With all the myriad books claiming to promote personal and spiritual growth, I confess I’m often not excited to pick up something new. Sometimes I need the surprising breath of fresh air that I can find only in old books. At the end of 2022, the old book that found me was The Book of Margery Kempe.
Often recognized as the earliest English-language autobiography, the Book was written around 1436–1438 to record the experiences of an English mystic. Much has been written about Kempe since her book was rediscovered in the 1930s, but a few things stand out to me.
A Visit to Another World
We all know the value of learning from people of different backgrounds, locations, and perspectives. Just as important, as any historian will affirm, is listening to voices from other eras. It helps me gain perspective when I read authors who are not immersed in the ideas and conversations of my own time. I need to be reminded how much I take for granted about the way the world is.
For example, Margery Kempe’s book suggests that she was not able to read well and could not write. She dictated the record of her life to a priest, and the book was likely shaped by several editors and scribes. Yet Kempe was familiar with the Bible, the lives of mystics, and other resources, even quoting from the New Testament in ways that surprised religious leaders. She learned from sermons and being read to.
In one anecdote, Kempe asks God to bring her a cleric “who might fill my soul with your word and with the reading of holy scripture!” God answers by sending a priest who “read many a good book to her about high contemplation and other books too.”
These stories increase my gratitude for the literacy and wealth of resources that are part of my everyday life. But they also make me wonder what benefits there were to living in a culture that was in some ways closer to the world of the New Testament, where oral tradition was still highly valued. What was it like to consider reading (and writing) to be more of a communal than individual practice? To listen attentively and memorize what you heard so you could share it with others, instead of constantly being stimulated by more content than you could even read, hear, or watch?
Margery makes me question what I consider normal in other ways too. One of the most distinctive features of her life is how often she would break into loud weeping—when listening to sermons, receiving the Eucharist, and sometimes just seeing sick people in the streets. She asserts that these emotional expressions were acts of God’s special grace, completely beyond her control. Lots of people in her own time thought it was strange, even evil. I’m not entirely sure how to interpret these outbursts either. Witnessing them would certainly make me uncomfortable, if not concerned for the person’s mental health.
I do wonder, though, why most Christians think it odd and disruptive to display intense emotion in public settings. When we contemplate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—the core of our faith, our most intimately held beliefs—is it more natural to stay calmly composed or to weep and cry out? When we take Communion, for example, we’re often occupied with thinking about germs, gluten, what our neighbor is wearing, or what we’re having for lunch. This is quite natural. But how often are we truly touched by the agony of what Christ suffered, the weight of our own sins, and the magnitude of God’s love? Are we open to deep emotion in response to great sorrows, injustices, and joys in the world around us?
We should rightly be wary of emotional manipulation and exhibitionism. Still, the embarrassingly expressive Margery invites me to question what role emotions play in spirituality, why I’m afraid of them, and why I’m so often untouched by what is most real and valuable to me.
In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Book, Anthony Bale writes, “By describing somebody as ‘mad’ or ‘eccentric’ are we merely trying to discredit and discard someone who challenges our own expectations of what is normal and what is abnormal?” This is a question that continues to ring in my mind. It’s important to look for trustworthy sources. But I am too quick to dismiss voices that make me uncomfortable or challenge my expectations? This is why we need to hear from different times and traditions, from people we disagree with or who lack the credentials typically valued in our circles.
The Book of Margery Kempe speaks to many timeless issues, such as questions about God’s sovereignty, corruption and abuse of power in the church, dealing with gossip and toxic relationships, and how to discern God’s voice and activity amid false messages. Kempe speaks, however, in ways that can be jarring or puzzling, ways that invite further reflection and research so I can better understand her—and myself. Sometimes she speaks in just the language I need to hear.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on StockSnap