MARGERY KEMPE AND BROWN ALE BREAD
Although Margery Kempe is not a saint on any church calendar, she is honored as a Christian mystic in the Church of England on November 9 and in the Episcopal Church, along with Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton, on September 28.
Margery was born around 1373 in the village of Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk, England. She experienced mystical visions of God and traveled on pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem, and other sites across Europe. She was married and bore 14 children. At some point, she convinced her husband to grant her a chaste marriage so she could dedicate herself, body and soul, to Jesus Christ. Margery was known for her relentless weeping during church services and at other times when she was overcome by her love and passion for the Lord. She dictated THE BOOK OF MARGERY KEMPE about her worries, visions, and pilgrimages. Known as the first autobiography written in English, it was completed in 1438, the same year she’s believed to have died.
If Margery were a saint, she’d be the patron saint of annoyance. I mean, can you imagine sitting in church listening to a right good sermon when a woman begins to weep and wail and maybe even throw herself upon the floor in seeming agony? We’d be all, shut up, crazy lady. We can’t hear the preacher. And get up off the floor, for God’s sake. You’re embarrassing yourself and everyone knows you’re faking.
Only she wasn’t faking. I feel so much for Margery because she understood the point of view of her observers perfectly. The opinion of her fellows was vital to her and could be the reason she wrote her book in the first place, not necessarily as a travel-log diary, but more like an in-defense-of-being-me.
As one of her translators and editors, Lynn Staley, put it:
Margery’s self-doubts are focused by her piety that is frequently expressed in the love language of medieval devotion in the adoration of humanity of Christ that is likewise central to late-medieval mysticism, especially female mysticism.
She thus seeks to know if the voice she hears is a true voice, if it is God’s voice. But those doubts, expressed in the secular language of later ages have been shared by countless persons seeking to know if they can trust their consciences, their talents, or their passions. In each case, these private “feelings” will inevitably threaten an order that defines a world that must be left behind. It is perhaps in the works and lives of mystics and saints that we find the beginning of creative schism. – THE BOOK OF MARGERY KEMPE, Edited and Translated by Lynn Staley, A Norton Critical Edition, Page xvii
“Creative schism” is a literary term for that horrible unsure feeling writers (or others working on long-term creative projects) get about how the public will react to their work once it’s published. For example, it’s well-known among Harry Potter fans that when Joanne (J.K.) Rowlings was writing the first book, newly divorced with an infant, she imagined up dementors – flying, dark-skeletal creatures that steal warmth and goodness from every situation and suck souls out of people like it’s their job – as an expression of her feelings. Being the brilliant writer that she is, Joanne filed them away for her future books. But, I digress.
Yes, Margery has this uncertainty about her spirituality big time. She talked often to learned clergy confessing or explaining her visions so that they could verify for her that they were from God, not her imagination, or demons. Most of them agreed that her visions were gifts from God. However, some clergy were so annoyed by her loud interruptions and/or her refusal to follow their commands to act like everyone else, that they either “disowned her” or called her a heretic.
So, if most of the clergy who knew her during her pilgrimages and her years at home believed she was in some sort of mystical contact with God, why isn’t she a saint?
No corroborated miracles, no death date, no body to venerate. I mean, yeah, that’s pretty much the broad criteria for the Roman Catholic Church. Also, Margery Kempe was a little bit crazy. That’s not fair you say, St. Francis of Assisi was also a little bit crazy, wasn’t he? Yes, but he met the other criteria.
Margery was crazy in a small way, same as St. Francis of Assisi. His spiritual awakening occurred after he returned home from a brutal battle and a year in prison then suffered from what looks a lot like post-traumatic stress disorder. And while he was insightful, he could also be illogical at times. No one held it against him.
Margery’s spiritual awakening occurred after the birth of her first child when she suffered emotionally for many months. This seems a lot like postpartem depression. But if she suffered from this hormonal condition, it doesn’t negate her visions of God. In fact, her long-term suffering could have been a doorway between earth and God’s realm, as many spiritual journeys begin with a trauma of some sort or another.
Although some historians dispute the authenticity of her book, I believe Margery dictated it herself and that it was a true account of her life as she understood it, and not a work of fiction.
Before I go any further, however, I need to speak of her mothering skills and seeming lack thereof. Margery claimed to have born 14 children. Not an uncommon number in her medieval era. Let’s assume that only half of them survived their first year, as was also common in the late middle age. So even with seven who may have reached adulthood, she rarely speaks of her children.
She does mention the first. She also mentions having delivered a child while on pilgrimage in Rome. She mentions her 14 children at a trial for heresy. She spends many pages on her son, John, who grew to adulthood and was her first scribe. That’s it. Doesn’t write another word about them. Now, was this because she simply couldn’t handle being a mother at all, or was it perhaps because she was dictating a book that had nothing to do with them, so she didn’t discuss them in any sort of detail? In other words, its not uncommon for people to write books about their area of expertise without mentioning their home life within the text.
