Chapter 2: Reflection 10 – Opening Wide the Inner Eye of the Soul

Julian’s desire for a deeper “mind of the passion of Christ” clearly involves the ability to “see” his sufferings, and that visual access is intended to be a type of window through which she can experience a more intimate solidarity and communion with Christ, and with the others who loved him. 1 These others, who include Mary his Mother and Mary Magdalene, are identified as “his true lovers” who saw his pains, and through that seeing, “suffered with” him. 2 Julian’s longs to be one of these “lovers” and to have “suffered with them.” Julian names this experience of “suffering with”:

And therefore I desired a bodely sight, wherein I might have more knowinge of the bodily paines of our saviour, and of the compassion of our lady, and of all his true lovers that were living that time and saw his paines. 3

In medieval spirituality, the ultimate model of devotional response to Christ’s Passion was the “compassion” – the “suffering with” – of his Blessed Mother. 4 Aelred of Rievaulx directly invites his sister to identify with it:

[D]raw near to the Cross with the Virgin Mother and the virgin disciple, and look at close quarters upon that face in all its pallor. What then? Will your eyes be dry as you see your most loving Lady in tears? Will you not weep as her soul is pierced by the sword of sorrow? Will there be no sob from you as you hear him say to his Mother: ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John: ‘Behold your mother.’ 5

The practice of such compassion, however, was understood to involve much more than a momentary affective and devotional identification. The 14th century text, The Privity of the Passion, explains to its reader the form, the depth, and the quality of contemplative vision involved in such meditation as well as the metanoic transformation it could generate:  

Whoever desires to find comfort and spiritual joy in the Passion and in the cross of our Lord Jesus needs to concentrate on them and to forget and set at naught all other business. And indeed I fully believe that whoever would busy himself with all his heart and meditate on this glorious Passion and all its circumstances would be changed and brought to a new state of living. For he who examines it continually with deep thought and with all his heart shall find very many things stirring him to new compassion, new love, new spiritual comfort, and so shall he be brought into a new spiritual sweetness. 

To achieve this state that I speak of, I believe that a man needs to concentrate the acuity of his mind and open wide the inner eye of his soul to behold this blessed Passion; he needs to forget and cast behind him for the time all other occupations and business. He must make himself present in his thought as if he saw with his bodily eye all the things that happened around the cross regarding the glorious Passion of our Lord Jesus, not briefly and fleetingly, but lovingly, fully, and continually, not erratically nor with dullness and heaviness of spirit. Therefore every man ought to think with great reverence and seriousness on the life of our Lord Jesus and the deeds that he wrought on earth for mankind. Most of all, with much gravity and devotion, he ought to set all his heart and all his powers on this glorious Passion, for here Jesus shows the most love and charity to us, which ought to enflame all our hearts to love him. And therefore set yourself, that is your mind, entirely to it. 6


