“Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.” That’s a pastoral adage calling for a degree of critical caution in dealing with people claiming to have personal revelations directly from God.
Skirting Heresy: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe by Elizabeth MacDonald is a brilliant retelling of the story of a medieval mystic, Margery Kempe, who suffered greatly because of her mystical experiences. The book’s narrative is based on Kempe’s dictated memoir, The Book of Margery Kempe, as well as historical research into the world in which Margery lived—from 1373 to her death around 1438-1440.
Margery Brunham was the daughter of a popular mayor of Bishop’s Lynn, a town on the eastern shore of England, about 100 miles from London. Married to John Kempe, Margery bore 14 children.
After the birth of her first son, Margery became ill and feverish. During that time she experienced demonic visitations that shook her soul. When the fever finally left her, she claimed she saw a vision of Jesus who reassured her that he would never abandon her. In time Margery received the gift of tears and became something of a public nuisance because of her loud wailing and crying in public places, especially churches.
With her husband’s permission, Margery embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that took two years and brought her into deeper communion with the Lord Jesus. Margery claimed that Jesus, his Blessed Mother, and a number of saints spoke to her and told her how to conduct herself and what to say to crowds, clergy, and civil magistrates whom she encountered.
Because of her public preaching about Jesus and her rebukes of corrupt clergy, Margery faced accusations of being a Lollard, a member of a pre-reformation lay movement that denounced wayward clerics and called for radical reform of the Church. Much of the story of Margery has to do with her brush with ecclesiastical condemnation as she bravely pushed beyond the norms of early 15th century Church customs and laws. Margery did indeed skirt heresy, as the book is entitled.
This book recounts Margery’s life and vividly recalls the social conditions of the Church in the confusing times of pre-Reformation England. Skirting Heresy is a marvelous, fascinating and informative narrative by Elizabeth MacDonald. I highly recommend it.