So, I’m willing to give her a pass on this one, but it does bother me that she might have left all her children to be raised by wet nurses and nannies. At least, she would have had to leave them home with someone while she traveled on her pilgrimages. Which, again, was not uncommon in her era or class level. Let’s begin here:
Margery was born into a well-respected, upper middle-class family and she married a right good man, John Kempe. Whom, it should be noted, she loved and desired physically.
Margery lived well, partook of the clothing fashions of the time, and engaged in other frivolous activities of her class.
Then she gave birth to her first child and suffered through a period of eight months in which she was tormented by demons and contemplated suicide. She was eventually rescued by Jesus Christ who appeared and asked her why she forsook him? She was so overwhelmed by His love that she didn’t know how exactly to act in her day-to-day life.
She tried to start up and run a home business, which was normal for her time. Her first attempt was a brewery:
For when the ale was in fair standing under the barn (yeast formed on brewing liquors) as any man might see, suddenly the barm would fall down so that all the ale was lost, every brewing after the other, so that her servants were ashamed and would not dwell with her. – Staley, The Book, page 9
(Note: Margery refers to herself in the third person and as “said creature” throughout The Book.)
Then she tried to run a mill, but the horse she hired to draw refused to move, so the grain remained unground. Margery believed these two business failures were a sign to dedicate her life completely to Jesus by living a chaste life, wearing specific white clothing, giving up meat and wine, and spending most of her time in church or on pilgrimage.
Slight problem for Margery in that she enjoyed sleeping with her husband. And then she felt horribly guilty as if she were betraying Jesus, her spiritual husband, by having relations with her earthly husband. And so, there was this long period during which John refused to give up that part of their marriage. Margery was tormented. And once, because Margery confessed to any and all clergy or learned men, she was tempted by one who offered to let her have her way with him. She refused but thought about it a lot and then went to him in agreement. He replied that he was only testing her vows to God and that she failed:
And then, she beholding her own wickedness, she might be sorry and weep and ever pray for mercy and forgiveness. Her weeping was plenteous and so continuing that many people thought that she might weak and leave off when she would, and therefore many men said she was a false hypocrite and wept for the world, for succor and for worldly good. And then full many forsook her who had loved her before while she was in the world and would not know her, and ever she thanked God for all, nothing desiring but mercy and the forgiveness of sin. – Staley, The Book, page 11
This type of thing went on for a while until she calmed down, received some good spiritual counseling from her parish priest, and reached an understanding with her husband. It helped that God spoke to her quite regularly in visions:
Worthy daughter, love me with all your heart, for I love you with all my heart and with all the might of my Godhead, for you were a chosen soul without beginning in my sight and a pillar of Holy Church. My merciful eyes are ever upon you. It would be impossible for you to suffer the scorns and spites that you shall have were not my grace alone supporting you. – Staley, The Book, page 23
Then Margery would feel loved and accepted by God and able to withstand the jeers and threats of those who didn’t understand her. But these feelings of grace were not constant. God had an answer for that, too:
Therefore, taken them meekly and thankfully when I will send them, and suffer patiently when I withdraw them, and seek busily until you may get them, for tears of compunction, devotion, and compassion are the highest and surest gifts that I give on earth.
Nevertheless, wheresoever God is, heaven is, and God is in your soul and many an angel is about your soul, to keep it both night and day. For when you go to church, I go with you. When you sit at your meal, I sit with you. When you go to your bed, I go with you. And when you go out of town, I go with you.
Though it be so that you weep not always at your wish, my grace is nevertheless in you. Therefore, I prove that you are a very daughter to me, and a mother also, a sister, a wife, and a spouse witnessing the gospel. – Staley, The Book, page 24
Eventually, her parish priest agreed to become her confessor and granted her permission to go on pilgrimages. At first, her husband accompanied her on her travels, but soon decided it was best for him to stay home as he couldn’t handle the negative attention she attracted with her constant outspoken praises of God and scripture.
Also, for some reason, it really upset people in the inns or taverns if she didn’t enjoy meat, wine, and lighthearted, secular conversation with them at meal time. None of her traveling companions were afraid to let her know their true feelings about how much she annoyed them. Margery learned to accept this type of adversity as a form of devotion to God.
The town of Norwich, England, was relatively nearby, so she traveled there to visit with learned theologians. She visited also with someone much beloved by my dearworthy readers:
And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city, who was called Dame Julian. – Staley, The Book, page 32
Julian was about thirty years older than Margery, and, at the time of their meeting, already established as anchoress. Of course, the first thing Margery did upon meeting Julian through the anchoress visitor’s window, was to talk and talk and talk some more about everything she’s experienced thus far in her life and in her visions with God. Then she asked for advice.
