All Shall Be Well, the latest offering from Catherine McNiel, is a very dirty book. Before you question the four stars above this review or cover your child’s eyes, let me rephrase my claim: All Shall Be Well is a dusty, dirty, soil-splattered work that is both lovely and wise. It is a book I wish I’d had as a young woman, am grateful to receive in my middle years, and will turn to again with new urgency if I am given the privilege of growing old.
The cover image resembles the floor of my garden shed or that one particular desk drawer where my sons stash their treasure horde of sticks and stones and snakeskins. There are a few pretty flower petals along the edges, but I suspect the flowers were placed less prominently than the spiky seedheads and iridescent insects because pretty, floral book covers are so readily associated with a female readership. McNiel’s first award-winning book Long Days of Small Things focused on motherhood, but make no mistake—this new book is for everyone.
Sleepwalking Through Life
Like her first, this is a book about small things—ordinary things tiny as a seed or a robin’s egg—but long before I turned the last page I had become convinced that McNiel’s subject was nothing less ambitious than every single thing that matters most in life. As McNiel gently but persuasively argues, the natural world doesn’t only offer up metaphors for our spiritual lives. It is the very real stuff—quite literally the earth—of which we are made. The life cycle of something as small and ordinary as a bean seedling sown by a schoolchild in a paper cup can teach us more than a shelf brimming with theology books, but this fact is only ancillary to McNiel’s central claim: Our God is present in the mess and muck and beauty of this earth. Have we even noticed? Or are we sleepwalking through life convinced that while creation might teach us a few things about God, God himself is found only in church buildings or in the pages of our Bibles?
That is no slight against our Bibles. Indeed, this is a book by someone who is familiar with Scripture and clearly seeks to be guided by Scripture. All Shall Be Well shouldn’t raise alarm bells for most evangelical readers. The book’s grounding in Scripture is only strengthened by McNiel’s thoughtful references to a very broad tradition, one that makes room for Richard Rohr and Rich Mullins, Star Wars and The Princess Bride.
Though the title is a reference not to Scripture but to the oft-quoted lines from the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich, McNiel’s title and subtitle (“Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World”) reminded me of two of the most significant and frequently emphasized phrases in the Old and New Testaments: wake up, and do not be afraid. “Awake, awake, Zion!” we read in Isaiah (52:1). “Awake, my soul!” the Psalmist cries (57:8). In Romans, we are told that the “hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber” (13:11), while those same words (“Wake up!”) reverberate in the final book of the Bible (Rev. 3:2).
Awakening to God’s presence, then, is a theme central to the whole narrative of Scripture, but despite its importance we seem to need frequent reminders. We are very like those sleepy bridesmaids with their oil lamps (Matt. 25:1–13). Why? McNiel’s book suggests an answer: We cannot wake to the beauty and the glory without also waking to the sorrow and the suffering. Or, as McNiel writes, “we know all too well that where there are flowers, there are thorns.” Is it any wonder so many of us go on choosing sleep?
I do not think most of us can bear to stay awake for long without internalizing the message of that second phrase: do not be afraid. We hear it in the voice of prophets: “… do not fear, for I am with you” (Isa. 41:10). We hear it in the voice of so many angels, and we hear it in Jesus’ own voice: “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Luke 12:32). In chapters organized according to the four seasons—from spring to winter—McNiel dives deep into the daily stuff of ordinary human life, and much of what she addresses head on are the things we humans exert so much effort trying to ignore: everything from our daily frustrations and ordinary tiredness to our unmet longings and our fear of suffering, aging, and death. “Why,” she asks, “is life so depleting, when we want so badly for it to be satisfying?”
Spring Is Coming
If all that sounds unbearably depressing, I have not done this book justice. In fact, McNiel’s primary gift to her reader is the picture she draws of Christian faith as a journey of abundant life marked primarily by gratitude and worship in and out of every season, something that becomes possible when we know that all shall be well and there is no reason to be afraid.
This is a book of questions that do not necessarily have answers, and the result of this honest asking was, for this reader, a profound sense of peace. Not many Christian books invite us to embrace uncertainty and unknowing, but by doing precisely that, All Shall Be Well invites us into a journey of hope. This hope is more real and more reliable precisely because it isn’t the result of false certainties. It isn’t the prize for taking shortcuts around life’s pain. And perhaps most importantly, it is a large, expansive hope. As McNiel reminds us, “the Christian faith centers itself, from first to last, in the hope of shalom, that redemption will come not only for you and me but for all creation.”
This is hope rooted in eschatology, and McNiel insists from the first pages of this book that “we are a people of eschatology, citizens of a kingdom that has been promised and begun, but not yet seen. We journey through darkness, bearing crushing burdens and devastating realities, but we have heard the notes of a beautiful song.” The four-season structure of this book, then, like the four-season structure of our planet and our own lives, is cyclical but not endlessly so. “The earth invites life to pour forth from death,” McNiel insists, and one day winter will give way to an eternal spring. This book is honest about the many things that leave us hopeless, but it also gives us a new appreciation for the resurrection power that is already at work on the earth.
We wait and all of creation waits for the fullness of that coming spring. But we do not wait alone. After all, creation isn’t ultimately proof of God—what comfort is proof when we suffer? Creation is presence. God is present in the world he has made; he is present in and through us. “He is present not only in prayer and meditation rooms but also in the dense fertility of life crashing everywhere,” McNiel insists. In the dirt of our gardens, in the beauty of rainbows and roses, God invites us to encounter him. Today. In vivid, almost propulsive prose, McNiel asks the question we should all be asking: Are we paying attention?
Christie Purifoy lives with her husband and four children in a farmhouse in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She is the author of Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace (Zondervan).
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