Chapter 2: Refection 1 – An Evanescent Anonymity

In Eve’s exchange with the Serpent, the Mother of All Living offers a teaching, an exemplum, of the tender and illusive condition that is at the heart of all human suffering – our inability to see things as they really are. 1 Indeed, we see them “as more than they are.” And then, based on this distorted perception, we think thoughts, experience feelings and emotions, and take actions in response to “what isn’t even there.” A tragic irony of the Genesis story is thus captured in the words that come directly after the taking and the eating of the fruit: “and the eyes of both were opened” [et aperti sunt oculi amborum]. However, in reality, the obscuration of vision – the blindness – only deepens with action that is based upon it, leading to habituated repetition of distorted perceptions, thoughts, and emotions and yet more actions which, each in their turn, fuel and perpetuate the cycle, over and over and over again. The Tibetan and Indian Buddhist traditions liken this relentless process to a water bucket in a well or to the buckets of a water wheel – attached, fastened, and bound without awareness, moving and turning without control. 2

One of the primary psychological mechanisms rooted on our inability to see things as they really are is an instinctive, automatized clinging and grasping, like the gestures of a person walking in a dark room desperately reaching out to grab and hold onto something – anything – solid.  And this clinging and grasping find their primary object in “the self” – and by extension in those things we identify as belonging to the self. The 7th century Indian Buddhist scholar, Chandrakirti, venerates the compassion which arises from gazing upon these processes of unfreedom: “Beings think ‘I’ at first, and cling to self; / They think of ‘mine’ and are attached to things. / They thus turn helplessly as buckets on a water wheel, /    And to compassion for such beings I bow down!” 3

At the beginning of her second chapter, Julian writes: “This revelation was shewed to a simple creature unletterde, living in deadly flesh, the yer of our lord 1373, the thirteenth day of May.” 4 Now the Middle English Dictionary indicates that the adjective “lettred” carries meanings such as “literate; able to read Latin; educated; training (in divinity, law)” and that being “not lettred’ can mean “illiterate, uneducated; ignorant of Latin.” 5 But what specifically is Julian trying to say about herself in using the word? Scholars have responded to this question in a variety of ways. 6 But ultimately, as theologian Denys Turner succinctly states: “The fact is … that we have no certain idea what Julian could read, did read, or had read to her.” 7 Julian’s use of the word “unletterde” to describe herself is thus consistent with the way in which she presents herself in general: “Who is Julian? We know very little about her apart from the two versions of her text, which are reticent about her life.” 8 Lynn Staley Johnson notes the way in which Julian, in her “depersonalized” Long Text, “trims some things that make the short text a more personal work.” 9 Fathers Colledge and Walsh point out Julian’s tendency in the Long Text to change “personal pronouns from singular to plural to emphasize the applicability of the showings to every [one’s] spiritual condition.”  10 The words “I” and “my” still very much appear in that text, but, reinforced by the near absence of any historically specific information about the anchorite’s identify, their presence is divested – through a kind of kenotic “laying aside” of self – of a degree of substance and solidity, and simultaneously infused with a degree of evanescent anonymity. 11 And yet, Julian skillfully titrates just enough integrity and presence into the words “I” and “my” to both effectively and authoritatively bear the Word.