The anchoress, hearing the marvelous goodness of our Lord, highly thanked God with all her heart for his visitation, counseling this creature to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and fulfill with all her might whatever he put in her soul if it were not against the worship of God and profit of her fellow Christians, for if it were, then it were not the moving of a good spirit but of an evil spirit.
“I pray God grant you perseverance. Set all your trust in God and fear not the language of the world, for the more spite, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the greater is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary unto you for in that shall you keep your soul.” – Staley, The Book, page 32
Basically, Julian listened to her and encouraged her to keep on keeping on. Margery sums up her description of her visit by stating they both enjoyed “communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ” for the many days she was there.
Get ready, I’m about to tell you my favorite part about Margery Kempe and her book. Ready?
St. Julian of Norwich left behind few first source documents proving her existence. There are the two copies of her own book, SIXTEEN REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE, and some references in the financial records of her church of donations in support of her as anchoress, and something about her nephew. That’s it. So, this clear reference in Margery Kempe’s book to Dame Julian of Norwich, anchoress, is considered a first-source reference that proves the existence of Julian of Norwich in specific time and place! I mean, for real!
That fact alone makes Margery saintworthy!
Anyway, Margery was infused with a new vigor for her public devotions to God for some time after. And then she began to fear that the voice she heard wasn’t really God’s, but the devil’s. In a revelation, God assured her:
You shall not dread the devil of hell, for he has no power in you. He dreads you more than you do him. He is angry with you, for you torment him more with your weeping than does all the fires in hell; you win many souls for him with your weeping. – Staley, The Book, page 38
Then because Margery was afraid of a painful death, Jesus promised her he would carry her to heaven upon her gentle death and:
There you shall see him face-to-face, dwelling with him without end. Daughter, you shall be right welcome to my Father and to my Mother and to all my saints in heaven, for you have given them drink full many times with tears of your eyes. All my holy saints shall enjoy your coming home. – Staley, The Book, page 38
Margery seemed to be constantly going back and forth between confidence and no confidence in her spiritual connection to Jesus Christ, but The Book covers a span of twenty years, so these were not every-day flips.
The harassing from people around her wore on her as well. Here’s how her own group of pilgrims to Rome and Jerusalem treated her:
And they were most displeased because she wept so much and spoke always of the love and goodness of our Lord, as well at the table as in other places. And, therefore, shamefully they reproved her and greatly chided her and said they would not suffer her as her husband did when she was home and in England. And she said meekly again unto them, “Our Lord Almighty God is as great a lord here as in England, and as great cause have I to love him here as there, blessed may he be.”
For these words her fellowship was angrier than they were before, whose wrath and unkindness to this creature was a matter of great heaviness for they were held by right good men, and she desired greatly their love if she might have had it by the pleasure of God. And then she said to one of them specially, “You do me much shame and great grievance.”
He answered again anon, “I pray God that the devil’s death may overcome you soon and quickly.” – Staley, The Book, page 45
Ouch. That’s harsh, and from clergy, no less. Then the group tried to kick her out, but she promised to be meek and quiet so they allowed her to stay with them. (In her time, no one was safe traveling alone. She absolutely needed to travel with companions for protection.) Later:
She met with the Pope’s legate in Germany by Lake Constance. She told him how she was receiving visions and was worried they were from the devil. He assured her that they were from the Holy Ghost. Later he joined her group of travelers for dinner and listened to them complain about her.
Then the worshipful doctor said, “Nay, sirs, I will not make her eat meat while she may abstain herself and be the better disposed to love our Lord. If one of you all made a vow to go to Rome barefoot, I would not absolve him of his vow while he might fulfill it; neither will I bid her eat meat while our Lord gives her strength to abstain. As for her weeping, it is not in my power to restrains it, for it is the gift of the Holy Ghost. As for her speaking, I will ask her to cease until she comes where men will hear her with a better will than you do.” – Staley, The Book, page 47
The group became angry and turned her over to him, although they kept a large portion of her money and her maid. Yes, this happened. In her era, she had to rely on men to carry her money for her. And yes, her maid abandoned her completely but stayed with the group!
When they arrived in Rome, Margery rejoined them with a promise to stay quiet. By now, you know she couldn’t keep that promise. So, they banished her from the table and she had to eat alone in her room for six weeks. She also had to nurse herself through an illness on her own as the maid waited on everyone but her. But, she enjoyed her time visiting the pilgrimage sites in Rome and meeting all kinds of people.
And then, because the group knew she was connected to the divine, they were afraid to sail to Jerusalem without her! So she accompanied them yet again. And far from remaining quiet, her devotion to Jesus Christ intensified dramatically while on Pilgrimage in Jerusalem walking the Stations of the Cross with the Franciscan Friars. Her visions of the Passion were so strong she fell to the ground weeping. The weeping visions of gospel scenes, Saints, and God continued throughout Jerusalem, Rome and the surrounding cities, and upon her return to England.
