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:http://www.cynthialarge.com