The book was so ill-written that he could make little sense of it, for it was neither good English nor German, nor were the letters shaped or formed as other letters are. (I.Proem.35)
The story of Kempe's spiritual journey was almost lost because her first scribe apparently didn't pay attention in English or penmanship classes. This means that illiteracy packs a double whammy for women, historically: they had to rely on the good will of men to write their stories—and they had to trust these men to actually have the skills to write properly.
Great was the holy conversation that the anchoress and this creature had through talking of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ for the many days that they were together. (I.18.78-79)
Kempe meets the great female mystic Julian of Norwich and feels the benefit immediately. She feels vindicated in her conversations with a holy woman who has isolated herself for the love of God, and no doubt she experiences kinship and camaraderie with Julian as a woman who is trying to live out a special kind of devotional life in a world full of disapproving men.
She was so full of holy thoughts and meditations, and holy contemplations in the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and holy conversation in which our Lord conversed with her soul, that she could never express them later, so high and so holy they were. (I.29.107)
Kempe often tells us that her mystical experiences are so "high" or profound that she lacks the language to describe them. This inexpressibility is not unusual for people who experience this kind of communion with the divine. After all, it's difficult to name intangible things with physical language. It's a common theme in mystical literature from all traditions.
They prayed in this way for thirteen days. And after thirteen days the priest came back to her to test the effect of their prayers, and then he understood what she said in English to him, and she understood what he said. And yet he did not understand the English that other people spoke [...]. (I.33.119)
This is one of the everyday miracles that occur in Kempe's life to enable her contemplative practices to continue. In this case, Kempe finally finds a sympathetic confessor at St. John Lateran in Rome, but he doesn't speak any English. Kempe doesn't let this stop her, and she applies prayer to the situation. The success of this experiment is another sign for Kempe that God approves of her and her life.
"And I have often told you, daughter, that thinking, weeping and high contemplation is the best life on earth. You shall have more merit in heaven for one year of thinking in your mind than for a hundred years of praying with your mouth [...]." (I.36.126).
While this declaration may come as a surprise, the idea that contemplation is a higher form of spiritual behavior than saying prayers is a pretty common idea at this time. Contemplation requires true devotion—a lifestyle change, really—whereas prayers can be muttered in a hurry with no real effort. This often pits Kempe against those working-day spiritualists, the priests.
And so, as she went along with the said men, she told them good stories, until one of the Duke's men who had arrested her said to her, "I rather regret that I met with you, for it seems to me that you speak very good words." (I.53.168)
Kempe is arrested for heresy and manages to charm her guards with good words. It's ironic that her gift of gab either wins her vehement enemies or devoted friends—nothing in between. Her good speech will also win her favor with the Bishop of Lincoln and many others in positions of ecclesiastical power. This is how Kempe escapes being burned at the stake for heresy.
Then for her forwardness and unbelief, our Lord withdrew from her all good thoughts and all good recollections of holy speeches and conversation, and the high contemplation which she had been used to before, and allowed her to have as many evil thoughts as she previously had good thoughts. (I.59.183)
Note that an important part of Kempe's spiritual life has to do with speaking and with verbal communication. It's probable that Kempe relies on these forms of communication because she is illiterate. She can't inform her mind or communicate with others by reading or writing, so it's crucial for her development to keep the words flowing. Anything else is torment.
She spoke boldly and strongly wherever she went in London against swearers, cursers, liars and other such vicious people, and against the pompous fashions of both men and women. (II.9.289)
Kempe doesn't care at all about popular opinion, and we are never aware of this so much as when she's speaking out. At this time, she's returning from her disastrous trip to the Continent with her daughter-in-law, and we can see that age has not made her more timid. She's had a kind of vocation to speak out against those who curse or swear, and she calls them "vicious." This is because cursing in medieval England almost always involved a blasphemous reference to Christ's body.
Afterwards it happened, as this creature sat at a table with her companions, that she repeated a text of the Gospel which she had learned before with other good word, and then her companions said she had broken her undertaking. And she said, "Yes, sirs, indeed I can no longer keep this agreement with you, for I must speak of my Lord Jesus Christ, though all this world had forbidden me." (I.27.102)
Kempe runs afoul of her travelling companions time and again. Usually, it ends with them dumping her somewhere awkward. In this case, she is told to keep quiet at the dinner table, which is especially difficult for this Chatty Cathy… or should we say Shrieking Sharon? But if there's anything charming about Kempe, it's her inability to care about what other people think of her on most occasions. This is no exception. Her devotion to Christ trumps her promise to keep mum—and there will be no apology.
Then they asked her confessor if he understood what she had said, and he straightaway in Latin told them the same words that she said before in English, for he could neither speak English nor understand English except from her tongue.
Kempe suffers from the contempt of her travel companions in Rome. This time, they rat her out to an English priest because she's confessing to another priest who doesn't usually understand English. But the English priest sympathizes with Kempe and soon finds out that a miracle has occurred that allows the Kempe and the other priest to understand each other. It's a rare moment when Kempe triumphs absolutely over her detractors.
And so it was twenty years and more from the time that this creature first had feelings and revelations before she had any written. Afterwards, when it pleased our Lord, he commanded and charged her that she should have written down her feelings and revelations, and her form of living, so that his goodness might be known to all the world. (I.Proem.35)
Kempe emphasizes the importance of doing things at the proper time. In most cases, this means when Jesus tells her something ought to be done. Her written narrative is no exception: although we might lament that she didn't record her experiences when they actually happened, for accuracy's sake, Kempe has no such concerns. For her, it's not about accuracy or preserving personal memory. It's about proclaiming God to the world in her own way.
And through looking at the pietà her mind was wholly occupied with the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the compassion of our Lady, St. Mary, by which she was compelled to cry out very loudly and weep very bitterly, as though she would have died. (I.60.186)
Although Kempe's compassion can be awakened in a variety of ways, contemplation of memorial art is a surefire trigger for her. In this case, she is viewing an image of Mary holding the body of her dead son. Even if you can't agree with Kempe's weeping and wailing in public, it's easy to see how this kind of art is emotionally moving.
One Good Friday, as the said creature beheld priests kneeling and other worthy men with torches burning in their hands before the Easter Sepulchre [...] the memory of our Lady's sorrows, which she suffered when she beheld his precious body hanging on the cross and then buried before her eyes, suddenly filled the heart of this creature. (I.57.178-79)
Kempe is describing a ceremony during Easter week. In it, the crucifix is symbolically buried or hidden in a receptacle in the church. When this happens, Kempe is transported in her memory. But this time, it's not simply as a direct witness to the crucifixion: it's a secondary memory (Mary's, not hers), and it's a memory of emotions, not of events. Nevertheless, it's enough to ignite Kempe's compassion and her sorrow in a very real way.
