St. Christina the Astonishing
Virgin, 1224 A.D.
Feast day: July 24th
The earliest account of the life of St. Christina the Astonishing comes to us courtesy of the 13th century Dominican, Thomas de Cantimpré1, who wrote the lives of several holy men and women from the diocese of Liége. The tales of Christina's wild exploits might have been dismissed as an example of the medieval imagination run amok, were it not for the eyewitness account of Cardinal Jacques de Vitry, a man considered, then and now, to be a reliable and sober character.
As an aside, I have to mention that the reliable and sober Cardinal spent much of his career calling for Crusades, first against the Albigensian heretics and then for the Holy Land. I have heard the word "heresy" well-defined as "a minority opinion" but even if de Vitry considered the Cathars and Canaanites to be sincere threats to the Church, one has to wonder if his solution of burning and slaughter was truly arrived at under the guidance of the Spirit of the Gospels he ostensibly dedicated his life to serving.
Christina was born in the town of Saint-Trond in 1150. She was orphaned at fifteen, along with her two sisters, and worked as a shepherd, growing closer to God over the years. In the process of this contemplation, she seems to have neglected her body's need for sustenance; as Cantimpré writes, "she grew sick in body by virtue of the exercise of inward contemplation and she died."2 Later hagiographers attribute her apparent death to a seizure. In any case, she was carried to the church for the funeral Mass, where her first marvel was to occur. Right after the Agnus Dei, she flew up out of her coffin like a bird and perched herself in the rafters of the church (it was said that she desired to escape the stench of human sin). The priest finished the Mass with remarkable equanimity, and then made her come down (this is the scene depicted in my painting). She reported that she had been to Hell, and had recognized many people there. She was then shown Purgatory, and recognized many more. After this she was taken to Heaven where she was offered the choice of remaining with God, in one-ness with Him, or returning to earth in order to suffer the torments of the damned on behalf of the souls she had seen in Purgatory, who would then be released. She chose the unselfish course, and so startled her mourners by returning to life in the little church.
Thereafter her life is reported as one astonishing event after another; she climbed trees to perch on the tiniest branches with the birds, she prayed balanced on hurdles or curled up into a ball, she would roll in fire and cry out in agony, yet remain un-roasted, she climbed into ovens and threw herself under mill-wheels, where she would be carried around in the water yet suffer no apparent injury. One time a priest, who did not know her, was so frightened by her appearance that he refused to give her Communion; she raced wildly through the streets, leaped into the Meuse, and swam away. Many thought she was possessed by devils, and tried to capture her, but she always managed to escape. A man once broke her leg in the process of subduing her, and tied her to a pillar for safety, yet she slipped out into the night and lived in the tree tops for some time, nourished by milk dripping from her virginal breasts. She survived as a homeless woman, dressed in rags, and generally terrifying people.
It seems that Christina's soul and body coexisted uneasily, as demonstrated in an account told by a priest who secretly trailed after her one day when she entered a church to pray. He concealed himself behind a pillar and observed her bitterly throw herself before the altar and cry out "O miserable and wretched body! How long will you torment me...Why do you delay me from seeing the face of Christ? When will you abandon me so that my soul can return freely to its Creator?" The answering accusation came from the same mouth, "O miserable soul! Why are you tormenting me in this way? What is keeping you in me and what is it that you love in me? Why do you not allow me to return to the earth from whence I was taken...?" Then, before his eyes, a loving reconciliation took place; she seized her feet in both hands and kissed their soles fervently, saying "O most beloved body! Why have I reviled you? O best and sweetest body, endure patiently..."3 These moments of joy were few and far between in the time she spent as a mendicant in the town and forest, though her last few years were lived peacefully enough in the convent of St. Catherine, where the prioress reported that she was perfectly obedient, if peculiar.
Cantimpré interprets these sufferings and wonders as evidence of the turmoil Christina had agreed to endure for the sake of souls in limbo. Many modern "diagnosticians"claim that her actions were those of an anorexic, an hysteric, a grievously ill and misunderstood young woman. Butler's Lives of the Saints4 is curiously silent on the question of why she did the things that she did, merely noting that these things did happen. Her contemporaries, both in the priesthood and the laity, were certainly divided as to whether she was a madwoman or a prophet.
