“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” That is what Dame Julian of Norwich (1342—1416) heard Jesus tell her in a vision and the message has comforted many ever since. When I come across wisdom from the past such as Julian’s, where I hear encouragement not to fear, not to be anxious, to trust and to hope, my mind imagines the context for people’s lives for most of human history: a child getting a fever is a death threat; hostile raiders unexpectedly come over the hill to rape and pillage; soldiers show up to exact “taxes” or conscript men or abuse the women. For most people, trauma and uncertainty were certainties.
Do not be anxious? Rejoice always? How did they heed such advice?
I have experienced little trauma, and most of my worries and fears have not stemmed from anything major, even if they felt major at the time. Should I take this new job? How will we pay all these bills? Should we get knee surgery for our daughter? While I have not escaped all tragedy (nobody can), I have always had faith that God was present, that God watched over us. But I am haunted by the fact that my ancestors might wonder why I said I needed God.
And then came the coronavirus. Huddled at home, with news shows documenting our minute-by-minute collapse, I feel small, helplessness against gargantuan and scary forces; I feel panic that the worst might come for us. And then it hits me. These feelings of dread and worry are touchstones with our human forebears and with those who have missed out on the modern well-managed life, since it is precisely in contexts like ours that the sages have said, “Do not fear.”
During this pandemic, if all I do is commune with Netflix on my couch, my muscles will atrophy. So too faith and hope require their muscles to be exercised. How can I get to the point where my soul is not anxious, where I am guided by light and not just fleeing from darkness, and learn not to live in fear? This pandemic, I realize, is my opportunity to do more than just binge watch Lucifer. I have started a faith-and-hope workout.
- Maybe it is because I am male, a Protestant, and type 5 in the Enneagram, but I think this workout should start by warming up our thoughts and beliefs. Do I really believe that there is something more than the cold forces of atoms and molecules determining our lives, that there exists some mysterious reality at work guiding, helping, inspiring, perhaps even loving us? I do. The loves and joys of my life would not make sense otherwise. Whether one is a Christian who names this reality God or someone who simply appreciates the mysterious bond of all living things (see theologian George Lucas for more), we are all drawn toward, and working hard to get to, a beautiful and wonderful future. The workout’s foundation is the belief that we are not alone and that there is a Higher Power ready to guide and inspire. (To go deeper on this point, pick up Jonathan Morris’s The Way of Serenity.)
- Seek encouragement. I don’t know about you, but I can go from a beatific vision of peace during a time of meditation to a minute later yelling at the dog for having to go out so often (unless my wife is around, and then I settle for scowling—either way my dog wags her tail and waits for me to get her leash). In other words, I cannot do this alone. I need encouragement and help. For this I have hired excellent trainers. Dame Julian is one, though not the easiest to understand. My long-time coach has been C. S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity, where he explains precisely and eloquently why the spiritual life has always been a faith-and-hope workout. Recently I helped put together a collection of Lewis’s writings called The Reading Life, where Lewis points to the importance of reading in general (even for fun) but also to the power of encountering authors from different times and places so we can transcend our narrow perspectives. In other words, step two of the workout is turning off CNN and reading some good and wise books, books that remind us of deeper realities and how to live into them.
- Do good. Years ago I worked on a beautiful book by Desmond Tutu (written with help of his daughter Mpho) called Made for Goodness. In it he argues that too often in the Christian tradition we start with a negative assessment of ourselves and of humanity—namely, that we are sinful. He argues that this is not only unbiblical but very wrong, that the first thing to be said is that God declared us good and that we are in fact made for goodness. Who does not experience the thrill and energy when we know we are doing something truly good? That is what fires us and inspires us most. That is why a great strategy for fighting depression is to help someone else. Fear and worry can dampen these impulses, but we need to persevere and use our goodness muscles anyways. For a long time I assumed doing good meant being heroic and sacrificial (which it sometimes can), but then I realized that those who did the most good at my church were probably the women who organized the meal program for those families dealing with health crises or other problems. During the pandemic, besides giving financially, doing good for most of us is limited to small acts: calling friends and family members stuck at home worrying (such as our parents), making sure I am not passing along my fears and worries but being a listening ear and an encouraging voice.
- Muscles do not get stronger by occasional great workouts. Neither is it how we grow in faith and hope. Plus, there are plenty of specialized routines to try. Check out Grateful by Diana Butler Bass, Courage by Debbie Ford, or Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh.
I have often reflected on the fact that the most important realities are, by nature, invisible: love, faith, hope, freedom, justice, even God. This makes them seem fragile or unreal when we are confronted with concrete realities that promise real pain and suffering. But they are not fragile nor unreal but make up the foundation of what makes life meaningful or even possible. We are the ones who are weak and fragile, which is why we need help remembering and trusting in these invisible realities—hence my need for the faith-and-hope workout.
Julian of Norwich was not simply an isolated mystic (though she was the author of the first English book written by a woman). During her life, her part of England endured the Black Plague and the political upheaval of the Peasants’ Revolt. Her words are not the product of escaping the realities of life nor of living in fear and worry. They are the product of facing hard realities and seeing the invisible ones through them. There is muscle and strength behind her writing. That is why we can lean into her words, with faith and hope, when she writes, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”