman made about 19 trips back to Maryland, trips that could have ended in her death. But her belief in her God and her mission delivered her to the ripe old age of 93. When my interest in anti-slavery efforts became renewed and I was contemplating writing this blog, I tried talking about her at my workplace at lunchtime. The only comment I received was something to the effect that she was “one ugly woman.”

What I saw when I turned the calendar page the other day was a beauty that comes from great faith, from fearlessness and from a righteousness that is transcendent. Harriet Tubman is, to me, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.