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The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Main Ideas


Redemptive Power of Suffering

Margery Kempe, throughout The Book of Margery Kempe, embraces suffering with a zeal that can seem almost masochistic to a modern reader. She is not merely tolerant but is grateful for the scorn she faces because of her demonstrative piety. Even when God seems to shun her, Kempe sees her patience and loyalty as means of accruing spiritual merit. This comes from a medieval Christian and, in the postmedieval world, specifically Catholic idea of suffering on Earth as cleansing the soul, thus shortening the soul's penance in purgatory after death. Kempe, in an early vision, is promised she will not be subjected to purgatory, so it might seem that she has nothing either to fear or to gain. However, in her understanding—not unorthodox for the time—her suffering can still help and even save the souls of others. Unable to bear the thought of anyone being eternally damned, Kempe accepts and even seeks out opportunities to suffer as a sacrifice to God.

That said, Kempe is only human, and it is not surprising to find that she is of two minds about her suffering. She sometimes sees it as a sign of divine favor and sometimes as exactly the opposite: a sign that she has been abandoned by God. In Book 1, Chapter 18, the anchoress, or religious recluse, Julian of Norwich assures Kempe that the former is true: Margery Kempe's suffering in the world is a sign of goodness and a mark of God's love. Kempe reiterates this premise in later chapters, though not without her doubts. In her youth Kempe confesses, in Book 1, Chapter 1, that she was a vain woman, and so even in adulthood she is especially susceptible to mockery. In Book 1, Chapter 77, she begs God to take away her involuntary fits of weeping because they are bringing her public shame and scorn. In Book 1, Chapter 57, however (the Book is not strictly chronological), she urges God not to deny her these "weepings" after all, as they are part of the way her soul can "profit" in this world.

Christianity cherishes, as a virtue, the idea of suffering patiently for one's faith. The Christian Scriptures assert that those who suffer in this life will be blessed in the next. Perhaps the most famous example appears in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus pronounces a set of eight blessings called the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–10). Each blessing follows a formula in which a worldly condition is paired with a result in the hereafter: those who mourn will be comforted, and peacemakers "shall be called the children of God." The last beatitude seems particularly applicable to Kempe and her tendency to take suffering in stride: "Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake," says Jesus, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Saint Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians), makes a similar claim about the early Christians, who are despised and ridiculed for the meekness with which they bear insults. These "fools for Christ," to use Paul's verbally ironic phrase, are predecessors of and models for Kempe.

Imaginative Communion with God

Another remarkable and recurring feature of The Book of Margery Kempe is the extent to which Margery Kempe lives through biblical events as a spiritual eyewitness. That is, in her visions Kempe imagines episodes from the lives of Christ and the Blessed Virgin as if she were reliving them from moment to moment. A striking example appears in Book 1, Chapter 6, in which Kempe has a vision that seems to span the entire first 12 years of the Virgin Mary's life. Kempe envisions Saint Anne (Mary's mother) "great with child." After Mary is born, Kempe becomes her caretaker until Mary is almost grown up. Later in this same visionary episode, Mary returns, and Kempe remains with her from the time of the Annunciation, or announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary, until the Epiphany (12 days after Christ's birth). Much later in Book 1 (Chapters 78–81), Kempe has a similarly elaborate vision of Christ's Passion, from Jesus's arrival in Jerusalem (celebrated as Palm Sunday) through his Crucifixion, death, and Resurrection. Again, Kempe describes these events as if experiencing them in real time.

Kempe's imaginative participation in the life of Christ is an idea with close ties to the everyday, nonmystical, sacramental life of the Catholic Church. In medieval Western Christianity—and to this day in Catholicism—the Eucharist (also called Communion) is regarded not just as a memorial of Christ's Passion and death but as a miraculous recreation thereof. Theologically, Catholics hold to the most absolute form of what is called sacramental realism, which is the idea that the elements of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, truly become the body and blood of Christ. Most mainstream Protestant groups have an attenuated version of this belief, though some embrace the opposite viewpoint, believing only in the symbolic value of the Eucharist.

Kempe's attitude toward the Eucharist is clearly grounded in sacramental realism, for her visions represent the sacrament as a living entity. In one episode the sacrament appears as a radiant dove shaking its wings. Likewise, in her visions of the Gospels, she is not merely remembering Bible stories or reenacting them in her mind but miraculously participating in events that, historically speaking, transpired long ago. This sense of the sacramental infuses Kempe's writing as it evidently infused her life, enabling her to enter into the devotional spirit of local rituals in Rome, Jerusalem, and Germany even when she does not speak the language.

A Visionary, Not a Heretic

Margery Kempe has an uneasy relationship with the hierarchical authority of the Church, which was not unusual for a mystic. For the most part, she freely submits to the rule of obedience, vowing to follow the instructions given by her various confessors. Ultimately, however, Jesus's direct orders—which Kempe believes she is receiving constantly—trump any conflicting human decree. At multiple points in The Book of Margery Kempe, Jesus orders Kempe to do things she knows her confessors will not like, such as sailing away to Germany when she is past 60. This situation sometimes puts Kempe in a painful bind, as the priests she seeks out to hear her confessions tend to be rare allies in a world keen to judge Kempe and reluctant to listen. Alienating these men is, for Kempe, usually a prospect filled with anxiety and sadness. At the same time, Kempe mobilizes these episodes of rejection from Church authorities as further evidence of her extraordinary devotion to God.

Yet, while she sometimes defies the discipline of her "ghostly fathers," Kempe is no heretic. The clergymen who try to convict her of heresy in Book 1, Chapters 48–55, cannot make any of the charges stick because Kempe is submissive to Church teaching in the areas that matter most. She relies—and believes it is God's will she do so—on friars and other preachers for their interpretations of scripture. She does not violate any biblical teaching or precept of canon law—at least none that her accusers can convincingly cite. Moreover, Kempe scrupulously double-checks the contents of her mystical experiences by describing them to people famous for their holiness and wisdom, such as Richard Caister and Julian of Norwich. Having these cultural heavyweights vouch for her is not only personally reassuring, but it also builds a presumptive case in Kempe's favor when her behavior is questioned. Her practice of Christianity may be unusual, but it is not—as far as her adversaries are able to show—heretical.

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