And, as soon as she perceived that she should cry, she would keep it in as much as she might, so that the people should not have heard it, for it annoyed them. For some said it was a wicked spirit vexed her: some said it was a sickness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some banned her; some wished she had been in the harbor; some would she had been in the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought. – Staley, The Book, page 51
In her visions it seemed Margery experienced the Crucifixion along with Blessed Mother Mary in deep physical sorrow. Later, Mary spoke to Margery in a vision:
And therefore, my worthy daughter be not ashamed of him that is your God, your Lord, and your Love, no more than I was when I saw him hang on the Cross, my sweet son, Jesus, to cry and to weep for the pain of my sweet son, Jesus Christ: nor was Mary Magdalene ashamed to cry and weep for my son’s love. And therefore, daughter, if you will partake in our joy, you must partake in our sorrow.” – Staley, The Book, page 54
These types of visions and her physical and loud reaction to them continued to happen and to annoy her traveling companions. Thankfully, they were not the only people she had to deal with:
And the (Franciscan) Friars of the Temple (of the Holy Sepulcher) made her great welcome and gave her many great relics desiring that she should have dwelled still among them, if she had wished, for the faith they had in her. Also, the Saracens made much of her and conveyed her and led her about in the country where she wished to go. And she found all people good unto her and gentle, save only her own countrymen. – Staley, The Book, page 55
After many weeks, the group sailed back to Rome. While there, Margery experienced a mystical marriage to Jesus Christ similar to the one St. Catherine of Siena experienced with Blessed Mother Mary and many Saints in attendance. After this vision, as Margery went about her life:
She saw with her bodily eye many white things flying all about her on every side, as thick in a manner as motes in the sun; the better she might see them. She saw them many different times and in many different places, both in church and in her chamber, at her meal and in her prayers, in field and in town, both going and sitting. And many times, she was afraid what they might be, for she saw them as well in nights in darkness as in daylight. Then, when she was afraid of them, our Lord said unto her, “By this token, daughter, believe it is God that speaks in you, for whereso God is, heaven is, and where God is there are many angels, and God is in you and you are in him. And therefore, be not afraid, daughter, for this betokes that you have many angels about you to keep you both day and night so that no devil shall have power over you nor no evil man may harm you. – Staley, The Book, page 64
Speaking of angels Margery met many lovely people in Rome. One was a priest who spoke German and Latin, but no English, while she spoke only English. Miraculously, they could understand each other perfectly and he counseled her right well and she taught him many truths.
Afterward, this creature spoke with Saint Bridget’s (of Sweden) maiden in Rome, but she could not understand what she said. Then she had a man who could understand her language, and that man told Saint Bridget’s maiden what this creature said and how she asked after Saint Bridget, her lady. Then the maiden said that her lady, Saint Bridget, was goodly and meek to every creature and she had a laughing countenance. – Staley, The Book, page 69
St. Bridget of Sweden was a contemporary of St. Catherine of Siena, also a mystic, and one who worked with the Pope to repair divisions in the Church. (She’s a subject of a future post.)
And so, in great spirits and held in high regard by many she had met on her travels, Margery sailed to Norwich where her husband met her and accompanied her home to Lynn. No doubt, she relied upon her good memories to shore herself up when her own townspeople started in on her about her never-ending loud weeping in the church. I’ll skip ahead since it’s all somewhat repetitive.
Two years later, she embarked on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain. She was stuck in Bristol for many weeks as Henry V commandeered most of the English ships for his expedition to France in 1417. This situation historically connects Margery to St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431) Christian mystic, activist, and martyr.
Margery attended the local church with all her weeping and shrieking which caused many people to curse and slander her. She put up with all of it and begged the Lord to forgive them.
Then, as it pleased our Lord, he sent a ship out of Brittany into Bristol, which ship was made ready and arrayed in order to sail to St. James. And then the said Thomas Marchale went and paid the master for himself and for the said creature. Then was there a rich man of Bristol who would not let the said creature sail in that ship, for he held her a no good woman. And then she said to that rich man, “Sir, if you put me out of the ship, my Lord Jesus shall put you out of heaven, for I tell you, Sir, our Lord Jesus has no delight in a rich man unless he will be a good and meek man.” – Staley, The Book, page 79
Shortly after arriving in Leichester, the mayor put her on trial for heresy. The clerks of the Church questioned her wearing of white, as it was unacceptable for a married woman with children to wear the dress of a virgin of Christ. They also questioned her loud weeping in church.
And so she answered forth to all the articles as many as they would ask her, so that they were well pleased. The mayor, who was her deadly enemy, he said, “In faith she means not with her heart as she says with her mouth.”
