Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
On the Difference between a Ninny and a Sage
In Laughing at the Devil Amy Laura Hall describes her first serious engagement with Julian of Norwich. As a new professor at Duke she was referred to Julian as a spiritual writer worth integrating into the curriculum of a class she was going to teach. The friend who referred Julian cited her famous line “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” about which Hall thought, “No, I’d never heard of her, and she sounds stupid.” Later she embraces the criticism of a certain misunderstanding of these words saying, “when I first heard the phrase ‘All shall be well’ I was pretty sure that Julian was a ninny. . . . The last thing I wanted to do was encourage Christians tilted already toward cheap and apolitical grace to read a woman who would tell them they were right to stay obeisant to bullies.”
In ministry the difference between being a ‘ninny’—like Julian sounds—and a ‘sage’—like Julian ostensibly is—is thin. The life of ministry is a life in proximity, not just to people, but to their inner lives and outer needs; a life where one often risks being a ninny in the attempt to say and do what is needed. Ministry happens when the people you encounter begin to invite you into their lives and share their experiences with you—past, present, and future—with some uncertain, but implicit understanding that God is being carried between you. Often the middling events of life are not what merits a pastoral visit, which is a real missed opportunity to see the divine even among the mundane. Most often the proximity happens in the vulnerable moments, or the intense moments. The ministry life ends up being one in proximity to great joys and great pains and great anxieties, and great shames.
After a decade in ministry I can say with confidence that the joys slip easily from memory, while the rest linger like ghosts. This could be due to an overly-cynical disposition. Or maybe because I listen to too much angsty music. Or maybe because ministers don’t get to grieve (or often don’t know how). In the midst of suffering we have a role to play. It is hard to account for the why pains and anxieties and shames linger; there just may be something about human suffering that leaves a deeper mark.
This brings us back to Julian of Norwich and Dr. Hall’s initial impression, because I share her instinct. Sit at the bedside of a twenty-something young man dying from cancer with his mother begging God for healing and his father detached—more out of an instinct for survival than apathy—and see how hollow “All shall be well” rings; how stupid you would immediately feel saying it. This is an extreme example, to be fair, but all too real in the pastoral life, and smaller losses still challenge the legitimacy of those words in their own ways. Hall extends the suffering that these words presume to address even broader into our social and political lives. “All shall be well” does not seem like the right thing to write on bombs dropped by drones on middle-eastern villages or spoken in diplomatic talks thereafter. Or with the threat of the current pandemic these words seem useful only to placate the consciences of people insulated from any substantial effect by power and privilege. On the face of it, Hall’s impression seems correct: she sounds stupid.
But Hall writes a book about Norwich, and people don’t usually write book-length treatments of authors they despise. Having read Hall’s book and having also read Julian myself some years back (and now spending a little more time with Julian), I find with a lot of help from Hall that mysterious allure to these words and to Julian’s writings in general. So, I want to spend this review thinking about the difference between the words of a ninny and the words of a sage or a visionary. What turns “All shall be well” from a pithy bit of pious vomit into words that ground our consciousness and empower us to live in and through the joys and pains of life?
Part of this difference must be accounted for by what these words could (or should) mean. Does “all shall be well” mean that with (or even without) faith my problems will be solved, especially in the way that I desire them to be? That my pains will be resolved and wounds healed and dreams fulfilled and wishes granted? Does “all shall be well” mean that everything is going according to God’s plan? Even things like pendemics and war and economic exploitation and ordinary vices that cause and perpetuate trauma? Is this all just the conflicting action in a story that otherwise ends happily ever after?
I just finished reading my kids the classic story Where the Red Fern Grows. One aspect of the book I had forgotten was that at every major juncture the boy engages in a little bargaining with God, asking God to help him with this or that obstacle and getting confirmation at each turn that God was indeed helping out. This theological game comes to a head at the end of the book when (***SPOILER***) the boy’s dogs die and the boy, beyond consolation, cannot understand why they had to die. I think that made sense to me when I read the story for the first time as a young kid who mapped the ordered and controlled nature of his own childhood onto a theological vision of reality. There was a reason (eventually) for everything I did, and I must have figured that there was a reason for everything in the world as well. But on the other side of my fair share of life’s pains and tragedies, and a good deal more than my fair share of pastoral crises and tragedies in ministry, I now see that view as less than accurate or helpful. Sure, appealing to some grand divine scheme can seem like an instinctively helpful thing to do in cases of deep pain, like holding your hand to a burn. But it doesn’t help much in the moment and does more harm than good in the long term. So if that is what these words mean, if that is all they mean, if they are just some theological placebo, then I’d think they’re the words of a ninny.
Hall processes a better understanding of Julian through creative and critical theological interpretation and framing Julian in historical and theological context. For instance, Hall asks how might the meaning of “all shall be well” be changed if we consider that one of the major roles that religion played in 15th century England was as a form of social control. Ecclesiastical structures and leaders aligned themselves with kingly authority, dictating what could not be questioned on the pain not just of death but of a God poised to condemn the sinner for all eternity. If the authorities are saying “God will smite you (in this life and the next) for breaking one of our many rules” then how audacious it would be to say “It’s okay, God isn’t standing ready to punish you the moment you step out of line.” “All shall be well” breathes defiance, yet a resistance characterized by serenity and trust. The broader dimensions of Julian’s writings attend to the spiritual and psychological effects of systemic evils. Where oppressive systems desire to break an individual—body and spirit—her visions of Jesus having subdued the devil for the humor of those once tormented redeem us and restore us. Hall writes,
The cross did not have to be. God made everything from nothing, and so creation did not have to be. The cross is also the definition of everything that is, so that you and I and Tom Joad and anyone suffering under any system that renders us nothing know ourselves saved. We are saved not by our suffering. My suffering is not necessary. Jesus Christ allows me to feel and know and see that my suffering has not rendered my life meaningless. I have not been eternally dismembered by pain or eternally forgotten by the accidents of the absurdist world around me.