  1. A scriptural touchstone for medieval Passion meditations is the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of John which describes the crucifixion of Jesus. The chapter begins with Jesus being scourged by the order of Pilate and then being crowned with thorns, robed in purple, and mocked by soldiers of the Roman governor. When Jesus is ultimately brought to Golgotha [Calvary], the soldiers crucify him and divide up his garments upon them. The text then transitions to the attendance of the afflicted and dying Jesus by his family and disciples: “Stabant autem iuxta crucem Iesu mater eius et soror matris eius Maria Cleopae et Maria Magdalene cum vidisset ergo Iesus matrem et discipulum stantem quem diligebat dicit matri suae mulier ecce filius tuus …” (Vulgate). Douay-Rheims: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen. When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son.” (John 19.25-26).
  2. Professors Watson and Jenkins note: “The phrase ‘lovers of God’ is … found in several works by Richard Rolle (d. 1349) and other vernacular texts, such as … A Ladder of Four Rungs.” (Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, note 26, page 12.) And as indicated in Reflection 1.18 above, the Middle English translator of Guigo II’s The Ladder of Monks inserts the phrase to expand the intended audience beyond the confines of the monastic cloister to include others seeking to make the ascent: “As I was occupied on a day in bodyly traueyle and thouʒt on gostly werkys that were nedefulle to Goddis seruauntys, foure gostly werkes comme soon to my mynde, that is to sey: Lesson, Meditacion, Orison, and Contemplacion. This is a ladder of cloysterers, & of othere Goddis lovers, by the whiche they clymbe from eerth into heuyn.” (Emphasis mine. Quoted in Phyllis Hodgson, “A Ladder of Foure Ronges by the Whiche Men mowe wele clyme to Heven.” A Study of the Prose Style of a Middle English Translation. Modern Language Review. 1949, 44(4), page 474. In the tradition of Aelred’s A Rule of Life for a Recluse, Richard Rolle (1300-1349) wrote a rule of life for a female anchorite entitled, “The Form of Living,” in which, at one point, he counsels: “And if þou with gret desire offre þi priers, with gret feruour coueit [desire, long] to se hym, and sek non erthly comfort bot þe sauour [taste] of heuyn, and in contemplacioun þerof haue þi delite, wondrefully Ihesu worcheth [works] in his louers …” (“The Form of Living,” in Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. Edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Oxford, U.K.: The Early English Text Society – Oxford University Press, 1988, page 9.) In a reflection on the seven last “words” of Jesus, The Privity of the Passion invites this meditation: “The fyfte worde was: «I thryste». This was a bitter worde full of compassione bothe to his modir & to seynt Iohn¯ & to all his frendis [friends] þat louede hym tendirly.” It is with this intimate sense of family, friendship, and community that Julian invests the word “lovers” here. (Emphasis mine. (“The Privity of the Passion,” Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Followers. Edited by C. Horstmann. D.S Brewer, 1985/1999, page 207.) 
  3. 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 11-13, pages 127 and 129. Seeing – vision – is here again presented by Julian as a point of access for “knowing,” and specifically knowing the physical pain of Jesus and the spiritual suffering his Mother experienced in compassion for his pain. In a presentation entitled, “The Compassion of the Mystics,” scholar Bernard McGinn provides a brief outline history of the Latin word “compassio,” which carries the meaning of ‘suffering with.’ The professor explains that “compassio” is not “a classical Latin word” and that “you won’t find it in the ancient authors.” The word “originated in Christian Latin, and it’s first found in Tertullian, writing about the year 200. ‘Compassio’ as a noun does not appear in the Vulgate Bible, although the verb form, ‘compatior,’ to suffer with, is used six different times. But … ‘misereor’and ‘misericordia,’ to have mercy or mercy itself, these words appear hundreds of times in the Vulgate … So ‘compassio’ is … a kind of late arrival.” (Bernard McGinn, “The Compassion of the Mystics,” Posted on YouTube by UCalgaryCCT, minutes 09:20-10:06: ) And the word “compassion” is a relatively “late arrival” in the English language, with the Oxford English Dictionary’s first examples dating from the 14th century. The two definitions of the word that dictionary offers are 1). “Suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow-feeling, sympathy” and 2). “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.” “compassion, n.”. Oxford English Dictionary. Volume III cham-creeky. Second Edition. Prepared by J.A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, page 597. Internet Archive:
  4. The Virgin Mother is a pivotal presence in medieval writings focused on the Passion of Christ. Her role as visual witness, and indeed, as co-suffering participant provided medieval readers and practitioners a guide, a model, and a standard for engaging the Passion and Death of Christ – and for drawing the meaning of those redemptive acts even deeper into their hearts and minds.
