The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Book 1, Chapters 82–89 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 82 describes a vision Margery Kempe had on Candlemas, a winter liturgical feast of great importance in the Middle Ages. The feast commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, and Kempe's vision is of that event. Weddings, Kempe explains, also affected her deeply because they put her in mind of the union between the soul and God. The next two chapters (83–84) tell of the impression that Kempe's piety made on some local priests (Chapter 83) and an abbey of Cambridgeshire nuns. Kempe endured considerable difficulty visiting the latter—Cambridge lies some 50 miles south of Lynn—but Jesus consoled and comforted her. He also told her that her intentions, the "good wills" and "good desires" she held in contemplative prayer, counted just as much as good deeds.

In another undated vision (Chapter 85), an angel held forth the book of life—in which God writes the names of those destined for heaven—and showed her where her name appeared. Two subsequent chapters (86–87) are devoted to promises of grace, which Jesus spoke to Kempe's "ghostly understanding"; that is, to her mind. Praising Kempe for her reverence and her penitence, Jesus reassured her, as often before, of her place in the kingdom of heaven. Kempe gradually came to accept Jesus's assurances that her silent contemplative prayer (Chapter 88) was as effective as "bidding beads," or saying the Rosary or other formulaic prayers. Book 1 closes (Chapter 89) with a summary of the many mystical sensations Kempe experienced, including the visions and voices described throughout the earlier chapters.

Analysis

Book 1, despite its flashbacks and flash-forwards, was evidently conceived as a self-contained work. The material in the much shorter Book 2 deals with a relatively brief later period in Margery Kempe's life. Although The Book of Margery Kempe as a whole is thematically close-knit, these closing chapters seem especially to circle back to the main ideas of the volume. One such idea is the superiority of contemplative prayer—silently opening one's mind to God—over formulaic prayer—"bidding of beads"—a recurring point in Kempe's dialogues with Jesus. Kempe is evidently still anxious about neglecting her beads, because Jesus visits her "ghostly understanding" multiple times with the message that bead-bidding is neither the only nor the best form of prayer. Conveniently for Kempe, Jesus in his visitations does not totally dismiss the value of the Rosary or other formulaic devotions. Rather, he affirms that these benefit spiritual beginners who need structure and consistency.

The repetition of prayers known by heart, often with the help of a sacramental such as a rosary, was indeed a major part of medieval Christian devotional life. However, Kempe was not the only medieval mystic to push against the tradition of formulaic prayer and affirm the place of contemplative prayer. In a sense the dichotomy between these two types of prayer is analogous to the deeper division between the active life and the contemplative life, with mystics classically favoring the latter. For example, Richard Rolle of Hampole (c. 1300–49), a near-contemporary of Kempe's whose works are mentioned in the Book, calls the contemplative life "sweeter, nobler, worthier, and more meritorious" than the active life. Later, the formulaic prayers common in Catholicism would be a target of attack among Protestant reformers, who believed such prayers could easily be repeated in a rote and inattentive manner. Affirming the value of such devotions was a goal, albeit a minor one, of the Counter-Reformation.

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