Sunday, July 24, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 30 ~ St. Christina the Astonishing

Last week, I was thinking about which saint I should write about next, and the name of St. Christina the Astonishing popped into my head. I have no idea why. I hardly ever think about her, and I didn't know much about her either. I first heard of her from a friend when I was the secretary of the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Memphis about 30 years ago. The only thing that I really remembered about her was that she used hide in ovens to get away from the smell of people--a smell that was caused by their sins. At the time I assumed the ovens were cold, but I have since learned otherwise.

Saint Christina the Astonishing, © 2002, Cynthia
Large, Used by permission
Then, when I started looking around the internet for information about her, I found that today, July 24, is her feastday, so obviously she was the right choice.

St. Christina the Astonishing was born in Sint-Truiden, a town in what is now Belgium, in 1150. She died around 1170, and then again on July 24, 1224. An orphan at 15, she was a shepherdess who lived with her two sisters. The cause of her first death isn't completely clear. Thomas of Cantimpr√©, a Dominican student of St. Albert the Great, and the earliest chronicler of her life, says that, "...she grew sick in body by virtue of the exercise of inward contemplation and she died.* Some speculate that she had a seizure, or perhaps she had anorexia, but in any case, she died. That's when things began to get astonishing.

During Christina's funeral Mass, right after the Agnus Dei, Christina sat up and flew into the rafters of the church. As you might imagine, the attendees of the funeral found this rather startling and they ran from the church in another kind of flight. The only two people who were intrepid enough to stay until the end of Mass were Christina's sister and the priest. After the Mass, the priest talked her down from the rafters where she had flown to escape the stench of the sins of the people present.

According to "an old version of Butler's Lives of the Saints:"
After her death experience, she related that she had witnessed heaven, hell, and purgatory. It is written that she said “As soon as my soul was separated from my body it was received by angels who conducted it to a very gloomy place, entirely filled with souls” where the torments there that they endured “appeared so excessive” that it was “impossible to give an idea of their rigor.”
She continued,”I saw among them many of my acquaintances” and touched deeply by their sad condition asked if this was Hell, but was told that it was Purgatory. Her angel guides brought her to Hell where again she recognized those she had formerly known.
After this, the Lord gave her a choice between going to Heaven right away, or coming back to earth to do penance for the souls in Purgatory, and she chose the latter.

St. Christina the Astonishing:
a Pelican in High Places,

© 2007, Cynthia Large
Used by permission
Having come back from the dead to do penance, she took her job seriously. Besides climbing into hot ovens, she threw herself into waterwheels, and fires. People could see her being burned by the fires, but when she came out, she had not been harmed. She spent long periods of time in freezing water, and tombs. She also flew to the tops of trees. Like her savior before her, she had no place to lay her head. Homeless and ragged, sometimes she frightened people with her bizarre behavior as well as amazed them. Some thought she was mentally ill or possessed.

Looking at Christina's life today, we have to wonder why the Lord asked for such violent penances or permitted such strange manifestations. As several websites I read mentioned, we certainly are not meant to emulate her. What do we learn from St. Christina?

One thing Christina's life might cause us to think about is the seriousness of sin. It is sobering to think about what Christina might have seen that would lead her to such extremes. If her visions of Purgatory and Hell led her to live in such a painful way for over 50 years, they must have been terrifying indeed.

Another thing is that she makes me wonder about people I come across in my own life, people who are indigent, and dirty, and seemingly crazy. Could some of them also be very holy? I've come across a couple who might be. It is entirely like God to use the most unexpected people.

As I have written about elsewhere, we are all in some way suffering from a war between our bodies, and souls. We know that St. Paul wrote about this at length, and we're all very aware that like Paul we do not do the good we want to do but do instead the evil we do not want to do. Christina was especially aware of this and was heard having arguments in which her body and soul contended against one another and then reconciled. Perhaps we could ask her to intercede for us when our struggle to become more integrated within our own self seems impossible.

Then again, we might emulate her in that we might try to be more conscious of the need that others have for our prayers and sacrifices. I seriously doubt that anyone reading this is called to go jump into a fire, but a small weekly or daily sacrifice for the salvation of souls would be a good idea for any of us.

Both during Christina's life and afterward, people questioned whether she was truly holy; whether her unusual manifestations were from the Lord; and whether they even happened. One person who believed her to be a saint was St. Robert Bellarmine, who said:
We have reason for believing [Thomas of Cantimpr√©’s] testimony, since he has for guarantee another grave author, James de Vitry, Bishop and Cardinal, and because he relates what happened in his own time, and even in the province where he lived. Besides, the sufferings of this admirable virgin were not hidden. Every one could see that she was in the midst of the flames without being consumed, and covered with wounds, every trace of which disappeared a few moments afterwards. But more than this was the marvellous life she led for forty-two years after she was raised from the dead, God clearly showing that the wonders wrought in her by virtue from on high. The striking conversions which she effected, and the evident miracles which occurred after her death, manifestly proved the finger of God, and the truth of that which, after her resurrection, she had revealed concerning the other life.
Christina had few friends, but one, Beatrice, was a Dominican prioress, with whom she spent her final years.
Christina died at the Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sint-Truiden, of natural causes, aged 74. The prioress there later testified that, despite her behavior, Christina would humbly and fully obey any command given her by the prioress. (Wikipedia)
Nick Cave, Lisa Tribo
Used by permission
It seems that several poets have been inspired by St. Christina, among them singer and songwriter, Nick Cave. You can hear his haunting song, Christina the Astonishing here. I chose this video (which is really just a picture of a billboard) because the lyrics to the song are below the video.

I read a lot of different websites before writing this post, including the four that I linked to above, and this one, this one, and this one, from which I gleaned bits of information. The most helpful, best written, and most well-researched post of all by far was *St. Christina the Astonishing, by Cynthia Large. I suggest that you follow that link, and read what she has written. You will also find there the poems inspired by St. Christina.

Cynthia is also the artist who painted the lovely pictures above, which she was gracious enough to give me permission to use. She also has many other very nice pictures on her site. You might want to go look at them.


Janet Cupo is the proprietor of this blog.

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

1 comment:

  1. Extremely interesting, Janet. Wonderful post as usual. I often think the same thing about homeless and transient people who seem mentally ill. Many years ago and far away I was married to a Baptist woman. She and her daughter are among the nicest folks I have known. They would tell me that homeless people begging may be angels, so tried to always give a little something.

    I will check out all your links and listen to the Nick Cave song. Another saint new to me!