Yes Power

margery

In 1934, in the dark recesses of an old English family library, a rare fifteenth century manuscript came to light. Scholarly investigation revealed it to be what is now known as The Book of Margery Kempe, the life story of an extraordinary medieval woman who answered “yes” without hesitation when she thought God was calling her. Today, some regard her as a mystic; others as a sick, or attention-seeking woman but, whatever the truth, Margery gives us a surprising lesson in devotion and perseverance.

Margery was born in 1373 in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn where her father, John Brunham, had been the Mayor for five separate terms. At twenty years of age Margery married John Kempe and within a year of the marriage, had given birth to her first child. She went on to have a further thirteen children but the first birth was especially decisive as, immediately following it, Margery experienced what we now would probably describe as a post-partum psychotic episode but which Margery herself describes as being tormented by devils. Margery explains that the relief from this episode came in the form of a personal visit from Jesus and this unexpected encounter set her on her life’s quest of serving God.

Margery did nothing by halves. Believing that Jesus had appeared to her during her illness, she emerged from her sickbed and began to spend a great amount of time praying, arising at two or three in the morning and making her way to church where she would pray until midday and then again in the afternoon. She confessed to a priest twice and, sometimes, three times a day, in particular seeking forgiveness for an early sin which she had avoided confessing for many years. She adopted stringent fasting and the wearing of a hair-shirt made from the coarse cloth on which malt was dried. It was in these early years, too, that Margery reports receiving the ‘gift of tears’.

This gift, in particular, with its associated crying and wailing at even the mention of Jesus’ name, saw Margery shunned by many who witnessed the extreme behaviour. Such was her disruptive influence that some priests refused to allow her in the church when they were to preach. But Margery persisted in her devotions, feeling that her original “yes” to God was a promise on which she could not renege. She also felt compelled to embark on numerous and extensive pilgrimages and travelled, over several years, to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Norway and Germany, as well as important pilgrimage sites throughout England. This was an amazing undertaking in the 14th century and even more remarkable for a (sole) woman.

Then, as now, Margery’s travels and general behaviour garner divided opinions on the authenticity of her mystical calling. That is, while there is no doubt of her devotion, her motivation for, and expression of it remain a matter of considerable debate. Putting this debate aside, however, there emerges a wonderful and unexpected consequence of her “yes”…

From The Book we know that, though Margery was illiterate, she managed to dictate her story to an unidentified scribe. Six hundred years after she lived and was almost forgotten, the finding of the manuscript of her life story gave the world the great gift of the first autobiography in English.

A Flight into the Dark Night

Night_darkness

 

Many of us have had the experience of preparing for an overseas holiday. As the time for departure grows closer, there’s often a feeling of anxiety mixed with the excitement of anticipation as we try to tidy the house and garden, make sure the newspaper and other deliveries are cancelled, organise accommodation for the pets, pay the bills, purchase travel insurance, renew the passport and so on. On the day of departure, just before we’re leaving for the airport, we run around checking that all the appliances are turned off, all the doors and windows are secured and the perishables are thrown out of the fridge and pantry. Even as we board our flight we may have a sudden thought that we’ve left the iron on; but once that plane accelerates down the runway and then lifts its nose skyward and we feel ourselves leave the ground, we know there’s nothing else we can do about any unfinished tasks at home. We’re lifted into a “between” state of being – not at home, yet not at our destination, detached from a clear sense of place, and completely “ungrounded”. Yet, there is an accompanying feeling of freedom, of leaving the mundane behind and of going towards the exciting unknown.

            In some ways, this physical experience of being “betwixt and between” is comparable to the psychological and spiritual idea of detachment. The great 16th century Spanish poet and mystic, St John of the Cross, opens his beautiful account of the soul’s journey towards union with God with the following lines:

On a dark night,

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh happy chance!

I went forth without being observed,

My house being now at rest.

