In 1373 AD, a young woman named Julian of Norwich succumbed to a fever-induced coma. It was supposed that she would die, but miraculously, she awoke only a few days later. Not long after her recovery, Julian began to write down accounts of the visions she saw while in the coma. She described, in intense detail, harrowing visions including gruesome scenes of Christ’s crucifixion and a humbling image of the Earth depicted as the size of a hazelnut. But surprisingly, Julian isn’t known for her frightful imagery. Instead, she is held in high regard for her imposition of optimistic theology. You may ask exactly how optimistic one may be when writing of the death of Christ while fearing death herself. But Julian’s work, A Book of Showings, is perhaps the most optimistic piece of theology of her time.
Julian was born in 1342 and lived through two outbreaks of the plague in Norwich. It is supposed that the second sweep of the plague occurred when she was around 19 years old. Given the customs of the time and culture, it is likely that Julian had a husband and children. However, because Julian later became an anchoress and surrendered her life over to the service of the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, it is believed that if she had a family, they died from the plague. To only make matters worse, the Church at the time was using its theology to terrorize people into submission and obedience. Many people confessed Christianity only because they were afraid of both the plague and of the Church’s message that they could only receive grace from eternal damnation if they participated in the Catholic Church.
In Chapter 27 of her book, Julian recognizes the same sin and the consequences of that sin that the Church did. She writes about the problem of sin, telling us, “Sin is behovely.” This means that sin is unavoidable, even if we fight it with all the power we have. Seven hundred years later, the effects of sin and brokenness are still so evident. We are months into a world-dominating virus that has caused death, anger, and confusion. In America, groups of people who have been oppressed are speaking out against injustice, and while that is a good and necessary thing, others are using this time of vulnerability for their own personal gain to speak hateful things or commit hateful actions against groups of innocent people. It truly feels like things will never be right again.
But if we are truthful with ourselves, as we examine Julian’s life and our own, we understand that life has really never been right. There has always been turmoil and injustice and death. And while there have been moments of prosperity and peace that have made it seem like all is right, we know that is not the case. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12, “There is none righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” This idea is difficult to stomach, but Julian tells us the truth about our world.
This would be a devastating truth if it weren’t for the rest of her statement. Thankfully, Julian tells us the whole truth. She finishes her statement about sin with a short, poignant phrase, “. . . but all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Just a few lines later Julian emphasizes her point again, writing, “. . . we shall be troubled . . . till we be fully purged of our deathly flesh which be not very good.” And though it is a hard truth to know that there is nothing that our flesh can do to make things right again, we still have everlasting hope that there is redemption to be found in Christ.
J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories” writes about a similar idea. “On Fairy Stories” expounds upon the purpose of fairy tales, typically deemed childish or unnecessary in the contemporary world. However, Tolkien assures us that fairy tales serve a much more important purpose. According to him, a fairy tale has the ability to point toward the grace and redemption that comes from and through Christ. They do this through what he calls a “eucatastrophe”. A eucatastrophe is a catastrophic event that has a joyous end. His example is Christ’s death on the cross. Christ’s death is the most atrocious and devastating event in the history of mankind, but through it, the sins of humanity could be forgiven and our relationship with God could be restored. A eucatastrophe is a story of grace and redemption that comes after heartache and loss.
While it’s difficult to see the eucatastrophic end to current events, we as image-bearers and believers must retain hope for our joyous end. This doesn’t mean that all human ailments will be fixed quickly or soon. Julian made sure we knew that there was no escaping turmoil while here on this Earth. But we can look forward to small victories and small moments of hope while still on this Earth. And ultimately, we can look forward to a final victory and an everlasting hope in eternity.