Monthly Archives: June 2022

Sanity and spiritual sanity: Marjorie Kempe

Marjorie Kempe: accounts of madness, visitations and mysticism

The Book of Margery Kempe tells the story of one woman’s spiritual journey in Medieval England over a twenty-five-year period, and her quest to establish spiritual authority as a result of her personal conversations with Jesus and God. Whilst the text is written in the third person, it is generally acknowledged to be the first autobiography written in the English language. It is also recognised as being the first autobiographical account of madness.

The narrative begins around 1393, with the self-acknowledged onset of insanity, which pre-empts for Margery, then aged 20, a spiritual crisis. This illness is briefly described and the rest of her work describes conversations and visitations with Jesus, Mary, God and other religious figures. She also takes part in the birth and crucifixion of Christ. Her religious fervour was intense and famously led her to publicly express the ecstasies of her joy with loud wailing, sobbing and writhing, causing much irritation to clerics – some of whom saw her as a mystic – and to the commoners, who rather judged her as linked to the devil. Her book is then about her spirituality, but also about the divided reaction to her behaviour. She had 14 children, but went on extensive pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany and Spain in her 40s.

One writer about Marjorie Kempe has distinguished between her mental breakdown and her visions. Her breakdown looked at through contemporary eyes could have been a form of post-natal psychosis following the birth of her first child – she was physically ill and heard the voice of the devil and had demonic visions, resulting in isolation from her community by physical restraint. In the first chapter Marjorie Kempe describes how the visions and torment were continuous until one day when she woke alone in the room to find Jesus Christ sitting beside her. He asked, “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?” and then ascended slowly and vanished. Instantly her mind was clear and she regained her senses, asked to be released, and resumed her former life. The voice and vision of Jesus restored her reason, and it is through reason that Marjorie Kempe can determine what is a trustworthy vison and mystical experience as distinct from those that belonged to her illness. She makes it clear to the reader that true mystical experiences cannot take place without the exercise of reason. When Marjorie Kempe doubted herself and her visions, she went to visit the mystic anchoress Julian of Norwich who comforted and assured Marjorie Kempe that her visions and her weeping for the sins of the world came from God, not her own mind or the Devil, and that she should continue as she had been doing.

Her spiritual journey took her from wife and mother in Bishop’s Lynn to a chaste Christian visionary and popular – if controversial – public speaker. Marjorie Kempe was illiterate and dictated her life story first to one of her son’s and then to a priest. The final version of the book was completed in 1436 CE, and parts reprinted into the early 16th century. Then the book was lost until found in 1934 in a cupboard of the home of a Catholic family where it may have been hidden centuries before.

Marjorie Kempe

Sanity and spiritual sanity 4 The Madman by Kahlil Gibran

Over one hundred years ago the Lebanese Kahlil Gibran published a book called The Madman, His Parables and Poems. Gibran is famous for his work The Prophet which has sold well over ten million copies – it was particularly popular in the 1960s when many people turned away from the establishment of the Church to Gibran. It is said that he offers a dogma-free universal spiritualism as opposed to orthodox religion, and his vision of the spiritual was not moralistic. In fact, he urged people to be non-judgmental.

He was brought up as a Maronite Christian – an ethno-religious group from the Levant region of the Middle East, but lived for many years in the US. As an Arab, he was also influenced by Islam, and especially by the mysticism of the Sufis.

This is an extract from the first section of The Madman that fits with the theme of sanity and spiritual sanity.

You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen —the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives—I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”

Thus, I became a madman.

And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.

But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.

This second extract from the same book is from a piece called The Grave-Digger

Once, as I was burying one of my dead selves, the grave-digger came by and said to me, “Of all those who come here to bury, you alone I like.”

Said I, “You please me exceedingly, but why do you like me?”

“Because,” said he, “They come weeping and go weeping—you only come laughing and go laughing.”

These strange parables describe the idea of the parts we play and the masks we wear, and the sense of relief and authenticity that may come from letting go of parts of ourselves that betray the underlying spiritual sanity of the person we are meant to be.

Gibran in 1911


Sanity and spiritual sanity 3

The first 2 steps of the 12-step programme for addiction are helpful when thinking about sanity and spiritual sanity:

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

In step 2 this isn’t a restoration to the so-called sanity of the world but rather to a state of mind informed by spiritual values. It is a true sanity which is about becoming the person that we are meant to be, or as R. D. Laing put it becoming who you are. This sort of sanity is the understanding of inner experience both psychological and spiritual and often held within a theological frame.

It includes a sense of authenticity, the recognition of the true self through a creative act of genuine understanding born of experience. This is the move from being just like a person to being a person, or as Laing describes it as not acting human but being human. Laing also thought that there is little conjunction of truth and social ‘reality’. He writes, ‘Around us are pseudo-events, to which we adjust with a false consciousness, adapted to see these events as true and real’, he continues ‘we are strangers to our true selves, to one another, and to the spiritual and material world’. His words echo Merton’s writing on this ‘liturgy of pseudo-events’ where through the ‘mental snake-handling’ of those in charge (including in the church) society enters a realm where, ‘the whole meaning of truth and falsity’ takes on an entirely new logic: ‘one must follow on from one irrationality to the next in a demonic consistency dictated by machines’.