Here, the “house” is the body with all its senses that bristle and alert us and keep us connected to worldly concerns and emotions. In bringing the house to rest, in detaching from its concerns, John of the Cross regards the soul as liberated to soar into that dark night which he views as being an assent to live in total darkness with regard to all created things. Two centuries earlier, in the medieval period, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing described the detachment experienced during contemplation and meditation in a similar way: an intermediate state between two clouds – “a cloud of forgetting” below and “a cloud of unknowing” above, between the contemplative and God. The Cloud author further posed that darkness was not an absence of light but, rather, an absence of knowing [of God] and as, in his view, God cannot be known but only loved, darkness and detachment are desirable states in which to find oneself. More recently, and similarly, I have heard the Dalai Lama describe the concept of detachment very simply as being in a state of “nothingness: no-thing-ness”.

                        Some recent scholars, too, have described the “dark night” in psychological terms as the detachment of the ego, a letting go of the self and all its props. While letting go of illusions about ourselves can be confronting enough to plunge us into our own version of a “dark night”, perhaps we might usefully consider St John’s reference to the “happy chance”. That is, when those rare opportunities of bringing our “house to rest” present themselves, we should take them – for meditation or a walk in the garden, thus allowing ourselves to be more open to life’s possibilities, more open to an unplanned journey into a dark night.

 

Let’s Dance

medieval dance

 

Some of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that the subject of my PhD thesis (over 18 years ago now) was, broadly, medieval mystics; and every now and then (well, quite often, actually) I am drawn back to their beautiful writings for inspiration. I am in one of those ‘phases’ currently so there might be a few ‘mystical’ posts making an appearance over the coming weeks. Today, I needed to reflect on one of my ‘favourites’ – the brilliant Mechtild of Magdeburg. Here she is:

Mechtild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic whose visions and insights ranged, quite literally, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. She was born in Saxony in about 1210 and, from evidence within her own writings, seems to have experienced her first visions at the age of twelve. At about the age of twenty she left her home to become a Beguine[1] in the town of Magdeburg. There, under the spiritual guidance of the Dominicans, Mechtild’s visions continued and increased and she was encouraged to write them down. This she did in a text under the title of The Flowing Light of Godhead. However, Mechtild’s claim that God had directed her to record these insights and experiences attracted considerable suspicion and criticism, and this increased when, in turn, Mechtild voiced her own criticism of certain local and high-ranking clergy. As a result, for her own protection, in 1270, Mechtild was moved to the Cistercian convent of Helfta. There, in the company of other great mystics of the time, including Mechtilde of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great, Mechtild passed the final years of her life, in writing and in prayer, until her death sometime between 1282 and 1290.

Mechtild’s writings are representative of the ‘affective’ or via affirmativa approach to mysticism in which the mystical experiences are recorded and conveyed in a language that is steeped in metaphor, analogy and sensual imagery. There is no doubt that Mechtild was a gifted poet and some scholars have, rightly, speculated on how much of her writing is attributable to actual mystical inspiration and how much to pure poetic expression. Her visions of hell and purgatory and heaven, in particular, are graphic enough to have prompted comparisons with Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly as Mechtild’s version features descriptions of deeper and deeper levels of hell and purgatory where souls are tormented according to the severity of their sins. Some have even suggested that Mechtild’s descriptions were Dante’s inspiration and that Mechtild herself is represented in the poem as the character, Matelda. Such comparisons remind us that the ‘affective’ medieval mystics used not only beautiful imagery that elevates and delights the modern reader but also, sometimes, gritty and confronting imagery that challenges our modern sensibilities. Perhaps it is the ‘dance’ of these opposites that is one of the reasons that the mystics retain an appeal for us today. We, too, must live in a world that is often ugly and fraught with despair; but we also have the promise and knowledge of the great beauty of creation, and the undercurrent of something divine, mysterious and constant that somehow sustains and enlivens us. Perhaps ironically, then, the poem that is now most synonymous with Mechtild is about ‘the dance’ but, in this case, a very positive and beautiful dance with Divine Life.

I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.        

(Mechtild of Magdeburg)

[1] A beguine was a woman who lived a life dedicated to God but who did not take the vows of religiously professed women. Instead, she lived with other similarly dedicated women who often worked in the community but returned to the “group house” (beguinage) to share in a community life of prayer. Topic for another blog.

