Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. Scholars know a lot about her life because of her autobiography–the first thought to be published in the English language.

I had some difficulty including her in the listing. She was a good Catholic. Like many, quite scrupulous. A mother of fourteen, which was remarkable, if not miraculous for the age–remember the Black Death as well as the mortality rate for women in childbirth.

Despite more than a dozen kids, she seems to have had some problems with sex. Around the age of forty, she extracted a vow of chastity from her husband. Then she embarked on an extended pilgrimage, a 1413-14 trip that found her in Jerusalem, Assisi, and Rome.

margeryLeaving for Santiago de Compostela in 1417, her return home was accompanied by interrogations by secular officials and clergy. She was imprisoned at least once. The only record of it is from her own travelogue. What was the problem? Margery was a very active woman, and who claimed to speak with saints. The gift of tears is also mentioned.

If I take the accounts with a degree of skepticism (regarding just how much of a public nuisance she might have been) it doesn’t seem all that different from Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius recommends conversation with Mary, Jesus, and the Father, as Margery reported. From the pen of a man, it is the Triple Colloquy, a time-honored tradition of the Spiritual Exercises. From the tongue of a woman, well, it seems less respectable.

Margery consulted another worthy woman of her day. Julian’s advice for her spiritual experiences:

(M)easure (them) according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians.

Sound advice. But it seems unlikely men were willing to accept a spiritual benefit from a woman whose search for God led her to extreme and even dangerous places. Other women might well have considered her “midlife crisis,” a fling across the known world.

Without well-connected politicians in the family, and living in another age, it seems Margery might have suffered greater persecutions than occasional prison time for “female vagrancy.” And while the modern age is very much stuffed with reason and its corollaries, I’d say that the spiritual temperament is much more welcomed these days than in most other centuries, supposedly more free to experience the mystical.

Margery was likely a woman beyond the times in which she lived. Like many medieval figures, what we know about her is largely guesswork. I wouldn’t want to discount her own words, but even there–without the guidance of a spiritual director and regular support from a faith community–it’s hard to tell exactly what was going on here.  Was it mental illness? A vivid and creative imagination? Supernatural hassling from devils?

My inclination is to give a mystic the benefit of the doubt. She’s a person I’d like to meet. Another worthy woman for your consideration, readers.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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