And so the clerks said to him, “Sir, she answers right well to us.”
Then the mayor greatly rebuked her and repeated many reproving and ungodly words, which are more expedient to conceal than to express.
“Sir,” she said, “I take witness of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose body is here present in the sacrament of the altar, that I never had part of a man’s body in this world in actual deed by way of sin, but only of my husband’s body, whom I am bound to by the law of matrimony, and by whom I have born 14 children. For I want you to know, sir, that there is no man in this world that I love so much as God, for I love him above all things, and sir, I tell you truly I love all men in God and for God.
Also, furthermore she said plainly to his own person, “Sir, you are not worthy to be mayor, and that shall I prove by Holy Writ, for our Lord God said himself before he would take vengeance on the cities, “I shall come down and see.” And yet he knew all things. And that was nothing else, sir but for to show men as you are that you should make no execution in punishing unless you know before that it were worthy to be done. And, sir, you have done all the contrary to me this day, for sir, you have caused me much vexation for a thing I am not guilty in. I pray God forgive you it.” – Staley, The Book, page 85
Charges of heresy were serious; many people were burned at the stake for deviating from the Church’s teachings and strict rules about what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior. So, it was somewhat miraculous that Margery avoided the stake with her good words and answers. It still took her three weeks to get out of Leichester alive and with her purse and traveling companions.
She next stayed at a monastery called the Minster of York, where she was questioned for heresy by a priest. She answered well, and he let her alone. Meanwhile:
And at that time many good men and women prayed her to meals and made her right good comfort and were right glad to hear her dalliance, having great marvel at her speech, for it was fruitful. – Staley, The Book, page 88
Later, she was brought before the Archbishop of York for heresy:
Then said the Archbishop to her, “You shall swear that you shall neither teach nor challenge the people in my diocese.”
“No sir, I shall not swear,” she said, “for I shall speak of God and reprove those who swear great oaths wheresoever I go, unto the time that the Pope and holy church have ordained that no man shall be so hardy to speak of God, for God almighty forbids not, sir, that we shall speak of him. And also, the gospel makes mention that, when the woman had heard our Lord preach, she came before him with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed be the womb that bore you and the teats that gave you suck.’ (Luke 11:27-28) Then our Lord said again to her, ‘Forsooth so are they blessed that hear the word of God and keep it.’ And therefore, sir I think that the gospel gives me leave to speak of God.”
“A, sir,” said the clerks, “here know we well that she has a devil within her for she speaks of the gospel.”
Immediately, a great clerk brought forth a book and laid Saint Paul for his part against her that no woman should preach. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
She, answering, thereto, said, “I preach not sir, I go in no pulpit. I use but communication and good words, and that I will do while I live.” – Staley, The Book, page 93
Again, she was released. And again, she was soon arrested. This time it happened as she was traveling with a group to Beverly. Friars and yeomen questioned her, and she answered so well that one of them said he regretted meeting her and setting her up for arrest in the town. She responded that it was better that they met because that’s what the Lord wanted.
He said again, “Damsel, if ever you are a saint in heaven, pray for me.”
She answered, saying to him again, “Sir, I hope you shall be a saint yourself and every man who shall come into heaven.” –Staley, The Book, page 96
When they arrived in Beverly she was locked into a comfortable room in a town official’s home:
Then she stood looking out of a window, telling many good tales, to those who would hear her, in so much that women wept sorely and said with great heaviness of their hearts, “Alas woman, why shall you be burnt?”
Then she prayed the good wife of the house to give her drink, for she was badly off for thirst. And the good wife said her husband had born away the key, wherefore she might not come to her nor give her drink. And then the women took a ladder and set it up to the window and gave her a pint of wine in a pot and took her a wine cup, beseeching her to set away the pot secretly and the wine cup, so that when the good man came he might not spy it. – Staley, The Book, page 96
She was soon released, and she met a man and his wife to journey on with:
And so, went she forth with them till she came to Lincoln and there suffered she many scorns and many annoying words, answering again in God’s cause without any hindrance, wisely and discreetly so that many men marveled at her cunning. There were men of law who said unto her, “We have gone to school many years, and yet are we not sufficient to answer as you do? Of whom have you this cunning?”
And she said, “Of the Holy Ghost.”
Then asked they, “Have you the Holy Ghost?”
“Yes, sirs,” said she, “There may no man say a good word without the gift of the Holy Ghost, for our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples, “Study not what you shall say, for it shall not be your spirit that shall speak in you, but it shall be the spirit of the Holy Ghost.”
And thus, our Lord gave her grace to answer them, worshipped may he be. – Staley, The Book, page 100
And so, Margery went about her travels and resumed her prayerful village life when she returned home. Margery couldn’t read, and in her time, it was against the law for laity to read the Holy Bible by themselves. But, she hungered for God’s word and became desperate for someone to read to her.
