On September 28, the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers three mystics: Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, and Richard Rolle. They are not saints but considered to be important ancestors in the history of the Christian faith.
Walter Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396) was an English Augustinian canon and mystic. His treatise on Christian contemplation, The Scale of Perfection, was well known in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) was an English laywoman and mystic. She wrote (or more likely dictated) The Book of Margery Kempe, a spiritual autobiography and one of the first in the English language.
Richard Rolle (ca. 1300–1349) was an English hermit, mystic, and writer of spiritual treatises. His best-known work is The Fire of Love.
All three of these historical figures are worth getting to know; Hilton and Kempe play a big role in my forthcoming book on pilgrimage.
In Margery Kempe’s book, we get a glimpse of how these three medieval mystics—and others—were interconnected. For Kempe, meeting other mystics and reading their texts was a way to further spiritual growth. We know, for example, that around 1413, Kempe visited Julian of Norwich in Julian’s cell. The two talked for several days and spoke about the love of Christ. Kempe also told Julian about of her spiritual experiences and received advice from the anchoress.
I’m equally intrigued by Kempe’s report that she had Walter Hilton’s book and Richard Rolle’s treatise read aloud to her by her priest. She says:
[The priest] many a good book to her about high contemplation and other books too, such as the Bible with commentary by doctors, St. Bridget’s book, Hilton’s book, Bonaventure’s Stimulus Amoris, the Incendium Amoris, and other such books (130).
“Hilton’s book” is The Scale of Perfection, and the Incedium Amoris is Richard Rolle’s Fire of Love. The other books mentioned in this list are the Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden and the Pricking of Love, which was not by Bonaventure, as Margery Kempe says, but probably by James of Milan and perhaps translated by our friend Walter Hilton!
So . . . Margery Kempe met Julian of Norwich, and she knew Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle through their words. I enjoy discovering that some of my favorite people from history knew one another. It reminds me that these mystics existed in Christian communities; they weren’t left to figure out their faith completely on their own. So should it be with us. We can’t do it alone. We need each other’s testimonies, advice, wisdom, and companionship.
In the Middle Ages, Christian community extended to reading. As we see from the passage about Kempe’s priest, books were often read aloud rather than silently and privately. I picture Margery Kempe, perhaps sitting down to her evening meal. A fire crackles in the hearth. Kempe’s priest sits across the room and, while she eats, reads aloud from one of the authors she admired. Would Kempe have paused the reading to ask a question? Did she request certain passages that particularly spoke to her?
Give this a try sometime. Grab your favorite passage from Julian of Norwich or another mystic and read it out loud. You will be experiencing the text in a very historical way. And you will meet some great mystics!