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The Margery Kempe that emerges over the course of the Book is perhaps not quite the figure the author intended to portray. The Book is clearly meant to be a sort of brief for Margery’s holiness and divine inspiration—but the reader is left with the impression that, mystic or not, Margery could be an exasperating person to deal with: unpredictable, hyper-emotional, and rather self-obsessed. When we consider many of the routine occurrences of Margery’s life (such as her loud weeping during church services and her walking up to a total stranger’s child and bursting into tears because the child reminds her of Jesus), it is hard not to sympathize with her angry neighbors and frustrated fellow-pilgrims. One of the few comic moments of the Book occurs when Margery’s husband, exhausted by her insistence that the pair be celibate, asks if she would rather see him decapitated by a murderer than have sex with him. Margery says yes, and John, thoroughly and understandably discouraged, replies, “You are no good wife.”
Margery is honest about her own failings, and her attention to her shortcomings is just as important as her self-praise. Margery does brag about the ways God has singled her out, but she just as often emphasizes her weakness and dependence on God. For example, Margery includes the embarrassing moment when she tries to take a man up on his proposal that they begin an adulterous affair—only to find that the man had been joking. She remains conscious of others’ opinions and guards her reputation, but she shows herself repeatedly humiliated and scorned, begging for food in Rome and often treated like an outcast at home. A kind of irony marks many of Margery’s experiences. For example, she gives up sex with her husband but has sexually charged visions of Jesus. She says that before her mystical life began, she had been overly concerned with having fancy clothes, yet she then devotes chapters of her memoir to her all-white wardrobe. Margery is devout and respectful of the forms of the church, yet she is often disruptive in her congregation, pursuing an individualistic spiritual path and challenging the clergy when she sees fit.
What unifies all of the disparate elements of Margery’s personality and experiences is her overwhelming urge to refer everything to the spiritual plane—to see God’s will and love as immanent in every aspect of her life. Seen in this particular light, certain elements of a story such as hers which might seem important—a person’s name, for example, or the description of a landscape—can be left out if they do not help us toward this primary understanding. What matters in any situation is the way in which it reveals to us God’s will as active in the world. God’s will is active in the weather and in the Mass; Jesus is present in our minds and in a child in the street. This is the main thing Margery learns from her visions. Again and again, Jesus tells her that he has chosen her personally, that he died on the cross for her personally, and that he remains concerned with the smallest events of her life.
Margery’s Book can be seen as one woman’s effort to sift through her personal history, searching for moments where God’s presence can be felt and described. For all of her exotic religious experiences, Margery does not claim to be special; she does not claim to know why God has chosen to visit her, and not someone else, with tears and visions (though she dutifully records all of the praise she does receive from Jesus). Part of her point is that if these things can happen to plain, undeserving Margery Kempe of Lynn, they can happen to anyone, anywhere, who has faith and turns to God. As an example, she presents her own story of transformation, showing us how God can turn a trembling invalid into a courageous pilgrim—someone willing to stand up to hostile authority and even face down an angry mob. In the end, even if Margery fails to make the case for her own sainthood, she leaves behind a remarkable testimony of personal faith and conviction.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Book of Margery Kempe!