God sent her a priest who read to her over a span of seven years before he was assigned to another village. He was grateful to be able to provide for Margery’s spiritual comfort as well as increase his own knowledge of scripture and theology.
Margery continued to be harassed by folks who were annoyed by her. I love her boldness here when she tried to tell Jesus how to do His job:
She prayed, “Nay, worthy Lord Jesus, chastise no creature for me. You know well, Lord, that I desire no vengeance, but I ask mercy and grace for all men if it be your will to grant it. Nevertheless, Lord, rather than they should be parted for you without end, chastise them as you yourself will. It seems, Lord, in my soul that you are full of charity, for you say you will not the death of a sinful man. And you say also you will all men be saved. Then, Lord, since you would all men should be saved, I must will the same, as you say yourself that I must love my fellow Christians as my own self. And, Lord, you know that I have wept and sorrowed many years because I would be saved, and so much I do for my fellow Christians.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ said unto the said creature, “Daughter, you shall well see when you are in heaven with me that there is no man damned but he who is well worthy to be damned, and you shall hold yourself well pleased with all my works.” –Staley, The Book, page 117
Later when she was again worried about what people thought about all her weeping, God reminds her to recognize and remember her heavenly audience:
And, daughter, I have oftentimes said to you that there is no saint in heaven, but if you will speak with him, he is ready toward you, to comfort you and speak to you in my name. My angels are ready to offer your holy thoughts and your prayers to me, and the tears of your eyes also, for your tears are angels’ drink, and they are truly sweetened and spiced wine to them. – Staley, The Book, page 118
Margery later describes a situation when her weeping was required:
Also, the said creature was desired by many people to be with them at their dying and to pray for them, for though they loved not her weeping nor her crying in her lifetime, they desired that she should both weep and cry when they should die, and so she did. – Staley, The Book, page 126
And there was the time Margery asked God how much longer she would live, and He answered, fifteen years.
“A, Lord, I shall think it many thousand years.”
Our Lord answered to her, “Daughter you must bethink you of my blessed mother who lived after me on earth for fifteen years, also Saint John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene, who loved me right highly.”
“A, blissful Lord,” said she, “I would I were as worthy to be sure of your love as Mary Magdalene was.”
Then said our Lord, “Truly, daughter, I love you as well, and the same peace that I gave to her, the same peace I give to you. For, daughter, there is no saint in heaven displeased if I love a creature on earth as much as I do them. Therefore, they will not otherwise than I will. – Staley, The Book, page 129
Wow. This is profound stuff. Makes me happy.
But then there’s this bit with the lepers that has me shaking my head and thinking, Oh, Margery, you’re such a copycat:
So, Jesus explained to Margery that she should see those with leprosy as Himself. Now, leprosy is a repulsive illness. It’s ugly and it has a terrible odor. Both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena suffered through visceral feelings of disgust when they tried to nurse the sick. In other words, they could not overcome their gag reflex by sheer will. Now, my gag reflex kicks in at the mere mention of the phrase “gag reflex,” so I can relate. For both Catherine and Francis, it took seeing Jesus in the eyes of each patient, practice, and a healthy dose of miracle for both of them to overcome their physical reflexes. And, while Francis lived about 200 years before Margery, and Catherine died in Italy when Margery was a child in England, no doubt Margery visited their shrines and learned their stories. Here’s what happened after her vision:
And so, she did in the sight of her soul, for through beholding the sick man, her mind was all taken into our Lord Jesus Christ. Then had she great mourning and sorrowing because she might not kiss lepers when she saw them or met with them in the streets for the love of Jesus.
Now began she to love what she had most hated beforetime, for there was no thing more loathful nor more abominable to her while she was in the years of worldly prosperity than to see or behold a leper, whom now through our Lord’s mercy, she desired to embrace and kiss for the love of Jesus, when she had time and place convenient. – Staley, The Book, page 129
Her confessor reminded her that she should not kiss men, but that if she wanted to, she could kiss woman with leprosy. So, she went to the women’s hospital and kissed two women and then spoke to them at length about Jesus. This makes me think, Oh Margery, because it seemed to be a one-time thing. It didn’t seem like she dedicated any more time or effort with the lepers than she did that day. I will, however, give her credit for talking to the two women with leprosy about Jesus and the good that her visit did them. Also, Margery loved the Saints, so maybe she considered this act a saintly recipe she was to follow.
And then there’s her husband, John, a right good man who put up with Margery and her unorthodox ways because he loved her and the Lord. So back when he finally agreed to a chaste marriage, Margery was upset the townspeople didn’t believe they were adhering to their agreement. So, she arranged to live separately from John when she was home in Lynn. And then she believed she couldn’t even walk around town with him, because people accused them of scurrying off to a nearby meadow to *ahem*. Her response to this was to rarely see him at all.
