A Review of
All Shall Be Well:
Awakening to God’s Presence
in His Messy, Abundant World
Reviewed by Tammy Perlmutter
I co-founded Deeply Rooted, a women’s worship and arts gathering in Chicago. In May, Catherine McNiel kindly agreed to speak for us when someone else cancelled. Thinking about how to introduce her, I asked if I could read a paragraph from her new book, All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World, instead of reading a scripted bio. She had only one copy there and I had the honor of being the first person to read aloud from it. I skimmed through the book looking for a paragraph that would capture the audience. I barely skimmed Chapter 1 when I landed on it.
. . . do not mistake hope for safety. Hope breaks us open. Hope is never naive to suffering, is synonymous not with optimism but with courage. Hope knows with certainty that life overflows with both beauty and pain, and we cannot know which will rise to meet us. Trembling with possibility, hope sidles up boldly to despair, nestles close, and puts down roots. These two—hope and despair—stand always side by side, each determined to outlast the other. If we choose hope, we must join the standoff, with hearts and hands wide open, fighting the urge to fade into despair.
That quote came at the perfect time for myself and many other women at Deeply Rooted. It had been raining for weeks, dark, wet, and depressing; then we’d have a day with a high of 84 and a low of 45. It was like meteorological whiplash. Chicagoans had lost all trust in Spring and we were battered by betrayal.
McNiel’s clarion call to hope broke us open, rescuing us from passive, mystical emotion to stalwart courage in the face of the unknown—and our own longings. An invitation to flourish, to join the standoff, which is exactly what her book encourages—bringing to mind Henry David Thoreau’s famous words In Walden, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
In the first pages, the author introduces us to the Gardener, wearing overalls and mucking about in the dirt with loving intention as he creates the first living being. This sets the stage for her following sections, each based on a season and a season of life, focusing on God’s unchanging transcendence and immanence. She takes us into the very heart of Bible stories that have shaped us, employing striking metaphors and poignant homespun epiphanies to help us see ourselves in those adventures and misadventures.
McNiel’s astute observances bring to the fore concepts and calling we easily overlook or subconsciously bury, sacrificing presence and intention on the altar of busy and clutter. The busyness we take on as a way to disengage in order to produce more and better, and the clutter that results in our hearts and minds as we feverishly stuff it all down until we have “time” and “space” to face it.
For example, our natural human reaction to push back against mystery and unknowing instead of abiding in them with a sense of wonder and expectancy. Or our tendency to unsuccessfully attempt conquering the chaos in our lives—whether it be an uncontrollable toddler in the throes of a tantrum that could be measured on the Richter scale, or the constant enervating iron-sharpening-iron encounters with those God has given us to love and care for.
It seems that God thrives and rejoices in the pandemonium of living things bumping constantly against each other—and believes that we do too. Anyone who has attempted living both alone and in a crowded household knows that much fulfillment comes out of relationships, but also a great deal of clamor and crazy. We flourish through jumping into the crazy, by surrounding ourselves with creation and burgeoning abundance.
At the end of each chapter McNiel presents an opportunity to deeply and personally engage with her ideas through Cultivating Intimacy, Wonder, Abundance, and Endurance, a few of the section titles. She gives suggestions about purposefully engaging your senses with nature along with looking inside and reflecting and developing new habits that inspire transformation.
I found these spiritual exercises and disciplines, based on St Ignatius’s Prayer of Examen, both grounding and dynamic. His own words about his reason for creating the Examen is to help us “develop a reflective habit of mind that is constantly attuned to God’s presence.” The author’s interpretation and execution of the Examen is powerful in its simplicity and depth.
In the chapter on abundance and purpose the author writes about the theological and philosophical concept called telos, a Greek word meaning “end purpose, or goal,” and its connection to the purpose of summer, “all living things dash toward becoming.” According to Mark McMinn, for ourselves, it speaks of “finding the natural and purposeful end of what it means to be fully human.” One of the questions McNiel poses for us to contemplate is, “What sort of telos are you heading towards?” while calling us to “sit in the cacophony that fills your life in this season. Acknowledge that God is in these places too. Ask him to reveal himself to you even in the chaos.”
Recurrent themes in the book center around our attempts to “wrestle God into a formula,” becoming at home in the unknowing, surrendering control for deeper faith, “sacramental beholding,” and wastelands and wildernesses that bring life out of death. Her words don’t come off preachy or pompous nor do they downplay tragedy and suffering; instead, they’re a precious invitation from a friend to dig hard, notice everything, and revel in our own humble creatureliness.
Her imagery and descriptions bring to mind A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and much of Mary Oliver’s poetry. McNiel draws on deep spiritual truths to spark us to action, reminding us that there is beauty waiting to be discovered in everything: lengthening nights, the long-awaited thaw, the daffodils that break through packed dirt to lead us into Spring.
I began reading All Shall Be Well on my vacation to the East Coast. Two weeks in two different states were forecasted to be lousy with rain. Amazingly, it only barely rained two out of 18 days. I’m blowing through the beginning chapters about Spring so I can get to the heat and sun and light.
McNiel does not disappoint with her captivating descriptions of summer lushness and pageantry, so much so that I began craving nature like a junkie jonesin’ for a chlorophyll fix. The sun’s rays warming up my skin felt like a healing elixir flowing in my veins. I wasn’t even put off when a blackbird attacked my head while I was reveling in the woods. It was enough just to be alive in it all. I even sent McNiel pictures of the various places and revealed beauty I encountered as a result of responding to her prodding to get out and take it all in.
McNiel’s invitation has continued to capture my attention through each seasonal chapter, whether she is writing about the autumn of midlife or the winter dormancy of older adulthood. Her title, taken from a prayer by Julian Norwich, promises that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Whatever your “all manner of things” is, there is hope to be cultivated, rest to surrender to, and intimacy to awaken to.
Tammy Perlmutter is founder and curator of The Mudroom (mudroomblog.com), a collaborative blog encouraging women to speak truth, love hard, and enter in with each other. She is a member of Redbud Writers Guild, an urban beekeeper, and lives in an intentional Christian community in Chicago.