[...] the Passion of our merciful Lord Christ Jesus still so worked in her soul that at that time she did not feel her own illness, but wept and sobbed at the memory of our Lord's Passion, as though she saw him with her bodily eye suffering pain and Passion before her. (I.56.177)
Kempe's participation in affective piety demands that she put her own bodily concerns on hold and enter imaginatively into the life and sufferings of Christ. She often requires some kind of "trigger" to do so, and it comes to her visually, from everyday life more often than not. But sometimes, a mere memory is strong enough to ignite some serious dreaming about Jesus. This makes these memories very real and very painful to her.
The said priest read books to her for the most part of seven or eight years, to the great increase of his knowledge and of his merit, and he suffered many an evil word for her love [...]. (I.58.182)
Kempe shares this memory of mutual learning to show us how God provided her with company and education in the absence of her usual religious companions.
Then the lady's priest came to her, saying, "Woman, Jesus is long since dead." When her crying had ceased, she said to the priest, "Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died on this same day, and so I think, it ought to be to you and to all Christian people." (I.60.187)
In case you didn't catch it, this moment is actually pretty funny. This priest is clearly annoyed with Kempe's "overreaction" to the recollection of Christ's death, and he shows his exasperation. It points up Kempe's unique experience of religious memories that most people of faith take for granted. Although memorial rituals (such as Mass) exist to help the faithful participate more fully in their religion, Kempe's full immersion into events long past is a whole new level of involvement.
When she was there, she had such an intense recollection of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of his precious wounds, and how dearly he bought her, that she cried and roared amazingly, so that she could be heard a great way away [...]. (I.67.203)
Kempe flees from the main church in Bishop's Lynn to the Prior's Chapel in order to avoid slander. It's probably not a coincidence, then, that she has this memory of Christ's suffering at this particular time. She often equates—as Jesus does—her suffering slander to Christ's own Passion. While all human suffering can be related to Christ's suffering in this way, slander is a particularly appropriate trigger for Kempe. She would have known that Christ was mocked and accused of many things on the way to crucifixion.
[...] she thought to herself how she in her young days had had very many delectable thoughts, physical lust, and inordinate love for his body. And therefore she was glad to be punished by means of the same body, and took it much the more easily, and served him and helped him, she thought, as she would have done Christ himself. (I.76.221)
John Kempe, Kempe's husband, takes a nasty fall down the stairs when he is an old man, and Kempe has to take care of him. She hates doing this, because it takes away from her contemplative time. However, the memory of her former lust for her husband's body settles her down to the task much more easily, since she sees this all as a form of penance. This is an interesting confession, since Kempe usually says so little about her experiences as a wife.
[...] and that day she was with our Lady in a chapel where our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to her and said, "Salve, sancta parens." (I.81.237)
Again, Kempe is participating in memorial celebrations of Christ's Passion and death during Holy Week at her church. She uses her memory of Jerusalem (specifically the Chapel of the Apparition) to create a new, emotional experience with Christ's mother, Mary.
For many years on Palm Sunday, as this creature was at the procession with other good people in the churchyard, and saw how the priests kept their observances, how they knelt to the sacrament, and the people too, it seemed to her spiritual sight as though she had been at that time in Jerusalem, and seen our Lord in his manhood received by the people as he was while he went about here on earth. (I.78.224-225)
There's a kind of double memory going on in this passage. First, Kempe's attending a Palm Sunday Mass, which memorializes Christ's entrance into Jerusalem. Because it is a reenactment of this event, it triggers a kind of memory experience for Kempe, in which she uses her own experiences in Jerusalem to participate imaginatively in Christ's journey.
And often while she was kept with such holy speeches and conversation, she would so weep and sob that many men were greatly astonished, for they little knew how at home our Lord was in her soul. (I.Proem.34)
The intensity of Kempe's spiritual life often overwhelms her emotionally and leaves little room for proper social behavior. But despite the appearance of distress, Kempe wouldn't give up this situation for the world, since she gets to be "homely" (familiar or intimate) with the Supreme Being of the universe.
Sometimes she wept very abundantly and violently out of desire for the bliss of heaven, and because she was being kept from it for so long. (I.7.54)
Although it seems like Kempe cries at the drop of a hat (actually, she kind of does, especially if that hat reminds of her main man Jesus), she has some deep and specific reasons for doing so. In this case, it's longing and desire—actual suffering for the love of God.
It was a great solace and comfort to her when she was chided and scolded for the love of Jesus, for reproving of sin, for speaking of virtue, for conversing about scripture, which she learned in sermons and by talking with clerks. (I.14.65)
It may seem strange that a person's spiritual life can thrive on adversity, but for Christians in general, and Kempe in particular, the worse things are in life, the better it can be for your soul. In this case, Kempe isn't being tormented for her tears and loudness. She's being tormented for doing things forbidden to women—especially talking about scripture. She will take some serious flak for this, since it is a hallmark of the Lollard heresy.
"Daughter, you will be very welcome to my father, and to my mother, and to all my saints in heaven, for you have given them to drink very many times with the tears of your eyes." (I.22.87)
Jesus often tells Kempe that her tears are like sacrificial offerings to God and will earn her bonus points in heaven. Here, her tears are described as life giving to the other inhabitants of heaven—which makes Kempe a favorite not only with God, but also with everyone else. This is another way that Kempe understands that she has been chosen by God for special intimacy and favor.
Then for the joy that she had and the sweetness that she felt in the conversation of our Lord, she was on the point of falling off her ass, for she could not bear the sweetness and grace that God wrought in her soul. (I.28.103)
Aside from pleasing our inner 12-year-old, this passage shows how Kempe really inhabits two worlds: a physical one and a spiritual dimension that is so real and present for her that it shapes her perception of the world around her. Her emotional response to the blending of these two realms of perception can be intense—and dangerous. We're glad she didn't actually fall off her… donkey.
