God in flesh and bone: Medieval devotion to the embodied, incarnate, human Christ


For the complete story of the mill and brewery operator, mother of 14, and “lay mystic” Margery Kempe (1373 – 1438), see my Patron Saints for Postmoderns or the fascinating website “Mapping Margery Kempe.” Why should we care about Margery? Lots of reasons, but here are a couple that particularly struck me, excerpted from the chapter on Margery in Patron Saints:

God in Flesh and Bone

At the start of the chapter I made a connection between Margery and
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. What was it about Gibson’s
movie that has galvanized so many modern (or if you like, postmodern)
Western Protestants? After all, of representations of Christ’s life there
has been no end. Why did this one, in particular, speak so deeply to so
many? I think there are two answers to this question, and that both of
them can help us understand and benefit from the life of this odd English
mystic, Margery Kempe.

First, Western Christians today need to hear Margery and the medievals
on this: we tend to hurry over the incarnation—seeing it as a
necessary step to get Jesus to the cross, where he can die as a substitutionary
atonement for our sins. In general, we miss out on the rich
historical theological resources on creation and incarnation, and we
focus instead on sin and salvation. Margery certainly dwelled on the
passion and even the resurrection—that can be a “bridge” over which
we walk to meet her—but what captivated her most was not so much
the atonement wrought by Christ’s death as the fact that God has really
become human and has really been tempted and suffered in all
the ways we have. In other words, Jesus’ stark human suffering affected
her most not by illuminating the legal, substitutionary mechanism
of salvation, but by revealing the unimaginable love of a God who
would go to such extremes to reach us—even taking on the deepest
physical and emotional sufferings to which we fallen folk are heir.

This acute awareness of the incarnation was no theologically fuzzy,
inward-turned “mysticism.” Medieval scholar Ellen M. Ross argues
that, on the contrary, “the [medieval] believers’ alliance of compassion with Jesus
enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately
for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy and practices of
confessing one’s social sins, Ross concludes, helped build a strong, humane
center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something
like this again.

A second reason for connecting with Margery is that her affective
piety may be a medicine for a peculiar ailment of many (post-)modern
Christians: the spiritual torpor and indiscipline induced by lives of material
gratification and “amusing ourselves to death.” To such inaction
and spiritual flabbiness, the ascetic discipline of an Antony or a Gregory
may seem (I think, correctly) to offer an intriguing tonic. But our modern
malaise—termed by philosophers anomie—involves not just spiritual
inaction, but also spiritual and emotional distance. By this I mean
a sort of flat-lining of the spirit. We may so easily fall into an attitude
that says, “There may be a God. There may be a Jesus who died for our
sins. But though I believe these things, they do not touch my heart.”

How different this is from Margery, who when the archbishop of York
asked her the rough question, “Why do you weep so, woman?” replied
firmly, “Sir, you shall wish some day that you had wept as sorely as I.”
Margery’s life and Book remind us that such intensely emotional piety
focused on the humanity (and thus also deity) of Christ was not
merely an inward-focused “kick.” Both intuitive emotion (her weeping)
and practical imitation (her late-life acts of mercy) can infuse wisdom
into our very hearts and bodies in ways that speculative theology can
never do.

Reclaiming the Physical

Finally, among the varied aspects of our human nature, our emotions
seem especially closely tied with our physical bodies. We use the same
word, “feeling” or “being touched,” for the physical senses and for emo-
tional experiences. But reading Margery’s book makes me ask, Where
has the sense of the spiritual importance of touch or physicality gone in
today’s culture? Are these human senses now allowed to communicate
anything true or spiritual to us? We have plenty of the visual in our TV and
movie-soaked culture, and even in our churches. But how often do
we experience anything spiritually significant through touch? The most
intense, ecstatic touch-experiences, those of our sexuality, have been devalued
and dehumanized through obsessive attention and being made
into the commodities of the impersonal marketplace. I think that like
The Passion of the Christ, Margery’s life of devotion and the whole English
mystical tradition can help to draw today’s Christians back to the
sort of visible, physical devotion epitomized in the medieval pilgrimage.

In the mid-nineties I was giving a lecture on Pentecostalism at an
evangelical seminary in New England. I was describing the huge influxes
of eager believers that traveled, every day to the Azusa Street Revival
in 1906, launching Pentecostalism, and the similar crowds that
flocked to the modern Toronto Airport Vineyard revival and Brownsville/
Pensecola revivals. One student put up his hand and asked with
skepticism in his voice, “Why do Pentecostals and charismatics feel that
it’s so important to actually go to the place where a revival is supposedly
happening, to ‘bring back’ that revival to their home churches?”

