Dusty feet and scar­let rib­bons

The only way to feel at one with Je­sus was to imag­ine you were present at his death

BBC History Magazine - - Medieval Mystics -

In the 12th cen­tury, the York­shire monk and writer St Ælred of Rievaulx chas­tised his read­ers for not be­ing more ac­tive when vi­su­al­is­ing Christ’s suf­fer­ing. He told them to imag­ine that they were lick­ing the sweat from Christ’s dusty feet, and kiss­ing his wounds one by one un­til their lips be­came stained red with blood, like a scar­let rib­bon. Mys­tics such as Margery Kempe, Ju­lian of Nor­wich, Cather­ine of Siena, Marie d’Oig­nies and An­gela of Foligno fol­lowed this ad­vice, record­ing vi­sions of the cru­ci­fix­ion, which helped cat­a­pult them into mys­ti­cal states.

St Ælred’s words cap­ture per­fectly the essence of Pas­sion Med­i­ta­tion, a de­vo­tional craze that swept the Chris­tian world in the Mid­dle Ages. The idea was that, if you wanted to deepen your faith, you needed to do more than think about the suf­fer­ing of Christ dur­ing his tor­ture and death. You needed to imag­ine that you were ac­tu­ally there, watch­ing events un­fold, even be­com­ing in­volved in the ac­tion. This was the best way, many be­lieved, to feel closer to God.

Be­liev­ers were en­cour­aged to imag­ine what Christ’s flu­ids might taste like, what sounds they might hear as Christ was tor­tured, what it would feel like to have their hands and feet pierced through with nails.

For all that, of the many prac­tices recorded here, Pas­sion Med­i­ta­tion was the most ac­ces­si­ble and the least dan­ger­ous. Or­di­nary peo­ple didn’t need to drink the bath­wa­ter of lep­ers, or be blessed with the gift of tears. They could gain a deeper con­nec­tion with their God sim­ply by imag­in­ing, and try­ing to iden­tify with, his suf­fer­ing on the cross.

Mys­tics were pro­pelled into ec­static states by con­tem­plat­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion, shown above in a 15th-cen­tury man­u­script

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