Not much is known about Julian of Norwich. A mystic and a recluse, Julian spent most of her life meditating on Christ and his teachings. Now, I am not religious, but parts of Julian’s mediations have taken on more robust meanings removed from the church. She, like us, lived part of her life in a pandemic. Five years after she was born in 1343, the Black Death ravished the globe. Though Julian made it through this tragedy alive, she had her own premature brush with death in 1373. While at the worst of her illness, Julian is said to have received fifteen revelations and holy showings before miraculously turning course and getting better. An excerpt of one of these revelations is as follows:
“[A]ll shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
A religious reading of this revelation tells us that even with sin and suffering, holy benevolence can shine through. Again, though, I am not religious, so I offer to you a secular reading as well. And it is that, though it may seem obvious, things will turn out ok. Just because times may be hard, or difficult, or seem flat out impossible, there are good days waiting if we can get through the bad. Considering this quotation comes from someone facing fatal illness, I feel it especially apropos to our current moment. Though it may not seem so right now, I do have trust in Julian’s timeless assurance that all shall be well sometime soon.
A number of writers and lyricists have borrowed this message, using allusions to it in service of more lay analogies. I’ll attempt to do so today, albeit in a less sophisticated way.
Let’s consider the Millbrook experience (finally, right?). While not a direct analog to a brush with a near fatal illness in the time of medieval medicine, some might argue it is close. I will withhold my opinions on that matter, but feel there is one obvious parallel: the unknown. In both the case of Julian’s illness and the Millbrook experience there are two major unknowns: first, the meaning of the present circumstances, and second, of what lies ahead.
The present does not always make sense. For Julian, in the grips of her illness, it was not clear to her why she was being subjected to such torment. The ultimate positive impact it would have was not readily obvious. While saying we experienced torment in equal measure to Julian while at Millbrook would certainly be hyperbolic, we similarly could not readily realize why our present circumstances were necessary. In that, I mean why we needed to follow the various rules and restrictions we had become so used to: Why do I have to go to sleep now? Why does my WiFi turn off then? Why do I have to eat this? At that table? With those people? I think you get the idea.
Looking to the second unknown, for Julian, as a devout Catholic, her trial through illness was in service of a more enlightened life with a deeper appreciation for the church. In fact, her brush with death led her to write the oldest surviving English text penned by a woman, and the most celebrated account of religion in the Medieval Era (go Julian!). Looking to Millbrook, the many rules and regulations that defined our high school experience were in service of self-improvement. I am not going to stand here and justify each and every single minor policy, but on the whole, though annoying in the moment, they made us better people. While I don’t want to attach profound meaning to the mundane routines we eventually settled into, I do think that it was not all in vain. Julian’s illness ended in good times, as our investment in Millbrook ended in our maturity, growth, and self-awareness. We -- Julian and us -- worked through the bad to get to the good. We did it because things would turn out well. And not just well, but better. We had hope, and it paid off.
Allow me to leave this point for just a moment. This past fall I sat in the living room of Pulling House with my fellow prefects and the IIIrd Form, and listened as Mr. Downs read, what he claimed to be, two of the greatest commencement speeches he has ever heard -- Millbrook or otherwise. His rationale for reading these speeches was that, as we entered the “Winter Slump,” it was important for the IIIrd Form, and especially the prefects, to look on with hope to Commencement. While that feels now like a healthy dose of dramatic irony, I recall a message from that night.
The second of the two speeches I heard that Thursday was by Lucy Papachristou, speaker for the Class of 2014. She spoke, at length, to the inescapable reality that her graduating class -- and all graduating classes -- would forget things about their institution upon leaving, and that it isn’t a bad thing. I think she got this right. Building off her insight, and returning to our friend Julian, the banal activities and mundane routines will soon be distant memories. Their place will quickly be taken by all those things one needs to be concerned about when they leave School Road for the last time as a student. What will not fade, I am confident, are the lessons those routines taught us, or the image of ourselves pre-Millbrook when compared with who we are now. I am also confident that those moments that were out of the ordinary will stay with us as well.
I said earlier that a number of writers and lyricists have alluded to Julian’s message. One of these writers is T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” the last movement of the Four Quartets. Though the passage may not be immediately familiar, it is one we have all heard at our First Night Service, and one we would have heard again together had we been able to gather in May for Last Night. The abridged passage reads as follows:
“We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time. [...] And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing shall be well”
These words, for me, have taken on new meaning since our abrupt and incomplete end as students at Millbrook. We know Millbrook now, and its significance, only after years of ignorance. Ignorance to the roles this place, and these people, have had on our lives. It took distance to arrive at a complete understanding of my Millbrook experience. Only after returning to where I began -- the desk where I had not worked since middle school and the roads I used to be driven on that I now drive on, for example, could I realize how much I have changed in my time at Millbrook. Though it's been just a few months, I have already come to look at my time on campus with the sense of appreciation that distance allows. I agree with Eliot that only at the end of a journey can you truly understand it and its impact. The memories I have now, those moments that stand out from the routine, are the sweet, incomplete impressions of Millbrook, the sketch I drew from inside the landscape, unable to understand the whole picture.
These feelings are naive and young: the triumph when being invited to a dinner off campus, the dumb excitement at the announcement of a Free Day, the glee I felt while laughing when I wasn’t supposed to in the Library during Study Hall, the sound of Snow by the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing before MoWo, or the melody of Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show ringing in my ears during a Calculus quiz, to name a few. These stand out moments remind me how I’ve changed, and how I’ve stayed the same across these past four years. They remind me how even through the humdrum, the Winter Slump, the difficult days, all turned out well -- and perhaps even better.
I hope, too, that this brief recounting of growth through resilience and steadfastness reminds you of the moment we are in right now. This is not how any of us would have liked to end our time in high school. There is familiar unknown: we are unsure of the future, and in equal measure we are unsure of how our present circumstances are relevant to that future. I don’t have the answers, but I know that we’ve all been through a similar experience of discovery and growth in our time at Millbrook. Trust the process, hang on to those naive moments, use them to inspire your growth into the future, and as milestone markers when you look back at your past. Take comfort in knowing that all shall be well.
In closing, my charge to you is to think of how much you have grown, and to appreciate those moments that got you here. With that, I hope you will remember Julian’s wise words. And finally, I encourage you to use what you learned at Millbrook, in and out of the classroom, to advocate and push for a more equitable and inclusive place wherever you go, and to continue to advocate for similar measures at the places you have been -- including this one.
So, onward we go.
Go otters, roll ‘stangs, and be well.
Congratulations 2020, I’ll see you all soon.