Friday, October 15, 2010

About Those Women Saints Of The Middle Ages Benedict Is Fond Of

Pope Benedict has been giving a series of Wednesday audiences on women mystics from the middle ages.  This Wednesday he chose Blessed Angela of Foligno who is pretty typical of the women has has presented.  God may have a thousand ways for making His presence felt, but the one described in the life of Blessed Angela is the Vatican's seemingly preferred path, but there is more to their path than Benedict wants to see.

Pope: We are all in danger of living as if God did not exist

CNA/INTL  10/15/2010

"We are all in danger of living as if God did not exist, but God has a thousand ways, for each one of us he has his own way to make his presence felt in our soul, to show us that he knows us and loves us and wants us to be attentive to those signs with which God touches us", this is what Blessed Angela of Foligno shows us.

On Wednesday Pope Benedict XVI, dedicated his catechesis to the mystic of the thirteenth century, a late convert to the faith who knew "the heights of experience of union with God", the latest in s series of lessons illustrating the great female figures of the medieval Church.

To 40 thousand people in St. Peter's Square, the Pope said that "usually people are fascinated by the heights of her experience of union with God, but few consider just the first part of life."

Angela was born in 1248 into a wealthy family in Foligno. Introduced in worldly circles, she met a man whom she married when she was 20 years old and had children.

At that time her life was “certainly not that of a fervent disciple of the Lord", so much so she despised so-called penitents, as were called those who out of devotion "sold their possessions and lived in prayer, fasting, charity and service to the Church". (Benedict will now go on to show us how she became that which she despised.)

Some events of 1279, such as a violent earthquake, a hurricane, war with Perugia and its dire consequences affect the life of Angela, who "becomes aware of her sins." The decisive moment came: in 1285 she invoked St Francis who appears and urges her to a general confession.

Three years later, there is also the "dissolution of emotional ties," her mother died followed a few months later by her husband and all her children".  (This is an interesting way of saying she lost her entire family--very intellectually and emotionally distant.)

Angela sold all her possessions and joined the Franciscan Third Order. She died in 1309.

"Conversion, penance, humility and tribulations" are collected by her brother confessor in the "Book" in which "Angela’s difficulty in expressing her mystical experience is met with the difficulty of her listeners in understanding her."  (Personal misery will now become the fuel for her mystical experiences.)

"This situation clearly shows how the one true Master, Jesus lives in the heart of every believer and wants to take full ownership of it."

It is a journey of conversion that takes the path of Angela’s fear of hell. "This fear of hell responds to the kind of faith that Angela had at the time of her conversion, a faith still lacking in charity, that love of God. Repentance, fear of hell, repentance open to Angela the prospect of painful way of the cross, from the eighth to the fifteenth station, it will then bring her to the path of love”.

Angela "feels she must give something to God to repair for her sins, but slowly realizes that she had nothing to give, moreover of being nothing before him, she understands that it is not her will that will give her the love of God, because this can only give her nothing, 'non love'. " "As she says: the only true and pure love that comes from God, is in the soul and it makes us recognize our faults and divine goodness”. (This is referencing her faults and God's divine goodness.  According to Benedict, Angela never gets to the point of recognizing anything worthwhile in herself.  Hmmm, this might be just a tad bit self serving.)

"However, Angela's heart always carries the wounds of sin, even after a good confession, she was forgiven and still distraught from sin, free and conditioned by the past, absolved but in need of repentance. The thoughts of hell also accompany her because the more the soul advances on the path of Christian perfection, the more it is convinced of not only of being unworthy, but of being worthy of hell". (This is the Good News we are being told God gave us? Where's the love? Angela found out.) 

Eventually, Angela understands what is the central reality. "What will save her from her unworthiness and being deserving of hell is not her union with God and his truth, but Jesus crucified, He was crucified for me, his love." (Imagine the impact this understanding would have on a woman in the middle ages--not the crucifixion part, but the fact Jesus loves her as an individual and deems her as an individual as worthy of His love.)

