Fewer women than men have been canonized, but God has asked more sufferings of women saints, and they seem to have been recipients of richer mystical graces.
In selecting saints for this column, I have often wondered whether the readers can make any sense out of the visions, ecstasies and strange ailments of the mystics, so different they are from the experiences of the average Catholic. But I have decided that it is important for us to realize that Christ does call some — women in particular — to be “victim souls,” and to share his passion in a particular way.
Caterina de Gari de’Pazzi came from an old noble family of Florence, which had its share of leaders and villains. Perhaps God wanted her to be extraordinarily holy so as to offset the sins of her family and her contemporaries.
Caterina was interested in religion from early childhood. She experienced her first ecstasy (that is, a losing consciousness of all but God) when she was only twelve, and in her mother’s very presence. From that time on, her mystical experiences were many and varied.
At sixteen, Caterina entered the Carmelite convent despite familial opposition. She took the religious name Mary Magdalen. In 1584, aged 18, and still a novice, she was stricken with what seemed to be a terminal disease. They carried her into the chapel to make her religious profession before she died. When she had taken her vows, however, she experienced a violent ecstasy in which her heart, which she had already given to God, was “given back” to her, Jesus having chosen her as his mystical bride.
After that, Sister Mary Magdalen’s life was one long litany of ecstasies on a daily basis. They came even when she tried to escape them. She received the stigmata; she was crowned with the crown of thorns; she had visions of the passion; she was given the ring of the mystical marriage with Christ.
In May 1585, the Holy Spirit instructed her to live on bread and water every day but Sunday in reparation for people’s sins. Her spiritual director, fearing that this was an illusion, told her to follow the usual convent diet. When she did, however, it made her sick, so she returned to bread and water. The Spirit also instructed her to reduce her sleep to five hours. Finally, she was for long periods deprived, not of grace, but of the awareness of grace. This became a “desert experience” of great spiritual dryness and temptation, even to despair and suicide. But at last she laid the knife of self-slaughter at the foot of Our Lady’s statue. God, who “had forsaken her,” made her once more aware of his presence.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary Magdalen was living the normal community life. She was appointed mistress of novices in 1598 and sub-prioress in 1604. In her own spiritual talks to the nuns, she praised highly the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul, removing anything that separates it from total union with Jesus. “Come,” she prayed to the Spirit, “consume in us whatever prevents us from being consumed in you!”
Marveling at her extraordinary ecstasies and sufferings, all firmly documented, her biographer reached the conclusion that her life story was “almost incredible.” Of few other saints, he added, could it be said that she “made up for what was wanting in the sufferings of Christ.”
Why, then, does God impose such pains on victim souls like St. Mary Magdalen de’Pazzi? I think it is to remind the rest of us that every sin we commit, whether public or private, inevitably imposes grave pain on other innocent people whom we would normally not dream of hurting.
I can think of few better deterrents than this to avoiding sin — the thought that my sins wound both God and neighbor.
–Father Robert F. McNamara