And then the Father took her by the hand [spiritually] in her soul, before the Son and the Holy Ghost, and the Mother of Jesus, and all the twelve apostles, and St. Katherine and St. Margaret and many other saints and holy virgins, with a great multitude of angels, saying to her soul, "I take you, Kempe, for my wedded wife..." (I.35.123)
This is one of the wildest and most confusing moments in Kempe's narrative. Up to this point, she has been wholly devoted to Jesus, the Son of God. It's easy to see why, since Jesus takes the form of a (kind of hot) man and is more familiar to her. But God the Father has bigger plans: he wants Kempe to graduate to a more abstract, profound form of spirituality and become familiar with "the Godhead" itself. Hence, we get a "spiritual wedding" between God the Father and Kempe.
So by process of time her mind and her thoughts were so joined to God that she never forgot him, but had him in mind continually, and beheld him in all creatures. (I.72.212)
The whole point of Kempe's narrative is to show the process of spiritual growth—an often imperfect process—rather than a person who has attained perfection seemingly overnight. The result of her struggle may seem humble, but Kempe does something quite amazing. She is able to bring the material world into alignment with the spiritual one.
And at once, in the sight of her soul, she saw our Lord standing right up over her, so near that she thought she took his toes in her hand and felt them, and to her feeling it was as if they had been really flesh and bones. (I.85.249)
Kempe's version of spirituality is, for a long time, practical and physical. She tells us that she has a particular attachment to the "manhood of Christ"—meaning that she's fascinated with his humanity. Nowhere is this more apparent than here, when she grasps for his toes in a vision. She needs to feel divinity, quite literally, so that she can devote herself to the contemplative life.
"Daughter, it is more pleasing to me that you suffer scorn and humiliation, shame and rebukes, wrongs and distress, than if your head were struck off three times a day every day for seven years." (I.54.170)
Jesus's comparison may strike you as odd and unnecessarily violent, but he is in fact responding to Kempe's desire to be martyred for Christ's love. He's telling her that a life of lived spirituality is a kind of martyrdom that is more difficult (and therefore more pleasing) to achieve.
"Daughter, you shall have as great reward with me in heaven for your good service, and the good deeds that you have done in your mind and meditation, as if you had done those same deeds with your bodily senses outwardly." (I.84.244)
Did you catch that? Kempe gets spiritual credit for good deeds she even thinks about doing. That's a pretty sweet deal. But don't get too excited: we're pretty sure there are spiritual demerits in store for those who even think wicked thoughts, too.
And soon after, because of the dread she had of damnation on the one hand, and his sharp reproving of her on the other, this creature went out of her mind and was amazingly disturbed and tormented with spirits for half a year, eight weeks and odd days. (I.1.41)
What Kempe is suffering here is probably what we would now call post-partum depression. Kempe herself wouldn't have had name for this, but she guesses it, which is why she gives the context of her first childbirth in this part of the narrative. Her physical ailments give way to a spiritual crisis. That's not unusual—except that Kempe's suffering has a distinct religious element to it.
She lay beside her husband, and to have intercourse with him was so abominable to her that she could not bear it, and yet it was permissible for her at a rightful time if she wished it. But all the time she was tormented to sin with the other man because he had spoken to her. (I.4.50)
Kempe feels called to chastity and the contemplative life—but she is the mother of fourteen children, and she's just been joke-propositioned by a man in the town. These are serious challenges, indeed. Kempe's candor in speaking of these difficulties is pretty cool, and it shows that she's forging a new path for women who were thought to be past the possibility of a spiritual life.
These feelings and others like them, many more than can be written, both of living and dying, of some to be saved, of some to be damned, were great pain and punishment to this creature. She would rather have suffered any bodily penance than these feelings.... (I.23.90)
Kempe has a tender heart and goes toe-to-toe with Jesus about the whole damnation issue. Of course, she loses, and Jesus tells her she just has to accept that some people aren't going to make it. Although Jesus has given her a free pass on her sins, Kempe feels pretty bummed that any human should suffer eternally.
Then many people were amazed at her, asking her what was wrong with her; to which she, like a creature all wounded with love, and in whom reason had failed, cried with a loud voice: "The Passion of Christ slays me." (I.41.136)
Direct communion with divinity has its perks: you get the skinny on the spiritual status of other people, and you can ask for favors pretty efficiently. But then there's this: Kempe suffers right alongside Christ because she enters into the events of his Passion emotionally. It feels to her as though she's seeing all the terrible events of the end of Christ's life right before her eyes.
And this affliction lasted twelve days altogether, and just as previously she had four hours in the morning of holy speeches and confabulation with our Lord, so she now had as many hours of foul thoughts and foul recollections of lechery and all uncleanness, as though she would have prostituted herself with all manner of people. (I.59.183)
Kempe has lost a fight with Jesus about the damnation of souls. And for her disobedience, J. C. has taken away all the "good thoughts and speeches" that he's been having with her and allows the devil equal time—just so that she knows the difference between true good and evil. Kempe does not like this one bit. She especially hates that she feels compelled to do gross and evil things.
"Ah, blissful Lord, I would rather suffer all the cutting words that people might say about me, and all clerics to preach against me for your love [...] than this pain that I have." (I.56.176)
So, Kempe really doesn't like physical illness. While she often doesn't think she can bear the emotional and spiritual strain of the contemplative life, one good case of dysentery convinces her that physical suffering might just have as much merit as spiritual labor.
And just as before she had many glorious visions and high contemplation upon the manhood of our Lord, upon our Lady, and upon many other holy saints, even so now she had horrible and abominable visions—despite anything she could do—of seeing men's genitals, and other such abominations. (I.59.183-184)
A crucial part of the contemplative life is leaving behind the concerns of the body. And this especially means giving up on the pleasures—or sins—of the flesh. Whenever Kempe feels temptation to sin, it's often a lusty kind of sin, and this time is no exception. Kempe's vow of chastity—both in thought and action—comes under siege when Jesus takes away his companionship for twelve days. It's excruciating to her.
She thought that all her joy was gone. She saw her Lord ascend up into heaven, yet she could not do without him on earth [...] Such holy thoughts and holy desires caused her to weep, and people did not know what was wrong with her. (I.73.214)
Sometimes, when Kempe does everything right and feels spiritually on point, suffering is her reward. It can hard to wrap our minds around this, but Kempe does feel that this ability to empathize with Christ is a gift. Don't worry if you don't get it—her neighbors didn't, either.
And then, when she was barren in this way, she could find no joy or comfort in food or drink, or chat, but was always glum of face and manner until God would send tears to her again, and then she was happy enough. (I.82.240)
Jesus makes it clear that he is in control of Kempe's tears. This often makes life difficult for her socially. But without her tears, Kempe really doesn't know what to do with herself. Whenever Jesus decides to withdraw them from her, it's like she loses a little bit of her identity.