At the time, I didn’t have an answer to that. Now, having encountered
Margery and studied her context, it seems to me that these trips to modern
charismatic revivals resonate with medieval pilgrimages. More than
this, theologically speaking, people have always gone to places where
God is reputed to be moving in a special way because they recognize the
essentially personal, visual, physical nature of this historic faith of
Christianity. That is, they see that the God who incarnated himself in
history as the first-century, Jewish Jesus continues to make himself incarnate,
though imperfectly, in the body of Christ—which is his people,
his “living stones” (a very tactile image), wherever he chooses to build
them together.

We may not venerate saints today or go on pilgrimages to seek out
their relics (which were the focal point of many medieval pilgrimages),
but we do crave the kind of contact with Christ that comes to us in special
gatherings of his people—his body—where he seems to be doing special
things uniquely “for our time and place.” That we can come away
from those gatherings changed reflects the fact that the church is the
continued incarnation of Christ.

Of course, we will only consider the “coolness” of much modern devotion
a problem if we agree that our emotions and desires should come
into play in our faith life. If we do, then we find ourselves in the camp
of the “Christian eudaemonists” (the Greek eudaemonia refers to wellbeing,
blessedness or fulfilled desires). The classical philosophers asked,
“What makes humans truly happy?” The Christian eudaemonists have
answered: We are happy when God transforms and fulfills our desires,
by leading us into the bliss of his loving presence. So in his Confessions
Augustine, the “dean of Christian eudaemonists,” can pray with fervor,
“Inebriate me, O God!” From Augustine through the Middle Ages and
on to such modern groups such as the Puritans, the Pietists, and John
Wesley’s and Jonathan Edwards’s early evangelicals, Christian thinkers
and saints have picked up this emphasis on the transformation and fulfillment
of spiritual desire. Not all Christians share this emphasis, but it
is to be found deep in the fabric of Christian history, through all ages of
the church.

Of course, other sorts of emotion do show up in our churches: whipped
up, self-centered, spiritually and morally useless. But in Kempe we meet
a different sort of religious emotion, rooted in a “full boisterous” acceptance
of Jesus’ real human nature. Her spirituality sprang from a theology
that bled to death before her eyes. It drove her not only to strong
feelings, but also to strong spiritual action. In our own time, the vision
of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ lies in the same medieval tradition
of piety that formed Margery Kempe. If only we could come to the same
balanced, physical/emotional/cognitive devotion to the three-person
God and the two-nature Christ. For the help toward that goal that Margery
gave many in her own time, I would say she is still well worth reading
today.

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5 responses to “God in flesh and bone: Medieval devotion to the embodied, incarnate, human Christ

  1. Chris,
    To be honest there are a couple of times I empathized with several people who witnessed her passionate displays of fervor. But I think the bottom line in reading a Christian bio, especially in such a distant time, is to keep in mind the social & religious norms of that period. In order to truly understand a work such as this, it helps to have studied the period & place in question. I’m on my BB so I hope what I said makes sense as my window is small. Thanks.PS emotions are part of our spiritual life & I thibk of Margery as a friend too. Wonder if any plays have been produced about her.

  2. Chris,
    Excellent post. I’ve read Kempe’s autobiography twice (different editors) & loved it. Enjoyed her stories of her pilgrimages, her conversion & spiritual growth & how others related to her. I will say though that there were a few times I burst out laughing because of things she did or said. I know that she wasnting attempting to be funny, but her sense of honesty & ability in relating events are refreshingly endearing and funny at same time sometimes. She was a woman who was moved by the Spirit who left Christians a rich legacy.

    • Karen, I’m so glad to hear you say those things about Margery. I find myself defending herself in class when I teach her, like she was a friend. You know the kinds of things people say: that she was self-centered, imbalanced, “hysterical,” and all that. But these critiques often seem to come from folks for whom the ultimate black mark on a religious figure (or movement) is “emotionalism.” As if that word had any real content. :)

  3. Interesting. I will have to read some of this stuff. I know that you find a heavy accent in the fathers on the incarnation as well. Athanasius stresses that the incarnation is itself part of the salvific activity of God. God is doing something to man in the incarnation. They believe that Christ did not just take on an single instance or individual portion of human nature, but took on human nature as a whole and therefore affected humanity just by joining himself to us in the incarnate Christ.

    • Exactly, Canadian. I think this is a primary area where the Western church needs to sit at the feet of the Eastern church for a while, with our mouths closed, listening carefully.

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