I 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.