Thursday, July 24, 2008

Feast Day Of St. Christina The Astonishing

For those who don't know the story of St. Christina I'll give you the short version. Christina was born in Belgium in 1150 and died in 1224 at the ripe age of 74. The fact she lived to be 74 is something of a miracle in itself given the eventful life she led.

At the age of 21 or 22 she apparently had some sort of seizure where she was assumed to have died. At her own funeral she popped out of her coffin and levitated to the ceiling of the Church. This event, not surprisingly, terrified her mourners who all fled the church, save for one of her sisters and the priest. These two carried on to the end of the Mass at which point the priest talked Christina into coming down from the rafters of the church. She then regalled the two with stories of having been to heaven, purgatory, and hell and from this time forward she would dedicate her life to the souls in purgatory.

She is recorded to have spent quite a bit of her time avoiding the smell of sin on her fellow humans by hiding in baking ovens,[apparently in the process of baking] at the tops of trees, and in general levitating herself away at need. She was considered either possessed by devils or miraculous in the extreme. She lived in total poverty, essentially homeless until the last years of her life when she finally agreed to settle down in the convent of one of her only friends, a woman named Beatrice.

It is recorded that Beatrice was desperate for any information she could wring out of her astonishing friend, whe remained stubbornly silent on the 'big' questions. Finally, when Christina was on her death bed Beatrice kept vigil over the bed, pestering Christina for answers to the 'big' questions. Giving into sleep Beatrice awoke to find her friend seemingly dead. Beatrice then proceeded to jump on the corpse to try and wake Christina from the dead. Christina had risen once before, why not now, was sort of the mind set Beatrice must have been operating under. Lo and behold Christina does awake, and castigates Beatrice for ruining her passing over. Christina does at this point answer Beatrice's questions just so she can finally die in peace. There is nothing recorded as to what the answers Christina gave to the 'big' questions.

I guess it's not surprising that St. Christina the Astonishing is the patron saint of the mentally ill and mental health professionals. It's only right and proper she should be the patron saint of both because frequently in my experience it's hard to tell the difference. It's also sometimes hard to tell the difference between mental delusions and mystical experiences. Her contemporaries were certainly of a divided mind regarding Christina as they occasionally imprisoned her and once even tied her up in stocks. She always managed to escape, usually into a forest where she would live off the land for months. On one or two occasions sustained herself on her own breast milk which is quite the trick for a virgin.

There is actually quite a bit of information on her life because she attracted a lot of notice and some fairly prominent folks of the period mention her in their memoirs, including a Cardinal and an Archbishop. The Count of Looz was so taken with her that he insisted on confessing to her on his death bed. There is no record as to whether she attempted to usurp a priestly role and acually absolve him of his sins. More likely she probably told him how to deal with the viscisitudes of purgatory. St. Christina was not your average virginal saint. If even half of what is written is true, she was psychically in a very rare class of saints--or a very rare class of mentally ill.

Today's commentators feel she was probably a victim of some form of epilepsy, given her propensity for grand mal seizures. She also seemed to have forgotten to eat in her teen years and one of her contemporary biographers described her condition before her first 'death' in ways which would lead one to believe she was also anorexic. St. Christina is listed as a Catholic saint in the index of saints, but was never officially canonized. She has also never been listed as a saint for us to emulate. Probably a good idea that. She doesn't appear to be a warm and fuzzy version of Catholic sanctity. She was a pistol who had no problems publicly castigating people for their sinful ways, and then acting out her revulsion of their sin in quite disturbing ways. I'm sure when this was happening to someone else it was cause for snickering, but when it was you who were the brunt of her insights, it was a different story. The mixture of public humiliation with private sin is undoubtedly why her fellow villagers blew hot and cold in their acceptance of her.

One wonders what St. Christina would think of today's clerical cast of characters. How much sin would she smell around them, and just how bizarre would her public acting out become. I doubt she would receive the same sort of tolerance her clerical contemporaries showed her. She would probably become a victim of the new army of exorcists, or drugged into insensibility. In any event she would certainly not enjoy the kind of freedom she seemed to have had in the 1200's, but on the other hand, she might not be as tormented by her visions either.

I can't help but wonder if Christina is a case of mental illness which brought on this behavior, or a case of an illumination for which she was unable to integrate in a meaningful or more sane way. It seems the only framework on which she hung meaning for her bizarre life was the thought that she must act the way she did in order to do penance on behalf of the souls in purgatory, or the souls on their way to purgatory. This is a typical outgrowth of atonement theology. It almost demands the kind of self abuse to which Christina subjected herself because it defines sinful humanity in dualistic terms which literally puts one at war with themselves. There's one story where a priest followed her into a church and spyed on a conversation she had with herself: "O miserable and wretched body! How long will you torment me...Why do you delay me from seeing the face of Christ? When will you abandon me so that my soul can return freely to its Creator?" The answering accusation came from the same mouth, "O miserable soul! Why are you tormenting me in this way? What is keeping you in me and what is it that you love in me? Why do you not allow me to return to the earth from whence I was taken...?" Then, before his eyes, a loving reconciliation took place; she seized her feet in both hands and kissed their soles fervently, saying "O most beloved body! Why have I reviled you? O best and sweetest body, endure patiently..." This pretty much says all that needs to be said about the dualism at the heart of atonement theology and how destructive it can be.

