Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, and English Vernacular Mysticism
Most historians of Christianity will note that mysticism peaked in the later centuries of the Middle Ages. Christian mystics experienced direct encounters with God, often through ecstatic visions of heaven and the divine. In relation to the increase in literacy of the laity during these centuries, many mystics wrote in their vernacular languages and gained followings among the laity. Thus mysticism itself bears different traits depending upon the region and language. Furthermore, while there were male mystics, most mystical writings came from women, who found mysticism as a manner in which they could participate in theology. In this post, I wish to examine Christian mysticism of two English women of the later Middle Ages—Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, particularly the role of prayer in experiences of encounters with God.
Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe were both 14th century English women who recorded remarkable visions. The renowned scholar of mysticism Bernard McGinn speaks of Julian’s visions and writings as “one of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of Christian mysticism.”1 Julian of Norwich tells of the showings she received during a near-death experience in Revelations of Divine Love, in which God shows many things regarding divine mysteries to Julian. The primary theological themes of her text are Divine Love, the total Goodness of God, and hope in the mercy of God, and her mysticism transcends the social concerns of her time.
Julian of Norwich became of such high esteem throughout early 15th century England that many, including the English mystic Margery of Kempe, sought her out as a spiritual guide.2 Margery of Kempe adopts a different tone and focus in her Books. Margery recorded visions that came often through words rather than showings. These visions address sin, temptation, and obedience, while also providing commentary on late medieval social life. While Julian and Margery express different conceptions of God through their different understandings of mysticism, both emphasize the centrality of prayer in the mystical life.
Throughout Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich repeatedly emphasizes the love and mercy of God. In “Reading One,” she states that before her visions, “I never desired any other sight or showing of God until the soul was departed from the body (for I believed to be saved by the mercy of God).”3 The mercy of God then develops into a focus on the love of God, which figures prominently throughout Julian’s visions. In “Reading Eight,” she recounts, “At the same time that I saw this sight of the head [of Christ] bleeding, our good Lord showed me a spiritual vision of His simple loving. I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us. He is our clothing which for love enwraps us, holds us, and all encloses us because of His tender love, so that He may never leave us.”4 This love overcomes all earthly things, particularly sin and temptation, according to Julian, for God’s goodness is the greater than all things. She says, “And He has made us only for Himself and restored us by His blessed passion and ever keeps us in His blessed love. And all this is from His goodness.”5
Because of her emphasis on the love, goodness, and mercy of God, Julian’s visions focus on heavenly showings. As she gazes upon the crucifix and sees blood pour off the crown of thorns, she states, “And in the same showing suddenly the Trinity almost filled my heart with joy. (And I understood it shall be like that in heaven without end for all that shall come there.)”6 Later, she discusses how the soul finds rest in God, and describes, “When the soul is willingly emptied for love in order to have Him who is all, then it is able to receive spiritual rest. Also our Lord God showed that it is full great pleasure to Him that a pitiable soul come to Him nakedly and plainly and simply.”7 Essentially, Julian’s mysticism centers around the soul’s contemplation of God’s goodness, love, and mercy by loving God and embracing His goodness.
While Margery Kempe also records visions in her Book, unlike Julian of Norwich many of these visions focus less on the goodness and mercifulness of God and more on sin and temptation. Kempe’s Book opens with a vision of demons assailing her and urging her to “forsake Christendom, her faith, and deny her God.”8 Even after she is delivered from this temptation and turns back to God, she continues to endure temptations and corresponding visions. She recounts how Christ “laid before this woman the snare of lechery, when she believed that all fleshly lust had wholly been quenched in her,”9 and then how this lead her to unsuccessfully pursue adultery with another man. Later she mourns her lack of chastity in her marriage and severely fasts. She then receives a vision where “Our Lord Jesus Christ with great sweetness spoke to her, commanding her to go again to her husband, and pray him to grant her what she desired.”10 Her mysticism is much more concerned with obedience and personal instructions, and thus lends itself much more to a commentary on personal holiness during her tumultuous times than Julian’s mysticism, which focuses more on the relationship of the soul and God and the great things God did out of His love for humanity, which transcend time.
In both of these mystical accounts, prayer occupies a central role. Julian of Norwich frequently speaks of prayer and the role it played in her reception of the showings. She even connects prayer to God’s goodness and love, saying, “For the goodness of God is the highest prayer, and it comes down to the lowest part of our need. It vitalizes the soul and brings it to life and makes it grow in grace and virtue.”11 Prayer, for Julian, reflects a way in which the human soul can mystically participate in God’s goodness and receive His love. Meanwhile, for Margery Kempe, prayer serves as a medium for one’s own moral reform, such as when before Christmas she prays and receives Christ’s instruction to abstain from meat. Other times, she prays for deliverance from temptation and damnation; however, her prayers do not reach towards the Divine Love of God in the same way as Julian of Norwich’s prayers. Julian of Norwich represents a peak of Christian mysticism, especially of English mysticism, with her emphasis on God’s love and its ability to transform even sin into a means to salvation.
1 Bernard McGinn, “Julian of Norwich: ‘love is oure lordes mening.’” In Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, 425.
2 Ibid, 426.
3 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love.
4 Ibid, 13.
5 Ibid, 15.
6 Ibid, 11.
7 Ibid, 14.
8 Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, 541.
9 Ibid, 544.
10 Ibid, 549.
11 Julian of Norwich, 17.
Image Courtesy of Angela Marie Henriette.