Christina of Liége has been a saint in popular tradition almost from the time of her death, although no formal beatification ever took place. She stands out from the canon, as Compass editor Tony Staley5 points out, because her life, alone among the others, is not held up as an example to be followed. Her role as the patron saint of madness, mental disorders, mental handicaps, and mental health caregivers might suggest that she herself was of unsound mind. She may indeed have been mad, or she may have lived a curiously blessed life in the grip of holy ecstasies, dazzled by the revelation she had seen. A further possibility accommodates both of these explanations; here we can understand Christina as a fragile vessel who simply shattered in the face of God.
But of what use could such an impossible creature be to the world around her? What spiritual gifts did she give to her community? What saintly purpose did she serve, that revealed her astonishing happenings to be the work of God and not the work of devils? It seems that she served the people of Liége as a wailing manifestation of their hidden consciences, laying bare their dark secrets and vices. Driven to live as a beggar, if she received food from an unjust person, she would bear the burden of the almsgiver's sins; the food, once swallowed, would cause her to be wracked with pain, publicly and noisily. The townspeople may have felt a certain sullen gratitude for this service (particularly when someone else was the target), but there were notable members of the society who loved her greatly and without resentment. The Count of Looz thought very highly of her and accepted her rebukes humbly. When he lay dying, he had her brought to his bedchamber so that he could unburden his conscience to her. He told her every sin he had committed from the age of 11 to this, his dying day, but Cantimpré hastens to add, "He did this not for absolution, which she had no power to give."6 Ahem.
Whatever the explanation for her adventures (and whether or not she did in fact give absolution to the dying Count), Shaley convincingly argues that her life serves to remind us to value the scorned and disruptive members of our society and to treat them with respect.
Though her life is not held up as an exemplary one, Christina has inspired many poets and creative people. This unadorned tribute comes from the musician Nick Cave:
Christina The Astonishing
Christina the Astonishing
Lived a long time ago
She was stricken with a seizure
At the age of twenty-two
They took her body in a coffin
To a tiny church in Liége
Where she sprang up from the coffin
Just after the Agnus Dei
She soared up to the rafters
Perched on a beam up there
Cried, "The stink of human sin
Is more than I can bear"
Christina the Astonishing
Was the most astonishing of all
She prayed balanced on a hurdle
Or curled up into a ball
She fled to remote places
Climbed towers and trees and walls
To escape the stench of human corruption
Into an oven she did crawl
Christina the Astonishing
Behaved in a terrifying manner
Died at the age of seventy-four
In the convent of St. Anna7
Jane Draycott and Lesley Saunders bring us a collection of poems in the book, "Christina the Astonishing," in which they seem to give themselves over to the wonder of her life, without looking so hard for the whys of her behavior:
How Saint Christina sang
Then she stopped spinning and sang.
No-one could imitate the sounds that came from deep in her chest
nor make sense of the syllables; no breath came from out of her nose or mouth,
but it was like angels singing - Thomas de Chantimpre
think of it like a Mongolian trance-chant
sung on the bottomless in-breath
like a journey along the silk road
being rolled back past the dust-heaps
and broken walls of frontier towns, back
past the one remaining window made
of a slice of lapis lazuli and the still wind-chimes
back into the rib-cage, the swaddle, the chrysalis
or find in your mind an Inuit song
sung by one by two sister-twins
like the ice-night and the eery not-sun lights
hologramming on the sky's retina
breathing down each other's wind-pipes
the in-out of the ice-sheet across the eyelids
the sound-harpoon in the blank ice-pool
see, she does not cloud the mirror
Salvation as a Diving-Suit
The opera of her breathing fills the whole village
and even on the hillside they can hear her enlightenment
bubbling like a narghile in the mouth of God.
From inside the helmet she watches the others swim.
Shoals of bishops and other big fish nose at the glass
manifesting the dark markings of their consciences.
Saved for sure, she has to be weighted down to the sea-bed
of the market square. But sinning's smell seeps in at the seams,
a slow inundation of children's hair and used bank notes.
