On page 425 of the fifth volume of his magisterial work, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, after 2000 pages of richly researched, insightfully interpreted, and warmly delivered teachings on the Saints and the Greats of the preceding tradition, Bernard McGinn begins his essay on Julian of Norwich with these words: “May 13, 1373. An English woman of thirty-and-a-half years lay dying in the city of Norwich. So begins one of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of Christian mysticism.” 1 It is during this grave illness that Julian experienced her visions of Jesus, visions she refers to as “sheweings or revelations.” 2 She would spend much of the rest of her life reflecting and meditating on, as well as writing about, the “mening” of these experiences. This was no doubt difficult work, as her writings consistently give evidence that she struggled long and hard to reconcile her radical visions of divine love with the teachings of the Church of which she affirmed herself to be a faithful daughter: “And in this he will that we kepe us in the faith and truth of holy church.” 3 It must also be affirmed here at the beginning of this series of meditations, that another factor which energized her remarkable efforts was the need, the benefit, and the comfort of others – “my even-Christians.”
Julian’s writings come down to us in two forms, which are frequently referred to as the “Short Text” and the “Long Text.” Many very capable scholars have diligently explored and analyzed the contents and the features of these works and their relationship to each other. While a number of theories of composition have been posited about them, a general consensus is that the “Short Text” (ca. 11,000 words) was written first and possibility relatively close to the time of Julian’s illness and actual visionary experience. And the “Long Text” (ca. 63,500 words) seems to represent the fruit of years of contemplative reflection and development. The latter text, which actually bears the title, “A Revelation of Love,” was composed in the 1390’s and would seem “to have gone through several revisions before it was finished, probably in the first or even second decade of the fifteenth century.” 4 Julian’s writings have been identified by scholars as the first known to have been authored by a woman in the English language. 5
In the first decades and centuries after their composition, evidence indicates that Julian’s writings did not have a wide readership and what modest audience there was seems to have focused its attention on the Long Text. Professor McGinn explains that this text was read in “some houses of English religious women,” and that “[a]fter the Reformation some of these nuns fled to the Continent, bringing Julian’s text with them.” 6 But for the most part, what audience Julian’s works had can be said to have been marginal or underground until the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when she was rediscovered and made known, as in T.S. Eliot’s 1942 poem, “Little Gidding.” 7 It was in the latter half of the 20th century that Julian’s readership and scholarship on her writings exploded.
Given their unique hidden and subterranean history and their dynamic rediscovery, Julian’s writings bear a striking resonance with what Tibetans call “treasures.” Such texts or relics were buried or concealed in some fashion so that they might be discovered and shared in the future, in times in specific need of their “wisdom and blessings.” 8
- Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism – 1350-1550. The Presence of God. Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Herder & Herder, 2021, page 425.
- Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love. Edited by Marion Glasscoe. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1986, Chapter 1, page 1.
- Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 1, Lines 37and 38, page 125.
- Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism – 1350-1550. The Presence of God. Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Herder & Herder, 2021, page 425. I am deeply grateful to Professor McGinn for his helpful summary of the rather dizzying amount of scholarly research published on Julian’s texts and on theories regarding the method and chronology of her writing process. His overview serves as a foundation for this paragraph. In the end, it is not a goal of the present study to explore such issues. Please note, the vast majority of references to and quotations of Julian’s writings will focus on the Long Text, and references to the Short Text will be specifically identified as such.
- Scholars affirm this singular distinction in a variety of ways: “Julian is the earliest known woman writer in English.” Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism – 1350-1550. The Presence of God. Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Herder & Herder, 2021, page 425. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins identify Julian’s Short Text specifically as “the earliest writing in English we know to be by a woman.” Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, page 3.
- Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism – 1350-1550. The Presence of God. Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Herder & Herder, 2021, page 426.
- An excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s poem with Julian’s words italicized: “Quick now, here, now, always– / A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well /When the tongues of flames are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.” Retrieved from: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html
- These “treasures” are referred to in Tibetan as “terma.” Holly Gayley, “What is Terma?” Shambhala Times: Community News Magazine. November 18, 2018. Retrieved from: https://shambhalatimes.org/2018/11/18/what-is-terma/ In the same article, Professor Gayley offers the following succinct description: “Terma texts contain Buddhist teachings intended for troubled times as a source of renewed wisdom and blessings.” The text known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead emerges out of such a “treasure” tradition. Its actual Tibetan title translates into English as, The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States. Believed within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to have been written centuries earlier, this text was discovered and revealed in the 14th century by Terton Karma Lingpa (1326–1386). The editors of the first complete English language translation of this text offer the following introduction to the “treasure” tradition: “The Sanskrit nidhi (Tib. gter-ma), refers to those sacred Buddhist texts and objects which were concealed in the past in order that they might be protected and revealed in the future for the benefit of posterity.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation. Translated by Gyurme Dorje. Edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006, page 519. See also: Janet B. Gyatso. “Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature.” Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Essays in Honor of Geshe Lhundup Sopa. Edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion, 1996, page 147-169. Online: https://www.tsemrinpoche.com/download/Buddhism-General/en/Jose%20Ignacio%20Cabezon%20and%20Roger%20R.%20Jackson%20-%20Tibetan%20Literature%20-%20Studies%20in%20Genre.pdf Also: Tulku Thondup Rinpoche. Hidden Treasures of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Edited by Harold Talbott. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997. Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/hiddenteachingso00thon/page/n9/mode/2up?view=theater
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