"Also ran"
Margery Kempe and Richard Rolle

Aside from their being near contemporaries, there is little which Margery Kempe and Richard Rolle have in common. Margery, the perpetual pilgrim with a predilection for "divine locutions," details of which she inflicted on all in her company, is a far cry from the solitary Richard. There are varying viewpoints about both – my own being that, recalling Julian of Norwich’s words about "seeking and seeing," Richard and Margery share the common trait of having their wills turned toward union with God, yet falling somewhat short of holiness. Since this is the condition in which most of us find ourselves, exploring these two who definitely sought but whose seeing is questionable has its value in our own lives.

Different though they were, Margery and Richard shared a tendency towards the extreme. They placed a high, often inordinate, value on unusual experiences, and overly stressed these as signs of union with God. The circumstances of their time and place certainly influenced some of the extreme notions, yet neither had the detachment or prudence which involves overcoming rather than overwhelming.

This "pair" (a term inapplicable to anything except this context) leave us with several important reminders:

Our (fallen) human nature is self-centred, and the conditions of the fourteenth century thought could play their role in leading the genuinely devout to further selfishness, through stressing the accidental at the expense of the essence (…though seldom as much so as 21st century conditions would.) In reading either Richard’s or Margery’s words, one can sense a certain desperation about seeking, respectively, mystic union and atonement for sin. Cliché answer though this may seem, the Plague had effects on common religious thought which were perhaps as devastating as those in the overall scheme.

One eternal but unfortunate truth of our Church is that doctrine will inevitably be interpreted (in practise) through a filter of whatever crises exist during the particular era. Between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Lateran councils had emphasised purgatory (this a brief reference to a long-standing belief that there could be purification of the soul after death .. but which would lead, by the 14th century, to an extensive and complex judicial system binding on those who were already dead!), the Eucharist, sacramental confession, and the apostolic succession. Devotions to the Passion of Christ and to Jesus in his humanity grew markedly. Acts of penance, pilgrimages in particular, were popular. Much which was solid, even superb, assumed a gloomy air in the wake of the repeated incidences of the Plague!

Twentieth century minds could have no illusions about a lack of horrors in this world, even if none were so widespread as to wipe out a third of the population. The key difference to remember is that the ugliness of which were are intensely aware resulted from human evil. During the middle ages, when illness was seen as a divine punishment for sin, the devastation came to be viewed as chastisement from a God who needed to be appeased. This presented a number of conflicts and dilemmas for the devout.

Ultimately, many of the devout were left with a sense that Jesus’s atonement was insufficient.

Richard Rolle, whose works indeed contain a rich dose of mystic theology, would devout much of his energy towards seeking the sight of heaven while still on earth. His failing was that he looked for this in experiences which were sensually sweet or intense. Margery Kempe, whose "mystic revelations" probably were mainly her own creation, was totally obsessed with finding some way that she could be assured of remission of sin (for herself, but also for those in purgatory.)

Margery Kempe
Richard Rolle