I picked up this unusual little book while out and about at the weekend, concerning Margery, a medieval woman. She couldn’t read or write, but she was able to enlist the help of two men who could, and so came into being the first autobiography written in English. It begins with her as a woman in her twenties, newly married and with child. She had such a bad time of it during her pregnancy that soon after the birth of the child, she thought she would die. And she had something that had been preying on her mind which she wanted to confess and receive forgiveness for. Even though previously she had prayed and fasted, she had gained no peace: she needed to hear the words of the priest granting God’s absolution.
So far so good. She seems to have been a gentle soul, troubled in her conscience probably too easily, about something she felt she couldn’t tell anyone. But it all went horribly wrong. And all because the priest didn’t have patience. I don’t know what his day had been like, or week or month. I don’t know what other duties he was in a hurry to resume. But he didn’t have patience enough to give Margery the time she needed to say her piece. It can be incredibly difficult to vocalise your feelings: it is a delicate and tender thing. And someone’s impatience or sharp words are signals for the timid soul to scurry back underground, like a startled rabbit.
This poor woman, far from being relieved of her mental anguish, was made to think herself far worse. And she had a break-down. For over six months, she lost her handle on reality. She verbally abused everyone around her, and physically abused herself – a scar would remain on her hand her whole life long witnessing her teeth marks. She was restrained for her own safety and for others. The anguish of those around her must have been acute: her loving husband, her needy child – their dear woman had gone for the time being.
It all began to change when she had a dream/vision where she was shown supreme patience. In her autobiography she says how she saw Jesus Christ, dressed in purple, sitting on the edge of her bed. He told her he had never left, he had never forsaken her. And his words of patience were endorsed by the manner in which he left: Margery records how he ‘ascended up into the air, not hastily and quickly, but beautifully and gradually’. What a contrast! Where impatience had cast her adrift, patience restored her.
This little snippet of her life made me think about the idea of patience and it reminded me of some words of Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters on Love in which he said the greatest fault that can happen to people in relationships is this: ‘they become impatient.’ I suppose when I give time to listen to someone, or share a greeting or a smile, it’s a way of saying ‘You are important, I want to hear what you have to say – it matters. You matter’. Have a little patience.