Julian Has Her Visions: A Zen Meditation


It was on this day in 1337 that the woman we know as Julian of Norwich recovered from an uncertain but terrible illness and with it concluded her experience of a series of visions of Jesus.

Certainly a fascinating figure. A person about whom we know next to nothing, not even her name. About all we are sure of is that she lived for years as an anchorite, a solitary monastic, living at the church of St Julian in Norwich, from which we get a name for her. It would appear that she wrote the account of her visions at about the time they occurred. This document is known as the short text of the “Revelations of Divine Love.” She spent many years reflecting on this and the fruit of that is the long text of the Revelations.

She hasn’t been formally acknowledged as a saint within the Roman church, although many do celebrate the 13th of May as her feast. The Anglican church honors her on the 8th of May. As do some Lutherans.

Now my problem with Julian is the standard one for a Zen person when confronted with visionary experiences. If someone comes to me in my capacity as a spiritual director and tells of experiencing visions my response is, “Don’t worry, it will pass.” And almost always it does. I’m aware of the fact that many people who experience visions create idols of truth, usually with some seed of reality, but transformed through undue focus into a caricature of truth out of those visions that seems to lead to more sorrow than joy.

So, the caution. Don’t worry. It will pass.

The name we in Zen give visions is makyo. Makyo literally means a ghost or a devil cave. I’ve seen the term freely rendered as “diabolic interference.”

The assumption is at one with the bumper sticker that reads “don’t believe everything you think.” Don’t assume your vision is worthy…

And.

And, these experiences can have truth about them. In my own spiritual quest I experienced a number of these visionary experiences, makyo, if you will. The one that most rises in my heart is a vision of Jesus walking toward me and saying, “I have a great gift for you.” Spreads his hands to reveal bleeding wounds, with which he then grasps my own hands, the pain of worlds birthing and dying running from his wounds into what are now mine.

My hands hurt for weeks after…

I take it as makyo.

And, there is a very important part of my spiritual life that is informed by the hurt of the world that finds expression in that vision.

Just so, the woman we know as Julian had her visions. And reflected. And found a teaching that many of us find worthy. Including, no doubt, me…

For her there appear to be three things that emerged. One, maybe the most important was that there was a great love in the universe, something that appeared to be able to overcome even hell. Second she saw that sin was ignorance. And third her imagery of the divine, both God and Jesus was feminine. It seems to me each of these things takes Christianity to a new place, a more valuable and if you will, truer place.

In many ways her “all shall be well” reminds me of Yunmen Wenyan’s great koan “Every day is a good day.” Another line delivered in the midst of much hurt…

The thing is if it can be encountered “lightly,” not superficially, but held with open hands, broadly, pointing, informing but not inviting a closing down on it as the only truth…

A major practice point.

Hold these things lightly and who knows what might be revealed.

In “Little Gidding,” the fourth of T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” he lifts two lines from Julian, “the ground of our beseeching,” and that all shall be well line, “…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It seems to capture much of the spirit of divine vision that is useful.

An invitation to the open heart, the full heart, the heart that does not turn away, and what might be found in such a moment of naked presence…

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All maner of things shall be well
By the purification of the motive
in the ground of our beseeching.

Vision.

Reality.

The way through…


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