The Book of Margery Kempe
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Importance of Suffering for Christ’s Sake
The concept of suffering for Jesus’s sake is rooted in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, where Christ informs St. Paul that he must “suffer in my name.” Margery does not cite this verse directly, but the idea of undergoing suffering as a form of devotion to Jesus is central to her spirituality. The traditional form of such suffering occurs whenever a Christian believer is persecuted for his or her beliefs, and the hallmark of a Christian martyr is a willingness to turn suffering and death into a “witness” of faith (“martyr” means “witness”). Margery interprets the scorn she encounters in this light—she is being persecuted because of her devotion to Christ, and her suffering is a reminder of the greater suffering of Jesus. Margery’s visions make her a “witness” in a different but related sense—she sees the suffering of Jesus and Mary and in some sense takes part in it. Her tears become a sign of her willingness to share in Christ’s suffering. They are a reaction to, and a reminder of, Christ’s own redemptive anguish. Margery speaks of her tears as “saving” others, and this transformation of suffering into personal union with God places Margery firmly in the tradition of Christian mystics.
Margery Is Vindicated
Margery never misses an opportunity to describe an occasion when something she predicts comes to pass, one of her prayers is answered, or one of her enemies comes to grief. Margery has several motives for dwelling on such moments of vindication. First, she wants to show that her claims of direct contact with God are justified. Despite the accusations of hypocrisy or madness that are hurled at her, in the end she is revealed to be in the right. She offers evidence for her rightness by describing storms that peter out harmlessly, thanks to her prayers, and liars she is able to confound. Margery also wants to protect herself from any charges of heresy, and she makes an effort to describe any occasion that might plausibly be construed as a demonstration of God’s favor. Margery also focuses on moments when she is vindicated by church authorities against those who accuse her of Lollardy. She takes care to emphasize her orthodox answers to the questions put to her by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and to record their willingness to vouch for her. In this sense, Margery’s Book is as much about self-defense as about self-expression.
Desire for God As Life Purpose
Margery is concerned with earthly suffering, but she also has an intense desire for union with God. Margery’s life and life story are organized around her spiritual experiences, and some of her mystical visions receive more attention than even the birth of one of her fourteen children. Margery seeks out spiritual authorities such as Julian, and travels to holy sites as far away as Jerusalem, often at great expense and personal risk, all in order to advance her spiritual journey toward God. Along the way, she treats everyone and everything she meets as either a spiritual obstacle or a spiritual aid, and any aspect of her life that does not fit into one of these two categories generally goes unmentioned. Margery tries to make every detail of her day-to-day life, from the food she eats (or abstains from) to the clothes she wears, an act of devotion. These small devotions help make her larger moments of ecstatic devotion possible. For example, by deferring sexual pleasure on earth, Margery directs that energy into her visions, where sexual union becomes an image of heavenly contact, or “marriage,” with God. In this way, Margery’s mystical desire for God becomes the organizing principle of her life.
Use of the Third Person
Throughout the Book, Margery speaks of herself in the third person, as “this creature.” On one level, doing so is a simple act of humility on Margery’s part: her purpose is simply to tell her story, not to make herself famous. But this act of humility is deeply significant for Margery, who comes to see herself truly in terms of her created nature, her “creaturehood.” All of the conflict in Margery’s life—within her family, her society, and even herself—has its resolution in Margery’s commitment to place Jesus’s purposes for her life above all others’, including her own. Many of the most dramatic moments of Margery’s story come when she is publicly forced to honor Christ’s will over the will of her husband, the secular or religious authorities, and even, in the case of her inconvenient tears, her own will. In the end, Margery gladly embraces her status as “this creature” of God.
Conversations with God
Margery has several extended conversations with Jesus (and other heavenly persons) over the course of her life. Indeed, she tends to express most of the workings of her mind in terms of a conversation with God. Where one might ordinarily say, “I became suspicious of him,” Margery will typically say something to the effect of, “The Lord warned this creature in her thoughts about this man.” Margery means for the reader to take these statements literally—she is reporting what are for her actual discussions with, and revelations from, God. This is especially true with the extended visions in which Margery witnesses scenes from the gospels. But Margery is also trying to teach us to see our thoughts as being in constant dialogue with God (and the devil), and to be open to prompting from above (and wary of temptation from below). Again, she is trying to emphasize—to provide an image of—the activity and presence of God in everyday life as well as in intense mystical experience.
One of the most striking elements of Margery’s story is the intense physicality she ascribes to what we generally consider un-bodily, spiritual experiences. One example is Margery’s tears, the most typical physical expression of her religious emotion. Margery also sees visions, hears music, smells delightful odors, and feels a pleasant warmth when she is in the midst of one of her mystic reveries. She also has a long sequence of visions in which she describes herself as embracing Jesus physically, culminating in her “marriage” to Christ. The point of this is both to make Margery’s abstract, spiritual experience concrete and comprehensible and to make Margery’s physical experience spiritual. Margery wants us to feel that the effects of Jesus’s contact with her soul are made visible to others through her bodily reactions. Although it is impossible to know for sure, the teaching of Margery’s confessor and other mentors may have guided her interpretations and descriptions of what was happening to her. As Margery is careful to say, in the very last chapter of Book One, visions are often hard to interpret, and “sometimes, what she understood physically was to be understood spiritually.”
The uncontrollable tears that flow whenever Margery worships or even thinks of God are a source of both difficulty and pride. She believes that God sends her tears, but she is initially unsure about how to interpret them. In a vision, Jesus explains the meaning of her tears. First, they are an outward sign of Margery’s deep love of Christ. As a symbol of Margery’s inner being, the tears show others the depth of Margery’s faith. They call to mind the suffering of Christ, who, in Christian doctrine, dies to save the souls of all people. In this sense, Margery’s tears are a symbolic form of prayer, worship, and teaching. But Jesus tells Margery that the tears are meaningful in another sense as well: by coming and going as unpredictably as a rainstorm, Margery’s tears suggest her complete dependence on God. By making her cry at his whim, Jesus is showing Margery that she is his “creature,” as Margery refers to herself. Margery is grateful for this rather difficult blessing, and her understanding of its symbolic value helps her whenever her tears draw hostile attention.
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