When they were outside the towns, her companions took off their clothes, and, sitting about naked, picked themselves for vermin [...] This creature was afraid to take off her clothes as her fellows did, and therefore, through mixing with them, she caught some of their vermin and was dreadfully bitten and stung both day and night, until God sent her other companions. (II.6.281)
Suffering comes to Kempe in many forms, and this time, it's lice, or possibly scabies. When she is forced to take up with a group of very poor people to get back to Calais, she finds that modesty isn't always the best policy. Along with dysentery and post-partum depression, this is one of the worst episodes of physical suffering that Kempe experiences.
And at nights she was often most afraid, and perhaps this was because of her spiritual enemy, because she was always afraid of being raped or violated. She dared trust no man; whether she had any reason or not, she was always afraid. (II.7.285)
Kempe lives a contemplative life, so it's not surprising that some of her most intense suffering would come from her own mind. But this fear of sexual violation has two sides to it: she's afraid that it would somehow make her fail in her vow of chastity, and she's afraid that it is genuinely a terrifying physical experience. Even Kempe herself can't tell how well founded this fear is. But it's real to her, and it causes her serious anxiety.
And when she came to the point of saying that thing which she had so long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and began sharply to reprove her before she had fully said what she meant, and so she would say no more in spite of anything he might do. (I.1.41)
Kempe is nearly driven to despair because of an insensitive priest. In this delicate post-partum moment, she loses her will to unburden her soul, which would have helped her heal. It's important that she begins her narrative with this episode, as though it is meant to instruct priests to be more compassionate and encourage women to persevere.
And before she arrived there, she said to them that she supposed they were annoyed with her, "I pray you, sirs, be in charity with me, for I am in charity with you, and forgive me if I have annoyed you along the way. And if any of you have in any way trespassed against me, God forgive you for it, as I do." (I.28.103)
Just before arriving in the Holy Land, Kempe settles the score with her treacherous companions. And though they've been most un-Christian in their behavior to her, she's schooling them on how to do things right. The word "charity" here isn't what you think; it's not about giving a handout to those less fortunate. This charity is caritas: the love each human being is supposed to have for others because each person is supposed to be made in God's image.
The good women, feeling sorry for her sorrow and astonished at her weeping and crying, loved her much the more as a result. (I.41.136)
Kempe is in Italy when this happens—and it's something you would never see in England. It's clear that the Italians have a better understanding of Kempe's sensibilities than the English do, and they often show her a level of acceptance and compassion that she will never have in her home country.
Sometimes she wept for an hour on Good Friday for the sins of the people, having more sorrow for their sins than for her own, inasmuch as our Lord forgave her her own sins before she went to Jerusalem. (I.57.179)
Despite the poor treatment she suffers at the hands of most other human beings, Kempe is very concerned for the state of their souls. She speaks with Jesus more than once about her sorrow for other souls' damnation, and she even gets into quite an ugly spat with him about it. Her tears are purely tears of compassion for others, since Jesus assures her more than once that she is favored and that all her sins are always forgiven.
"Therefore, Lord, I wish I had a well of tears to constrain you with, so that you would not take utter vengeance on man's soul, to part him from you without end; for it is a hard thing, to think that any earthly man should ever do any sin through which he should be parted from your glorious face without end." (I.57.180)
Kempe cannot believe that Jesus, who she sees as all merciful, would ever condemn any soul to hell. She thinks of his actions in this matter as a kind of vengeance, but Christ assures her later that this is not so (it's a matter of justice, he says). However, Kempe dedicates much of her praying time to ask for the salvation of others—even those who hate her.
Then she saw his mother falling down in a swoon before her son, saying to him, 'Alas, my dear son, how shall I suffer this sorrow, and have no joy in all this world but you alone?" (I.79.228)
Kempe enters imaginatively into the Passion and death of Christ on more than one occasion. In this case, she suffers dramatically not simply because of Christ's suffering, but also because of his mother Mary's tears and isolation. Her compassionate response to the mother of Christ is perhaps a personal identification as parent (she does have fourteen children, even if she really never mentions them).
"And daughter, I thank you for the charity that you have towards all lecherous men and women, for you pray for them and weep many a tear for them, desiring that I should deliver them from sin." (I.84.245)
Kempe apparently spends a lot of time and tears on the souls of the lecherous—those would be people who have a problem controlling sexual desires. It's possible that Kempe herself suffered from this same sin before her conversion (maybe this is even the nature of the sin that she couldn't confess on the first page of her narrative), so she might have a personal link to those who still struggle with this problem.
"[...] you are here saying worse than you know, God forgive it you, for I am that same person to whom these words are imputed, and I often suffer great shame and reproof, and I am not guilty in this matter, I take God as witness." (II.9.289)
Kempe takes to task a group of people in London who repeat a slanderous "proverb" that was written about her. The group doesn't realize that it's about her, but Kempe schools them, and they are mortified. Kempe has no concern for her own discomfort in this situation; she just wants these people to learn to be better people and not take joy in speaking ill of others.
And she had such great compassion and such great pain to see our Lord's pain, that she could not keep herself from crying and roaring though she should have died for it. (I.28.104)
When she is in Jerusalem, Kempe's affective piety reaches new heights. She's so affected by the suffering of Christ that she suffers emotional meltdown in many places and learns to "cry"—which really means scream, wail, shriek, screech, you name it. It's a new affliction that's meant to show her increasing understanding of Christ's sacrifice.
She prayed, "No, beloved Lord Jesus, do not chastise any creature for me. You well know, Lord, that I desire no vengeance, but I ask mercy and grace for all men if it be your will to grant it." (I.64.198)
Kempe's not interested in payback, no matter how bad things get. Her goal is the salvation of the world, not just her own personal spiritual happiness. That's quite extraordinary, really, given her experiences in the real world. In this, she's living out her understanding of Christ's sacrifice and is willing to suffer shame in exchange for spiritual merit.
She would have killed herself many a time as they stirred her to, and would have been damned with them in hell, and in witness of this she bit her own hand so violently that the mark could be seen for the rest of her life. (I.1.42)
Kempe's battle with severe post-partum depression is figured as a battle between her and the forces of evil. We're talking demons here—real demons, not emotional ones. You'll have to keep in mind that in Kempe's religious world, suicide is considered a very grave sin, since it is evidence of despair, which is a lack of belief in the goodness of God. Hence, her struggle to keep from killing herself really is, for her, a battle between good and evil.
