“Sexy devotion” – C S Lewis, Margery Kempe, and the mystics’ erotic language of intimacy with Christ


Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa"

Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

The following is from the “affective devotion” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438)[1]

Margery was a middle-class laywoman (mother and business owner) who lived in the late 14th and early 15th century and provided us with the first biography of a woman written in English. This, by the way, was probably dictated to a clergyman, since she was almost certainly either illiterate or barely literate.

Margery is a great example of a layperson with a deep, even mystical piety who became an influence on the clergy and monastics of her day—although plenty of people simply wrote her off as a crazy lady because of the depth of her emotion during church services. But in that very trait, she was a reflection (if extreme) of the late medieval tradition of affective devotion: “Her spiritual life was centered, from the beginning and throughout her life, on the human Christ, the object of her prayers and her love. She identified very closely with the Virgin as woman and mother, and her participation in the Passion was enlarged and inspired by sharing Mary’s grief. Her enthusiasm, her ‘boisterous’ emotion, and her conspicuous humility were borrowed from the Franciscans and legitimated by their authority. And her method of meditation—that is, her personal involvement in the biblical story, placing herself among the holy figures—was exactly the method prescribed by writers of affective devotion.” (ATK, 155)

Margery’s book is earthy at points – even bawdy. She tells a particular story about an episode of sexual temptation in her life that is R-rated. And her language of intimacy with Christ is also direct and frank. When he sees a “comely [handsome] man” in the streets, it sets her to meditating on Jesus. And when she talks about her times of inner dialogue with her Lord, she uses a term usually reserved in her time for the kissing and cooing of young lovers: “dalliance.” We have not moved far from Bernard here!

And we may not be entirely comfortable with the trajectory. By the time this affective tradition has resulted in the almost lurid description, by Catholic Reformation hero Theresa of Avila, of being pierced, again and again, by the spear of God’s love and feeling her heart inflamed, it has become easy enough to see the whole late medieval fascination with this affective tradition as a kind of, if not sexual repression, at least interesting transfer of erotic energies from human sexual outlets and relationships to a kind of overheated response to God Himself. Where else would a tradition go that was rooted in an allegorical reading of the erotic Song of Songs?

The first thing to say here is that this way of speaking about our relationship to God in the language of human sexual attraction and intimacy is no new thing on the horizon of Christianity. It dates back at least to Origen and has plenty of warrants in both the Old and the New Testaments.

The second draws from something Lewis told his friend Arthur Greeves in a letter the year before his conversion (Jan 30, 1930). After confessing that he has been struggling mightily with pride and vainglory, he admits that on the other hand, “I seem to have been supported in respect to chastity and anger more continuously, and with less struggle, for the last ten days or so than I often remember to have been: and have had the most delicious moments of It.” Clearly “it” – some sort of mystical frisson of joy – had been a topic of conversation between Lewis and Greeves in the past. Lewis goes on to describe one such moment, a sort of nature-mystical experience that brought “such a sudden intense feeling of delight that it sort of stopped me in my walk and spun me round. Indeed the sweetness was so great, & seemed so to affect the whole body as well as the mind, that it gave me pause – it was so very like sex.” (877)

Now this description of a mystical experience would fit comfortably into the writings of a Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton. But Lewis immediately says that he recognizes the obvious Freudian interpretation: that his experience is “just” sublimated sex. Then he counters: “why is it not open to me to say that sex is undeveloped It?—as Plato would have said.” (In his Symposium, Plato had explained the friendship of two lovers as transcending the physical pleasures of their sexual relationship. Those, he said, could “hardly account for the huge delight they take in one another’s company.” That delight must be explained in terms of a longing in both of their hearts for something else, “a something to which they can neither of them put a name, and which they can only give an inkling of in cryptic sayings and prophetic riddles.” [footnote from the Letters’ volume editor. Symposium quotation from 192c, translated by Michael Joyce.)”] In other words, why not understand sex as a sublimated mystical yearning for and connection with God, in the Neoplatonic-Augustinian-English-affective-tradition mode? This is the sacramental perspective on sexual pleasure that Lewis will develops more fully in the context of a larger argument about the sacramentality of marriage (a Catholic belief he came to later in his life), in That Hideous Strength.


[1] For a full treatment of this highly eccentric and emotional mystic (another polarizing figure in my classrooms), see my chapter on Margery in Patron Saints for Postmoderns. Here I will only summarize this odd character and a few lessons we may take away from her life.

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