In contemporary discussions of religion and religious discourse the notion of God’s alterity, or “Otherness,” is often foregrounded. This rhetorical gesture, very nearly a commonplace, derives from the philosophical work of Emmanuel Levinas and his exploration of the Other. Written in the wake of the political and cultural discontinuities following World War II, the Holocaust, and the intellectual discontinuities that arose from the writings and thought of Freud and Nietzsche, Levinas’ work strives to create an understanding of “religion” in which the “absolutely other…overcome in the philosophy of immanence on the allegedly common plane of history, maintains his transcendence in the midst of history.” But, as Jacques Derrida and others have argued, Levinas’ “Other” is quite simply another name for Being.
The English mystical writers of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries would pose another argument, one that transcends discussions of both ontology and, even, transcendence itself. Calling their position an argument, however, is not quite exact. Though these writers employed rhetoric in the presentation of their insights, they were not providing Scholastic propositions proving the existence of God by logic or persuasion. The mystics needed no persuasion: their experience of God as love was the only proof they needed.
Levinas, on other hand, seems to have been uncomfortable with the idea of God-as-love, believing the pleasure experienced in love is ultimately a form of “dual egoism.” In response he retreated into an encounter with the Other grounded in ethics. The mystics ignored ethics. Grounded in love, for in their view the ethical good—as all goods—derived from God, union with God superseded for them the necessity for rules, rubrics, codes, even commandments, as these would quite naturally result from the unitive act. Love was preeminent to the mystical mind, as the twentieth century mystic Valentin Tomberg has written, “For God is love—it is only love—which by its presence gives worth to power and to wisdom and to being itself. For being without love is deprived of all worth. Being without love would be the most appalling torment—the Inferno itself!” This is also the claim of the fourteenth-century mystics.
Perhaps the most astounding of the fourteenth-century English mystics is Julian of Norwich. Julian (c.1342 – c.1416) lived as an anchoress connected to St. Julian’s church in Norwich. We know almost nothing about her; even the name we know her by is simply an associative to her location. Julian was a visionary whose visions were triggered through an object in the physical world: while she lay dying (as she and others thought) a priest come to administer Extreme Unction (Last Rites), held a crucifix before her gaze, and as Julian tells it, “He set the cross before my face and said, ‘I have brought you the image of your maker and Savior. Look upon him and find comfort. ’” This physical encounter initiated a series of sixteen revelations which, in the course of her ruminations concerning them, brought Julian into a deeper understanding of God’s love. She later recorded her visions in a book she called Shewings, but that has generally come to be known as Revelations of Divine Love.
A theme of reciprocity runs through all of the Revelations and this reciprocity allows Julian to understand that this relationship with God calls off all other bets. She does not openly flirt with opinions that might have been considered heretical at the time (as happened with the French Beguine mystic Marguerite Porete, for instance). Nor does she enter into the spiritual politics of her time in evaluating contemplative over active modes of religious life. She transcends all of these with her profound insight that “all will be well,” a phrase she uses abundantly through the text (and which T. S. Eliot famously invoked in Four Quartets). But the “all will be well” would not be found in the Revelations were it not grounded in Julian’s complimentary realization that God “made all things for love.” Julian records her revelations for posterity in order to assure each human being of God’s love: for God cannot be wrathful in Julian’s estimation. Nothing, not even the most heinous sin, can hinder God’s grace. In her meditations on the love circulating between God and the soul she remarkably reinvigorates our understanding of the word “love.”
In the many moments of spiritual, existential, or, even, financial crisis which have troubled my soul from time to time, I often turn to Julian for spiritual restoration, focusing on her promise that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” I see her holding the hazelnut which the spirit told her was equal to all creation and hear the Voice tell both of us that such a small thing can thrive “because God made it, because God loves it, and because God sustains it.”
Whether we seek it in God, or in the Other, or in whatever alternative concept we may discover, the desire for the assurance that some superior Good exists just at or beyond the threshold of our comprehension and our lived experience seems unlikely to go away. It may well be that we are all mystics.
All shall be well.
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