How James of Lodi experienced a change of heart is one of the most fascinating illustrations of God’s workings, and a capital story for Eastertide.
James was a native of Lodi, a city in northern Italy. His family was wealthy and prominent, and leisure gave him plenty of time to cultivate his talents. He learned to paint, became expert at playing the lute, and danced divinely. When he married, James chose as a mate Catherine, a socialite and, like him, a great party-goer.
Now, ever since the mid-1300s, bubonic plague had been recurring at many places in Europe. James and Catherine had not been married long before Lodi was stricken. Like many another well-to-do couples, they took flight – to Catherine’s father’s country villa – in order to escape infection.
It must have been boring for the couple to wait out the epidemic where there was no round of entertainments available. Up to this time, James had been more worldly than spiritual in his way of life. What happened to him one day in a country church shows that he was even rather flippant about spiritual things.
On this day when he and a companion were out for a walk, they dropped into a neighborhood church to look around. There they found a shrine that was a reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the tomb of Christ. In this reproduction, there was a flat shelf like that in Jerusalem on which the body of Christ had rested before His resurrection. Observing the shelf, James suddenly lay down full length upon the stone slab. “Let’s see,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “which is the taller – Christ or I.”
He had lain there for only a moment, however, when his face suddenly became serious and he arose and quickly got off the shelf. In that brief moment, God had shown him that Christ was the taller – infinitely so – for James’s own shortcomings were all too many.
This marked a turning point in the life of the Lodi socialite. From that time on, James indulged no more in his round of pleasures. He began, instead, to rigorously deny himself. He spent hours at prayer in church. He used his paintbrush thenceforth to paint only sacred pictures. Furthermore, he started to take care of a sick priest, and to receive from him instructions in the Latin language.
Soon his two daughters were taken off by the plague. Catherine now came to share her husband’s conversion. They vowed henceforth to live lives of sexual continence, and they joined the Third Order of St. Francis. Their home they turned into a church. Catherine cut up her party-dresses to make vestments, and gave her jewels to adorn liturgical vessels. James was eventually ordained a priest. There gathered about the couple a band of devout men and women who imitated them in their new austerity of life and practice of good works. Life was not always easy for the couple thereafter. Many misunderstood them. But James kept at his charities until the end of his life. As a matter of fact, he died of a sickness that he had caught from a patient whom he was nursing.
St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, spoke of the role of the church leaders as “building up the body of Christ,” until there was formed “that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature.” Paul was, of course, referring to Christ’s mystical body – the Church – as finally reaching “full stature” by the uniting of all the faithful to Him as his members. Still, the phrase “that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature” automatically comes to mind when we read of Blessed James’s instant maturity.
His experience was a sort of Easter parable to remind us that if we are to please Christ we must keep trying to measure up to Him.
–Father Robert F. McNamara