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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Book of Margery Kempe!