Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Worthy of Imitation 4

posted by Scot McKnight

Kempe.jpgI had not heard of Margery Kempe until I read about her in Chris Armstrong’s new book, Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future
, and I’m still wondering about her. Here’s a brief on her:

For six hundred years her story, which had been told to folks and written down and stored away, was unknown until, in 1934, someone found it — and a woman, a mystic, an emotional person, a pilgrim, a prayer warrior, a hero to some and heretic to others, came back to life.
Her book has gone through numerous printings since then, and Chris Armstrong tells a compelling story of her value for Christians today.
Who are your favorite mystics? Do you know about Margery Kempe? Also, have physical places — like Asissi or Jerusalem or Wittenburg or Iona — been important to you? Are there “sacred spaces” for you?
Margery Kempe, though married and with fourteen kids, wanted more as a woman and as a Christian, which was tailored in her day for the celibate nun and monastic. She finally convinced her husband of a life of celibacy, she became a world famous pilgrim — throughout Europe — and she was known for how emotional she became when she thought of Jesus’ passion, suffering, and life. It was an era of focus on the sufferings of Christ; she typified that pious concern.


Postpartum depression led to a vision of Christ himself, and her life was forever changed — but it took a good while for her to move out of her materialism, envy, and desire for respect.

What Armstrong observes about Margery Kempe is a powerful emphasis on the incarnation of Christ. What Mel Gibson’s movie did for so many, that is, bring back the reality of Christ’s physical suffering, Margery embraced the physicality of Christ’s life and sufferings.
Furthermore, Margery was known to break into sobbing and tears when she began to ponder anything in the life of Christ. In fact, she was seen as a nuisance to many churches because of her wailing — this was weird and remains weird but it also remains true. Armstrong reminds us that she contrasts deeply with the “flat-lining of the spirit” in so much of the church today.
Finally, Kempe brings to the surface the significance of touch and physicality: she was a pilgrim. She went to places. She touched places. The Bible is full of an emphasis upon places, sacred places, and the value of the physical space as sacred space.


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Pat

posted September 14, 2009 at 3:16 pm


First I’ve heard of Margery Kempe, but her story resonates with my soul. I particularly liked your line, “‘the “flat-lining of the spirit’ in so much of the church today.” While I believe in practicing the presence of God within our hearts, physical places can very much be a part of ushering us into His presence and reawakening something within us. I walked on a trail last week at a local farm with a friend who is also a spiritual seeker. The next time I had the privilege of doing a day retreat at a conference center with two others. My visit to Israel was also a very spiritual experience. While I had never been before, it strangely felt like a place that I belonged. It felt like home. I wasn’t awestruck, looking around at all the sights. I just felt comfortable, like Israel was just where I belonged. It was a very spiritual experience for me and I remember coming back and not even wanting to go to church and be surrounded by all the noise and frivolity.



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Travis Greene

posted September 14, 2009 at 3:46 pm


I’m trying to reconcile “brings to the surface the significance of touch and physicality” with “finally convinced her husband of a life of celibacy”.



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Chris Armstrong

posted September 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm


Well, Travis, that’s a good point. I guess I’d say something like this: If you weren’t convinced of the significance of touch and physicality, then why would any ascetic practice (including celibacy) be important to you? I think a physically aware spirituality and a commitment to celibacy, while seemingly opposed to each other, are actually joined at a deeper level.



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Kenton

posted September 14, 2009 at 4:36 pm


Chris-
ARE YOU FREAKIN’ SERIOUS???



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Kenton

posted September 14, 2009 at 4:44 pm


Sorry for that outburst. Let me offer some reactions in a more calm tone:
1. So, was Margery the patron saint of homely women?
2. Are we SURE that Mr. Kempe kept his so called “vow of celibacy?”
3. Were you really having trouble finding 10 people, and this was the best you could do for that last spot?



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Pat

posted September 14, 2009 at 4:51 pm


Kenton, why is this so hard to believe? Couldn’t it be possible that Mr. Kempe also walked the road of mysticism to a degree that he could have willingly agreed to his wife’s request?