The Steward, seeing her boldness in that she was not afraid of any imprisonment, struggled with her, making filthy signs and giving her indecent looks, through which he frightened her so much that she told him how she had her speech and conversing from the Holy Ghost [...]. (I.47.151)
Kempe has a special fear of sexual violence, so it is particularly bad that this Steward is behaving in such a way with her. Since she has taken a vow of chastity, the Steward's behavior here also puts him in opposition to God, who desires to keep Kempe pure for his sake.
"Sirs, I fear you will be burned in hell without end, unless you correct yourselves of your swearing of oaths, for you do not keep the commandments of God." (I.52.162).
Kempe has no problem calling people out for behavior she finds offensive to God. She will later say that those who curse or swear are "vicious," because their blasphemous language actually does violence to the body of Christ. Cursing may seem like a mild offense compared to others, but Kempe and the religious establishment see it as a pretty serious violation of the Ten Commandments ("You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain").
"Ah, sir," said the clerics, "here we know that she has the devil in her, for she speaks of the Gospel." (I.52.164)
This is a very serious accusation for the clerics to make against Kempe before the Archbishop of York. They are basically saying that Kempe is handling scripture on her own and speaking about it openly. At this time, women were not allowed to do this, and it was a particular hallmark of the Lollard heresy. Of course, heresy is a matter of which side you're on—and so, in this case, is evil. Kempe is a highly orthodox Catholic persecuted by her own kind. We'll let you figure out who has the devil in them here.
"[...] Daughter, you shall well see when you are in heaven with me that no man is damned unless he is well worthy to be damned, and you shall hold yourself well pleased with all my works." (I.65.198)
Kempe has a really hard time accepting that any person's soul might be damned to hell. She thinks that Christ is too good, and if he did damn someone, wouldn't that make him somehow not so great? Here, Jesus tries to explain to Kempe that damnation has nothing to do with his desire for vengeance. It's a matter of justice and is a course that is chosen by humans—not willed by God.
"Nevertheless, daughter, I have ordained you to be a mirror amongst them, to have great sorrow, so that they should take example from you to have some little sorrow in their hearts for their sins, so that they might be saved; yet they have no love to hear of sorrow or of contrition." (I.78.226)
Although Kempe thinks of herself as a miserable sinner, Jesus assures her that she is actually a good example to all humankind. Because she has learned to be humble and not exalt in her errors, she has a thing or two to teach humanity. It's just a pity that most people aren't willing to learn.
[...] then one time as she lay by herself and her keepers were not with her, our merciful Lord Christ Jesus...appeared to this creature who had forsaken him, in the likeness of a man, the most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable that ever might be seen [...]. (I.1.42)
Kempe doesn't win the battle against despair on her own. She attributes her success to the very real presence of Jesus, who appears—seemingly bodily—to her at this time. Just as she previously saw real demons, Kempe sees the embodiment of good releasing her from her suffering.
Then the Archbishop said to her: "I am told very bad things about you. I hear it said that you are a very wicked woman." (I.52.163)
Kempe here stands accused of Lollardy before the Archbishop of York. It's a burnable offense and a very bad situation for her to be in. When the archbishop accuses her of wickedness, he really means that he thinks that she has an "unclean" sexual reputation (it's the easiest way to discredit her). But we're about to learn that "wicked" is a relative term. Kempe turns the tables and tells the archbishop that she's heard some pretty bad things about him, too.
They parted, and soon afterwards the same young man went overseas on business, and then, what with the evil enticing of other people, and what with his own folly, he fell into the sin of lechery. (II.1.267)
Kempe only speaks of one of her fourteen children with any specificity, likely because he undergoes a conversions experience. At this time, this son is living a kind of dissolute life. Kempe warns him not to engage in premarital sex, but it seems that the enticements of "foreigners" prove to be too much for him. The story of the son's struggle with chastity is a real psychomachia, or struggle for the soul.
They were invented by the devil, father of lies, favoured, maintained and born from his members, false envious people, who were indignant at her virtuous living and had no power to hinder her except through their false tongues. (II.9.288)
Kempe is the target of a lot of ugly speech, and this particular incident seems to have stuck in her craw. She becomes the object of a slanderous "proverb" that is circulated through London and is eventually repeated as a saying without her name attached to it. In the latter case, Kempe is particularly upset, because she feels that the devil is working in people who are not even aware that what they are saying is evil. She's able to correct a handful of people about this, but she worries that this kind of slander will be the undoing of many.
Then it was noised about in the town of N. that neither man nor beast would serve the said creature, and some said she was accursed; some said God openly took vengeance on her; some said one thing and some said another. (I.2.45)
Even before Kempe receives the "gift" of crying and screaming from God, she has some serious social problems. She sees her inability to attract and keep workers at her brewery or mill as an early sign that she should leave worldly things behind. Or perhaps worldly things are leaving Kempe behind? You be the judge.
[...] she was greatly despised and reproved because she wept so much [...] and so much so that her husband went away from her as if he had not known her. (I.13.62-63)
Kempe finally gets her husband to go on pilgrimage with her to Canterbury, and this is all the support she gets from him. Kempe's practice of affective piety often leaves her emotionally overwhelmed. It's a pretty unique superpower to have, and even her loved ones aren't always on board.
And then this lady sent her daughter, and others of her household with her, to the anchorite who was principal confessor to this creature, in order that he should give her up, or else he would lose her friendship. (I.19.82)
Kempe runs afoul of a wealthy lady when she tells the lady that her husband is in purgatory and needs the prayers of his wife to be set free. Kempe often upsets the rich and comfortable, since she advocates a life of penance and contemplation—neither of which is easy or pleasant. It's not surprising that she suffers rejection time and again from these kinds of people.
And all the time her maidservant left her alone and prepared the company's food and washed their clothes, and to her mistress, whom she had promised to serve, she would in no way attend. (I.27.102)
We now have productive language to talk about the social behavior that Kempe is subjected to on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem: it's called bullying. Once she has annoyed her comrades with her constant weeping, Kempe becomes the target for their hatred and petty behavior. In this case, she has to make the difficult sea journey without the help of a maidservant.
When it was time to make their beds they locked up her bedclothes, and a priest who was in her party took a sheet away from this creature, and said it was his. (I.28.103)
This is the equivalent of stealing a favorite possession from a little sibling or shorter classmate and holding it over his or her head. Kempe's companions on the trip to Jerusalem know that Kempe's differences and powerlessness can be exploited—and they take full advantage of it.
