Sunday, 1 February 2015

Margery Kempe at Candlemas

The other day I posted a description of a miracle which was said to have taken place during a Candlemas service in Anglo-Saxon England, in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Glastonbury, c.910. As the congregation stood with their candles, the pregnant mother of the future St Dunstan had her candle miraculously kindled by light from heaven, and from her candle light spread to the congregation and all the people of England. That miracle-story, of course, draws a parallel between the infant Christ and the unborn St Dunstan, though like the Biblical narrative it centres on the experience of a woman: Dunstan's mother is cast in the role of Mary, bringing her child to the temple and his light to the world. But the story is told about (and by) a monk, and we know nothing about St Dunstan's mother except her name - Cynethryth. Some five hundred years later, on the other side of England, a laywoman, mystic and mother was able to describe her own experience of taking part in a Candlemas service. Margery Kempe records in her autobiographical Book many visions and meditations in which she enters spiritually into events in the life of Christ and the Virgin, and the Purification is no exception. This is an extract from Kempe's Book, as edited here, ch. 82:
On the Purificacyon Day er ellys Candilmesse Day whan the sayd creatur beheld the pepil wyth her candelys in cherch, hir mende was raveschyd into beholdyng of owr Lady offeryng hyr blisful sone owr Savyowr to the preyst Simeon in the tempyl, as verily to hir gostly undirstondyng as yyf sche had be ther in hir bodily presens for to an offeryd wyth owr Ladys owyn persone. Than was sche so comfortyd be the contemplacyon in hir sowle that sche had in the beholdyng of owr Lord Jhesu Crist and of hys blissyd Modyr, of Simeon the preyste, of Joseph, and of other personys that ther weryn whan owr Lady was purifyid, and of the hevynly songys that hir thowt sche herd whan owr blisful Lord was offeryd up to Symeon that sche myth ful evyl beryn up hir owyn candel to the preyst, as other folke dedyn at the tyme of offeryng, but went waveryng on eche syde as it had ben a dronkyn woman, wepyng and sobbyng so sor that unethe sche myth stondyn on hir feet for the fervowr of lofe and devocyon that God putte in hir sowle thorw hy contemplacyon. And sumtyme sche myth not stondyn but fel downe amonge the pepil and cryid ful lowde, that many man on hir wonderyd and merveylyd what hir eyled, for the fervowr of the spiryt was so meche that the body fayld and myth not endur it. Sche had swech holy thowtys and meditacyons many tymes whan sche saw women ben purifyid of her childeryn. Sche thowt in hir sowle that sche saw owr Lady ben purifiid and had hy contemplacyon in the beheldyng of the women wheche comyn to offeryn wyth the women that weryn purifiid. Hir mende was al drawyn fro the erdly thowtys and erdly syghtys and sett al togedyr in gostly syghtys, whech wer so delectabyl and so devowt that sche myth not in the tyme of fervowr wythstondyn hir wepyng, hir sobbyng, ne hir crying, and therfor suffyrd sche ful mech wonderyng, many a jape and many a scorne.

[On Purification Day, also known as Candlemas Day, when the said creature beheld the people with their candles in church, her mind was ravished into a vision of our Lady offering her blessed Son our Saviour to the priest Simeon in the temple, as truly in her spiritual understanding as if she had been there in her bodily presence to make an offering with our Lady herself. Then was she so comforted by the contemplation in her soul which she had in the vision of our Lord Jesu Christ and of his blessed Mother, of Simeon the priest, of Joseph, and of other people who were there when our Lady was purified, and of the heavenly songs it seemed to her that she heard when our blessed Lord was offered up to Simeon, that she could hardly carry up her own candle to the priest, as other people did when the time came to offer them, but went wavering on either side like a drunken woman, weeping and sobbing so sorely that she could hardly stand upright, for the fervour of love and devotion which God put into her soul through high contemplation. And at times she could not stand up, but fell down among the crowd and cried out very loudly, so that many wondered at her and marvelled what was wrong with her, for the fervour of the spirit was so great that the body failed and could not endure it. She had such holy thoughts and meditations many times when she saw women being purified after childbirth. It seemed to her in her soul that she saw our Lady being purified, and experienced high contemplation in beholding the women who came to make an offering with the women who were purified. Her mind was entirely drawn from earthly thoughts and earthly sights and entirely set in spiritual sights, which were so delightful and so devout that in the time of fervour she could not control her weeping, her sobbing, or her crying, and for that she suffered a great deal of wondering, many a joke and many a scorn.]

What's particularly striking to me about this passage is that for Margery Kempe, the mother of fourteen children, a ritual of purification after childbirth was an everyday part of female experience - not something she would only encounter at Candlemas, but the occasion for frequent meditation whenever she saw women being 'churched'. It was not an unfamiliar or alien practice - as it surely is for most congregations today - but something she had experienced herself, something she had in common with Mary and with many other women.

People bringing candles to be blessed at Candlemas (BL Arundel 109, f. 159v)

Margery Kempe was an extraordinary woman in many ways, but here (apart from the 'wavering like a drunken woman', perhaps) she was doing exactly what every ordinary member of the laity was supposed to do at Candlemas: transporting herself into the Biblical story, joining the procession into the temple in spirit and in body, bearing light in her hands. She was doing what St Dunstan's mother Cynethryth had done, and in doing so also received a revelation - though a private vision, not a public miracle. It's worth noting that a longer period of time separates Cynethryth and Margery Kempe than separates Kempe and the Candlemas poem I posted yesterday, which was written during the First World War. From Cynethryth to Margery, from Glastonbury to Lynn, and for many other women and men in many other places, these ceremonies were an important part of ordinary people's lives for so many centuries; it's so strange - not to use any stronger word - that they are no longer.


Anna said...

Thanks for posting this wonderful text with translation and images.

Anna said...

Lovely - but 21st century people haven't missed out altogether! Many churches, particularly cathedrals, do still have Candlemas services, including blessing of candles and procession with candles, so it is still a living tradition that people do have the opportunity to observe and participate in. The churching of women is still done too, in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, usually together with the child's baptism.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, of course - I took part in a Candlemas procession myself on Sunday. But it was a tradition that died out for centuries, has only been revived in fairly recent times, and is still limited in its spread.

In any case, I was mostly thinking of the non-churchgoing majority, to whom these ceremonies are now very unfamiliar.