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Kenton

posted September 14, 2009 at 5:04 pm


Pat, I’m a guy. The answer to your question is “no.” Married guys do not willingly agree to a life of celibacy.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 14, 2009 at 5:11 pm


Celibacy, Kenton, is a more demanding physical existence than the normal sexual lives of married folks. Sorry, but I thought #2 was a bit cheeky and #3 is uncharitable.



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Travis Greene

posted September 14, 2009 at 5:12 pm


Chris, that’s a good point. I realize that celibacy is meaningful because it’s the giving up of something good for a greater good.
But I still think it’s bad for married people.



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Kristen

posted September 14, 2009 at 5:35 pm


Rightly or wrongly, this idea of staying celibate within marriage out of devotion to Christ is not unique to the Kempes. In a tradition that holds (again, rightly or wrongly) that Mary was a virgin perpetually, not just until Jesus’ birth, the idea is not so unfathomable. It even has a name — “Josephite marriage.”
I remember some years ago, where a priest friend of mine was holding a Q&A session on Mary. Someone asked where the tradition of Mary’s perpetual virginity came from, since after all the Church says that sex is good within marriage. “Are you asking me,” replied Father Don, “why for the past two thousand years Western culture has had a love-hate relationship with sex? Because that’s a bigger question than I can really answer.”
Now a Josephite marriage may or may not be a great idea (I tend to think not) but it’s not an idea that Margery made up out of thin air and decided to run with.



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MatthewS

posted September 14, 2009 at 5:42 pm


From this safe distance in time, the husband’s response is funny: Ye are no good wife!



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Kenton

posted September 14, 2009 at 6:46 pm


And I thought I might get taken to task for #1. :)
Apologies for being uncharitable. I was perhaps a little too incredulous that a woman who convinces her husband to make their marriage celibate would make it into a book of saints. I’m sure St. Marge was a fine choice otherwise.



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John H. Armstrong

posted September 14, 2009 at 6:46 pm


Surely we can disagree with the Kempe’s arrangement without mocking it. And surely we can disagree that this advised in apostolic witness and still believe that this good woman serves as a kind of living ikon of love for Christ, as does her husband too if we believe the story. Our problem as moderns is we want to conform everything to our way and the past is seen as strange to us. Maybe we are more strange than we know. Ikons remind us of this reality.



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Chris Armstrong

posted September 14, 2009 at 6:53 pm


Folks, I’m not pushing the idea of celibate marriage. I actually think it’s oxymoronic at best. But thanks, Kristen, for pointing out that Margery was working from an established tradition when she approached her husband with that request.
All I wanted to say in response to Travis’s observation that celibacy and “physically aware spirituality” seem like two incompatible ideas is that asceticism is, itself, a kind of physical spirituality. It takes seriously our susceptibility to be carried away by our physical needs–our susceptibility to place such needs in a higher position in our lives than relationship with God. And it responds with a kind of physical training to deal with that susceptibility.
A sensitive and biblical asceticism has always affirmed (as ascetics often did _not_ affirm, in Kempe’s time and before and since) the essential goodness of creation–including sexuality. But can it not at the same time point out that our sexuality often causes serious problems for us in our spirituality? Augustine, though not a reliable guide on sexuality (imho), was at least right in saying that our loves can get “disordered” really fast when it comes to sex. It’s just so hard for humans to enjoy sex without putting sexual satisfaction above all other goods, including the good of God and even the good of our sexual partner. It’s just . . . so . . . GOOD in and of itself, as a pleasurable, deeply desirable physical activity!
A church like the medieval church, which lavished _physical_ attention on God–through devotional art, physical understandings of the Eucharistic presence of Christ, pilgrimage, and so much more–is quite consistently a church that recognizes the tremendous power, both for good and ill, of physical love in human relationships. And when push comes to shove, the medieval church _always_ set the divine and eternal over the merely human and temporal. If a physical activity could be used for devotion, then by all means do that thing. But if it had the potential to draw the heart away from God and toward one’s own selfish desires, or _even toward an inordinate (potentially idolatrous) love of another human being_, then we’d better watch ourselves around that activity. That’s why the two-tiered spiritual system (celibates: best; married folks: second-best) arose in the early and medieval church. Not a healthy development, in my opinion, but at least an understandable one.
This, anyhow, is my beginner’s way of understanding what celibacy is about. I think that like other forms of asceticism, celibacy represented for medievals, as it still does for some today, a way of dealing with an area of physical experience that threatens to drag the heart away from God. Has the notion of celibacy been over-stressed and abused? I think so. Is it ludicrous? I don’t think so. Just my two cents.



