"All Shall Be Well"
2012 Julian Festival Address
The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich
© The Bishop's Office, Norwich UK Used with permission
Years ago, long before we arrived in Norwich I would sometimes quote the Lady Julian, using her best known saying. “All shall be well”. Since then it has been quoted back to me on so many occasions, a good many of them inappropriate, that I think it’s become one of my least favourite sayings connected with Julian. It is the rather airy and superficial dismissal of suffering that can go alongside the trite repetition of Julian’s words. It can feel like a betrayal of the intensity and depth of her own shewings of divine love to use it to mean ‘things will turn out all right in the end’.
For what is ‘all right’ in the world in which we live? Things that are all right tend to be viewed as those in which there is no suffering or pain, only pleasure and freedom. Being well in our modern world is related to the healthy body, the avoidance of debt, whether financial or indebtedness to other people, being free from dependency. You cannot be well, we imagine, when you are facing imminent death even if your pain is being controlled.
I don’t think Julian would have understood very easily our present conception of what ‘all things being well’ means. But every now and again an arrow of Julian-like light shines into this sometimes facile contemporary understanding of the human condition. One of these arrows is the late Philip Gould’s book The Death Zone, written once he knew that his cancer would bring an end to his life.
Philip Gould was one of the architects of New Labour, a brilliant PR strategist and creator of the project to make Labour electable again. Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown too in different ways, owed a huge amount to him. He lived at a pace and with such energy that he was difficult to keep up with. When he died last November he was just sixty-one. His funeral mass took place at All Saints, Margaret Street. He embraced the Christian faith in the fullness of the Anglican Catholic Tradition in his final years. The massed ranks of New Labour found themselves in Butterfield’s Victorian masterpiece near Oxford Circus, lightly toasted in incense and dazzled by the choreography. I suspect Philip Gould, by now Lord Gould, liked the spectacle of the Roman Catholic Tony Blair and the Presbyterian Gordon Brown kneeling as an Anglican altar to receive communion at his funeral.
In his book The Death Zone there is very little about Philip Gould’s faith. It is not a sales job about God but a reflection on how this active workaholic who travelled the world mixing with those in power and manipulating the media, came to experience an intensity of living once he knew he was dying. Entry into the death zone, into not being well in contemporary terms, gave every ordinary experience a dazzling reality that he had never previously perceived. It was true of his relationships with his family, already good, but now more precious than ever. The beauty of a flower, the rays of the sun, the greenness of the grass, the interior beauty of friends – it didn’t matter what it was but it was the death zone and the suffering which came with it which enhanced life. There was no chance of living superficially any more. Philip Gould’s book, though very different from Philip Toynbee’s End of a Journey written thirty years earlier, reminded me of it. Just three weeks before he died of cancer Philip Toynbee spoke of his worry that he would die on the operating table and not experience the process of dying. He didn’t want to be deprived of truly knowing what it was like to die. “I want to learn all I can from it”, he said.
My guess is that the Lady Julian might have understood the intensity of these experiences. Her own shewings of divine love neither explain suffering nor say it doesn’t matter. Somehow we come to the God in whom all things will be well through suffering, love and death. This trinity appears to be linked in ways we cannot always understand.
I should learn to be more tolerant when people say “All shall be well” in future. It is true, profoundly true. But the intensity of its meaning may only be known when we admit that the way wellness is often understood today does not take us very far.
I finish with one of Ann Lewin’s poems, inspired by Julian and which reflects the theme of this brief address.
“All shall be well..”
She must have said that
sometimes through gritted teeth.
Surely she knew the moments
when fear gnaws at trust,
the future loses shape,
The courage that says
all shall be well
doesn’t mean feeling no fear,
but facing it, trusting
God will not let go.
All shall be well
doesn’t deny present experience
but roots it deep
in the faithfulness of God,
whose will and gift is life”.