Whether for the individual or at the societal level the creative act requires a move from the pretend state to the authentic state. The spiritual sanity or ‘true sanity’ is about a reunion with divine creative power. This involves understanding what is happening experientially and as a result acting freely within that.

The second aspect of spiritual sanity is the realisation that humanity applies to everyone, everyone is in the image of God. The awareness leads to acknowledgement of our interdependence on each other and with all of God’s creation.

This third aspect of spiritual sanity involves recognition of the false gods that we create and the centrality of the true God and this is linked to a deepening of our relationship with God, where we may glimpse something beyond this duality. The experience of contemplation is the experience of God’s life and presence within us not as an object, but as the transcendent source of our own subjectivity. This is spiritual sanity.

Below a photo of a new wood planted in Oxfordshire by the Woodland Trust and called Merton Woood

Sanity and spiritual sanity 2

In the 1960s Thomas Merton engaged in an interesting correspondence with a woman then known as Linda (Parsons) Sabbath. Her conversion is followed by a series of vivid and even violent ecstasies, experiences of joy and elation which she first interpreted as part of a manic-depressive psychosis, but which a colleague insisted were religious experiences. Merton advises her to keep united to God’s will but Linda is convinced she is mad because of the terrible things that have happened to her and her psychiatric history.

Merton acknowledges Linda’s experience and in a non-threatening way, he wants to help her to unravel the issues of psychosis and religious experience and to co-operate with her, but provides clear boundaries and picks up her projections. He makes immediate connections and intuits that Linda despite her bravado is frightened of madness, and her self-harming is hurting herself and others.

‘Not that I agree with your diagnosis of yourself as psychotic. But I can see where you could easily have one fantastic time… I just don’t think you can sweep it all away with the word ‘psychotic’ and I think you are just kicking yourself in the pants when you say it, which would be a good thing not to do … the thing looks to me to be pretty mixed up like you could be a mystic and you could also be getting a lot of static and side effects that are partly mental (which is quite usual).

He reminds her that religious conversion and experience is not rational and straightforward anyway. Religious faith transcends what most people see as the rational, and if rationality is sanity, faith can be considered as a form of delusion and madness. But as some have found true faith brings its own transformation of the mind, into sanity. Spiritual sanity is grounded in praying, meditating and contemplation all of which lead to an altered state of consciousness which may be seen as unusual and beyond the more common experience of the majority of people. Here again a psychological container is needed to manage spiritual experiences. As John Costello says, ‘in between so-called normality and madness there are many shades of sanity, spirituality, wholeness and holiness’.

Linda wrote a book called The Unveiling of God under her then name Linda Miroslava Sabbath, and published in 2010, describing herself as a visionary, mystic, and artist, writing that ‘Thomas Merton had pointed the way for me’.

Sanity and spiritual sanity 1

In 2013 I gave a talk exploring Thomas Merton’s ideas on sanity and spiritual sanity. I’m going to take a few of the ideas from that paper and then in later blogs look at a couple of examples of ‘mad’ men and ‘mad’ women who may have been deemed insane by society, but who demonstrated spiritual sanity and great awareness.

In 1913, Albert Schweitzer as part of his doctoral thesis undertook a psychiatric study of Jesus and, against the opinion of a number of eminent psychiatrists concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pronounce Jesus insane. However, he could give him the benefit of the doubt only by discounting much of what he seemed to mean, and by culturally relativizing his world view. Jesus was counter cultural – he might have been spiritually sane but was he insane in the eyes of the world … In contrast worth remembering is that during the trial of Adolf Eichmann he was judged to be sane, suffering apparently from no guilt and no anxiety about the actions he had committed during the Holocaust.

When Thomas Merton raises the question of what constitutes sanity, he is not speaking just of individual emotional health but also of the influence of society and what is judged to be sane/insane in that context. Merton’s observations lead him to the thought that it is those deemed sane who are the most dangerous, and who, without any qualms or second thoughts, can initiate warfare and press the nuclear button. The sane will justify their actions with perfectly reasonable logic, and so there will be no mistakes. As Merton puts it, ‘They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command’.

Such sanity does not mean that such people are in their ‘right mind’, and it is here that Merton introduces the idea that sanity can have no meaning where spiritual values have lost their relevance. If we are ‘adjusted’ to a social environment without belief in actions of love, empathy and compassion towards each other then we may still be seen as sane by society, and this certainly can include those who are religious who only adhere to words. Merton makes a plea not just for spiritual values, but for a spiritual sanity that includes anxieties and doubts, admits to contradictions, anger, guilt and an awareness of absurdities.

Sanity is a difficult word to define. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says that the word, ‘gathers up in its own furtive way, a vast number of mostly tacit preferences and assumptions, of prejudice and ideals about what we think we should be, or should be like when we are at our best’. Sometimes it appears that sanity, as in the judgement of Eichmann, means complicity with everything that is most dehumanizing and most deadening.

As R. D. Laing put it, pseudo-sanity or false sanity is ‘an estranged and estranging integration of bits and pieces of compliant but efficient adaptation to a world we are terrified of… we have been seduced or tempted by false gods’.

R. D. Laing on Hamstead Heath