Then she suffered shame and abuse for wearing her white clothes, and because she cried so loud when our Lord put her in mind of his Passion. (I.44.142)
Why would Kempe be shamed by wearing white clothes? Take a look here to see the kinds of things that women in Kempe's time wore, and you'll see why. Kempe stuck out like a sore thumb, like a kid with a "Kick Me" sign on her back. It's a little hard to understand why God tells Kempe that he loves her more when people abuse her. But remember that we're working with a belief system that privileges suffering for the sake of God, as well as the ability to forgive.
For she had been told that, if they had any storm they would throw her into the sea, for they said it would be because of her; and they said the ship was the worse for her being in it. (I.45.147)
People often believed that great storms at sea had something to do with the bad behavior of one or more persons on board the ship. You know, divine vengeance and all that. Kempe often finds herself a convenient target for this kind of thinking. On this trip to Santiago de Compostela, she has to do some serious praying to ask for calm seas.
Then people spat at her in horror at the illness, and some scorned her and said that she howled like a dog, and cursed her, and said that she did a lot of harm among the people. And then those who before had given her food and drink for God's love now spurned her.... (I.44.143).
Kempe doesn't just weep a little when she feels emotionally overwhelmed in prayer; she screams, writhes on the floor, and turns blue. It's terrifying behavior for those around her. Her neighbors might have some ideas about epilepsy—which they thought she had—but they didn't know it wasn't contagious. And during plague eras like this one, everything was all about contagion. No wonder Kempe is shunned. She's actively traumatizing the townspeople.
Then she was charged by her confessor that she should not go where he preached, but when he preached in one church she should go into another. She felt so much sorrow that she did not know what she could do, for she was excluded from the sermon.... (I.62.190)
Kempe loves a good sermon, and when the "Good Friar" (a.k.a. the Gray Friar) comes to town, she's as excited as a tween for a One Direction concert. But the "Good Friar" isn't so good and forgiving after all, and despite his fantastic preaching, he really hates Kempe's disruptive behavior. While she's good at persevering in the face of bullying, Kempe really feels the pain of isolation here: she feels excluded from learning, and that's hard for her to take.
"And now Master Aleyn is barred from seeing me, and I from him. Sir Thomas Andrew and Sir John Amy have got benefices and are out of town. Master Robert scarcely dares speak to me. No I have in a way no comfort from either man or child." (I.69.208)
Because the townspeople have a love-hate relationship with Kempe, it's important for her to maintain her allies. But now she's at a low point in her life. The dissolution of her spiritual relationship with Master Aleyn is particularly awful for her—for both of them, if we can believe her story—and she finds that she has to make do with the friends in her soul (those would be Jesus, Mary, and the saints).
Notwithstanding the grace that he showed for her, still, when the dangers were past, some people slandered her because she cried, and some said that our Lady never cried [...] Then she fled from people into the Prior's Chapel, so that she should give them no further occasion. (I.67.203)
Even though the people of Bishop's Lynn believe that Kempe has just saved their church from fire through her prayers, they still disrespect her. Slander in these days—as Kempe finds out many times—isn't simply a matter of having a bad reputation. It can mean accusation of heresy, which can lead to burning. So it's often a matter of safety, rather than emotional refuge, for Kempe to remove herself from a hot situation.
Soon after, this creature was moved in her soul to go and visit certain places for her spiritual health, in as much as she was cured; and she could not without the consent of her husband. She asked her husband to grant her leave and he...soon consented [...]. (I.10.57)
Kempe doesn't get much fuss from her husband about going away to Jerusalem, but there is some negotiating that has to be done. It's a good reminder to us that a woman in this time did not have personal freedom to pursue a "higher calling," especially when that calling came after marriage and motherhood.
"And make my body free to God, so that you never make any claim on me requesting any conjugal debt after this day as long as you live—and I shall eat and drink on Fridays at your bidding." (I.11.60)
Kempe's negotiations with her husband to remain chaste take on the language of commerce. The "conjugal debt" that she speaks of here is the obligation of spouses to respond positively to each other's sexual needs. Kempe will have to agree to pay her husband's financial debts to secure his promise to never demand sex from her again.
They cut her gown so short that it only came a little below her knee, and made her put on some white canvas in a kind of sacking apron, so that she would be taken for a fool [...] They made her sit at the end of the table below all the others, so that she scarcely dared speak a word. (I.26.98)
Kempe's companions to the Holy Land are not the nicest, most sympathetic people. But when they take to mutilating her clothing, they make it nearly impossible for her to leave her lodgings and move about the city. It's clear that Kempe is appalled by the amount of skin she would show, and such shame—and fear of reprisals—would restrict her ability to visit holy places.
"Sir," she said, "I am not afraid to go to prison for my Lord's love, who suffered much more for my love than I may for his." (I.47.151)
Although she's in grave danger—this particular group of clerics would like her charged with heresy, which is punishable by death at the stake—Kempe appears calm and collected. The idea of confinement as a result of her religious beliefs appeals to her, since it is close to martyrdom. And martyrdom is totally okay with her because it's a guaranteed pass to heaven, which is a kind of eternal freedom for Kempe.
Then the Mayor called her to him, saying, "I will not let you go from here in spite of anything you can say, unless you go to my Lord Bishop of Lincoln for a letter [...] so that I may be discharged of responsibility for you." (I.48.154)
The Mayor of Leicester really does not like Kempe, though we never fully understand why. Kempe wants us to know that this man is willing to behave unjustly if he has to in order to keep her locked up. It is possible that the Mayor feels some kind of political pressure to keep her in custody so that she won't make more mischief and get him in trouble.
Then the gaoler took her into his custody, and led her home to his own house and put her into a fine room, locking the door with a key, and ordering his wife to keep the key safe. Nevertheless, he let her go to church when she wished, and let her eat at his own table [...]. (I.46.150)
Here, Kempe is arrested in Leicester on her way home from pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It's a serious situation, since people are calling her a heretic and asking for her to be burned. But it turns out that even the jailer responsible for her confinement isn't willing to treat her unjustly. Kempe is anxious to show us that there is goodness and justice in the most desperate situations.