  5. Aelred of Rievaulx, “A Rule of Life for Recluse.” Translated by Mary Paul Macpherson. Aelred of Reivaulx: Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer. Ed. M. Basil Pennington. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1971, page 90. Latin: “At tu, virgo, cui major est apud Virginis Filium confidentia quam mulieribus, quae longe stant, cum matre virgine et discipulo virgine accede ad crucem, et perfusum pallore vultum cominus intuere. Quid ergo? Tu sine lacrymis, amantissimae dominae lacrymas videbis? Tu siccis oculis manes, et ejus animam pertransiit gladius doloris? Tu sine singultu audies dicentem matri: Mulier, ecce filius tuus …” (Abbatis Rievallis, “De Institutione Inclusarum,” Estratto da Patrologia Latina PL 32, col. 1451-74, J. P. Migne 1841, (Caput LXIII). Retrieved from ora-et-labora.net )
  6. “The Privity of the Passion.” Translated by Denise N. Baker. Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation. Edited by Thomas H. Bestul and Anne Clark Bartlett. Cornell University Press, 2018, pages 90 and 91. Internet Archive: Middle English: “Who so desyres to ffynd comforthe and gostely gladnes in þe Passione and in þe croysse of owre lorde Ihesu, hym nedis with a besy thoghte ffor to duell in it and all oþer besynes forgette and sett at noghte: and sothely I trowe fully þat who so wolde besy hyme with all his herte and all his mynde and vmbethynke hym of this gloryus Passione and all the circumstance thare-off, It sulde bryng hym and chaunge hyme In to a new state of lyfynge. For he þat incerches it with depe thoghte and with all hys hert lastandly, he sall fynde full many thynges thare-In styrande hym to newe compassione, newe luffe, newe gostely comforthe, and so sall he be broghte in to a newe gostely swettnesse. [To gete þis state] þat I speke of, I trowe þat a mane behoued to rayse vp all þe scharpenes of his mynde & opyne whyde the Inere eghe of his soule In to be-holdynge of þis b[l]esside passione, and forgett & caste be-hynd hyme for þe tyme all oþer Ocupacyouns & besynes; and that he make hym-selfe present in his thoghte as if he sawe fully with his bodyly eghe all the thyngys þat be-fell abowte þe crosse and þe glorious passione of oure lorde Ihesu; and þat noghte schortly & passandly, bot lufandly, besely, habundandly, & lastandly; noghte sturdandly, ne with dullnes & hevines of sperit. Þof euery man aughte with grett reuerance & sadnes to thynk one all þe leuynge & dedys of oure lorde Ihesu þat he wroghte in erthe for man-kynde, neuer-þe-lesse mekyll more besyly, with mekill sadnes & deuocyone, awe hym to sett all his herte & all his myghte abowte þis glorious passione: ffor here-In he schewes moste lufe & charite to vs, þe wilke aughte to bryne all oure hertes in lufe to hym. And ther-for sett thy-selfe, þat es þi mynde, þer-to all holly …” From “The Privity of the Passion.” C. Horstman. Ed. Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Followers. 2 vols. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1896, page 198. Online access through the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse:;view=fulltext Before her modern English translation of the “The Privity of the Passion,” Professor Denise Baker introduces the text, explaining that it represents “a free translation of a selection from the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi into a northern dialect of Middle English.” This Latin text “was probably composed around 1300 by John of Caulibus … a Franciscan from Tuscany.” And after outlining the manuscript evidence found in English libraries, Professor Baker affirms with the words of scholar Michael Sargent that “the Meditationes vitae Christi, either in its original Latin or in its various Middle English translations, was ‘the most popular major devotional or mystical text in England in the later middle ages.’” Professor Baker also clarifies the “techniques” used in such texts to effect change within the reader practitioner: “Primary among the techniques of these works are frequent injunctions to the meditator to ‘see’ the scene being described. For examples, The Privity begins with a promise of ‘new spiritual comfort’ to the person who concentrates all ‘the acuity of his mind and open[s] wide the inner eye of his soul to behold this blessed Passion … [and] make[s] himself present in his thought as if he saw with his bodily eye all the things that happened around the cross regarding the glorious Passion of our Lord Jesus, not briefly and fleetingly, but lovingly, fully, and continually.’ To aid the meditator in the process of visualization, the Middle English translator follows John of Caulibus in using vivid and evocative language. Christ’s scourging, for example, is described with concrete imagery and precise details. ‘He was beaten again and again, blister upon blister, and wound upon wound, until both the beaters and the spectators were weary, and then they unbound him. Behold him here meekly and diligently. If you are able to have no compassion for your Lord Jesus, know well that your heart is harder than stone.’ The last sentence exemplifies another method used to incite an emotional response: direct address either to the meditator (as above) or to the historical persons who are the subject of meditation.” Denise N. Baker. “The Privity of the Passion.” Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation. Edited by Thomas H. Bestul and Anne Clark Bartlett. Cornell University Press, 2018, pages 85-89.

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