Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Margery Kempe (Part 3) - Medieval "Church Lady"

"Well, isn't that special?"

So is the catch phrase of the Dana Carvey "holier-than-thou" character "Enid Strict" in the Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit "Church Chat with Church Lady."

Effective comedy is based on truth and "Church Lady" pokes fun at these ugly truths: It's an easy slide from righteousness to self-righteousness. And the world so readily sees it. Even in the Middle Ages.

Before Christmas, I had written two posts about the Life and Times of Margery Kempe, whose autobiography dictated at the end of her life in 1438 is perhaps the first one in the English language.

Part One paints the volatile times she lived in before the Reformation.
Part Two sketches the real life characters that Margery had encountered during her adventures and lifetime career of pursuing sainthood, which rival Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The "Church Lady" persona is not new, but is as old as religion itself. And Margery Kempe unwittingly reveals herself as a medieval one of these though she casts herself in the best of light.  This medieval "Church Lady" presents herself as the martyr, suffering for her piety, and all her detractors - of course - are the villains, the uninformed, the ignorant.

Looking back at her life 700 years later, it is easy to fall into the trap of presentism. Yet Margery's spiritual warts and faults are not only seen through the lens of the 21st century, but also by the Judeo-Christian standards of the 1st century and earlier.

Many negative lessons of what not to do can be garnered by studying this medieval candidate for sainthood. Below are a five of them.


1. Judging others

"Judge not, that ye be not judged" are well known words from the Sermon on the Mount as well as Jesus' warning that we will be judged by the same standards we judge others (Matthew 7:1-2). But Jesus did say we are to use our brains and be fruit inspectors of a person's life - by their fruits you shall know them (Matthew 7:16-20).

Margery could be judgemental, like she was with the one erring son she mentioned, whom she admonished for dressing like a dandy and having a strong desire for the company of girls. Undoubtedly, this drove the boy away from her for many years. Also, Margery boasted that she knew who was saved, and who was not. Yet, the prophets in the Good Book, such as Samuel, caution that though we look at outer appearances, God sees the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

2.  Lecturing others on their self-improvement

It's so easy to want to correct someone else's bad habits - especially when they annoy us. But Jesus warned of our tendencies to see the speck in our brother's eye, but not the plank in our own. (Matthew 7:3-5)

St. Paul had something to say about this, too. When we see someone overtaken by a fault, the spiritual - in meekness - need to restore such a person, being cautioned that we could be likewise tempted. (Galatians 3:1) And speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15) Likewise, we are to kind to one another, loving and forgiving. (Ephesians 4:32)

St. Peter reminds us that love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) St. Paul exhorts us that when possible live peaceably with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

As Margery tended to moralized and correct others, was it no surprise her traveling companions ditched her so many times on pilgrimage? The priest kicked her out of the English hostel in Rome? Eventually, those in her hometown grew tired of her and shunned her?

3. Making a big show of spirituality

Margery wept and shrieked very publicly, very loudly, and incessantly! She was a total kill-joy to be around. It drove everyone crazy.

Jesus warned about not making a big show of our spirituality, but to do spiritual acts, such as fasting, in secret. Those who make such an outward display have their reward - the praise of men, but not from God. (Matthew 6:16-18) And Jesus had some scathing words for the scribes and Pharisees about their big show of spirituality, while their actions showed otherwise. (Matthew 23)

4. It's all about me

Margery was wrapped up with her many visions, but they were all about her. Most centered on her being involved with the everyday living of the Holy Family, and how Jesus was very pleased with Margery in every way.

St. John tells us that Jesus is the spirit of all prophesy - not us. (Revelation 19:10). St. Paul had an astonishing vision of the third heaven, of which he was not allowed to speak, and he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. (2 Corinthians 12:1-8)

With that thought, at the church I now attend has this unwritten ritual. When our minster says, "It's not about you." And the congregation responds back, "And it's not about you, either."

5. Pride

This is the biggy. Here is one example in Margery's life:

While praying in church, Margery had survived a direct hit from a  large stone and piece of wood which with a loud noise dropped from the vault. All witnesses agreed it was a supernatural event. Margery's detractors said it was sign of God's wrath directed at her. Her supporters said it was a miracle that she was unhurt and a sign of God's favor.

On pilgrimage to York to give thanks for such divine favor, Margery retold of the event to her audiences about God's sign: "Thei that worshep thee thei worshep me." (They that worship Thee worship me)

Quite boastful on her part? To her, anyone who modeled their conduct on her advice would be assured of reaching heaven. Her relentless pursuit of sainthood centered on her - her visions, her advice, her sacrifices, her own importance.

Pride greases the slippery slope from righteousness to self-righteousness.

St. John gave a warning about prima donnas, those who love the preeminence. (3 John 1:9-11) Topping Solomon's list of the seven things God hates is pride (Proverbs 6:16-19). Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Publican tell how the humble will be justified before God, but not the proud. (Luke 18:10-14)

Her countrymen, fellow pilgrims, and many prelates found Margery quite irritating. As a result,they ditched her; they made sport of her. She did not see it that way as she told sympathetic listeners that all her sufferings were for "the lofe of God."

What did the Apostles say of this? St. Peter wrote that there is no glory for suffering for our own faults. (1 Peter 2:19-20). Likewise St. Paul instructs us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. And if we do so, we are "not sober" - hence crazy. (Romans 12:3)


Her incessant and loud weeping and shrieking, her conceit, and her moralistic outlook gave much fodder for Margery's detractors to scorn her in the 15th century - much like today's critics scorn the pious through comedic skits such as "Church Lady."

Enough Margery bashing. Margery had her strengths and many admirable qualities worth emulating, which will be discussed in the final post.

Question:  Any good advice to avoid the slippery slope from righteousness to self-righteousness?


  1. Part of the answer is there in your scripture references. The advice is available in the Bible - continue to read! Also, daily prayer for guidance and humility.

  2. Good advice: Not only the reading to get the Word in the thoughts, but the prayer to get it in the heart and and guidance to live it out.
    Thanks for stopping by.