All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. – St Julian of Norwich
These are anxious and distressing times: the stumbling moves out of lockdown, the gradual opening up, and the stubbornly rising numbers of those infected. Those anxious about being thrown into isolation are now equally fearful of re-emerging. We have lost so much: jobs and security, connections with those we love, inspiration to work. And on top of that are our worries about worsening climate change and our lack of faith in the wisdom of those elected to lead us. So much dejection, distress, fear around and within us!
Religious faith has no trite answer to this pandemic of anxiety and distress. The Bible itself recognises the struggles that people go through in their lives, struggles not always and not easily resolved. Look at Naomi in the Book of Ruth: what troubles, what grief, what distress she has to endure! The loss of home, the death of her sons, her poverty and insecurity as a widow without male support. Far from showing gracious acceptance and forbearance, far from uttering pious platitudes, she blames God fairly and squarely for her misfortunes: ‘The hand of the Lord has turned against me’, she says, as she returns to her old home in bitterness and sorrow.
And look at Jesus in the Gospels: facing conflict with the authorities, being misunderstood by his disciples and even his own family; caring for the poor and the sick without reward in a ministry that lacked the comfort of home and possessions, with ‘nowhere to lay his head.’ Captured and crucified by the local and colonial authorities for daring to stand against them on behalf of the poor and needy. Dying also, according to the first two Gospels, with the sense of being abandoned by his God.
Yet distress and anxiety do not have the last word on either of their lives. The God who abandoned them is the God who finally gathers them in, consoles them, gives them new life. For Naomi it is the presence of Ruth, her daughter-in-law, who refuses to abandon her, and the wondrous and unexpected birth of a grandchild for her.
For Jesus (Naomi’s great-grandson many times), it is the presence of those around him who do not leave him to suffer alone: the crowd of faithful women, the handful of unexpected men. Above all, it is the life-giving presence of God which restores him to life on the third day, on the other side of death.
J.R.R. Tolkien speaks of the ‘eucatastrophe’ of the good news, the rescue at the very last moment, on the brink of death and disaster — a motif he knew well in his own life with the death of his mother when a child and his subsequent poverty. The same theme is embodied in The Lord of the Rings with the desperate courage of Frodo and Sam in the very teeth of catastrophe. The last word, after all, is one of peace and restoration in the novel, the possibility of healing for the deepest wounds.
Julian of Norwich, a woman writer and mystic in fourteenth century England, had as her refrain: ‘All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ This was no trite ‘count-your-blessings’ theology. It was won only after serious illness and long reflection, in the midst of voluntary self-enclosure for the sake of her own faith and the well-being of the many to whom she ministered.
Naomi, Jesus, Tolkien and Julian: figures from across the centuries who experienced pain and suffering, who knew firsthand the realities of distress and anxiety. Yet all had a sense of not finally being abandoned, of being gathered up into God, even in the midst of their suffering.
Christians believe that Jesus’ own suffering and experience of new life is definitive for everyone else’s: gives hope to everyone at the edge of catastrophe. The cross signifies Christ’s identification with us in our plight and the resurrection means that God has not abandoned us, that fear and suffering will not have the last word. God’s is and will be the last word: for ourselves and those we love, for those who are poor and vulnerable in our world, for our society and our endangered planet.
Reverend Canon Professor Dorothy Lee is the Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College, University of Divinity. Professor Lee is an Anglican Priest and scholar of the Bible with a wide publication list.