At the end of A Revelation of Love, the anchorite Julian of Norwich (c.1343-c.1416) writes, “This book is begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as I see it.” 1 This seemingly simply statement is an authentic act of genuine humility. It is not a rhetorical flourish made to feign modesty, as many writers do at the beginning or the end of their labors. No, this acknowledgement on the part of Julian is an affirmation of all the words that preceded it, coupled naturally with a sense that what she has seen of “Divine Love” and what she has written about it can only in the end be “partial.” 2 Indeed, for any one of us, what we can manage to glimpse “through a mirror dimly” of what is truly Real can only be thus while we live in our present state. Yet, that glimpse must not be dismissed, for it contributes to something much greater and more vast, an organic process through which Divine Love endlessly and earnestly works to speak itself to us, give itself to us. So Julian acknowledges what she has experienced of this revelation, and then offers it freely to us her audience to continue that work. As has been insightfully said of this moment in her text, “responsibility shifts from writer to readers to continue to ‘performe’ A Revelation until it is done.” 3
Let it be said right from the start that what follows will be only “partial” as well. But it is offered in the hope that it may contribute something to this moment in history when the Christian family is attempting to speak the unimaginable breadth of Divine Love anew to a wearied and frenzied world which so desperately longs for and awaits such a healing balm. This particular work finds its originating source in three meetings that took place in Dharamsala, India during the Octave of All Saints in 1968 between the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton (TM), and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In those encounters, a dialogue was begun between two people representing religious and spiritual traditions that mark as their very center, their heart, the practice of love and great compassion. That dialogue and the hope that TM clearly envisioned for its future was dealt a tragic blow in TM’s unexpected death weeks later. This commentary is an attempt to continue something of that dialogue, by drawing together into one space voices of teachers from both the Christian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions in response to the writings of one nearly anonymous, medieval woman on her experience of Divine Love.
It seems fitting to TM’s memory to offer this dialogue, for in addition to his buoyant hope for continued engagement with Tibetan Buddhism after his Asian pilgrimage of 1968, he also had a deep affection and respect for the 14th century anchorite, whom he referred to as “Lady Julian.” Like any exchange between traditions that represent cultures originating quite literally on opposite ends of the world, there cannot but be an initial awkwardness in aspects of such a conversation. But trusting in TM’s witness to the practice of such engagement, I believe the spiritual wealth to be found is well worth the effort – and any passing embarrassment.
In reading the meditations to follow, I do ask any readers’ patience. They will not necessarily follow anticipated linear trajectories. In this way, they may reflect Julian’s own manner of writing, which has been described as “not so much a consecutive narrative as a meditative circling or spiraling around key themes of Christian belief in which one major theme calls up, explicitly or implicitly, other issues and doctrines.” 4 In the end, however, it is my sincere hope that, in spite of its own partial perspective and its other shortcomings, this commentary may invite others to continue the work of “performing” Julian’s A Revelation “until it is done.”
- Julian of Norwich, Showings. Translated from the critical text with an introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978, page 342. For modern English translations of Julian’s writings, I will use this edition as a starting point and augment with other translations and/or my own as seems appropriate. In her medieval English, Julian’s sentence reads: “This boke is begonne by Goddes gifte and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as to my sight.” 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 86, lines 1 and 2, page 379. All Middle English quotations of Julian’s writings will be taken from this edition, unless otherwise indicated. Other editions to be referenced from time to time include Julian of Norwich. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, Volumes 1 and 2. Eds. Edmund College, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978; and Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love. Edited by Marion Glasscoe. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1986.
- See editorial note of Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins on Chapter 86 of Julian’s text: “The chapter is full of the language of beginning and ending as it seeks to make thematic sense of its own need to attain closure under conditions when the ‘light’ it has shed is till necessarily partial.” Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, page 378. Emphasis mine.
- Again, see editorial note of Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins in Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, page 378.
- 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 430.