Her visor is cloudy with what she knows - she reels up
to the light, to the air that is promised, the towers of silence,
the blue, the sky, the burial. Walking in space.8
Irish poet Mary O'Donoghue brings us this irreverent version of the story:
Christina the Astonishing
The windows steamed over with grief
Exhaled from a chockful church.
Men at the back,
Fists ensconced in pockets,
Harrumphed clear their throats.
Women loosened bonnet ribbands,
Blubbed and snotted
Into cologned handkerchiefs.
Toddlers took refuge
In serge skirt folds
And wauled their contribution.
The woman aboard the bier
Stirred, sat up, strutted by her elbows,
Wiggled out a hair-pin
From her coffin coiff
And clipped her nostrils shut.
She spoke in a sinusitis voice
To her muggy troupe of mourners:
Ye folks have got to end
This dependence on garlic
To flavour the cooking,
And quash gumboils and carbuncles.9
Here is the poet Jill Alexander Essbaum's curious and compassionate insight:
Whispers of the Kingdom
When everything she touched
seemed to turn up paper or pain
she forged a new self
from tufts of moss and the inaugural ash
found at the stations of the cross, saying
anything that is too much me,
I must strip away.
How lucky then, for her hands.
They learned to knit without needles
or yarn, and in the distance
between being lost and being saved,
she fashioned for herself an invisible shawl
resembling feathers, and it fit around her
just well enough that when offered a drink
from the fugitive cup of all things living and dead
she flew up above it, to the crossbeams
and the lamps, to next and to hide
as if a hermit mockingbird, having no part
of our troubles and making no sense
to our sadness, and singing, always
singing nearer to thee.
Grace, I will watch her with wonder from below,
summing carefully each of the marigold praises
to tumble from the seam of such a woman's lip,
and tending her every need as if she were me.
As if she were me.10
And, finally, a treasure by James Reidel:
Christina the Astonishing
Liege, around 1172 . . .
Her nails nearly tore from her blue fingers
as she clawed to the rafters.
There she inhaled in great draughts,
The sweet afterburn of beeswax candles,
and held over her face
The handful of cave wind brought back from Hell.
She twisted like a swallow through trusses and out
of reach of the priest,
Who leapt for her foot as white as the exposed wood
of our Mary’s chipped toe,
The train of her shroud hung from a beam
Like bell rope down to what was her dung,
Standing on their hind legs.
Their ears turned red pressing them to the first
From hearing her praying (and their names) up the flue
Until there was nothing but the snap of cloth
Sailing from tree to tree,
Going to the smell of bread she would mine like ore.11
My own image of St. Christina was first shown at the annual ArtQuake festival held at the Friends Meeting House on 15th Street, where it was received with interest and Friendly questions. I have started a second painting of another scene in her life, further exploring the sometimes harmonious and sometimes tense relationship she had with the clergy of Liége, when her understanding of God's will conflicted with their wish that she live a quiet and peaceable life and not be so troubled or troubling. With my paintings, I hope to add, visually, to the poems that Christina Mirabilis has already inspired.
1The Life of Christina the Astonishing, by Thomas de Cantimpré, translated with introduction and notes by Margot H. King, assisted by David Wiljer
©1999 Peregrina Publishing Co
4Butler's Lives of the Saints, edited by Michael Walsh
© Burnes and Oates,1991
5Tony Staley, The Compass
Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
1825 Riverside Drive
P.O. Box 23825
Green Bay, WI 54305-3825
6The Life of Christina the Astonishing, by Thomas de Cantimpré, translated with introduction and notes by Margot H. King, assisted by David Wiljer
©1999 Peregrina Publishing Co
7Nicholas Cave, "Christina the Astonishing", from the album Henry's Dream, Mute Records, STUMM 92, 1992
8Christina the Astonishing, by Jane Draycott and Lesley Saunders, prints and drawings by Peter Hay, Two Rivers Press, paperback ISBN 1-901677-07-9
9"St. Christina the Astonishing", by Mary O'Donoghue
10"Whispers of the Kingdom" from Heaven, Middlebury College Press
© 2000 Jill Alexander Essbaum, (winner of the Katharine Bakeless Nason Poetry Prize)
11"St Christina the Astonishing" ©2002 James Reidel, first published in the Pierian Springs poetry journal.
Copyright 2000-2004, Cynthia Large
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