Margery Kempe and Richard
Aside from their being near contemporaries,
there is little which Margery Kempe and Richard Rolle have
in common. Margery, the perpetual pilgrim with a predilection for "divine
locutions," details of which she inflicted on all in her company, is a
far cry from the solitary Richard. There are varying viewpoints about both
– my own being that, recalling Julian of Norwich’s words about "seeking
and seeing," Richard and Margery share the common trait of having their
wills turned toward union with God, yet falling somewhat short of holiness.
Since this is the condition in which most of us find ourselves, exploring
these two who definitely sought but whose seeing is questionable has its
value in our own lives.
Different though they were, Margery and
Richard shared a tendency towards the extreme. They placed a high,
often inordinate, value on unusual experiences, and overly stressed these
as signs of union with God. The circumstances of their time and place certainly
influenced some of the extreme notions, yet neither had the detachment
or prudence which involves overcoming rather than overwhelming.
This "pair" (a term inapplicable to anything
except this context) leave us with several important reminders:
Emphasis on experiences leaves all the more
room for self-deception – a trait which humanity requires no assistance
Our (fallen) human nature is self-centred,
and the conditions of the fourteenth century thought could play their role
in leading the genuinely devout to further selfishness, through stressing
the accidental at the expense of the essence (…though seldom as much so
as 21st century conditions would.) In reading either Richard’s
or Margery’s words, one can sense a certain desperation about
seeking, respectively, mystic union and atonement for sin. Cliché
answer though this may seem, the Plague had effects on common religious
thought which were perhaps as devastating as those in the overall scheme.
Where the truly holy speak of God Himself
in theological writings, and are wary of mystic experiences, those who
fall a bit short of sanctity (however they are of good will) will have
their vision obscured by a focus on considering and sharing their own "adventures."
Theological positions or religious practises
which are perfectly valid, even excellent, in themselves can have very
negative effects when they are misinterpreted, either in belief or in "application."
One eternal but unfortunate truth of our
Church is that doctrine will inevitably be interpreted (in practise) through
a filter of whatever crises exist during the particular era. Between the
12th and 13th centuries, the Lateran councils had
emphasised purgatory (this a brief reference to a long-standing belief
that there could be purification of the soul after death .. but which would
lead, by the 14th century, to an extensive and complex judicial
system binding on those who were already dead!), the Eucharist, sacramental
confession, and the apostolic succession. Devotions to the Passion of Christ
and to Jesus in his humanity grew markedly. Acts of penance, pilgrimages
in particular, were popular. Much which was solid, even superb, assumed
a gloomy air in the wake of the repeated incidences of the Plague!
Twentieth century minds could have no illusions
about a lack of horrors in this world, even if none were so widespread
as to wipe out a third of the population. The key difference to remember
is that the ugliness of which were are intensely aware resulted from human
evil. During the middle ages, when illness was seen as a divine punishment
for sin, the devastation came to be viewed as chastisement from a God who
needed to be appeased. This presented a number of conflicts and dilemmas
for the devout.
Ultimately, many of the devout were left with
a sense that Jesus’s atonement was insufficient.
Some of the emphases of the Councils and theological
works, for all the richness of sacramental theology, led to quite a "judicial"
approach to the Church – for example, each sin was seen to have some temporal
punishment attached, and only the Church could issue the pardon for same.
The "sudden and unprovided death" which was met by those stricken with
the Plague had left many with great temporal punishment to face in purgatory
– and only those still on earth could do anything to ease the suffering
of their deceased family members! Prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, and almsgiving
– even the intentions one offered at the Eucharist – had a new and painful
dimension. Classic mortification gave way to rather desperate pleading;
charity for one’s relatives to a massive burden of being the only one left
to relieve suffering (many felt that they could not offer prayers other
than those for souls in purgatory); a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving
to one of appeasement of an angry God.
The acts of penance, pilgrimages especially,
left people with the greater puzzlement. The pilgrimages undertaken to
please the punishing God, for example, tended to lead to the Plague’s being
spread. There is quite a dilemma when one seems to incur further punishment
for doing good.
Ascetic practises took on the flavour of punishment
(now, to avoid having it later) rather than discipline.
In a largely feudal society, the idea of saints
as (critical) intercessors was strong. Concurrently, hagiography presented
a picture of the holy as people who had colourful and extreme charismatic
gifts. The result could easily be an approach to prayer that was more magic
than petition, and an imitation of "holiness" that was less of virtue than
of emotional intensity.
Richard Rolle, whose works indeed contain
a rich dose of mystic theology, would devout much of his energy towards
seeking the sight of heaven while still on earth. His failing was that
he looked for this in experiences which were sensually sweet or intense.
Margery Kempe, whose "mystic revelations" probably were mainly her own
creation, was totally obsessed with finding some way that she could
be assured of remission of sin (for herself, but also for those in purgatory.)