You can read my essay: A Visionary History of Women: Part 1 here.
I’m on a mission to write women back into history, because, to a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover their buried stories, we must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. We must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks. My writer’s journey is about reclaiming the lost heroines of history and giving voice to that lost motherline.
Many of my novels address spiritual themes. As a spiritual person, I’m very interested in women’s experience of the sacred. As well as being written out of history, we women, for the past five-thousand years of patriarchy, have been side-lined and marginalized by every established religion in the world. Even in alternative spiritual movements, male teachers and leaders have abused their authority over their female students and followers.
But in every age, there have been women who have heroically rebelled against this patriarchal stranglehold to claim their authentic spiritual experience. Often it has involved looking within rather than without for spiritual guidance. Many of these women have been mystics.
What is a mystic?
The American Dictionary states that mysticism is the belief that it is possible to directly receive truth or achieve communication with the divine through prayer and contemplation. In other words, according to my personal definition, you don’t need a priest or other authority figure. The divine mysteries are within your own heart.
Some of the most famous mystics of the Western spiritual tradition have been women who plunged deep within their souls for spiritual guidance and emerged with ecstatic, prophetic, and radical insights.
Many of us imagine female mystics as cloistered women, like Hildegard of Bingen, but what would it be like to be a married woman with children and experience divine visions when you’re in the middle of making dinner or doing the laundry?
One of the most eccentric mystics of the late Middle Ages was a desperate housewife and failed businesswoman from Norfolk, England, named Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438). She is the heroine of my novel Revelations.
She ran a brewery and then a horse mill to grind grain, but both businesses failed. Around the age of 40, Margery had reached her breaking point. She was done. The mother of fourteen children, she feared that another pregnancy might kill her, but she couldn’t trust her husband to leave her alone, because canon law upheld his right to sexual congress without her consent. More than anything, Margery wanted to literally walk away from her marriage and go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Since divorce wasn’t an option, she traveled to nearby Norwich to seek spiritual counsel from the anchoress Julian of Norwich, one of the greatest mystics of all time. Margery confessed to Julian that she had been haunted by visceral, body-seizing spiritual visions for the past twenty years. In my novel, Julian, recognizing Margery as a fellow mystic, made a confession of her own. She had written a secret book of her mystical visions, entitled Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English written by a woman. In an age where heretics were burned at the stake, this was a dangerous text, describing an unconditionally loving God who appeared as Mother and threatened the established Church’s insistence on eternal damnation. Nearing the end of her life, Julian entrusted the book to Margery, who hid the manuscript in a secret compartment in her pilgrim’s staff.
With Julian’s blessing, Margery set off on the adventure of a lifetime to spread Julian’s radical, female vision of the Divine. Her travels took her to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. When she returned to England, she was arrested and tried for heresy several times and came close to being burned at the stake. The authorities couldn’t seem to handle this independent woman who traveled on her own and who dared to preach to other women in public. She preserved her story for posterity in The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography written in English.
Margery offers inspiration for those of us who seek to live as mystics and contemplatives in the full stream of worldly life.
Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.
6 thoughts on “A Visionary History of Women: Part 2”
Thank you for this post and for your novels, which I have read and always enjoyed! I think Margery’s story is of special relevance to women today when mysticism is also not revered and when most of us will spend much of our lives fulfilling professional and family responsibilities. While I don’t know that most of us have the resources to follow Margery’s path of taking off for far off places exactly, having this role model to show that we have a right to our own time, to follow our own visions and dreams, even if that means taking an afternoon off to walk in the woods or a half hour after all our other duties are finished at the end of the day to quietly meditate, is so important.
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Thank you so much for your insightful comments, Carolyn. Yes, I hope Margery’s example emboldens modern day women to take time for themselves, to go on a journey inspired by their visions, even if it is an interior journey into the heart of meditation in one’s own home. We all have the right to follow our bliss!
Looks great! and what a gorgeous cover. Plus kudos from Kirkus Reviews. Congrats.
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Thank you so much for reading, Max. I ordered and am reading your book, Witches and Pagans!
Brava! I always love reading not only your books (which are on my shelf and within reach) but also your posts here on FAR. You write beautifully and honestly and your reporting on the lives of these medieval female mystics tells us what everyone today needs to know: that women have just about always been put down and abused and ignored. Let’s hope things are beginning to change and that if Margery were to travel today, she could do it comfortably and safely. (Gee, it would be wonderful if we all could travel comfortably and safely, right??) My friend, keep writing! We need more of the stories you tell.
How’s things in Portugal? Are you all safe and happy? It would be swell if you and I could travel and have lunch together again.
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Thanks so much for reading, Barbara. I hope you can travel to Portugal and come and have lunch with me here! That would be fantastic.
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