This arrangement went on for years, until one day he fell down the stairs and injured his head so badly he almost died. Then the people had the nerve to tell Margery it was all her fault he fell down the stairs because she wasn’t living with him! Come on, people!
Anyway, Margery moved back into the home to take care of him. She was worried the time away from church and prayer would upset the Lord. He assured her that when she took care of her husband, she was taking care of Him, and it was right for her to do so. I wonder why this perspective wasn’t applied to her physical relations with her earthly husband. But, I know Margery would not have spiritually affected people so profoundly if she had not traveled around in the white dress of a virgin of the Lord.
Poor John suffered from dementia for the next three years until he died. Margery dictated details about how difficult it was to take care of him because he didn’t remember how to use the chamber pot. Proof number whatever that this book is not a work of fiction. TMI, Margery, T.M.I.
At some point, Margery dictated (what she didn’t realize was a first draft of) her book to her son, also named, John. However, she worried because she spent so much time dictating the book, she wasn’t spending enough time reciting memorized prayers or attending church services:
She, being afraid of displeasing our Lord, he said to her soul, “Dread you not, daughter, for as many prayers as you would say, I accept them as though you said them, and both your study that you study in order to have written the grace that I have showed to you, and he who writes pleases me right much. For, though you were in the church and wept both together as sorely as ever you did, yet should you not please me more than you do with your writing, for daughter, by this book many a man shall be turned to me and believe therein. –Staley, The Book, page 157
Unfortunately, John wrote her words in a garbled mess of mixed-up German and English which no one could read, and then he moved to Germany. Margery begged her confessor to rewrite it for her. He promised he would, but he kept delaying because he couldn’t decipher it. And then one day, he broke the “code” and could read it well enough to rewrite it in English. God had this to say about her confessor:
And, as for Master Robert, your Confessor, I have granted you what you have desired, and he shall have half your tears and half the good works that I have wrought in you. Therefore, he shall truly be rewarded for your weeping as though he had wept himself. And believe well, daughter, that you shall be full merry in heaven together at the last and shall bless the time that ever one of you knew the other. And daughter, you shall bless me without end that ever I gave you so true a ghostly father; for though he has been sharp to you sometimes, it has been greatly to your profit, for you would else have had too great an affection for his person. And, when he was sharp to you, then you ran with all your mind to me saying, “Lord, there is no trust but in you alone.”
Also, daughter, I tell you that Master Robert, your ghostly father, pleases me full much when he bids you believe that I love you. And I know well that you have great faith in his words, and so you may right well, for he will not flatter you. –Staley, The Book, page 158
Meanwhile, her son John had married and had a child. He tried to return home for a visit with his wife and child, but due to dangerous travel conditions, they left their child in Germany with friends.
So, they arrived and enjoyed a celebratory meal with friends and family. About one hour later, John became ill, retired to bed and died a week later. Margery’s husband, John, died a few days after that.
Her daughter-in-law stayed with Margery for a year and a half, and then wanted to return home to Germany (and her child, one would think). Margery received permission from her confessor to travel to the port to see her daughter-in-law off. At the last minute, Margery decided to go to Germany with her on a sort of impromptu pilgrimage upon the orders of God.
Margery’s “adventures” in Germany make up the second part of The Book. Her daughter-in-law was NOT happy to have her tagging along. And her confessor was right angry at Margery for traveling to Germany on pilgrimage without his permission.
But, guess what? When she returned home, he let her dictate to him about her trip and he added that section to The Book. This shows Margery finally and successfully countered the patriarchy of her time.
It also shows us that THE BOOK OF MARGERY KEMPE is a spiritual journey, much like the modern-day WILD by Cheryl Strayed.
Margery leaves us with a long prayer at the end of The Book including this section:
As for my crying, my sobbing, and my weeping, Lord God almighty, as surely as you know what scorns, what shames, what spites, and what reproofs I have had for it, and as surely as it is not in my power to weep either loud or still for any devotion nor for any sweetness but only through the gift of the Holy Ghost, so surely, Lord, excuse me before all this world, so that it knows and believes that it is your work and your gift for the magnifying of your name and for the increasing of other men’s love for you, Jesus. – Staley, The Book, page 181
We began and end with Margery’s weeping. It seems if we could ignore her loud weeping during church services, then everything about her is only somewhat eccentric but mostly tolerable and valuable. But as it turns out, Margery Kempe’s weeping is her greatest, most saintworthy feature. She understood Christ’s Passion and sacrifice for us all at the deepest level.
It’s this deep understanding of Holy Eucharist that prevented Margery from maintaining a dignified demeanor when she received Communion.
There are many aspects of Margery Kempe I connect with, certainly not all, but this is the one that draws me to her completely. I’ve only stated this out loud to a few people, but I’ve believed it for several years – if we don’t cry upon receiving Holy Communion, then we’re doing it wrong.
