Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Julian and Margery: Unlikely Bedfellows

Over the course of the last several class meetings and during our visit to Norwich yesterday, our class has been analyzing the texts of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, both of whom produced "mystical" autobiographies of their experiences with faith during their lifetimes. I studied mysticism a lot as an undergraduate as well as witchcraft/heresy, and I have found that one distinct link between these two seemingly anterior fields is the suspension of disbelief that the modern student must employ to work with the related texts objectively. Just as medieval society believed that "witches" were actually committing acts of diabolical sorcery, they also had a fair amount of faith in the visions that mystics claimed to be having as divinely inspired manifestations of God's grace. So regardless of how irrational or crazy we think Margery or Julian were, we must constantly keep in mind the medieval context of their chronicles.

That being said, I'd like to try to compare Julian and Margery as so-called mystical women. I tend to come down on the very cynical side of modern scholarship on mysticism, so I'll attempt to keep this tame. However, I will be explicit in saying that I am of the opinion that if true mystics existed, Julian was a prime example, but I think Margery was a wannabe saint who had a lot of guilt about her failure to live a cloistered life from the outset and tried to overcompensate.

Julian of Norwich was brilliant. I think it fair to say that her life as an enclosed anchoress obviously gave her plenty of time to contemplate on theology and inwardly exaggerate whatever intimate experiences she had with God prior to her enclosure, but one can not argue that the woman was not incredibly intelligent and well-spoken. She wrote about the "revelations" she had during a period of illness about 16 years thereafter, which I think is a little suspect. Sixteen years of isolation certainly gave her enough time to craft a fantastic narrative about an event that may or may not have been as intensely spiritual as she claims, although I do not think she malevolently sought fame through falsehood. Regardless of the accuracy of her tale, Julian managed to deeply analyze the teachings of Christian patriarchs and reinvent contemporary theology despite her gender and isolation. Her writing is fluent and nuanced with tokens of brilliance and just enough apostasy from contemporary church institutions to show that she knew the Catholic doctrine but had her own ideas about how it should best be used to honor God. I think it telling that she did not seek out publication of her work, but rather that it was reproduced after her death, because she clearly was not overly extroverted about her mystical tendencies. For me, that makes her a little more credible.

I do not think Margery could have survived one day in Julian's shoes, but I think she really really wanted to try them on. Julian managed to have a complete mystical career in a tiny stone cell, whereas Margery literally roams across the European continent in search of the kind of spiritual experiences that Julian had over a three-day period while lying in her bed. Margery certainly seems to be of the mindset that her life would be better spent living alone with God in chastity and poverty, but she also seems to have had the means to do whatever she wanted and couldn't get enough of wandering around and talking to people, so I tend to think the life of an anchoress would not have suited her. I think Margery probably spent several months of her life crying about the deep religious emotions that her various exploits fomented, but I also think it telling that she couldn't seem to crank out some decent descriptions of what exactly was going on her head. In my opinion, Margery wanted to experience the same kind of revelations that Julian claims to have had, but they never really came, so she tried to overcompensate by manifesting her piety in physical manifestations of religiosity. She wore white clothes, cried all the time, made several pilgrimages, all to, I think, force the mystical experiences that she couldn't manage to pull out. Don't get me wrong, I think it's awesome the kind of social agency she wrought by virtue of her own obnoxiousness, but I wouldn't necessarily call it mysticism.

All shall be well.

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