Easter Sunday (C): The “Crazy” Mysticism of Easter
By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London
The word that resonates most deeply with me in Luke 24:1–12 is the word which the NRSV translates as “idle talk.” In the original Greek, the word is layros, which means “nonsense” or “folly” or “crazy talk.” The idea of male apostles dismissing the women and their testimony as “crazy” reminds me of the Nike commercial in which Serena Williams exposes the sexism within professional sports that derides female athletes as “crazy” for demonstrating human emotion and ambition. In the ad, Serena makes clear that the women who have initially been dismissed as crazy ultimately prove themselves to be truly courageous and awe-inspiring. Similarly, the women in Luke 24 inspire amazement in the one person who chose to take them seriously. Personally, I have had my fair share of skepticism in response to people’s mystical experiences of the Risen Christ. However, whenever I choose to remain open and look more deeply into such testimonies, I often become amazed and even transformed by that which I initially dismissed.
I teach a class on English Spirituality and Mysticism in which we study medieval English mystics such as Julian of Norwich, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, and Richard Rolle, who each describe mystical encounters with the Risen Christ in their own unique way. Perhaps the most eccentric of them all is Margery Kempe, who was derided by many in her lifetime and who remains unsettling to readers today. In The Book of Margery Kempe, which is the earliest extant autobiography written in English, Margery describes her experiences with the Risen Christ and the colorful ways in which she expressed her devotion in the 15th century.[i] She would weep, howl, shriek, moan, and roar excessively in the middle of worship services and homilies. She would wear white clothing, a sign of virginity, even though she had fourteen children. On her many pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Spain, Rome, Germany, and beyond, she would zealously tell others about her devout piety, whether they wanted to hear or not. Many of her contemporaries discredited her as hysterical or heretical or simply rejected her words as “idle talk” (layros). In fact, some scholars today question the veracity of her account altogether, arguing that her Book is really a fiction.[ii]
I see Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and the other women of Luke 24 as the spiritual mothers of female Christian mystics like Margery Kempe who have been dismissed as crazy but who inspire astonishment in those who choose to take them seriously. These women were the first people to encounter the Risen Christ, the apostles to the apostles, and, like many of their spiritual descendants, their words were considered nonsense according to the men in authority at the time. God chose these women as the first people to witness the resurrection of Christ, perhaps because God knew that they alone would have the courage and strength to be true and faithful to their own experience. Even when their words were discarded by the apostles, they did not seem to waver at all or question their experience of the angels and the empty tomb. They seemed to persist in their message in spite of the apostle’s doubts, thus proving that their faith was, in many ways, superior. Like Peter, who decided to look more deeply into these women’s testimony, I have personally been amazed by the Christian female mystics whose experiences of the Risen Christ have enriched and informed my own. When I probe more deeply into the testimony of Margery Kempe, I become encouraged and amazed by the compassion of the Risen Christ as manifested in her life.
I am moved when I learn that Margery’s copious tears were shed for all people, especially those who were suffering and those whom the church had considered damned. Like Julian of Norwich, Margery’s hopes bended towards universal salvation. I am encouraged by Margery’s experience of Christ’s presence in her day-to-day life, in her travels, trials, and tears. She heard Jesus say to her, “When you go to church, I go with you; when you sit at your meal, I sit with you; when you go to bed, I go with you; and when you go out of town, I go with you.”[iii] Towards the end of her life, Margery experienced Christ’s presence most powerfully in menial and mundane tasks and especially in caring for the sick and needy, including her severely injured and disabled husband. Because she lost one of her sons to a fatal sickness, she felt a deep kinship to Jesus’s mother Mary. In one of her visions, she comforts Mary after Christ’s death by serving her a “good hot drink of gruel and spiced wine.”[iv] In this same vision, she visits with Mary Magdalene, with whom she also felt a kinship, as the Risen Christ appeared to them both. Perhaps the greatest gift I discover in reading Margery’s Book is the invitation to encounter the Risen Christ in my own day-to-day life, in my own travels, trials, and tears. This gift helps me realize that the invitation of Easter is, after all, an invitation to mystical experience with the Risen Christ.
Sometimes the term “mystical” can turn people off because it sounds too obscure and esoteric and a bit like “crazy talk” (layros). However, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner insisted, “The Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’ or will cease to be anything at all.”[v] According to Rahner, the future of Christianity depends on our willingness to take seriously the invitation of the Christian female mystics, which is the same invitation of Easter: to encounter the Risen Christ in our lives here and now, no matter how crazy that might seem. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, Margery Kempe, and countless other female mystics urge us to let our imaginations be stirred and inspired by the resurrection. To those whose thinking is dominated by death, the resurrection-stirred imagination will seem like nonsense (1 Corinthians 1:18), but not to those who look deeply and peer curiously into the empty tomb. For those who refuse to dismiss the women’s testimony as layros, the Risen Christ is waiting to be discovered and experienced here and now in the “crazy” mysticism of Easter.
[i] The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. and ed. B. A. Windeatt (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1985. A helpful introduction to Margery Kempe and the medieval English mystics is Joan M. Nuth, God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystics (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2001), 121-140. Also recommended is Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism 1350 – 1550 (New York: Herder and Herder, 2012), 331-490.
[ii] Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).
[iii] The Book of Margery Kempe 1:14, 66.
[iv] The Book of Margery Kempe 1:81, 236.
[v] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 15.
The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California. He earned his PhD in Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California and teaches English Spirituality and Mysticism at the Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership (CALL). An abbreviated version of this course is available at ChurchNext. When he’s not reading the English Mystics, he is sauntering through the redwoods, playing acoustic guitar and ukulele, or listening to music from his modest vinyl record collection, with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi.