Friday, December 03, 2010

Odd female mystics...

Margery Kempe.

The Holy Father has been digging up a lot of female mystics for his Wednesday audiences lately.  Many of these were the same mystics I was forbidden to read in the novitiate, BTW.  I expect he's speaking about these women to help modern women understand they have always had a place in the Church.  Early on, I too was attracted by the more obscure medieval female contemplatives, enjoying their more homely, Alice-sit-by-the-fire mysticism.  Kempe was actually something of a camp.  Quite a character - many thought she was mad - Julian of Norwich assured her that her visions must be good because they led to greater works of charity.  (Julian didn't know for sure, did she.)  That said, one of my favorite stories involves Margery tempted to an adulterous affair, having fallen victim to a male parishioner's flattery.  Naughty girl.
My little Margie.
Though she had tried to be more devout after her vision, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from what she interpreted as the effect of worldly pride in her vocational choices, Kempe dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, Kempe negotiated a celibate marriage with her husband, and began to make pilgrimages around Europe to holy sites — including Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. The stories surrounding these travels are what eventually comprised much of her Book, although a final section includes a series of prayers. The spiritual focus of her Book is on the mystical conversations she conducts with Christ for more than forty years. - Source
There is hope for us all, I dare say.  BTW, Anglicans venerate the blessed Margery on November 9.  I once had a very old copy of her autobiography...  Lesson learned - never lend books to 'friends'.


  1. I never understood the whole celibate marriage thing. It's almost as if no one can be holy enough unless they're celibate.

    I "get" the superiority of virginity and the objective superiority of the celibate state. But why would "sexual temptation" for her husband be a bad thing?

    Are there any married saints who lived conjugal life normally? (and Gianna Molla doesn't count) I just never understood the whole "the Church affirms marriage and the goodness of conjugal love" thing when so much seems to point to the contrary.

    I really struggle with this, sorry if it seems irrelevant.

  2. I mean, I get the impression that those who don't "knock it off" are going to be spending more time in purgatory or something. Any thought on this from all you married wannabe saints out there (and we are all wannabe saints)?

  3. Mercury

    I'm not married (though I wish I were). I can't answer for them, but I understand some of the practice.

    It goes back to ancient times, and the role of women in it. Though Christianity improved things for women, to some degree, they still had to rely upon family to survive in a way men did not (yes, men did too, but they were given more ability to do things for themselves). Marriages were a way for women to be given protection. Now, sometimes men and women made vows of celibacy, but were also promised to go into marriage (by their families). Many of the vowed celibate men saw they had a responsibility to take care of their betrothed, and this was one of the ways they could do so. Or many of the women made secret vows of celibacy, but did not get support to become a nun. So this was one option for her. Moreover, some of them found their calling to be out in the middle of society, while still vowed to celibacy (often a secret vow they made no one knew about). This was a way to keep their vow and yet also to be effective in society as well.

  4. I think Henry is right, a woman on her own was pretty vulnerable back in that day. Margery's primary vocation does not seem to have been marriage.
    Mercury, yeah, there does seem to have been an edgy "darned if you do, darned if you don't" attitude toward marital intimacy in the Church in the past. I don't think this came from Christ; more from the gnosticism, etc. from outside of the Jewish/Christian tradition.
    As a married woman, I hope (and believe)it doesn't mean extra time in purgatory! Our goal is to help our spouses be happy in this life, and help them towards heaven. I don't think that means denying their legitimate needs.

  5. Mercury,

    I've read some of your other comments as well as these here--I think we have a lot of common as I often think and worry about similar things.

    As far as I can tell, the notion of the inferiority of marriage begins with St. Paul's opinion that he wish all were like him--unmarried--so that all could be more focused on things spiritual.

    Over the years, until the time of Vatican II (again, as far as I can tell and I am not expert), I get the sense that the Church very much thought in terms of the religious life as the higher calling; even within the comparison between the priesthood and religious life, I don't think it would be accurate to equate them (according to the thought of the Church up to the point of V2) as both, in the same fashion, higher than marriage, for the Church made a distinction between the religious life as a state of perfection while the secular priesthood, it seems to me, was about the perfection of others--priests existed for others, for the holiness of others, and so their own holiness was secondary.

    I think this raises a lot of questions, not least of which is are all Christians then called to holiness? To perfection? Is the hierarchy of callings indicative of the way God really thinks and views things?

    To my mind, I think a major break from the more traditional way of thinking was opened up by the Igantian view of finding God in all things. No longer was perfection, it would seem, a function of the monastery. Of course, prior to that, there was another major shift with the friars and mendicants who too were vowed to the state of life that tends to perfection, but I highlight the Ignatian development because I think that the mendicant and friar schema was still bound to the context of religious life only. Obvously, Jesuits are religious and so I don't mean to even speak here about Jesuits themselves.

