Of Gossip, Saints, and Summer Reading

by Jack Fowler

Margery Kempe (1373–1438) deserves to be rediscovered, to have her consequential life recounted in an entertaining and thoughtful way, and to be considered for saintly recognition as the intercessor for gossip victims. The first two are accomplished, and the latter advanced strongly, in Skirting Heresy: The Life & Times of Margery Kempe, by Fox Business Network journalist Elizabeth MacDonald. I’ve just polished off this biography-of-sorts: It’s a fascinating work.

As saints (Anglican) go, Kempe is one (her feast day is November 9 — I’d be remiss if I didn’t note it’s also the embarkation date of the next NR Cruise), and a case could be made for her joining the Roman Calendar. But her recognized sanctity aside, Kempe is a remarkable figure: a mother (14 children before she became a professed celibate); businesswoman (failed brewer); author (albeit dictated) of the first English-language autobiography; pious Catholic, mystic, and visionary who had multiple interactions with Christ; controversial public figure (Margery was afflicted by profound public tears and sorrow owing to her communion with the Lord’s sufferings); humiliated victim of savage gossip (often from fellow parishioners who detested her waterworks); and, as the Reformation began its first rumblings, a defier of clerical blackguards and arrogant politicians (several of whom tried this contemporary of St. Joan of Arc, but failed to see her sentenced to flames).

The trials, pilgrimages, weeping, and relentless uproar that surrounded Kempe is all very much brought to life by MacDonald, a gifted writer and story-teller who admittedly takes liberties with centuries-later scene-setting (“As yellow, red, and orange leaves fell slanted in droves . . . ”). But it’s all very believable, and even inspiring. MacDonald (the slightest of acquaintances) is on a quest with Kempe — to see her positioned and recognized as the Patroness of gossip victims. That there isn’t already a saint to invoke for this common affliction is shocking; obviously, MacDonald is on to something. And at a time when you’d expect a book by a well-known Fox journalist to be about “Why Obama Is Destroying . . . ” or “How the Far Left Has Screwed Up . . . ” — and definitely not about some important but largely forgotten medieval mystic — well, that’ll make you take notice. If you want a very different summer read, quick and engaging, about someone important, about something important, you should pick up Skirting Heresy.​

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