Will All Things Be Well?

Will All Things Be Well? August 20, 2019

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

I don’t know when I first heard or read this well-known saying; it regularly pops up in various places. A teaching colleague commented on it in her lecture a few semesters ago on Julian of Norwich, the medieval Christian mystic to whom the saying is attributed. T. S. Eliot includes it in “Little Gidding,” the last poem in Four Quartets.

My friend Marsue says “all shall be well” on occasion, and Jeanne says that her boss uses the phrase once in a while. Most recently, I came across it in Glass Houses, Louise Penny’s 2017 installment in her Inspector Gamache mystery series (her newest novel hits the shelves in a week or so–I can’t wait!). Penny’s characters are capable of quoting T. S. Eliot, Julian of Norwich, and Shakespeare at the drop of a hat—would that we all were so literate.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

I’m not buying it. Despite its lovely sentiment, Julian’s claim has always struck me as platitudinous, the kind of thing one says in response to tragic events or difficult circumstances when perhaps silence would be the best response, in the same way that the people I grew up with used to quote another overused (and mistranslated) platitude from Romans: “All things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All shall be well? Really?

All shall be well when an infantile, unqualified, narcissistic, misogynistic, and racist former television reality show star is President of the United States?

All shall be well when many people in our country seem to have little problem with little children being separated from their parents and held in cages?

All shall be well when nothing is being done to curb the carnage from mass shooting after mass shooting in this country?

Need I continue?

It’s telling that Julian of Norwich had to repeat “all shall be well” three times in an attempt to convince herself and us that it is true. Because it often sounds less like a truth and more like whistling in the dark as we try to convince ourselves that everything isn’t going to hell in a handbasket.

But perhaps there is reason to understand Julian’s platitude differently. Louise Penny is my favorite mystery author (and I’ve read a LOT of mysteries) for a number of reasons; not the least of these is her remarkable transparency and honesty in the “Author’s Notes” at the end of each of her books. At the end of A Great Reckoning, the previous book (published in 2016) to Glass Houses in her series, Penny revealed to her readers that her husband was suffering from progressive dementia.

Acknowledgements in previous books consistently established the love and closeness between Penny and her husband; at the time of A Great Reckoning’s publication in 2016, his dementia had progressed to the point that he could no longer speak, walk, or remember. Penney wrote of his courage, good humor, and continuing love (as well as hers for him), thanking dozens of people for making it possible for her to continue to write under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Jeanne and I wondered whether she would be able to write going forward at all in such a difficult situation.

In the “Author’s Notes” to Glass Houses (going first to such notes in every book is one of my reading habits), we learn that Penny’s husband died. She had been called back early from a book tour because he was failing; he died a few weeks later, “peacefully, at home, surrounded, as he was in life, by love.” Glass Houses was written while her husband was failing and after he died. Penny shares that “writing became my safe harbor, my escape in the dark hours of the morning.” Glass Houses is humane, insightful, and beautifully crafted with characters who become the reader’s friends over thirteen installments in the series—it is clear that in the midst of pain and sorrow, Julian of Norwich’s claim that “all shall be well” at least occasionally rang true for Louise Penny.

Last fall, I had a very different sort of glimpse into how, despite all immediate appearances, all things might be well. A freshman student in one of my classes dropped by during office hours. Lizzy had been sick and missed class earlier in the week; on Thursday after class she asked if she could stop by during office hours and ask a question or two about the text assigned for the class she missed. I said “Of course!” Then she mentioned that in one of her other classes, her first assignment was to interview one of her professors. “Can I interview you?” she asked—“Of course!” I said once again.

During her subsequent visit to my office, after working with Lizzy on one of the texts assigned for the day she was sick that had confused her, the time came for her to interview me. I’ve done this sort of thing before and expected her to ask questions like “Why (or How) did you become a professor?” and “Do you like teaching at Providence College?” all the time knowing that what she really wanted to ask was “Why do you have a ponytail?” and “Why do you have all sorts of penguin pictures and paraphernalia all over your office?” Instead, Lizzy opened to a new page of her notebook and said “I have one question to ask you. What do you think is the importance and value of a liberal arts education?”

Wow. Let’s say I’ve thought about this just a tiny bit over the past many years. I used to be the director of the large, team-taught interdisciplinary Development of Western Civilization Program that Lizzie was now my student in, and used to sell the importance of the program to faculty, administrators, prospective students, and anyone else who might listen by spinning out answers to this very question of various lengths.

“How long do you have?’ I asked Lizzie. In response to her slightly worried look, I said “I’ll give you my short answer. I believe that the value of a liberal arts education is that it provides the opportunity to identify, then learn to use, the tools of life-time learning. In my opinion, the success of an education has little to do with how much you remember or have memorized by the time you graduate. It has far more to do with whether you have become convinced that learning is a lifetime process, one that does not just happen in a classroom or for a grade.”

As I spoke, I saw a small smile spread across Lizzie’s face; she became comfortable in my office for the first time since she had arrived. She has not yet declared a major (and doesn’t need to until her fourth semester at the college), but I would not be surprised if she has already experienced some pressure from her parents and/or others to declare a major in something practical that will guarantee a good paycheck when she graduates in May 2021.

Hearing early on in her college experience from one of her professors, someone whom she does not yet really know but who definitely looks like he’s been around the block a few times, that she is in the beginning stages of an process that is more about how to live a life than about how to make a living seemed to surprise her, but also put her at ease a bit. This is going to be okay. I can do this. All manner of things shall be well after all. And I was reminded once again of the privilege of opening such doors to young people—and I even get paid to do it.

Julian of Norwich’s statement is not a guarantee that everything will all work out for the best in the end—because for many, perhaps most, people, it won’t. But it does remind each of us that we are surrounded, even in the darkest of places and most dire of circumstances, by hope that can be found and peace that is available. It is the privilege and responsibility of each of us to find ways in which we can help create a world in which “all shall be well”—no matter what is happening around us.

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