    Rather, I think the significance is in the spiritual framework through which Jesuits (and many other struck by Igantian spirituality since) came to view the world, the concept of holiness, what is really 'spiritual' and so forth. Maybe it's fair to say that the religious who were prior identified solely by monastic life and who sought something of a 'flight from the world' emphasized the transcendence of God, and so came to situate holiness elsewhere--ultimately, only in eternity--while the Igantian development was more Incarnational, such that holiness and the spiritual life had a 'now-ness' to it that I don't know the Church had ever seen.

  6. ...continued...

    This, to my mind, raises further questions like: Which one is correct? Are they both correct? What is truly 'spiritual' and holy? I don't know the answer to these questions.

    But I do think, perhaps influenced by the Ignatian way as I suggested, that Vatican II very much took the view that, at least, all Christians are called to holiness, and so, at least judging by the state in life, the old hierarchy that limited holiness to state of life had to go--that doesn't then mean the hierarchy (and its implications for celibacy that you note) has to go, only that the view of the hierarchy in light of holiness was no longer consistent with the mind of the Church.

    To give you an example of this shift in light of the distinction between religious life and the priesthood, Vatican II in Presbyterorum ordinis speaks of the priesthood not simply in its relation to others, to the duties or tasks of the priest and so forth, but rather to the fact that priests are obliged to attain the perfection spoken of in the Gospel. It is through his ministry, at least in part, that the priest grows to perfection--that is true. But the shift is that the typical state of perfection that a religious professed was not the sole means to perfection. Priests, according to V2, "are strengthened in the spiritual life, provided that they are docile to Christ's Spirit, who gives them life and is their guide. By their sacred actions they perform daily, and by their entire ministry in communion with their bishops and fellow-priests, they are set on the way that leads to perfection."

    Now, to your questions about marriage and celibacy and such--again, I wish I had the answers to that. I'm not sure a theology of marriage and celibacy and such has developed within the Church yet, such that we would see a shift to rethinking the holiness of what is spiritual, holy, so forth in light of the thinking of V2 and the universal call to holiness that we all have, a concept that itself, to my mind, is not self-evidently clear and requires unpacking and elucidation.

    I do hope for some further thought on this in terms of marriage particularly, or even as Terry has raised here recently, the single life. He's quite right that it is often neglected as a vocation. I simply don't think the mind of the Church has developed these tensions enough to account for what seems to be a phenomenon--a good one, I hope--of Christian faithful finding God and holiness in many ways, perhaps truly in all things.

    One final thing, I too have wondered about what you note regarding celibacy and eternity: "I mean, I get the impression that those who don't "knock it off" are going to be spending more time in purgatory or something. Any thought on this from all you married wannabe saints out there (and we are all wannabe saints)?"

    I posed a similar question to a monk a few weeks back and did not receive a reply. But I think you're on to something with this.

  7. michael r.6:53 AM

    Was not familiar with Margery Kempe.

    I do love the photo of St. Marjorie Main. How many youngins did she and Pa Kettle have? =15= Obviously, they couldn't seem to knock it off.

  8. Merc - Louis and Zellie Martin - St. Therese's mom and dad had a lot of kids - they started out living a Josephite marriage but their priest disuaded them from the idea.

    Patrick - good thoughts on this. Even in Scripture when a fast is proclaimed the married are called to forsake their marital chamber. I think it was once a rule - either in the East or the West that a communicant should refrain from marital relations before holy communion. Odd - since isn't the marital act sacramental on some level? (I know very little about normal sexual relations.)

  9. I certainly understand the idea of fasting from marital relations, in the same way as fasting from food or any of the other good things we have in life. Though I think it was wise that the church stopped forcing this fast - one of the functions of marriage and the marriage act is, after all, to help the spouses avoid sexual sin by focusing their energy that regard. This is why St. Paul says "do not deprive each other, except for a season for prayer" or something to that effect. But long fasts enforced from above may put a spouse in a situation where they face undue temptation, which kind of defeats one of the purposes.

    I think it is still binding dogma that the celibate state is objectively superior to the married state, as per Christ's evangelical counsels. I think the question that was not resolved until somewhat recently was: "then what about those who are married?" Do they become holy by embracing marriage to the fullest or do they do it by renouncing he marriage they were called to?

  10. Anyway, Vatican II was not really the point of change here - I've read several books on marriage form before the council that all stress the goodness of marriage and talk about avoiding the view that sex is "dirty". Men like Dietrich von Hildebrand, William Marra, Fulton Sheen, John C. Ford, and John Hardon are not what I think of wen I think of "Spirit of V2 wishy-washy liberals".