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Patrick Oden

posted September 14, 2009 at 7:08 pm


Celibacy as a discipline within marriage certainly does have a strong early Christian tradition. Certainly, it also has strong spiritual strengths, but also some pretty clear spiritual dangers. That’s why I like reading those early monastics. They were pretty honest about both.
Which is why I’m curious about Kempe. I also do not know much about her, other than what has been mentioned here. But, the first thing that popped into my mind wasn’t necessarily thinking her a positive model.
Obviously, I am talking with some measure of ignorance about her particular situation, but the idea of constant travel about, leaving behind her family to move from place to place, with strong emotional responses that others felt were quite disruptive, does not seem to indicate the sort of wholeness the monastics suggested was part of the spiritual life. Indeed, I read the basics here and first thought of Cassian’s description of the deadly sin “acedia”:
Once this has seized possession of a wretched mind it makes a person horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell and also disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers who live with him or at a slight distance, as being careless and unspiritual. Likewise it renders him slothful and immobile in the face of all the work to be done within the walls of his dwelling: It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading.
He groans quite frequently that spending such a long time there is of no profit to him and that he will possess no spiritual fruit for as long as he is attached to that group of people.
He complains and sighs, lamenting that he is bereft and void of all spiritual gain in that place inasmuch as, even though he is capable of directing others and of being useful to many, he is edifying no one and being of no help to anyone through his instruction and teaching.
He makes a great deal of far-off and distant monasteries, describing such places as more suited to progress and more conducive to salvation, and also depicting the fellowship of the brothers there as pleasant and of an utterly spiritual cast. Everything that lies at hand, on the contrary, is harsh, and not only is there nothing edifying among the brothers who dwell there but in fact there are not even any of the necessities of life to be obtained there without huge effort.
Thereupon he says that he cannot be saved if he remains in that place. He must leave his cell and get away from it as quickly as he can, for he will perish if he stays in it any longer.
Then arise listlessness and such a yearning for food that he feels as worn out as if he had been exhausted by a long journey and very heavy labor or as if he had put off eating for the sake of a two- or three- day fast.
Next he glances around anxiously here and there and sighs that none of the brothers is coming to visit him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting. So filled is he with a kind of irrational confusion of mind, like a foul mist, and so disengaged and blank has he become with respect to any spiritual activity that he thinks that no other remedy for such an attack can be found than the visit of a brother or the solace of sleep alone.
With that the same malady suggests that he should dutifully pay his respects to the brothers and visit the sick, whether at a slight distance or further away. It also prescribes certain pious and religious tasks.
And so the unhappy soul, preyed upon by devices like these of the enemy is agitated until, worn out by the spirit of acedia as by the most powerful battering ram, it either learns to succumb to sleep or shakes off the restraints of the cell and gets in the habit of finding is consolation in the face of this onslaught by visiting a brother, although it will be all the more painfully vulnerable not long after having used this remedy as a stopgap.
For the adversary will the more frequently and harshly try a person who he knows, once the battle is joined, will immediately offer him his back and who he sees hopes for stafety not in victory or in struggle but in flight, until he is gradually drawn out of his cell and begins to forget the reason for his profession.
Thus it is that the solder of Christ, having become a fugitive and a deserter from his army ?entangles himself in worldly affairs? and displeases ?him to whom he engaged himself?.

Given the flightiness of much postmodern commitments, I’m not sure Kempe is the best model of spirituality within community that seems to be a postmodern ideal.



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Pat

posted September 14, 2009 at 7:28 pm


Folks, let’s not forget Paul’s permission, if you will, in I Corinthians 7:5 about spouses abstaining from sex for a period of time if for the purpose of devoting oneself to prayer. It really is not that odd of an idea that spouses would abstain. I think what’s tripping some people’s trigger is not only the abstinence but the prolonged period of time. The knee-jerk response in my mind reduces marital relations. Both states, celibacy and marital sex are good and both can be abused in either direction.