It bothers me a great deal that the current church is theologically retreating to this atonement mindset. Perhaps St. Christina is a prophetic witness for our time. In an age which is seeking individual mystical and spiritual experience it is good to remember that too much beauty in, can result in garbage out. One cannot meaningfully integrate experiences for which one's intellectual and emotional framework is inadequate. In my opinion atonement theology is not just a shakey platform from which to integrate sublime beauty, it's almost antithetical to the teachings of Christ. To move forward spiritually the Church doesn't need more psychological wrecks like Christina the Astonishing, nor our contemporary version St. Faustina of Divine Mercy. If this is the product the Church wishes to sell, I can only say very seriously, buyer beware.

PS, The above painting is the work of Cynthia Large. You can view more of her work here:


  1. Additions and updates:

    FO - faithful orthodox
    LiP - liberal protestants
    DeF - defending the faith
    OTCh - (pronounced ouch) one true church
    WoPr - women priests

    FO-mentation - annoying habit of FO's to qoute catechisms to support their positions

    LiP Service - annoying habit of LiP's to quote the scriptural teachings of Jesus to support their positions

    Catoganon - (CATechism, dOGma, cANON)- the instrument that FO's use to attempt to "whip" LiP's into obedience to authority

    SOSed (pronounced "sauced") - what LiP's hear when FO's try to save our souls from eternal damnation by "whipping" them into obedience

    DepooF - deposit of faith
    HUTA - head up the ass
    Rectoencephalectomy - surgical procedure to correct a HUTA

  2. Thanks Colleen! I think that perhaps St. Christina was given a rare gift and glimpse into the heavenly, but the Church's teachings left her in the loop wandering in circles, unable to tap into the heavenly in such a way as to educate herself. If she was uneducated and could not read, that in itself would have been problematical for her to try to grasp the "teaching" of her experiences. I am speculating for sure, but it makes some sense to me.

    I believe that in every age that some people experience near death experiences and live to tell their stories so that we KNOW there is life after death. That St. Christina was in a Church at her own funeral and this experience of levitation occurred is not an experience, at least in my thinking, of a mentally ill person, but a demonstration of the unseen world we still do not comprehend.

    I am wondering if St. Christina's experience of going to purgatory, hell and heaven were not written down by Church officials and in some archive somewhere in the Vatican? I really don't understand the silence about it, unless she was told to be silent about it and perhaps threatened by powerful people.

    If she were mentally ill she would have spoken about her experience. My brother often talks about his many experiences and visions. He is mentally ill, but he is also full of light and goodness.

    I agree that St. Christina is "a case of an illumination for which she was unable to integrate in a meaningful or more sane way. It seems the only framework on which she hung meaning for her bizarre life was the thought that she must act the way she did in order to do penance on behalf of the souls in purgatory, or the souls on their way to purgatory. This is a typical outgrowth of atonement theology. It almost demands the kind of self abuse to which Christina subjected herself because it defines sinful humanity in dualistic terms which literally puts one at war with themselves." So well said Colleen! I witnessed my mother fall into this theological trap. Her children suffered from this sort of upbringing and are still trying to recuperate from its very negative and paralyzing affects. Atonement theology not only causes one to be at war with themselves, but to be at war with others.

  3. Carl, please give me some time to incorporate more of your shorthand. I laugh so hard I forget it. Bill did the same thing to me with his PRADA thing. I think this laughing thing is telling me a lot about how the Othersides might be connected. Laughter is a huge thing with them because you can't truly terrified when your laughing. Although you certainly can afterwards.

    Butterfly I really feel you and I are on the same wave length with regards to Christina. I read a number of accounts of her life and not one spoke of any ability on her part to read and write. I think she was totally at the mercy of what she heard from others. Unfortunately, in our day and age we are totally at the mercy of what we hear from others plus the crap we read.

    When I realized my daughter was having some other wordly experiences I introduced her to the best Science Fiction and Fantasy I had ever read. This gave her the time to take in what she read and reflect on it with regards to her own experience. It was obvious to me what she was getting in her father's parish was totally antithetical to what she was experiencing. The interesting thing is she took almost seven years before she started to real talk about her experiences and then she referred to them in the language of the books I had suggested she read. Some of those books she has read six or seven times and I'm not talking little books, I'm talking Harry Potter length books. She has also told me that the Harry Potter books were great to read, but no where near as sophisticated in their approach to her talent as the original books I gave her by Mercedes Lackey.

    I actually only made it through the first Potter book. There really isn't much there. No help for Christina that's for sure.

    In the coming days I might get much more specific as to why atonement theology, as it's taught, is so detrimental to psychichally gifted people, and why it's so responsible for so many mental breaks. Let's just say I gave up doing therapy as a therapist and went to case management because I had way more freedom to explore what my clients were actually thinking. One of the things I learned in spades is that clients will tell therapist's exactly what they think the therapist wants to hear. A case manager was seen totally different and honesty reigned. I was way more effective for my clients as a case manager. Clients are too vested in appearing normal to their therapists. Especially when it's mandated therapy. OK, enough of this.

  4. Colleen, I'm looking forward in hearing more about atonement theology and how it is detrimental. The tyrannical and fear based approach to teaching about God just left me with a lot of fear of God. When one is fearful of someone they do not develop a healthy relationship and eventually there is really no relationship. Such was my case until the death of my father when I experienced the true gift of faith.