Chapter 1: Reflection 20 – To See and Not to See

At the end of her first chapter, after just describing the last of her showings and the Trinity’s dwelling and activity in the soul “for love,” Julian writes these words of hope, trust – and maybe, holy defiance: “And we shall not be overcome by our enemy.” 1 These words, both their message and placement, point to the end of Julian’s text. By that end, the religious tradition which she received will have been spoken once more, and that re-presentation will bear much likeness to that which had come before, but the unique way in which it is developed will be both “original” and “radical.” 2  Ultimately, Bernard McGinn summarizes: “Julian insists that there is no wrath in God, that there is no disobedience in Adam, and that there is no need for satisfaction to God for sin.” 3 Thus, a primary focus of the anchorite’s contemplative and literary labors can be found in what we generally refer to as “the Fall” – its context and its consequences. 4 Therefore, Julian’s writings are, at the very least, an invitation to reread the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.  

A pivotal moment in the Genesis narrative of the Fall comes with the conversation between the Serpent and Eve which focuses on the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, fruit which God forbids Adam to eat just before the creation of Eve. God had indicated to Adam that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will lead to death, but the Serpent counters, telling Eve that it will lead not to death but to their eyes being opened, to their being like gods, knowing good and evil. After this brief interaction with the Serpent, Eve “saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold”: 5

A powerful and poignant commentary on this passage was once offered by a Buddhist scholar, who was in no way referencing Genesis, or anything to do with Christianity for that matter. Indeed, he was asked in an interview to explain the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of “emptiness”:

Emptiness doesn’t mean nothingness. Emptiness means a lack of an over-substantialized status that we see in phenomena. Now, that’s a loaded sentence. But even in our raw sensation, we don’t see things as they actually are. We see them as more than they are. And that’s a huge problem. Because even in raw sensation we see something more than what it is … than what is there – and that draws us into lust and hatred. And so, the problem is to see things without that overlay. But the overlay doesn’t come from our thinking. The overlay is right there, in what we see with our eyes. Wow … it’s like: How do you get out of the mess? So, there’s a tremendous amount of study to try to figure out what this mistake is, and how we’re being sucked into wanting what isn’t even there. 6

In his teaching notes for conferences on Genesis in 1956-1957, TM offers insight into Eve’s – and indeed, our own, manner of perception. In the person of Eve we see ourselves – we see ourselves “seeing”: 

Like all things God has created, the tree is good and beautiful, but [Eve] sees in it an exaggerated and illusory goodness and beauty, magnified by the lying promise of the devil. It appears to her in a sense more beautiful and desirable than the other trees because of the vain hope of fulfillment which she conceives to be possible there. Thus we have the basic attitude which allows of sin … a propensity toward illusory good, to which we are impelled by the coloring our own subjective desires give to it. In other words, here is a new illumination: the light projected on things by our own will and our own desire, the transforming action of our own illusory hopes and ambitions … ‘Delightful to behold’ 7


  1. “The sixteenth is that the blisseful trinity our maker, in Christ Jesu our saviour, endlesly wonneth in our soule, worshipfully rewling and yeming all things, us mightly and wisely saving and keping for love. And we shall not be overcome of our enemy.” (Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Long Text (LT), Chapter 1, lines 47-50, page 125.) “The sixteenth [revelation] is that the blessed Trinity our Creator dwells eternally in our soul in Christ Jesus our savior, honorably ruling and governing all things, powerfully and wisely saving and preserving us out of love. And we shall not be overcome by our enemy.” This is a slightly modified translation taken from Julian of Norwich, Showings. Translated from the Critical Text with an Introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1978, page 177.
  2. The verb “developed” is used intentionally here. The nineteenth century English theologian, John Henry Newman, writes: [F]rom the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and … the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation. This may be called the Theory of Development of Doctrine …” (John Henry Newman, “Introduction.” An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine. The Newman Reader, The National Institute for Newman Studies, 1878 Edition, Section 21. Web address: The words, “original” and “radical” are those of Bernard McGinn from 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 470.
  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 470.
  4. Julian’s areas of focus here resonate with those of TM. Indeed, Patrick O’Connell affirms: “Merton repeatedly discusses the fall and its consequences throughout his writings.” And indeed, Professor O’Connell states: “The symbolism of paradise, its loss in the fall and its recovery through the death and resurrection of Christ, is one of the most central and powerful elements in Merton’s spiritual teaching.” (Thomas Merton, Notes on Genesis and Exodus. Novitiate Conferences on Scripture and Liturgy 2. Edited with an Introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021, note 15, page xvii and note 10, page xv respectively.)
  5. Emphasis Mine. Table One below provides the Latin Vulgate, English Douay-Rheims, and the Middle English Wycliffe Bible translations of Genesis 3:1-6.
  6. “Wisdom Podcast 008 – Jeffrey Hopkins: The Life of a Buddhist Scholar.” Wisdom Publications Podcast, Minutes: 45:45- 47:14: Jeffrey Hopkins, is Emeritus professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, where he taught for more than three decades, beginning in 1973.  From 1979 to 1989, he was the Dalai Lama‘s chief interpreter into English. Professor Hopkins has authored more than twenty-five books about Tibetan Buddhism, among them the highly influential Meditation on Emptiness, which appeared in 1983. The Tibetan words that seem to capture something of the process of seeing which Professor Hopkins is here referencing are sgro btags pa (“superimposed; exaggerated; reified”) and sgro ‘dogs (“superimposition; exaggeration; reification; overestimation”). See The UMA Institute for Tibetan Studies Tibetan-Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Editor: Jeffrey Hopkins. Dyke, VA: UMA Institute for Tibetan Studies, 2016, page 136. Online:
  7. Thomas Merton, Notes on Genesis and Exodus. Novitiate Conferences on Scripture and Liturgy 2. Edited with an Introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021, page xvi. Professor O’Connell quotes TM, from another piece of writing, referencing the tree that is in the middle of the garden as “this tree of self.” (Ibid., note 11, page xvi).
Table One

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