The passage from the mystical experience of conversion, "from what can be expressed to what can not be expressed, occurs through the Crucified." All her experience is "to tend to a perfect likeness to him, through purification and ever more profound and radical transformations. In this wonderful enterprise Angela puts her whole self, body and soul, without sparing herself in penance and tribulations from beginning to end, wanting to die with all the pains suffered by the crucified God-man to be transformed completely in Him”. (Angela was passionately in love with Jesus as one individual with another, so this is not surprising that she would want to share His suffering.)

From conversion to mystical union with Christ crucified. An elevated path- explained the Pope - the secret of which is constant prayer: "The more you pray - she says – the more you will be enlightened, the more you are enlightened, the more deeply and intensely you will see the Supreme Good, the supremely good Being, the more deeply and intensely you see Him, the more you love Him, the more you love Him, the more you delight, and the more you delight, the more you will understand and become more able to understand Him. Then you will come to the fullness of light, you will understand that you can not understand”.

I'm not surprised that Benedict emphasises sin, repentance, suffering, loss, and joining with Christ crucified or that Angela herself might have discussed her experiences in such terms.  Angela was a Franciscan tertiary and the founder of the Franciscans,  St Francis,  was a stigmatic who chose to leave his family and wealth.  Angela had begun to actively distance herself from her family three years prior to their deaths, after having a conversion experience which included a vision of St Francis.  At this point she began to divest of her wealth, and undertake Franciscan spiritual practices which apparently included the maintenance of a celibate marriage. The above articles gives a very different view of this period of her life. 

Angela herself was a stigmatic for a short period, and coupled with her vision of St Francis,  helped assure she would be taken seriously enough to attract a Franciscan spiritual advisor, Brother Arnoldo,  who is responsible for the written record we have of her visions.  Angela was unable to write so it is difficult for scholars of the writings attributed to her to determine what exactly is Angela's voice versus that of her scribe. This is a critical point in an era in which women had no official voice. 

It may be that last point that contributed mightily to the numbers of women mystics in the middle ages.  Mysticism was the one area in which women were allowed to have a voice and a true personal identity.  The kind of ego identity that men had as discrete individuals with rights and dignity.  Women on the other hand had no intrinsic rights, were given away as property,  and confined by role definition.  In mysticism they found a discrete personal identity that was theirs alone, and best yet,  confirmed by Jesus Himself.  It's no wonder they considered subsuming this identity with Christ to be the ultimate gift.  It was initially a mind altering, ego expanding precious discovery which made it's loss in the 'mystical death' and subsequent union with Christ so powerful an experience.  In their descriptions of their mystical marriages with Jesus, women like Angela found the only acceptable way to voice the passion and sensuousness of feminine love in a way which men would tolerate.  Any other avenue to express these kind of feelings would be understood as the voice of "Eve" and the abandonment of the female place in the order of things.

Only as a mystic could Angela's scribe pen these words describing Angela's thoughts on love:

In Instruction VI, Angela indicates three ways to reach true love:

The first sign of true love is that the lover submits his will to that of the Beloved. And this most spatial and singular love works in three ways.

First, if the loved one is poor, one strives to be­come poor, and if scorned, to be scorned.

Second, it makes one abandon all other friendship which could be contrary to this love, and leave behind father, mother, sister, brother, and all other affections contrary to the will of the Beloved.

Third, one can keep nothing hidden from the other.

It's not hard to see that these three ideas of love could be held in the mind of a woman who wound up in an arranged marriage under the thumb of her husband's family and attempted to live something of a lie rather than her truth.  I can't help but wonder if she would have written if the loved one is rich, one strives to become rich, and if exalted, to be exalted; if she truly had a passionate love relationship with her husband.

Blessed Angela is an important figure because she is a precursor for the next great female mystic, Catherine of Sienna.  St Catherine is unique because we have her actual writings, and not transcripts from male spiritual mentors.  St. Catherine is a true power house of a woman with real impact in both secular and clerical societies.  In Catherine we have the woman mystic who has taken the freedom and authority her mystical visions have given her to new heights of personal expression. She kept control of her own voice and she accepted no final authority outside her visions.  This stance gave her the freedom to interact with Europe's male movers and shakers.  She did pay a price for her unique role and status.  A therapist might say that price included death from anorexia since Catherine began her first fast in a bid to make herself unattractive to the man of her arranged marriage--a strategy also used by her older sister with this same man. It would seem neither sister was enthralled with repeating the example of their mother who had twenty five children.