    We had a discussion about this over at Fr. Geiger's website (Mary Victrix), and he said as a spiritual advisor he always counsels couples away from adopting the celibate marriage. He said that some are indeed called to that, but that it's extremely rare, and that doing it without a true calling to it and adequate spiritual guidance is a sure way to crash a marriage into the ground. Fr. Geiger said it thus:

    "Even if the idea were brought forward by both parties, or was brought forward by the man, I would be very reluctant to sanction such a decision. In fact, I would tell them to get back to living in the real world and sanctify themselves in their ordinary life. In such a case I would be doing them a favor, and in the very unlikely event that they represented to me a real inspiration from God, I would be putting it to the test."

    But for those who do embrace the celibate - especially the virignal life as their calling, the Church (and Christ) seem to be quit clear that special glory awaits them in heaven. I have no problem accepting that anymore. It is a higher calling, but it is a CALLING. I think the Church is also quite clear when she speaks on marriage that it is also a means of perfection and sanctification, and yes, that includes within the marriage bed itself (Fr. Hardon writes beautifully on this, as does von Hildebrand, of course), so married people have no reason to be ashamed of their important task, and will find ample opportunity for sacrifice and learning to put all their trust in God.

  11. Terry - you are more than welcome to my copy of "The Book of Margery Kempe" I've never gotten past page 13.

    Let me know...

  12. Terry,

    Yes, I think you're right.

    While the sacrament of marriage is a liturgical act, the sacramentality of marriage does not stem from the actions of the priest, the church service, etc., but rather by the man and woman conferring the sacrament to each other.


    I was not singling out V2 to suggest that no where prior in the Church or elsewhere was there legitimate thought given to the notion that marriage is a path to holiness. Instead, I mean to suggest that I don't the Church formally/officially declared this thinking as her own prior to V2.

    I found the Wiki entry on the universal call to holiness particularly interesting:

    Also, I'm not certain what the Church teaching is currently on how to view and understand the hierarchy of callings. A question I raised above regarding whether the universal call to holiness implies that we're all--regardless of our vocation or state in life--called to the same degree of holiness (if there is such a thing) is important, I believe, in trying to advance the thinking on this and obtain clarity on the meaning of marriage and the single life in light of the call to holiness.

    In terms of those who do embrace celibacy and/or the evan. counc., when you say that it's clear from the Church and Christ that special glory awaits them in heaven, do you have in mind the rich young man and the offer to sell all as linked with the "if you wish to be perfect..."? I guess that is probably a basis, though perhaps not the sole basis, for the Church's view of the hierarchy of callings and, as you alude to, a comparative blessedness in this life and the next because of embracing that call. But I'm not certain that we are to take that story of the rich young man as a general principle. Rather, I think it's possible to view it as the call to that particular individual--what he needed to do to become perfect.

    Again, I think the question of whether or not there are 'degrees' of holiness (especially in heaven, because I think it's pretty clear there are degrees of holiness here in time) is crucial.

  13. ...continued...

    It may be worth considering too that the Church's thought on Purgatory now seems to be focused primarily on the healing or cleansing aspects, the prepation needed to receive Christ fully, rather than the older view which conceived of paying off debts of some kind, as if one was in prison or a waiting room.

    I say that because I have a hard time conceving of partial purgation: why would God only want us to be partially 'reborn', partially healed and transformed? Just my thought, of course, and I realize that we hold that Mary is without sin from the beginning and the highest of the saints, so even there there appears to be a hierarchy in place. Still, I'm not sure what being a certain degree of holiness would mean, particularly in God's presence forever.

    Finally, I offer the Catechism on this, numbers 915 & 916:

    "Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple. The perfection of charity, to which all the faithful are called, entails for those who freely follow the call to consecrated life the obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, poverty and obedience. It is the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, that characterizes the life consecrated to God.

    The state of consecrated life is thus one way of experiencing a "more intimate" consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ's faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come."

    The distinctions made, I think, are quite significant:

    "The perfection of charity, to which all the faithful are called..."

    "The state of consecrated life is thus one way of experiencing a "more intimate" consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God."

    One way, though not the only way and not even the 'higher' way.

  14. Henry,
    you said ",,,(yes, men did too, but they were given more ability to do things for themselves)..."

    How did the ancient men get this ability to do things for themselves? This might give insight into why some guys aren't married?

  15. Who invented sex anyway?

  16. One final point that I thought of...

    From the standpoint of discernment (and I know first hand), one may be inclined to think of choosing a vocation based on the hierarchical schema: "I will be more holy if I choose X."

    But I don't know if that's something the Church would agree with, nor do I think it practically works as a method of discernment.

    If we try to situate vocations within the larger picture (as the wiki link, following JPII, references), then I think we would be better off considering first "the perfection of charity"
    which is really the basis of any and all 'calls'. It's the fulfillment of the commandments, the law, and what our hearts long for all in one--that's how and why love fulfills the law.

