All manner of thing shall be well
In the last issue, Brian Davies described Denys Turner’s Julian of Norwich, Theologian as “the best theological exposition of Julian to appear so far.” I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. In a manner that will be familiar to readers of Turner’s previous work, Julian of Norwich, Theologian weds philosophical rigor with stylistic grace. It systematically examines the most serious challenges to the Christian faith, asking why God would choose to create a world in which sin is possible, for instance, and how we can reconcile free will with divine providence. Yet, even when considering these thorny topics, Turner’s writing is never pretentious and always lucid, an enchanting blend of intelligence and elegance. Here is Turner on sin: “Sin is real in the sense that an unreality can become the real substance of a person’s or of a society’s existence, a kind of really lived refusal of the real.” On Julian’s claim that sin is “behovely”: “that sin is behovely means that sin is needed as part of the plot—or, if you like, that the plot needs sin in the way that plots do—contingently indeed, but all the same just so.” On the relationship between Purgatory and narrative: “It is not the sins committed that differentiate purgatory from hell, but the story that is told of them, the narrative to which they belong. The souls in purgatory have all repented, that is to say, they are learning how to be able, and how to desire, to situate the record of their sins within the comedy of divine love that redeems them.”
I could go on, but instead I briefly want to draw attention to Julian’s presence in the work of two of the twentieth century’s greatest poets: T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Eliot discovered Julian while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard in 1908-1909, shortly after Grace Warrack’s edition re-introduced Julian to the broader world. (Contrary to popular belief, Eliot’s interest in mystical theology long predated his 1927 conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.)
Much of Eliot’s early poetry dealt with saintly mystics and bloody visions, and these poems surely were influenced by Eliot’s exposure to Julian’s showings. (They also show the influence of the other mystics he was reading at the time, including St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.) However, it wasn’t until the 1942 publication of “Little Gidding,” the last poem in Eliot’s sequence Four Quartets, that Julian appeared explicitly in Eliot’s verse. In the third section of “Little Gidding,” Eliot begins a stanza by quoting Julian directly: “Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.” It is a startling transition from the stanza before, where abstract language prevailed and Eliot mused that “history may be servitude, / History may be freedom.” Now, with his direct quoting of Julian, he moves to a simpler yet more powerful register, asserting the hope that sin is behovely and that history ultimately will be redeemed.
The whole sequence has been building to this transition. Throughout Four Quartets, Eliot acknowledges, even seems resigned to, the problems of earthly existence: the world’s ugliness (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle-tree”), humanity’s weakness (“human kind / Cannot bear very much reality”), and the violent need for self-purgation (“If to be warmed, then I must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars”). But, looking to Julian, Eliot asserts that all of this—disease, deception, suffering, evil—is part of a larger pattern, a pattern that we can’t know from our temporal perspective but that will be revealed in eternity. As Turner would say, all this pain is part of a happy story, a divine comedy that transforms pain into bliss, suffering into comfort.
The final section of “Little Gidding” once again looks to Julian in its concluding image of eternal reconciliation:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
The existence of pain is not denied, but Eliot asserts that, when placed in the context of eternity, it will be understood as behovely, as fitting. For Eliot, Julian remains the best articulator of this realistic yet hopeful Christian vision.
Eliot’s channeling of Julian is hard to top, but Auden’s 1949 poem “Memorial for the City” comes close. Auden, a less devoted reader of Julian than Eliot, appears to have first come across her writing in the work of the Anglican theologian, poet, and novelist Charles Williams. Auden opens “Memorial for the City” with an epigraph from Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love that reveals a different facet of the English mystic’s thinking: “In the self-same point that our soul is made sensual, in the self-same point is the City of God ordained to him from without beginning.” It is precisely our embodiment, Julian argues, that allows us to look forward to the Kingdom of God. We are not pure souls but souls plus bodies, and this mixture is necessary for the salvation history of which we are a part.
“Memorial for the City” is wonderfully complex in both form and argument. The poem is divided into four sections. The first three survey, in order, a devastated, war-scarred landscape; history’s many failed political, spiritual, and intellectual revolutions; and the various divisions and alienations the self is subject to in our worldly existence (an Eliotian theme if ever there were one). All of these implicitly deal with Julian’s concept of the behovely. Despite the nightmares of history, we are told, “We know without knowing there is reason for what we bear.” We must remain hopeful that the story will turn out right; we must remain like “Adam waiting for His City.”
The final section is the poem’s most powerful, and the one that most explicitly looks to Julian. The speaker of the final section is the pure body, removed from consciousness or the soul. We might call it the Body, except that this allegorization would ignore the physical specificity that Auden (with Julian) is so eager to retain. Looking to Biblical and literary history, the body celebrates its own worth. “Without me,” the body brags, “Adam would have fallen irrevocably with Lucifer; he would never have been able to cry O felix culpa.” Impatient with existential angst, the body declares , “With Hamlet I had no patience”; concerned with creaturely comforts, the body complains, “time after time I warned Captain Ahab to accept happiness.”
After this long catalog, Auden’s poem ends with a vision of salvation:
As for Metropolis, that too-great city; her delusions are not mine.
Her speeches impress me little, her statistics less; to all who dwell on the public side of her mirrors resentments and no peace.
At the place of my passion her photographers are gathered together; but I shall rise again to hear her judged.
Auden emphasizes the importance of the individual as opposed to the collective. Celebrating embodiment means celebrating the individual, embodied self, and it is precisely this individual, embodied self, the poem declares, that will be resurrected at the end of days. Then, judgment will be given; then, the body will be revealed in all its sensual glory; then, Eliot, Auden, and Julian claim, all manner of thing shall be well.