If we’re not crying, it’s because we’re not truly and deeply considering everything Jesus suffered to give each of us the ultimate gift of redemptive, divine, eternal love. Instead, we’re going through the motions by rote.
I know, I know. In many churches this public display of emotions for the Lord is a bit much for some to witness, and so we tend to stuff our passion down, hold it in, and focus our attention only at the surface level.
Because of others’ expectations, sometimes even when we know we need to cry as a physical release from our week’s woes, and even if we’re prepared with a handful of tissues, the tears don’t come.
Sometimes, it takes the miracle of an authentic hug during the peace, or the beauty of choral voices singing beloved hymns, or a right good sermon. It happens in the kind of sermon when the preacher connects scripture to current social conditions; or when you hear the answer to a question you hadn’t yet formed into words; or the most powerful of all – when they speak deep from their heart and you hear God’s voice. That’s when the Jesus in their heart connects to the Jesus in your heart. You can feel it, a thin place opening right there in the sanctuary.
Then you can’t help but cry. Or maybe you can hold it in until you receive the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who loves you beyond words. That’s when you cry tears of overwhelming gratitude and joy.
Let yourself be cleansed and renewed in this way.
Gracious God, we give you thanks for the life of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe, hermits and mystics, who, passing through the cloud of unknowing, beheld your glory. Help us, after their example, to see you more clearly and love you more dearly, in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Collect: Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints
There are several translations of THE BOOK OF MARGERY KEMPE. I chose this one by Lynn Staley because she updated the language only to the point of making it understandable but kept to the style and some of the vocabulary of Old English for a more authentic reading experience. I loved it! However, I do not recommend this text-book version I happened to purchase. First, I wasn’t interested in the extra literary essays in the back. Second, the print is light and tiny. With my medieval, I mean, middle-age, eyes, it was quite the physical struggle to get through the whole thing. Explore around on Amazon or Goodreads to find the version that appeals to you and enjoy!
My dearworthy readers might remember my long-standing, somewhat adversarial, relationship to yeast which causes me to proclaim a miracle every time I successfully bake a loaf of bread.
Margery also had issues with yeast that didn’t create ale, as well as grain that didn’t get ground. To honor her veering away from society’s expected path for her, let’s celebrate her failures with:
BROWN ALE BREAD
1 package dry active yeast (not “quick,” “rapid rise,” or “pizza.”)
½ cup water heated to 100 or 110 degrees F (Check with candy thermometer.)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ½ cups bread flour, lightly packed and leveled
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour, lightly packed and leveled
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
½ cup brown ale at room temperature
1/8 cup bread flour
½ tablespoon olive oil
1/8 cup cornmeal
1 egg white
Heat water in pot on stove until temperature reaches between 100 to 105 degrees F. Pour into liquid measuring cup to the ½ cup mark. Add yeast. Stir. Quickly add sugar and stir. Wait 10 minutes to proof the yeast.
Place bread flour, whole wheat flour, and salt into a large bowl and whisk with fork.
After 10 minutes, about a one-inch foam layer should have developed on top of liquid in cup indicating that the yeast is proofed or alive. Pour yeast mixture into a large bowl. Add olive oil, honey, and brown ale. Stir. Slowly add dry ingredients. Using clean hands, mix gradually until all the liquid is absorbed.
Wash and dry hands again. Sprinkle flour onto a clean, flat surface and onto the sticky ball of dough. Knead (squish, mash, push, pull) the dough for 7 minutes. If hands get to sticky, “wash” them with more flour.
Place dough in a large glass or oven-safe bowl coated with olive oil. Roll dough ball around until it’s also coated with olive oil. Cover bowl with a damp towel. Heat oven to “warm,” place bowl in oven, then TURN OVEN OFF. Proof until dough has doubled in size, about 1 ½ hours.
Once the dough has risen, “wash” hands in olive oil, then punch dough down to remove the air. Let it rest on the counter for 10 minutes.
Form into a round shape on a non-insulated cookie sheet sprinkled with cornmeal on parchment paper. Coat with olive oil and “tent” the dough with aluminum foil. Proof again until it doubles in size, about 45 minutes.
Remove the cookie sheet from oven and set on counter. Place pizza stone in oven for even cooking. Place a pan of water on bottom oven rack to provide moisture during baking for a crispy crust. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Combine 1 or 2 teaspoons of water with egg white, whisk, and brush over dough. Make a few ¼ inch deep slits across the top of dough using a razor blade or sharp knife to release air.
Place cookie sheet on pizza stone and bake at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes or until bread is browned on the bottom. (Bake times will vary based on climate and oven.)
Cool on wire rack. Slice and serve with butter.
(Originally posted on 12/09/2016 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)