The eighth day of Lent

Thursday after 1 Lent

Margery Kempe was no plaster of Paris or stained glass saint. In fact, the Church has never formally recognized her as a saint and her unconventional ways and abrasive personality must be part of the reason for her failure to make it into the pantheon of the officially luminous. Nevertheless, she is the kind of Christian who can teach us something about Lent in particular and Christian living in general. Margery was born in King's Lynn (then Bishop's Lynn) in England in 1373. Her father was a merchant and held public office and Margery seemed set to follow the usual life path of women of her class and time: wife, mother, manager of a substantial household, and de facto business partner with her husband. She was married at the age of 20 and in the course of time bore 14 children. However, after the birth of one of her children she suffered a breakdown, most probably post-partum depression. Healing came when she had a vision of Jesus who sat on her bed and spoke words of comfort to her. This began a transformation that took many years to come to full flower. Eventually she convinced her husband to join her in taking a vow of celibacy. She adopted a mendicant lifestyle and went journeying, literally all over the world, supporting herself by begging alms. She was regarded variously as a mystic, an eccentric, a heretic, and a troublemaker, but her lifestyle was sanctioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury and encouraged by other churchmen.

Margery Kempe was an extremist. In itself, this is not necessarily a virtue. Extremism can be destructive. On the other hand, Margery understood that the goal of the Christian life is to be totally transformed, not to follow the easy path or the usual path, but to follow the path that Christ sets before us. This requires putting away the old self and Margery determined to do that fully, even when it set her at odds with her own family and the ecclesiastical establishment. It requires an inquiring heart and a willingness to learn from those who have taken this path before us, thus Margery went on pilgrimage: to meet Julian of Norwich and other spiritual counselors and guides; to visit shrines made holy by the saints of old, including St Birgitta of Sweden whose writings had made a deep impression on her; and even to Jerusalem to the most holy places of all. Rather than grow old by the hearth with her large family about her and many grandchildren to delight and comfort her, Margery wanted to be in the world, learning, growing, witnessing to that which had made a difference to her many years before when she was at a terrible low point in her life. For Margery, Jesus came in a mystical vision, but the words of comfort he spoke are the same words he speaks to every one of us in the Gospels. Those words are "comfortable" words in the old sense of that word: words that strengthen us. With his strength, we are enabled to embrace the new life that we have received from him and to face the challenges that such a life entails.

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