Tag Archives: Richard Rolle

“Sexy devotion” – C S Lewis, Margery Kempe, and the mystics’ erotic language of intimacy with Christ


Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa"

Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

The following is from the “affective devotion” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438)[1]

Margery was a middle-class laywoman (mother and business owner) who lived in the late 14th and early 15th century and provided us with the first biography of a woman written in English. This, by the way, was probably dictated to a clergyman, since she was almost certainly either illiterate or barely literate.

Margery is a great example of a layperson with a deep, even mystical piety who became an influence on the clergy and monastics of her day—although plenty of people simply wrote her off as a crazy lady because of the depth of her emotion during church services. But in that very trait, she was a reflection (if extreme) of the late medieval tradition of affective devotion: “Her spiritual life was centered, from the beginning and throughout her life, on the human Christ, the object of her prayers and her love. She identified very closely with the Virgin as woman and mother, and her participation in the Passion was enlarged and inspired by sharing Mary’s grief. Her enthusiasm, her ‘boisterous’ emotion, and her conspicuous humility were borrowed from the Franciscans and legitimated by their authority. And her method of meditation—that is, her personal involvement in the biblical story, placing herself among the holy figures—was exactly the method prescribed by writers of affective devotion.” (ATK, 155)

Margery’s book is earthy at points – even bawdy. She tells a particular story about an episode of sexual temptation in her life that is R-rated. And her language of intimacy with Christ is also direct and frank. When he sees a “comely [handsome] man” in the streets, it sets her to meditating on Jesus. And when she talks about her times of inner dialogue with her Lord, she uses a term usually reserved in her time for the kissing and cooing of young lovers: “dalliance.” We have not moved far from Bernard here! Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – The English affective tradition


Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” ...

Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” early 15th century; in the British Library (Cotton Ms. Faustina B. VI). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux, and the fifth part here, on Francis of Assisi.

The English affective tradition – devotional writers

Affective devotion came of age in late medieval England. For some reason it seems the English were particularly good at retaining the earthy and emotional elements of the Christian tradition—from relics and saints to mystery plays and mystical experiences. I want to look for a moment at the English affective tradition—first in overview, then through four of its leading figures: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe.

Summarizing English spirituality

It’s important to note that the English were no less Scriptural in their faith than other parts of Christendom: they read aloud (or had texts read to them), then meditated on what they had read or heard (ruminated, chewed and digested it) until they had memorized it, then prayed through what they had read, and finally rested in God’s presence, praising him for the privilege of union with him: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.[1] Having read, however, they also poured out their hearts in the tradition of affective piety, loving Christ’s humanity as Mary Magdalene had done.[2]

Richard Rolle (1290/1300 – 1349)

Richard Rolle’s spiritual  writings are striking for the earthy, empirical way he described the physical experience of passionate concourse with the Lord. In The Fire of Love, he describes actual bodily warmth he felt while in prayer. Continue reading