  1. “And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3.20, DRB). [et vocavit Adam nomen uxoris suae Hava eo quod mater esset cunctorum viventium].
  2. Scholar Jeffrey Hopkins offers guidance for meditation on this image: “In meditation, imagine a bucket traveling in a well, tied to a wheel, controlled by the operator of the mechanism, going down into the dark depths and up to the brighter top over and over again, being drawn up with difficulty and strain and easily descending back down to the bottom, involved in a process the order of which is difficult to determine, and while clattering against the sides of the well, being battered and broken.” (Jeffrey Hopkins, Cultivating Compassion: A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Broadway Books, 2001, page 162.)
  3. Chandrakirti, Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Jamgon Mipham. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002, Chapter One, verse 3, page 59. Another English translation of the verse: “I bow down to this compassion arising for all living beings who first generated self-infatuation through the thought ‘I,’ and then attachment to objects through the thought ‘This is mine,’ so that like a paddlewheel they wander round and round devoid of self-determination.” (The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika. C. W. Huntington, Jr. with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989, page 149). Grasping is one of the links in what is referred to as “The Twelve Link of Dependent Origination.” Scholar Francesca Fremantle offers this reflection on “grasping”: “Why do states of mind arise? Why do we continuously create our version of the world from moment to moment … The word for this link literally means appropriation or taking to oneself, and it symbolized by a figure picking fruit from a tree. Grasping is the opposite of giving and letting go. We hold on tight to our opinions, our views of life, and our ideas about ideas about ourselves; again and again we grasp at the next thought, the next emotion, the next experience; at the moment of death, we grasp at the next life.” (Emphasis mine. Francesca Fremantle, Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2001, page 25.) These energies resonate with those that TM links with what he calls “the false self”: “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self … And such a self cannot help but be an illusion …. All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961, page 34-35.) Internet Archive:
  4. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, lines 1-2, page 125.
  5. “lettred” in the Middle English Dictionary of the Middle English Compendium:
  6. Father John-Julian, OJN, wryly notes: “There are as many opinions about Julian’s education as there are commentators … (Father John-Julian, OJN, The Complete Julian of Norwich. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2009, page 27.) Acknowledging the “true Christian humility” which informs Julian self-representation, Edmund College and James Walsh nonetheless offer a most robust estimation of the anchorite’s capacities: “What is however beyond any doubt is that when young Julian had received an exceptionally good grounding in Latin, in Scripture and in the liberal arts, and that thereafter she was able and permitted to read widely in Latin and vernacular spiritual classics … [S]he was a highly accomplished rhetorician who could employ with ease the terms and concepts of the philosophers …. Her book is a great monument to the Western monastic traditions of lectio divina of which she was heiress; and the learning she had inherited began and continued in the loving, prayerful study and memorization of sacred scripture.” (A Book of Showings of the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. Part One: Introduction and The Short Text. Edited by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A and James Walsh, S.J. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978, pages 44-45). Referencing the resonances of tradition in Julian’s writings, scholar Grace Jantzen, with a degree of reserve, notes: “Her solidarity with the patristic and spiritual writings of the early and medieval Christian tradition … might but need not indicate that she had read these authors herself …. She does not name or cite any authors explicitly, and though it is clear that she has absorbed much from the tradition, it is not demonstrable (though it might well be true) that she was able to read Latin for herself. Nevertheless, it is clear that Julian had at least received instruction, that she could probably read and write in the vernacular, and perhaps could read some Latin, at least by the time of the Long Text.” (Grace M. Jantzen, Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian. New York: Paulist Press, 1988, page 17.) Ultimately, as Fathers Colledge and Walsh succinctly affirm: “Whatever ‘unlettered’ may mean here, it cannot be ‘illiterate.’” (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, page 177).  
  7. “The fact is, then, that we have no certain idea what Julian could read, did read, or had read to her. On the other hand, if the safest and most conservative view concerning Julian’s theological sources is that she probably had not read standard theological treatises in any systematic way, that only goes to show the relative unimportance of formal Latin literacy in the late Middle Ages in terms of the transmission of theological traditions. In, in a narrow sense, Julian does not know these theological authorities as a formally trained medieval theologian would have, there is a range of broader senses in which Julian could have known the medieval theological traditions well. Theologically she comes from the same place that they do.” Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, page 37. Bernard McGinn adds additional perspective: “The breadth and depth of Julian’s theology make it difficult to believe that she did not have access to a range of theological and spiritual authors, but it is impossible to determine how this material reached her …. Nothing is really known for sure. The important thing about Julian is not how she may have gained her theological expertise but what she did with it.” (Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism: 1350-1550. The Presence of God, Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2012, page 429.) 
  8. Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism: 1350-1550. The Presence of God, Volume 5. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2012, page 425.
  9. Lynn Staley Johnson, “The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian and Norwich and Margery Kempe.” Speculum, vol. 66, no. 4, 1991, pages 833 and 832 respectively.
  10. A Book of Showings of the Anchoress Julian of Norwich. Part Two: The Long Text, Appendix, Bibliography, Glossary, Index. Edited by Edmund College, O.S.A and James Walsh, S.J. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978, page 285.
  11. Kenosis is a concept that is often misunderstood, particularly by contemporary theologians. Put quite simply, it involves strategies for laying aside self-consciousness.” Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, “’With Mekeness Aske Perseverantly’: On Reading Julian of Norwich.” Mystics Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3/4, Penn State University Press, 2004, page 132. I am very grateful for the scholarship and reflections of Professor Gillespie and Maggie Ross on Julian’s writings. They are a significant resource for this series of reflections. See also Vincent Gillespie and Maggie Ross, “The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich,” The Medieval Mystical Tradition, 5. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992, pages 53-77.

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