In the face of suffering, Julian of Norwich found comfort in the vision she received from God: “All will be well…”
After losing someone close to her, my mother-in-law shared a comment has stuck with me. “Isn’t it strange? Now she’s just another coronavirus statistic.”
Our country has surpassed 400,000 deaths to the pandemic. In just under a year, more Americans have died of Covid 19 than in World War II. Since the beginning of December, nine Americans are dying every five minutes. The coronavirus pandemic is currently the third-deadliest event in U.S. history, ranking after the Civil War and the Spanish Flu.
The constant toll of Covid death has become a ritual that rises and sets with us. I wake up to a daily news briefing in my email inbox tracking the Coronavirus death toll. I wind down at the night with the news of the day—tracking the Coronavirus death toll. We can set our clocks to the steady, daily rhythm of gratuitous human loss and national despair.
In a couple of my church’s virtual classes and even an upcoming virtual retreat, I am guiding my Zoom attendees through the role of trauma in the life and faith of some major figures in the Bible as well as in church history.
In 14th century England, Julian of Norwich was no stranger to widespread death and societal trauma. Throughout Julian’s lifetime, England was ravaged by famine, religious persecution, violent political turmoil and revolt, and several iterations of the infamous Black Plague. At the young age of thirty, Julian of Norwich found herself deathly ill. Like so many of her sick and impoverished peers of the lower classes, she waited–helpless and in pain–for her life to end. It was at this point of personal trauma, she received visions she believed were from God.
Fortunately, Julian would survive and go on to be the first woman to write a book in English based on her visions called, Revelations of Divine Love. As it turns out, Julian’s ecstatic, mystical revelations had everything to do with suffering, namely the suffering of Christ in the Passion event. Fascinatingly, Julian’s visions of Christ’s—often very graphic—suffering on the Cross revealed not grief, not fear, but joy.In beholding Christ’s wounds, Julian finds spiritual refuge.
She writes, “The beauty and vividness of [Christ’s] blood are like nothing but itself. It is as plentiful as the drops of water which fall from the eaves after a heavy shower of rain, drops which fall so thickly that no human mind can number them… And this is what gave me the most happiness and the strongest sense of spiritual safety.”
I was initially shocked by Julian’s association of such bloody imagery with feelings of joy. Today, on the heels of the violent Capitol riots, we are a wounded nation, torn asunder by deep partisan divisions and the ugly, entrenched myth of white supremacy. We are weary from a heated summer of police violence against Black lives and peaceful protestors. In Julian’s day, “in addition to the plague, many of the same people had heard about or watched men and women fighting for reform of the brutal feudal system slain like lambs to a slaughter.”  How can Julian behold the wounds inflicted upon Jesus’ body, culminating in his state-sanctioned execution, as a sign of spiritual safety?
Julian believes that in the eyes of Jesus, no one is insignificant. Jesus sees each of us and our circumstances equally. This was extraordinary at a time when the lower classes were barely recognized, by either their government or their Church. Julian was a woman so poor at her birth that her name wasn’t even recorded for posterity. (We call her “Julian of Norwich” after the church to which she later dedicated her life.) During Mass, only the priest would have been guaranteed to receive the cup of blessing. The cup (Christ’s blood) certainly would never have been given to the lower classes.
In such a context, Julian beheld the crucifix in one of her visions and wrote, “And suddenly I saw the red blood running down from under the crown, hot and flowing copiously, a living stream… I perceived truly and powerfully that it was he who was just so, both God and man, himself suffered for me, who showed it to me without intermediary… And suddenly, the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come there…”
Imagine that! As Julian lies helpless on what she thought would be her deathbed, in the midst of the relentless trauma, violence, and death all around her—living in the daily reality of an unjust and cruel class system — Julian finds happiness, comfort, safety, love, and social equality on the Cross. Consider that this is a time when a young, poor woman would have been prohibited from writing theology at all, let alone theology as radical as this!
Seeking answers for the countless suffering around her, Julian looks to the ultimate suffering of the One. For suffering on its own isn’t an end in and of itself. Our suffering in this world is not a punishment for our sins, nor is it redemptive. Christ sees our pain and suffers so that there will be an end to our suffering!
Julian writes, “And with the beholding of Jesus’ passion… I did not see sin, for I believe that is has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pain caused by it… And it seems to me that this pain is something for a time… For the passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this… And because of the tender love which our good Lord has for all who will be saved, he comforts readily and sweetly, meaning this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be will, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
In her visions, Julian sees a wounded Lord for a wounded world. She receives God’s tender words of comfort as a healing salve and promise of future hope. Above all, no matter who we are, Julian believes that Jesus is all love and needs no intermediary to reach us. In God’s eyes, we are never a mere statistic. For a time such as this, Julian implores that we turn to God because she knows that God has already turned to us. In fact, she hears God lovingly calling to us.
“… Tenderly our Lord God touches us and blessedly calls us, saying in our soul: ‘Let me by all thy love, my dearworthy child. Occupy thyself with me, for I am enough for thee. Rejoice in Thy Savior and in thy salvation.’ ”
 For my research on Julian’s social and historical context I drew from the following work on Kindle: Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. E-Book. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.
 Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. E-Book. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. (Emphasis added.)