The first workday of the New Year, the time when the new calendar and diary really come into force, and there was a ‘10’ registration van heading up the N7; someone with the confidence to buy a brand new vehicle in gloomy times. Julian of Norwich’s words came to mind as we sat in the traffic jam at Newlands Cross. “All shall be well,” she said. But what had she to cope with?
“Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”, wrote Julian in the closing years of the 14th Century. It was an extraordinary statement of confidence from a woman whose childhood memories would have been filled with darkness. Julian was born around 1342, in 1347 the Black Death, a devastating disease swept through Europe. Estimates of how many died vary; it is believed that the pandemic killed between a third and two-thirds of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351.
It is hard to imagine what terror the Black Death induced in the minds of those who survived. If millions of people, including family, friends and neighbours, could be swept away in such a short time, what might the future hold? In a time when literacy was rare, (and material to read even rarer), when rumours, stories and superstitions took a vice like grip on people’s lives, memories of the Black Death would have left everyone living in a state of constant uncertainty, the slightest infection would have brought fear and terror on a community.
To have questioned one’s faith, or to have questioned the Church, in such times, would have brought down the charge of heresy upon one’s head and the prospect of being burned at the stake, but there must have been questions in the hearts of many about why a loving and merciful God would visit such a plague upon his people. Julian would have surely grown up with questions even in her own family about the nature of the world in which they lived.
Julian’s response to the questions of the world is that faith must persist, even in the face of uncertainty. She would have agreed with what Saint Paul wrote in his second letter to the church at Corinth,
“as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. 2 Corinthians 6:4-10
Paul was confident that even in death we live on. It is with such faith that Julian was able to declare that “all shall be well”.
There are moments when a new Julian would be welcome; it would at least save wondering about the mood of the man in his new van.