This Wednesday was Benedict's final audience on the topic of women saints of the middle ages.  In all of his talks he used their lives to make his points about the spiritual path and union with Jesus.  He attempted to show their growth from fear of hell as an impetus for prayer to an understanding of true love in self abnegation, selfless devotion, charitable giving, and willing submission.  These are all traditional traits of the appropriate role of women in traditional Church teaching.  The irony is that some of Benedict's chosen examples went to great lengths to overcome their traditional gender role and in that process discovered their own self worth as unique human individuals.  It was in that discovery and the defense of it, that they found their voices and became the women western culture now venerates. 

Modern women owe much to these visionaries and their struggles both spiritual and cultural. They gave rise to the notion that women had something to offer society beyond that of wife and mother.  They did this through considering themselves married to Jesus and mothers to all, but this attitude ennobled all women.  It took women from merely Eve's untrustworthy descendants to Temples worthy of marital union with Jesus. That's a huge shift in the perception of the intrinsic worth and equality of women.  Eventually this understanding became universally operative in the secular democracies of the West, if not always in actual practice.  Well, except for one small theocratic monarchy--the Vatican City States.


  1. It says much that Angela was given no opportunity to learn to read and write. In that time, only girls who were studying to become nuns had that chance. Not till the Renaissance did another Angela, St. Angela Merici, found the Ursuline order to educate "Christian wives and mothers." Girls were still stuck in the wife and mother role but the idea that they should be! St. Angela Merici was centuries ahead of her time.

  2. I hate to mention this, but since she could neither read nor write and her "experiences" were ones she could hardly describe or that anyone could really understand, whatever WAS written down on her behalf... there was no way she could proofread it! So, except for maybe inspiration from the Holy Spirit, how do we know the validity of whatever is written about her anyway?

    Sorry to be a skeptic... But somebody's got to do it! ;)

  3. TheraP, there are a number of scholars who make that same point. How much of what we have is actually Angela's visions and how much was her advisor's editing/sanitizing of those visions. Brother Arnoldo quotes himself asking her if he has the essense of one of her visions and she tells him, no he doesn't, but then she has no language to explain them herself.

    That's why Catherine of Sienna's writings hold more water. She wrote them herself--not that visions lend themselves to the written word with anywhere near the immediacy and content of actually experiencing them.

    Translynx, your point is well taken about Angela Merici. It's amazing to me how many of the women mystics founded their own orders. In some respects they were a subversive influence on their socities, which is why it doesn't surprise me the LCWR is itself considered subversive by today's Vatican. I guess this proves the old adage that no matter how much things change, others stay the same.

  4. Wouldn't it be great if the Pope gave talks on women mystics of today? Just as most mystics were not recognized (and perhaps persecuted) by the clerical churchmen in their day, so our current mystics are ignored or censured.
    Coleen, from what I've read on this blog, it seems like you might qualify as a mystic of today.

  5. Mrs. p2p is a great admirer of Hildegard of Bingen. I note in passing that Benedict spoke about her on 1 September. If you have thoughts on Hildegard we'd be interested.

    Unfortunately we've been called to assist an ill relative and will not be around for a few days.


  6. Pardon me, but all your comments smack of self congratulation with no historical basis. You're applying your own post modern view of women totally out of historical context. oh BTW, it wasn't just women who couldn't read and write; it's not exactly like they had an interest in public schools for an agrarian based economy. Do you know how boring these pseudo intellectual attacks on doctrine and traditionalism are? I sincerely don't get why folks insist on trying to convert Catholicism to their own way of thinking?! At least Luther had the idiotic decency to split from the Church. If you don't like it, go find some weird pastor who got his or her creds online and then you can have a religion tailor-made to ensure all your vices and neuroses are a.o.k. with God.