The Desire for Things to End Well
Whitehead and Julian of Norwich
by Teri Daily
“It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
--St. Julian of Norwich
All shall be well, Christ tells Julian in her vision. Is the phrase a cliché, a lament, or a prayer? We wait for that moment when all is well. But so many things come and go in succession without any obvious redemption, each passing by in the same way that a jump rope repeatedly offers itself to the child waiting to enter its rhythm. Sometimes it seems that maybe God isn’t in much of a hurry to enter into the rhythm of our life—the thud, thud, thud of the jump rope an invitation that goes unanswered.
We all know the pain of things not ending well in this life for those we love. I knew that pain when my father’s life came to an end this past October. He lived a difficult life. How much of that difficulty was due to his own actions and how much was brought about by his response to the actions of others isn’t easily determined. In the end, maybe brokenness is brokenness and all the reasons behind it blend into one another; calling them out one by one may be a futile exercise in control or an attempt to be coolly rational in the face of tragedy.
Still, I wanted everything to end well—for him to know redemption here and now, not just in the life to come. And, of course, if he were to experience redemption in this life, then I would taste it as well, or so I imagined. Don’t we all long for a fairy tale ending?
But we didn’t get a fairy tale ending. The end of his life came unexpectedly and as a result of an acute injury to his cervical spinal cord. My father lived two weeks after the fall—almost no movement in his right arm and leg, an inability to control the movement of his left arm and hand, trouble swallowing, pain, despair, and ultimately refusal to eat or drink. And yet Julian’s words find a place in me, as strange as it sounds.
After all, I don’t have a monopoly on unfulfilled dreams or not-yet-redeemed tragedy. Each day more than 3,000 children die from diarrheal disease, usually contracted from drinking unsafe water. More than 30,000 people in the US are killed each year by firearms. Three women in the US die each day from domestic violence. And into such overwhelming tragedy float the words of Dame Julian: All shall be well.
What is the place in me that clings to Julian’s words? Is it a place of resignation veiled in superficial assurances, a place of deep and tenacious longing that wills into being the hope it cannot live without, or a place of experiential knowing? Maybe it’s all three.
The truth is that the experience of absolute serenity that Julian narrates is rare, reserved only for those moments of self-transcendence in which we lose ourselves in God or lose ourselves in love or lose ourselves for the sake of the world. Much more of our life is lived in the obvious tension between dream and tragedy, and yet even here we find that love for another person—even love that ends in loss and pain—can point us to God’s own dream for the world. Whitehead describes such love in this way:
…some closeness of status, such as the relation of parent to child or the relation of marriage, can produce the love of self-devotion where the potentialities of the loved object are felt passionately as a claim that it find itself in a friendly Universe. Such love is really an intense feeling as to how the harmony of the world should be realized in particular objects. It is the feeling as to what would happen if right could triumph in a beautiful world, with discord routed. It is the passionate desire for the beautiful response, in this instance. Such love is distracting, nerve-wracking. But, unless darkened by utter despair, it involves deep feeling of an aim in the Universe, winning such triumph as is possible to it. (1)
The aim in the Universe is God’s loving presence with us, God’s spirit tirelessly at work in the world—sometimes it is felt most strongly in the form of possibilities yet to be realized. Thus, ironically, it is often in this gap between dream and tragedy that we come to believe in, and even find a foretaste of, what Jay McDaniel calls “a harmony beyond suffering”—“a Harmony of Harmonies which includes tragedy within its scope, but in which tragedy has been overcome.” (2) It is here that we find faith. It is here that we experience a peace that surpasses all understanding.
To try to outline this experience as an exercise of logic is impossible, but that doesn’t lessen its reality. Julian came to understand God’s saving love for the world most perfectly in the midst of an illness that almost claimed her life; I cling to the promise of God’s redeeming love for my father despite the tragic end to his life. Maybe the promise of redemption lies in the very act of our longing for it. Perhaps we wait for God to answer the thudding invitation of the jump rope, only to find God in the invitation itself.
1. AN Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967) 289.
2. Jay McDaniel, “At Last My Love Has Come Along: Etta James, Julian of Norwich, and Alfred North Whitehead,” Jesus Jazz and Buddhism website.