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence

To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s height
                                        (Gertrude the Great 1256-1302)

Gertrude the Great was a nun and mystic in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as “the scholars of Helfta” because of their extraordinary writings and mystical experiences. Gertrude’s prayer brings together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence – our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and our dignity. Her lovely metaphor for each of us as “that small speck of human dust” is even more relevant today than it was when Gertrude composed her poem in the late 13th century.

Last time I checked, the world’s current population is around 7.5 billion people, and increasing at a rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

The 14th century English woman, Julian of Norwich (another great mystic), was also given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her (what she termed ) “Revelations of Divine Love”. In her writings on those profound revelations she explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because God loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense to us: love endures.

We cannot hope to truly comprehend the vastness and complexity of our universe but we can understand, from our own everyday human experience, what it is to be loved and to love ourselves and others. Of course, to truly love others we must acknowledge their humanness – the positive and negative attributes of the personality, the annoying habits, the inconsistencies, the humour and kindness, the bad temper, the fears, the thoughtfulness, the failings as well as the successes. In our enduring love for others, we raise them up in our own estimation and, as a consequence, they are also raised in their own view  – from specks to spectacular. So, like Gertrude the Great, Joe Cocker was onto something in his song “Love Lifts us up Where We Belong”.

 

Yes Power

margery

In 1934, in the dark recesses of an old English family library, a rare fifteenth century manuscript came to light. Scholarly investigation revealed it to be what is now known as The Book of Margery Kempe, the life story of an extraordinary medieval woman who answered “yes” without hesitation when she thought God was calling her. Today, some regard her as a mystic; others as a sick, or attention-seeking woman but, whatever the truth, Margery gives us a surprising lesson in devotion and perseverance.

Margery was born in 1373 in the Norfolk town of King’s   Lynn where her father, John Brunham, had been the Mayor for five separate terms. At twenty years of age Margery married John Kempe and within a year of the marriage, had given birth to her first child. She went on to have a further thirteen children but the first birth was especially decisive as, immediately following it, Margery experienced what we now would probably describe as a post-partum psychotic episode but which Margery herself describes as being tormented by devils. Margery explains that the relief from this episode came in the form of a personal visit from Jesus and this unexpected encounter set her on her life’s quest of serving God.

Margery did nothing by halves. Believing that Jesus had appeared to her during her illness, she emerged from her sickbed and began to spend a great amount of time praying, arising at two or three in the morning and making her way to church where she would pray until midday and then again in the afternoon. She confessed to a priest twice and, sometimes, three times a day, in particular seeking forgiveness for an early sin which she had avoided confessing for many years. She adopted stringent fasting and the wearing of a hair-shirt made from the coarse cloth on which malt was dried. It was in these early years, too, that Margery reports receiving the ‘gift of tears’.

This gift, in particular, with its associated crying and wailing at even the mention of Jesus’ name, saw Margery shunned by many who witnessed the extreme behaviour. Such was her disruptive influence that some priests refused to allow her in the church when they were to preach. But Margery persisted in her devotions, feeling that her original “yes” to God was a promise on which she could not renege. She also felt compelled to embark on numerous and extensive pilgrimages and travelled, over several years, to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Norway and Germany, as well as important pilgrimage sites throughout England. This was an amazing undertaking in the 14th century and even more remarkable for a (sole) woman.

Then, as now, Margery’s travels and general behaviour garner divided opinions on the authenticity of her mystical calling. That is, while there is no doubt of her devotion, her motivation for, and expression of it remain a matter of considerable debate. Putting this debate aside, however, there emerges a wonderful and unexpected consequence of her “yes”…

From The Book we know that, though Margery was illiterate, she managed to dictate her story to an unidentified scribe. Six hundred years after she lived and was almost forgotten, the finding of the manuscript of her life story gave the world the great gift of the first autobiography in English.

We, too, will often not know the repercussions of saying “yes” in our lives, of being willing to undertake a difficult task or of making a commitment. We can only have faith that something good will come of it (and hope that it doesn’t take quite as long as Margery Kempe’s “yes” for its effect).