Geoff stands on our snow-covered side stoop, bundled against the single-digit cold. Grinning through his frosty white beard, he delivers me a gift on behalf of his wife, Sue: a big, warm pair of mittens, knitted to match the rust-red-and-cream hat she gave me last Thanksgiving.
I accept the mittens with open-mouthed delight. Then I heave a sigh of gratitude—and not just because the mittens will be useful, snow drifting around my house like sand dunes around a Bedouin tent.
Geoff and Sue are unaware that my mother, who lives more than a thousand miles from here, has just been taken to the hospital. These thick mittens, and the caring friendship they represent, are precious comfort. They’ve arrived out of the blue, made by a dear woman who is old enough to be my mother and often feels like one.
Geoff hurries back to the shelter of his car. I stand inside the door of my cozy home, staring at the mittens in my hand.
They feel like a sign. They feel like a material version of the words which came to another woman, six hundred years ago, as she lay critically ill during a pandemic: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Sue’s handiwork, via my iPhone camera
The fourteenth-century woman I’m talking about is the English mystic known as Julian of Norwich. Her real name is a mystery. After a dramatic near-death experience, she chose to dwell in an anchoress cell attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich. Hence, the name she’s now called by.
I like the fact that we don’t know her birth name. As a nameless soul, she can easily stand in for the rest of us, no matter our spiritual bent.
She can stand in for you. She can stand in for me.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Julian heard these words tenderly spoken during one of sixteen “showings,” as she later called the visionary experiences she had while at death’s door. All but one of the showings came during an intense period of five hours.
She was so sick, a priest had administered the last rites of her faith. She was thirty years old, perhaps suffering from the bubonic plague. (Outbreaks of that disease ravaged Norwich at least twice during her life.)
It was while she lay in extremis that truth fell upon her. (As you’ve probably noticed, truth has a habit of doing that. Maybe we’re more receptive when in crisis.)
Notice: This showing didn’t promise Julian that she’d live, or that she’d regain full health. Actually, as her writings make plain, she believed that the showing had little, if anything, to do with her illness. Rather, it pertained to her longstanding concern for the well-being of a world rife with affliction.
Don’t worry. All shall be well. All shall be well. All shall be well.
Hearing this promise in the midst of her agony, she drew consolation. More than that, she found the capacity to feel joy in all circumstances, no matter how dire.
Eventually she rose again from her bed. She didn’t merely recover. She was reborn.
Julian didn’t receive these showings because she was a mystic. These showings made her into a mystic, a person devoted to the cultivation of love and joy—just as you and I are. (Let’s forego the fancy label of “mystic.” It just gets in the way.)
Our devotion to love and joy doesn’t blind us to the suffering all around us. Nor does it spare us our own pain. Rather, it heightens our awareness of suffering, and helps us to reframe it—so that we can not only endure it, but also transform it.
Through practice, we can learn to place the inevitable hardships of existence within a context of transcendent hope and joy that always exceeds our circumstances. It is that surpassing hope and joy that can allow us, in every hour, to rise above despair, to be gentle with ourselves, and to reach out to those around us with radical kindness.
You and I, each in our way, resemble the woman we call Julian. You and I are capable, even within our greatest troubles, of receiving truth. Of being cracked open by it. Of offering ourselves anew to the service of love, buoyed by hope and joy.
Sometimes, like Julian, we’re reminded of who we are—and what we’re capable of—right when we think everything is lost. Right when we believe nothing more can be done. Right when it seems all we can do is cry out in anguish.
Other times, we’re reminded of who we are and what we can do by the unexpected gift of a pair of mittens.
Don’t worry: all is well. My mother is home from the hospital. She’s in good spirits, recovering from a manageable issue with her lungs.
Don’t worry: all is well. Winter has been brutal so far, but my hands are staying warm.
Look closely. My two mittens aren’t identical. That’s Sue, always making mischief.
I’m certain that Sue didn’t mean my mittens to be a showing, but they’re true nonetheless. They reveal that life is never perfectly symmetrical. It’s always full of surprises. Some surprises will make us laugh. Others will trip us up, or even knock us down.
A day will surely come when we’ll fall down for the last time. That’s a fact.
Now, what are we going to make of that fact? (That’s the question.)
I’m thinking we all know how to knit, if we just pick up our needles.