Dusty feet and scarlet ribbons
The only way to feel at one with Jesus was to imagine you were present at his death
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