Sunday, April 10, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 15 ~ Margaret

Anne of Jesus
After her death, Teresa of Avila’s reforms were saved by one of her closest companions, Anne of Jesus (who has her own entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia). It was Anne who gathered Teresa’s writings into publishable form, and appealed to the pope when Spanish ecclesiastical authorities wanted to change the governing structures of her order. In this she was partially successful, but her thanks was to be forbidden from receiving daily communion for three years. She went on to found the first Teresian convents in France (Paris, Pontoise, Dijon) and Belgium (Brussels, Louvain, Mons). She arrived in Brussels in January 1607 to found the first Discalced Carmelite convent in the Low Countries, and she died there in 1621. Her cause of beatification, initiated soon after her death, seems to have stalled at being declared ‘Venerable’ in 1878 (even though St Thérèse of Lisieux was certain she was in heaven).

Her relics are kept in the Brussels Carmel, where there is a local devotion that leads to them primarily being visited by women praying for children or for help during pregnancy. They are housed in a corridor within the monastery’s enclosure, so I have not been able to venerate them myself, but the former archivist, now deceased, did once open a door to let me have a glimpse of the casket in which they are kept. I have seen graces poured out in a friend’s life that I cannot specify (it not being my story to tell), but that I am confident can be attributed to the Venerable Anne of Jesus.

Anne died after a long illness, in the arms of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, who at that moment was lifting her on to fresh bedding. Margaret herself died in odour of sanctity in 1646 and was recorded as such in Carmelite obit books (there is a Wikipedia entry, but it is not very informative). For years I was tangentially involved in a project to study, translate and publish Sister Margaret’s spiritual autobiography, which is now available in English from Toronto University Press. She began writing it in 1635, under obedience to her confessor. It is a fascinating document for all sorts of reasons, written in a simple but vivid style. One interesting aspect of it is how much of it was cut by the priests who prepared the versions that circulated in manuscript as edifying reading, turning a highly personal document into a much more stereotypical hagiography.

Margaret, born Margriet Van Noort, had grown up as an army child, which in the 16th century meant being a camp follower, and in her case a camp follower in the long but ultimately unsuccessful Frisian Campaign to maintain Catholic Habsburg rule in the north-eastern Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt. As a child she suffered the deprivations typical of war: living under canvas, sometimes going without food or clean water, constantly being on the move, sometimes in fear of being overtaken by the enemy, helping her father build makeshift fortifications, and attending Mass in the open air under enemy artillery fire. Once she became separated from her family while on the march, and was looked after by an officer from another regiment until they could be reunited. In her later teenage years she was sent into domestic service in Brussels, in a household where the mistress read Teresa of Avila’s autobiography to her, but she suffered sexual harassment from male fellow servants, from her mistress’s husband, and from her mistress’s brother. I am not aware of any other first-person account of what it was like to be a child camp follower in the years immediately before 1600, or a sexually harassed domestic servant in the years immediately after 1600. Almost all of this vanished from the ‘official’ versions circulated after her death.

Upon entering the Carmelite convent in Brussels as a lay sister in 1607, she became the first Dutch Teresian Carmelite. As a lay sister her duties were generally in the kitchen, but included all sorts of menial odd jobs. As Anne of Jesus’s health began to fail, Margaret, an unusually large and strong woman (which had stood her in good stead when a servant girl) was increasingly called upon to attend to her, being the only member of the community who could lift her comfortably. This had to be done on top of her regular work. It was the close association with Mother Anne through the years of her physical decline that made her a key witness when the cause for canonisation was being prepared, and it seems likely to have been this that led her confessor to order her to write her spiritual autobiography.

Most of Margaret’s writings are taken up with the supernatural visitations, visions and illuminations she enjoyed. Take her description of her feelings upon making her profession (in Susan Smith’s translation):
I do not know what I was feeling, but it seemed like they bound me with a most precious binding and that it was so great that it stretched from earth to highest heaven. I felt a kind of love and appreciation that I cannot describe; and I still feel it. It was such a strong feeling in my soul that I was in a state of abstraction for several days and everyone who looked at me said they saw in my face the change in my soul. From the day of my profession I sensed myself closer to Our Lord and the presence of God changed me, even the worldly part left in me, through Holy Communion. It was so vivid it seemed that the walls became windows; or rather, it seemed as if sunlight poured from the Sacred Host and everywhere I would go, day and night, on awakening I would see the Sacred Host.
There is a lot more about experiences such as this than there is about suffering, but to judge by my own response, the attitudes to suffering are what strike a modern reader the most forcefully. In her early years as a nun, Margaret was eager to share in the sufferings of Christ in all sorts of inventive ways that her confessors had a tendency to put a stop to when they found out about (denying herself drink despite the heat of the kitchen, tying her belt too tight, putting dried peas in her shoes, rubbing onion juice under her eyes, letting hot fat splash on her arms, exposing herself to sunburn, even carrying around a little box containing a maggoty bit of meat, so she could from time to time savour the odour of physical decay). It is hard not to see these exercises in terms of self-harm by a traumatised young woman, however anachronistic and at odds with her self-understanding such terms might be. As she matured, she stopped finding ways to torture herself and instead accepted the sufferings she was sent.

Throughout the years of caring for Mother Anne, she had suffered migraines. One Lent, she says, these were taken from her by a vision of Christ’s suffering, in which "it seemed to me that He took the crown of thorns and put it on my head with such great force that some thorns broke off the crown and stuck in the middle of my forehead. . . . the pain is still there, though not so strong. The pain was not an exterior feeling, but rather interior. It was a consolation to me, even though I felt great pain". Her migraines ended, and instead she received a lasting share in the suffering of the Crown of Thorns. By this transformative spiritual experience, the pain she had endured became a consolation to be embraced. A sceptical materialist might be inclined to say that nothing had actually changed, but to Margaret herself everything was altered.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. Anthony and St. Cuthbert for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. "It is hard not to see these exercises in terms of self-harm by a traumatised young woman, however anachronistic and at odds with her self-understanding such terms might be."

    Interesting remark (and a generally interesting piece). I generally object to, for instance, the mildly scornful dismissal of Catherine of Siena as an anorexic. Yet I can't help wondering if there might be some truth in it. Though I don't know that it really matters.

  2. My father (who got into computing in the 1970s by way of research into the ergonomic psychology of human-machine interaction) liked to recall the time in the 1960s he was a Psychology undergraduate and a Jesuit came to give a guest lecture. Asked whether Joan of Arc was a genuine visionary or a schizophrenic, the Jesuit replied, "I don't see why those two possibilities should necessarily be mutually exclusive."

    I do think that suffering makes some people at least (I wouldn't necessarily say all people) a lot more sensitive to realities that escape the notice of the more materially fortunate. I've read that this has been experimentally established for social perception. I'm not sure how you would test it for spiritual perception, although we do have biblical warrant that "the Lord is close to the brokenhearted".

  3. "cognitive ergonomics" (blanked on the term for a moment). Not that it's terribly relevant to the story, just what my dad subsequently did with his Psychology degree. My sister dropped off a load of stuff the other day to be sorted/archived/binned/donated, so I suppose it's on my mind.

  4. In our own time, it's at least arguable that Caryl Houselander was a notch or two beyond eccentric, at least at certain times in her life. But I would say it's *not* arguable that she had great wisdom and holiness.

  5. I think that most saints must seem at least a bit odd or eccentric to most people because they just don't care about the things the rest of us think are important.