There is then this historically contextualized meaning that reveals the socio-political ramifications of a statement such as this. But there is also the meaning of this phrase as a serious theological claim that allows it to be a real bludgeon to oppressive systems, rather than (only) a smart retort. It does not mean that suffering will be avoided or abated, that the world is some grand orchestrated drama with an inevitably happy ending. Read in historical and literary and theological context, Julian’s words attend to the saving grace of Jesus in broader terms—saved from our own faults and failures to be sure, but saved also from the literal soul-crushing efforts of oppressive systems and trying times.
Another part of the difference between the ninny and the sage seems to be not just the meaning, but the effect of their words. If “all shall be well” is used to downplay suffering, patronize people in pain, or keep people theologically in line, then I would be inclined to think the person who spoke these words was a ninny.
As I’m writing it seems the whole world is (or is supposed to be) on quarantine due to the outbreak of a new and particularly malicious virus. As a minister I have obligations to speak words both of caution and comfort. But if I look to people who have contracted this virus, or to those rightly anxious because they are at higher risk of serious harm were they to contract the virus, or to those whose jobs and incomes are crippled by this quarantine, and say “all shall be well” it might sound like I’m trying to minimize or downplay the seriousness of their conditions. Or it might sound like I’m telling them not to worry or grieve or lament because of some ephemeral hope that God will magic them their health or jobs back. Or it might come across as a manifestation of my own anxiety that the institution of the church will be disrupted, that the tithes will be irregular or attendance even further decreased. And indeed, it seems many clergy are saying offering these words in these ways. The insistence on coming together as a church community during this time are more often to do with principles of organization management and corporate leadership than anything remotely theological.
Hall says in the preface that she has “come to hear Julian’s laughter as a call to holy audacity,” that these visions gave Julian “the courage to resist, to defy, and to laugh” in the face of real and imminent evil. Moreover, these words give her “a dose of sanity to help me move on to another day, to face more of the bloody truths of my time.” Part of what makes Julian’s words so significant is that they suggest consequential actions and solutions that resist ideological systems. And, importantly, they offer the spiritual and emotional resources to exercise that action. Hall helpfully demonstrates that Julian does not bypass the difficulties of defying evil, or downplay human suffering and vulnerability. She writes,
Unless you have a thick and enduringly lizard-like skin, reckoning with suffering while saying “God will provide” seems either stupid or cruel or under the influence of deadening pharmaceuticals. Watching people rage and weep over the non-sense that is a tragic or effectively manipulated loss still renders me speechless. But turning again to Julian’s visions has helped me to think about what it means that I still keep arguing, and hoping, that what Julian saw is true. I want someday to laugh at the Devil and at the carnival that is all of us being barfed up individually, re-membered by God, and celebrating together.
On the one hand, there is no absolute guarantee here. Hall underscores that we trust and “hope” in the truth of Julian’s vision and words. “All shall be well” in this regard becomes more a defiant resistance to despair and evil. There is an honesty here in this vulnerability, a way of trusting that all shall be well even if how we want it to be well does not pan out. On the other hand it is grounded in the assurance of this honesty. “All shall be well” attends to the failure of evil to endure, and witnesses to the reparative power of good. This slogan does not tell us to get over whatever we are going through or manipulate us into programmatic behavior or offer false and fleeting comfort. It tells us that suffering will end eventually regardless, and we will outlast it. These words, at least as Julian writes them, steadies the reader “in the shadow of your wings” as the psalmist wrote.
There are probably other factors in differentiating the ninny from the sage—life experience, tone, relationship history, and so on. But what Hall fleshes out well is what a phrase like this, and Julian’s thought as a whole, means and what it implies for how we live our lives. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” echoes in the mind, pushing back against the finality of evil in our lives and in our world, and against those that would weaponize physical, economic, political, emotional, and spiritual violence; and against those pains and wounds that come as a natural part of being finite and vulnerable things.
This might sound a little brooding, but I think in finishing up this little reflection that its worth underlining how lovely and brilliant Julian’s vision of life really is. It seems to me it is the ninny who wields “all shall be well” and other such platitudes like theological quick-fixes who is the one with the truly dim view of the world. They look away from the world as it is to an imaginary future where things will be magically fixed—or at least explained—because they view the world at present as intolerably disordered. I don’t mean to propose that anything less than a clear and full embrace of the indifference and cruelty of the real world is faithless; that people aren’t entitled to having a spiritual pain threshold or can’t indulge in the comforts and consolations of God. That would rule Julian out as well. I am saying, however, that the ninny thinks so little of reality that he refuses to step foot there for longer than he absolutely has to.
The sage, however, witnesses to the present as the point at which the reconciliation of all things occurs. The sage sees clearly the disorder of the world, to be sure, but refuses to grant absolute authority to this disorder, or to abandon the world to it. The sage’s world is bigger. Where the ninny would see only pain the sage sees also the enduring value of even the weakest and least significant things. This, the ninny can’t see; he can’t enjoy broken things, or comprehend holy chaos, or bear any embarrassment, or attend to his own misshapen heart, or, indeed, laugh at the devil. Where the ninny abandons the world to its disorder, the sage laughs at it, having also seen the inadequacy of evil and endurance of all things held together in the grace of God. And I suppose that’s the real difference, while the ninny flees, the sage laughs.
 Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), xv.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., xii-xiii.
 Ibid., 66.