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Chris Armstrong

posted September 14, 2009 at 7:59 pm


Patrick, there could well have been some element of acedia in Margery’s story. But I think you’d find if you read the chapter a more spiritually whole person than Cassian’s description allows. She didn’t isolate herself or hate those who lived near her: she had a reputation as a holy women that drew many people to her, and she often practiced intercessory prayer for her neighbors.
Further, I don’t think her pilgrimages were driven by acedia. Pilgrimage was a component of the spirituality of every Christian who could afford it in Margery’s time, and it had been honored by centuries of high regard before she came along. It wasn’t the kind of discontented wandering described by Cassian. It was a concerted, pious practice animated by devotion to the human Christ and the human saints, and the desire to be where Christ had walked or touch the remains of those who had walked well with him.
Sorry for having the bad manners to quote myself, but here’s a clip from the Margery chapter that I think speaks to this question of the purpose of pilgrimage:
“In the mid-90s I was giving a lecture on Pentecostalism at an evangelical seminary in New England. I was describing the huge influxes of eager believers, every day, by the busload, to the Azusa Street Revival that launched Pentecostalism in 1906, and again to the modern Toronto Airport Vineyard revival and the Brownsville/Pensecola revivals . One student put up his hand and asked, with skepticism in his voice: ?Why do Pentecostals and charismatics feel that it?s so important to actually go to the place where a revival is supposedly happening, to ?bring back? that revival to their home churches??
“At the time, I didn?t have an answer to that. Now, having encountered Margery and studied her time, it seems to me that these trips to modern charismatic revivals resonate with medieval pilgrimages. More than this, theologically speaking, people have always gone to places where God is reputed to be moving in a special way because they recognize the essentially personal, visual, physical nature of this historic faith of Christianity. That is, they see that the God who incarnated himself in history as the first-century Jew Jesus, continues to make himself incarnate, though imperfectly, in the body of Christ?which is his people, his ?living stones? (a very tactile image), wherever he chooses to build them together.
“We may not venerate Saints today or go on pilgrimages to seek out their relics (which were the focal point of many medieval pilgrimages), but we do crave the kind of contact with Christ that comes to us in special gatherings of his people?his body?where he seems to be doing special things uniquely ?for our time and place.? That we can come away from those gatherings changed reflects the fact that the church is the continued incarnation of Christ.”
I could say more in defense of Margery (though God knows she had her quirks!), but I think I’m overstaying my welcome with these long posts.



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Patrick Oden

posted September 14, 2009 at 8:38 pm


Chris, that was welcomed and wasn’t bad manners at all.
Why rewrite what was already said so well?
Very much appreciate your post. And indeed, from what you say, she does seem to represent a more whole version of what could be mimicked by less than spiritual motives. Makes me think of online activities–which can be totally distracted or helpful and edifying if pursued with a sense of discernment.
As I’m a lover of history, and historical places, I’m glad to hear it can be done with meaning.



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Lisangirls

posted September 14, 2009 at 9:40 pm


If I had fourteen kids, I’d ask for a celibate marriage, too!!



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Mike M

posted September 14, 2009 at 10:58 pm


I’m with Kenton and his intensity on this. One-sided celibacy is sexual violence. If she “convinced” her husband to be celibate, that means she manipulated him into believing it was a “good” thing. Scot (#8) aren’t you being quite a bit disengenuous for someone who isn’t totally convinced of the advantages of the Fourth Way of the spiritual disciplines?



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Mike M

posted September 14, 2009 at 11:06 pm


In other words, this is NOT worthy of being imitated!



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Chris Armstrong

posted September 15, 2009 at 12:32 am


Mike (20): as I’ve said, I’m not big on celibacy in marriage, either! I think it’s wrong-headed. So I’d agree that in this, she is not worthy of imitation.
But should we assess Margery’s whole life on the basis of this one facet?
I wouldn’t imitate John Wesley’s marriage either (it was dismal), yet I do think he is worthy of imitation in other respects. Bonhoeffer was a great prophetic figure, worthy of our imitation in so many ways. Yet Christian pacifists still have a hard time with his decision to join the assassination plot against Hitler. And so on, and so on.
No human alive is worthy of imitation in all ways–only Christ is that. The art of reading biography, to be helpful, must include the ability to “chew the chicken and spit out the bone.”
For the record, Scot hit the nail on the head in the original article: where I resonate most with Margery and think she is most helpful as an exemplar is in her emotionally invested and expressed devotion to the humanity of Christ (while not ignoring his divinity).