    So then, if charity is really the primary call, discernment perhaps can then mean how am I called to love? What path does God want me to choose so that I will be loving? To make this less abstract, perhaps a point of practical discernment is to observe the fruits of one's experiences in considering or trying out various vocations. Obviously with the religious life and priesthood, there are set times of testing the waters, but even with marriage and chaste courtship, I think it could very well be that we begin to know our call by how well we see the fruits of the Spirit coming to life in us--or not.

    Put another way, God wouldn't call someone to be a monk, say, if it is going to make him grouchy, miserable, unforgiving, have no interior peace, etc., even if it is somehow 'higher'.

    Some time ago, I wrote of vocations as love realities, and the more I think of it, the more it seems on the mark to me:

  17. Great points, Patrick. I have to go read your post when I get the chance.

    When I talk of hierarchy, it used to bother me, but not any more. We do know that some people will have "more" in Heaven. This seems to be a constant teaching. But I think Fr. William Most, SJ explained it well when he said something to the effect that if St. Francis of Assisi is a 12 oz. glass and I am a 4oz. glass, we will both be filled to the brim. That makes sense to me. Obviously the Blessed Mother is blessed above all other creatures, but the other saints do not envy her.

    I think what's important is that we are called to holiness in whatever "job" God gave us, and so we should work on perfecting ourselves there. I think sometimes we suffer under the delusion that we have to do what certain Saints did, and so we therefore neglect what God actually wants us to do. Sometimes this can be just as mundane as talking our job as a dishwasher and practicing virtues like obedience and diligence ... all with joy. There is room for perfection EVERYWHERE. St. Paul's letter shave a lot to say about this kind of stuff.

  18. Can read Margary's book on line:

    Terry, caught your line about the Sorry, funny.

  19. Correction: Margery.

  20. Thanks SF - so few seem to get my humor lately.

  21. Mercury,

    True, I submit to the notion some will have "more" in Heaven, though I'm not sure what this means or what it is a function of.

    I have heard the analogy of the glass that you reference as well, though I have never found it satisfying as an explanation.

    That being said, certainly, whatever this all means and how it all works out, there could not be envy in heaven.

    I very much agree with your last points about holiness and the delusion to do what Saint So-and-so did. One of the great joys, I think, is in personal identity, in having that name that God alone knows and to be the saint that we uniquely are called to be.

  22. It is said that in heaven we will have perfect happiness. I agree with Patrick that there could not be envy; it would be silly to argue that my perfect happiness is more perfect than yours, or vice versa. I seem to recall a conversation that Jesus had with James and John over the absurdity of jockeying for position in heaven.

  23. Lovely Terry - I saw the title "Odd Female Mystics", and I thought you were going to talk about me!

  24. We can not evaluate the glory that awaits us in heaven - when Christ will be all in all - how silly to worry about degrees of glory.

    Sr. Patricia - I could never be so disrespectful.

  25. Fr. Groeschel was asked about "degrees of Heave" once, and he commented that he'd be too happy to have seat 9,480,000 (or something like that) to even begin to be envy anyone else. I mean, the very last row of Heaven is so much greater than what any of us can even remotely imagine here on earth ... who could possibly be unsatisfied?

  26. When I speak of degrees of heaven, and the reason I have trouble with this concept primarily I think, is that it seems to conjure up a lack of fulfilled desire in my mind, a lack of closenes with Christ (relatively speaking, anyway) that I find disatisfying. I recognize that we have no 'rights' when it comes to this, and we should be grateful for what we have, most especially the heavenly gift; maybe it's this whole notion of 'merit' and how we will be 'rewarded' in heaven that troubles me. Could I ever do 'enough' to be 'rewarded' to the degree that my heart probably desires?

  27. I'll answer my own question then: God invented sex. Obviously as a means to be more closely identified with Him. Sex is good, the perverted use of sex is not good.

  28. michael r.7:37 AM

    You nailed it, Melody. Thank you. I have read this thread with some bewilderment. I didn't realize that people worried about one vocation being better than another, or which was rewarded more richly in Heaven.

  29. Michael - no one's "worried" about anything. It's dogmatic that some states/vocations are superior, and some people will, in fact, have a higher reward.

    Then again, when talking about degrees of infinite goodness - who cares? I said it used to bother me but it doesn't anymore.

    Shadowlands - you're so right there. Sometimes I wonder why it took the Church almost 2000 years to figure that out, though. The positive goods of sexual love beyond procreation were hardly recognized, it seems. I don't buy it when people say "the Church has always had positive views about sex and marriage". More than a few Church Fathers saw marriage as a way to "licitly fornicate" (i.e. if ya gotta do it, do it, but it's better not to) and make babies but no goodness beyond that. It makes me sad to think that married Christians really had nothing to affirm that their love-making was good in God's eyes.


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