WARNING: spoilers, dirty words, suggestions of God having a sex drive, and excessive use of the impersonal “you”
Wednesday before last, when I entered the back room of the English lab, someone’s Norton Unwieldy Doorstop was sitting open on a desk, color-coded Post-Its pasted here and there on the page. Its owner sat in a swivel chair, facing away from the tome, but not far enough away that she wouldn’t notice if I tucked the Doorstop under my arm and fled from the premises.
She (we’ll call her “Hero”, because that requires less explanation than “Stripper”) was chatting with Anita on the subject of God sex. God sex and exploding, cannibalistic babies, to be precise, but the latter is from a separate work, and for the purposes of this post, I’ll be focusing on the God sex.
The story goes that, on the one day she hadn’t done the reading for Early English Lit class, Hero found herself sitting in on a conversation about God and Jesus having sex with some woman.
God first, then Jesus.
This woman, “banging” Jesus in her spiritual autobiography.
Hero flipped a few pages and handed the open Doorstop to Anita. “See? Do you see this?”
Anita began reading aloud, “I take you, Margery, for my wedded wife, for fairer, for fouler, for richer, for poorer…so long as you be buxom…” Then, “Sometimes she heard with her bodily ears such sounds and melodies that she might not hear well what a man said to her in that time unless he spoke the louder”, to which Anita commented, “It sounds like she’s having temporal lobe hallucinations.”
Being English majors all reading from the same canon, I naturally had access to the same passages of The Book of Margery Kempe in my own, albeit emasculated – seeing as its been broken down in three parts – copy of the Norton Doorstop. So, for fun and avoidance of my history paper, I read it.
Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many smutty romance novels at Girl Scout Camp*, because the God sex did not measure up to the tittering in the tutoring lab. Mind you, the Norton can only provide excerpts of Margery Kempe, so maybe they craftily sidestepped the more sultry scenes, but what was there fell short of my expectations. I wasn’t expecting long passages of solid, hardcore pornography, however I was expecting to be shocked with something explicitly erotic – as much, if not more, explicit than the details how of her husband, after he “turned childish again” in his old age, “voided his natural digestion in his linen clothes where he sat by the fire or the table, wherever it might be, he would spare no place”.
God telling Margery, “Therefore I needs[sic] be homely with you and lie in your bed with you” and that “you love me, daughter, as a good wife ought to love her husband” is different than the narrator showing us… la di da, you get it (thinking about it now, I’m glad I was spared).
The most detailed description of physical contact we get is when, in one of Margery’s visions, Jesus kissed the Virgin Mary “full sweetly”, but that was different, and not just because it wasn’t Margery. I’m not convinced that particular kiss is meant to be taken in a romantic/sexual manner, nor, therefore, an incestuous/Oedipal one. Sometimes in the Christian tradition, people kiss other people. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the nice, Calvinist venue I pop into once in a while (like most other contemporary church-goers, we shake hands when we pass the peace)… but, for instance, in the film Vision, nuns be kissin priests and other nuns all the time. It’s not sexual. They’re not getting fresh with each other. That’s just how it is.
Mind you, Vision was set several hundred years before The Book of Margery Kempe. I realize that, without the research that I slothfully resolved NOT to do, there is a potential anachronism there. Said realization domino-effected me into another, this time unflattering realization that I may have been recklessly grouping old-timey Christian mystics together into a fascinating, exotic group, potentially condescendingly otherizing them for my personal enjoyment, harkening to mind, in trajectory, crap like Orientalism. If you’re not following, it may or may not make more sense after you read...
WHY I LIKED MARGERY KEMPE
First, a sort-of digression, because there haven’t been enough already: remember when Jesus was at a dinner party and some woman busts in (depending on which gospel account you read, it’s one of the Marys) and pours all this expensive nard (perfume) on Jesus’ feet and starts crying and wiping it off with her hair?
If you’re anything like my mom, that passage probably annoys you, because, well, what self-respecting gentleman would want some crazy woman crashing a dinner party so she could be a big weirdo and put on such a display? On the other hand, every time I’ve heard it at my church**, the Calvinists have thought it’s a courageous act of love.
Margery experienced a farther reaching gamut of reactions,
For some said it was a wicked spirit vexed her; some said it was a sickness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some banned her; some wished she had been in the harbor; some would she had been in the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought. Other ghostly men loved her and favored her more.
Because Margery would go into these INSANE crying fits every time she had a vision of and/or was reminded of the Passion (both happened a lot!). It probably doesn’t help that she sees Jesus in the face of every handsome man and young boy. Margery is so overcome with sorrow and compassion that she balls her eyes out to a point where it’s described as “roaring”.
Mind you, the woman in the gospels probably deliberately tracked down Jesus and poured nard all over his feet, while Margery “knew never time nor hour when they [the visions and corresponding crying fits] would come” and couldn’t handle herself. Zero say in the matter. BUT THE POINT IS, Margery cries with sorrow and compassion and ultimately LOVE for Jesus --> Margery is a big weirdo for Jesus, just like Nard Woman is.
And, yeah, if I were walking around with Margery in public for a prolonged period of time, maybe my wretched colors would come out bleeding out of me and I would find her utterly irritating and humiliating, too, however, I’m not walking around with her, I’m reading about her, and from where I’m sitting – safely, here, behind my Norton Doorstop, hella years after the fact – I think it’s beautiful. Hyperbolic and beautiful and weird and strangely appropriate given the “ghostly”, antiquated state of the text.
Frankly, I think it’s touching how much she loves Jesus, and given the anticlimax of the on-the-whole NOT sexual scenes, I don’t mean LOVE in an explicitly physical way. When Jesus is sitting next to Margery while God is asking Margery to marry her (yes, that happened – and, yes, that was weird), and she didn’t know what to say, partially because she was in love with the second Godhead of the Trinity, not the first*** - that was, oddly, fucking adorable.
I also liked how Margery was seeing angels everywhere like glorious dust motes. That was pretty cool. To which Anita might point out the possibility for temporal lobe hallucinations. Which makes it….no less cool.
So, would I recommend Margery Kempe? Yes. If you’re not a hater who’s gonna be like, damn religious people and their rap music. Because when people get weird and religious, it’s kind of easy to be a hater. If you’re like me, and not my mom, you’ll find religious weirdoes much more admirable and loveable in the antiquated sense than in, say, in Flannery O’Connor, where peeps be flat out insane. If you’re like my mom, you’ll hate both, and you should read something else.
I think religious kooks of the universe have their place. They can be wonderful, in their way. Yeah, once in a while there’s a dark-side of it; a money-embezzling, Jew-bashing, gay-hating, heathen-killing part that rears its ugly head from time and time again, but if that makes its way into Margery Kempe, I was certainly blind to it. And if I did see that in her, I wouldn’t be recommending her to others. Religious weirdoes – especially of antiquity – are adorable and worth their weight in nard.
Good on you, Margery Kempe.
* Men penetrating women with wine bottles while in the back of a horse-and-buggy, whoa!
** Mom and I don’t go to the same church.
*** Perhaps could be construed as a wee Marcion-esque depending on how much you’ve been drinking that day (what?), in
retrospect, but The
Book of Margery Kempe is unlike Marcion in that she neither hates the god of the Old Testament, nor does he write Him off as a tyrannical douche bag.