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.
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.
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!