When she was there, she sent into Bishop's Lynn for her husband, Master Robert, her confessor, and for Master Aleyn, a doctor of divinity, and told them in part of her tribulations. And afterwards she told them that she could not come home to Bishop's Lynn until such time as she had been to the Archbishop of Canterbury for his letter and seal. (I.55.175)
Kempe makes it nearly home but doesn't want to set foot inside her town, because she has many enemies there and doesn't want to be taken into custody again. Her only hope of peace is to head back to London, to the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence at Lambeth Palace, to get ecclesiastical approval for her way of life. Even so, the clergy will never be uniform in its response to Kempe's brand of spirituality.
When she had crossed the River Humber, she was immediately arrested as a Lollard and led towards prison. (I.55.174).
Although Kempe has proved herself innocent more than one time, she pretty much gets arrested wherever she goes in England. This time, she's pretty nearly home when it happens. Lollardy is a heresy against the Roman Catholic Church, and it had many principles that appealed to women—that's why Kempe is so often accused of it.
She thought it was hard on her to take such trouble upon herself, and excused herself to our Lord in her mind, saying, "Lord, you know I have no leave from my confessor, and I am bound to obedience. Therefore I may not do so without his will and his consent." (II.2.270)
Not only is Kempe constrained by her husband, the clergy, and public opinion, but God himself also makes demands on her that she'd rather not take up. In this case, he's telling her to accompany her daughter-in-law back to her home in Prussia. Kempe objects because she is under a vow of obedience to her confessor—she is not a free woman who can go where she pleases. She knows that leaving without permission will have serious consequences.
"As for her weeping, it is not in my power to restrain it, for it is the gift of the Holy Ghost. As for her talking, I will ask her to stop until she comes somewhere that people will hear her more gladly than you do." (I.27.100)
The Papal Legate learns that Kempe's companions to Jerusalem have been punishing her for speaking about God—and, of course, for weeping. The company expects him to agree with their actions, but he surprises them by approving of Kempe's behavior and refusing to restrict her desire to speak of good things. Kempe's encounters with the clergy are certainly a mixed bag, but she's careful to include positive moments like this to show that she has influential supporters.
And, while she conversed on the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, she heard so terrible a melody that she could not bear it. Then this creature fell down, as if she had lost her bodily strength [...]. (I.17.74)
We might say that Kempe tunes in to a different wavelength, almost as though she's conscious of something that not everyone can perceive. This hyper-reality reveals itself to Kempe through her senses. She not only tunes in, though—this experience shakes her to her core. Spiritual revelations have profound effects on her body and mind.
And sometimes, when she saw the crucifix, or if she saw a man had a wound, or a beast, whichever it were, or if a man beat a child before her or hit a horse or other beast with a whip, if she saw or heard it, she thought she saw our Lord being beaten or wounded [...]. (I.28.104)
Kempe has an enormous capacity to connect things in her world with religious memories or experiences. Perhaps this is because she's looking for God in all things and trying to find a connection between her inner life and the world around her. This can be an overwhelming experience for her, since she is often literally floored when those connections are made.
When this creature with her companions came to the grave where our Lord was buried, then, as she entered that holy place, she fell down with her candle in her hand, as if she would have died for sorrow. And later she rose up again with great weeping and sobbing, as though she had seen our Lord buried right in front of her. Then she though she saw our Lady in her soul [...]. (I.29.107)
The Holy Sepulchre becomes a portal for Kempe that transports her directly to the moment of Christ's actual burial. In this altered reality, Kempe perceives visually in her soul. Whether she sees with her physical eye or her mind, the effect is the same—and it's usually devastating.
And thus she did on the Mount of Calvary, as it is written before: she had as true contemplation in the sight of her soul as if Christ had hung before her bodily eye in his manhood. (I.28.105)
If we think about what Kempe really experiences in these cases, it's kind of terrifying. Crucifixion is a gruesome punishment. Kempe enters so imaginatively and vividly into Christ's suffering that she can often perceive what he's experiencing with her bodily senses. To see such a thing happening before one's eyes would be devastating. It's this kind of religious experience that Kempe actively courts by living the contemplative life. Suffering is just part of the deal.
And then the Father took her by the hand [spiritually] in her soul, before the Son and the Holy Ghost, and the Mother of Jesus [...] saying to her soul, "I take you, Kempe, for my wedded wife [...]." (I.35.123)
This may be one of the most bizarre and distressing moments of the book. Kempe participates in a spiritual wedding with God the Father. She's distressed because she's super attached to Jesus, the Son of God, partly as a result of his humanity. Still, she goes along with it and sees a full wedding entourage in her soul. It's highly symbolic, and it signifies that Kempe is maturing in her spirituality.
On Holy Thursday, as the said creature went in procession with other people, she saw in her soul our Lady, St. Mary Magdalene, and the twelve apostles. And then she beheld with her spiritual eye how our Lady took her leave of her blessed son, Jesus, how he kissed her and all his apostles, and also his true lover, Mary Magdalene. (I.73.214)
Kempe often springboards into an alternate timeline through participation in memorial services, like the one that is performed on Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). Sometimes, she constructs this reality from what she knows of scripture. But in other cases, like this one, she imagines what must have happened between Christ and his followers, based on her own emotional responses to such sorrow.
And then, on the same Sunday, when the priest took the staff of the cross and smote on the church door, the door was opened to him [...] Then she thought that our Lord spoke to the devil and opened hell's gates, confounding him and all his host [...]. (I.78.227)
Kempe is describing a ritual in which the priest symbolically knocks on the door of heaven (that's the church) and is admitted by Christ (the clerics on the other side of the door). But this opening of a literal door signals to Kempe a different kind of opening and ushers her into a totally different experience. Instead, she sees Christ harrowing hell, freeing all the righteous souls that have been hanging out there since the beginning of time.
Then she was so comforted by the contemplation in her soul which she had in beholding our Lord Jesus Christ, his blessed mother, Simeon the priest, Joseph [...] and the heavenly songs that she thought she heard when our blissful Lord was offered up to Simeon, that she could scarcely carry up her own candle to the priest [...] but went reeling about on all sides as if she were a drunk woman [...]. (I.82.239)
Kempe has this experience on Candlemas, when the church celebrates the Purification of Mary. It's an incident described in scripture, so Kempe would have heard this read in church or by a priest at other times. But again, she moves from the present life around her immediately into active participation in the past. Unfortunately, this imaginative movement often makes Kempe unable to cope with present rituals.