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Diane

posted September 15, 2009 at 8:53 am


Thank you number 19. Are we forgetting this woman had 14 children? 14? Obviously, there was sex in this relationship for a long time. Are we surprised she got tired out? Why is this all seen from the point of view of male deprivation? I do, however, give her husband a great deal of credit for agreeing to this arrangement. He apparently cared about her as a full human and saw a bigger picture. (The poet Coleridge, for example, when begged by his wife for a period of celibacy so she could recover from constant, debilitating pregnancies, refused. It was his “right” to have sex–and children–no matter what cost to his wife.) As for M of K’s unconventional lifestyle–if this is what God called her to do, who are we to judge? Why are women so often attacked for leaving the husband and kids to serve God, while men are praised for it? Why couldn’t M simply get support and help with caring for her family from the people back home? I recall stories of Elizabeth Frye, who bore scathing accusations from her fellow Quakers about being a bad mother because she put her energies into the task of reforming the British penal system. Why don’t we support women who step out of the “child nurturer” role to follow God? Why is it so hard?



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RJS

posted September 15, 2009 at 9:05 am


Diane,
Excellent point … Why is this all seen from the point of view of male deprivation? Everyone who has commented here negatively has commented from this point of view. How dare she deprive her husband of his rights? And the view has often been … even if it costs her her life.
Chris Armstrong comments on a vision of God while suffering from postpartum depression. Could this have been a real message, a real support?



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andrew hall

posted September 15, 2009 at 9:20 am


hi scott.
i just updated my blog on mystics, in particular, Richard Rolle. whos included in the margery kempe book.
http://pilgrimconversations.wordpress.com/
hope you enjoy.
and by the way love your books, just finished, Why May is impotant to evangelicals and got, blue parakeet, & jesus creed.
many thanks for your work.
andrew



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Your Name

posted September 15, 2009 at 9:59 am


“Why don’t we support women who step out of the “child nurturer” role to follow God? Why is it so hard?” Thank you, Diane. As a never-married, childless woman, sometimes I feel that in some circles, having babies is revered as the supreme role for women.



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Pat

posted September 15, 2009 at 10:01 am


Forgot to include my name on #26.



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Travis Greene

posted September 15, 2009 at 2:54 pm


Scot & others,
I’ll own up to cheeky, though I hope not disrespectful. Underlying that, however, is a serious concern about the many, many ways in which we’ve gotten sex wrong. Celibacy within marriage strikes me as one more way, though I admit I was not thinking about this being in a time before birth control. And Chris is right that a thoughtful asceticism is just as interested in the goodness of the body, just as fasting and thankfully partaking both acknowledge the importance of food.
I also did not intend to imply that male deprivation is what matters. That, to me, plays yet more into the idea that sexuality is really only for men.



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Mike M

posted September 16, 2009 at 12:53 am


Male Deprivation? You ladies have no clue. Why is forced entry a crime while forced denial in a marriage not a crime? My point is not “hey, we should do what the wife wants otherwise it’s male deprivation” but rather, “if a husband seeks a natural outlet with someone else because his wife is tired of sex, why should that be a sin?” Please read what I say instead of imposing your own interpretations on it.



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Diane

posted September 16, 2009 at 9:52 pm


Mike M,
I am going to take a deep breath and try here!
First, :), we “ladies” often don’t prefer to be referred to as ladies. I know this may seem bizarre, but “lady” is a term that has been used in the past to keep women in corsets and in ignorance, so although it is meant kindly, it can inadvertently give offense.
If by “natural outlet” you mean an extramarital affair as a response to a sexless period in a marriage, A. that would directly violate Jesus’ teaching and B. it would take energy from the marriage that ought to be put into repairing whatever damage or communication problem is causing the lack of accord about sex.



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