And in this time she saw, as she thought, devils opening their mouths all alight with burning flames of fire, as if they would have swallowed her, sometimes pawing her, sometimes threatening her, sometimes pulling her and hauling her about both night and day during the said time. (I.1.41-42)
Kempe suffers a severe bout of post-partum depression after the birth of her first child and is presented with this reality. For her, evil is tangible and real—and on it's on its way to get her. Perhaps this is a convenient way to talk about depression or even spiritual struggle, but Kempe doesn't appear to be speaking metaphorically here. Devils were part of her daily existence.
When she saw them coming, at once in her soul she beheld our Lord coming with his apostles, and she was so ravished into contemplation with sweetness and devotion, that she could not stand until they came, as courtesy demanded, but leaned against a pillar in the church [...]. (I.49.155).
Kempe reacts to a greeting from the Abbot of Leicester Abbey and his friars. Seeing them as Christ and his disciples is a way of saying that these are good and truly holy men. It's also a way of continually signifying that Christ's journey on earth continues through the lives of modern-day disciples.
"And, daughter, the more shame, contempt and rebuke that you suffer for my love, the better I love you, for I behave like a man who greatly loves his wife: the more envy that other men have of her, the better he will dress her to spite his enemies." (I.32.117)
Jesus tells Kempe not to worry about slander; he digs her more because of her suffering on that score. The simile of the jealous bridegroom spiting his enemies says as much: he will reward Kempe even more when she gets to heaven, and then all those naysayers will get the point. Kempe clings to this promise with both hands, especially since she gets no love from her neighbors in Bishop's Lynn.
"Therefore I must be intimate with you, and lie in your bed with you. Daughter, you greatly desire to see me, and you may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband, as your dear darling, and as your sweet son, for I want to be loved as a son should be loved by the mother, and I want you to love me, daughter, as a good wife ought to love her husband." (I.36.126-127)
Behind this morass of incestuous-sounding similes lies the image of Christ as bridegroom of the soul. If you carry this comparison to its logical conclusion, you'll see some erotic love language from God. The weirdness happens when Jesus switches to his persona of spiritual parent—and then to his persona as Son. The takeaway? Jesus is saying that he wants to be everything to Kempe (and to all humans), to occupy all forms of their love.
"For I would have you know, sir, that there is no man in this world that I love so much as God, for I love him above all things, and, sir, I tell you truly, I love all men in God and for God." (I.48.153)
The Mayor of Leicester behaves ungallantly to Kempe and more or less accuses her of being a hypocrite and "unchaste." The problem? He can't imagine how a wife (that is, not a virgin) can wear white clothes and lead a contemplative life. But Kempe will not allow him to shame her solely on the grounds that she knows what it means to live a sexual life.
The said priest read books to her for the most part of seven or eight years, to the great increase of his knowledge and of his merit, and he suffered many an evil word for her love, inasmuch as he read her so many books, and supported her in her weeping and crying. (I.58.182)
Kempe recognizes her true friends when she finds them. For one thing, they don't much mind her screaming and weeping. For another, they read to her and are patient with her conversation—which is especially important for a mystic who can't read. She recognizes that this local priest bears love for her because of these things, and she likes to think that her requirements of him prepared him for a spiritually and financially richer future (he gets a bigger benefice later in life).
"If it were your will, Lord, I would for your love, and for the magnifying of your name, be chopped up as small as meat for the pot." (I.57.181)
Kempe's narrative uses the phrase "chopped up as small as meat for the pot" twice in relation to the intensity of her love for God. We imagine this is a little like the modern idiom "I love you to the moon and back"—except without the violence and general mess. The idea of being willing to die for the love of God is something that Kempe and other saintly figures return to when they contemplate how adequately to demonstrate love for God. Such a death is perceived of as the absolute proof of love, and, depending on how you look at it, it's somewhat easier (or at least quicker) than enduring an entire lifetime of self-denial and ridicule.
"Therefore, my beloved daughter, do not be weary of me on earth, to sit alone by yourself and think of my love, for I am not weary of you, and my merciful eye is ever upon you. Daughter, you may boldly say to me, Jesus est amor meus, that is to say, 'Jesus is my love [...].'" (I.65.200)
Kempe receives some serious encouragement from Jesus here, especially when he gives her permission to own him. Kempe presents him as a bridegroom who asks his wife to be devoted and true to him and never to get tired of him, no matter how long they are together. This is one of Kempe's more successful uses of conjugal imagery.
[...] he often repeated these words: "Our Lord Jesus languishes for love." Those words so worked in her mind, when she heard speak of the perfect love that our Lord Jesus Christ had for mankind [...] that she could no longer keep the fire of love enclosed within her breast [...]. (I.78.225)
Kempe listens to a priest's sermon during Holy Week (which celebrates Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection), which acts as a trigger for a very real emotional response. The idea that Christ dies for the love of all humanity awakens all Kempe's compassion and feelings of love for the God who has revealed himself to her in her visions.
"So great is my love towards you, that I may not withdraw it from you, for, daughter, no heart may think, nor tongue tell, the great love that I have to you, and for that I take witness of my blessed mother, of my holy angels, and of all the saints in heaven, for they all worship me, for your love, in heaven." (I.84.247)
Jesus tells Kempe not only that she is the object of his great affection, but also that she's the reason all the saints look with eyes of love on him in heaven. That seems like a whole lot for one woman to handle, but consider this: Kempe is meant to be an example of what Christ wants for all human souls. So whenever we read a section of excessive lovey-doveyness concerning God and Kempe, we're pretty much meant to read it as something that applies to all of humanity.
"Ah, dear God, I have not loved you all the days of my life, and I keenly regret that; I have run away from you, and you have run after me; I would fall into despair, and you would not let me." (I.22.86)
Kempe offers a standard convert's lament about a misspent youth (St. Augustine of Hippo wrote an entire book on this theme). She also alludes to her torment by devils and near suicide after the birth of her first baby (her "despair"). Behind all of this is Kempe's sense of unworthiness in the face of God's grace. And now that she knows better, Kempe feels the fire of love in her heart, which makes her want to be closer to God.
"Daughter, if you knew how sweet your love is to me, you would never do anything else but love me with all your heart. And therefore, do believe, daughter, that my love is not so sweet to you as your love is to me." (I.64.196)
Kempe and Jesus are having one of those cute couple arguments over who loves the other more. Jesus wants the last word (naturally) by asking her to trust him—his love for her will always be greater, just as everything about him will always be greater, because, you know, he's Jesus. He also says there's only so much she can comprehend with her mortal brain. In this case, she can never truly understand the extent of his love, even though she feels loved by him.