· The saint of the month ·
There are 10 words in my life.
Mallorca, in the Spanish archipelago of the Balearic Islands. I am born on 1 May 1531 under the sign of Taurus, the bull, solid and firm like the animal, in Valdemossa, a village in the north-west of the Island in the Sierra de Tramontana. A little circle of land made of stone and olives. Higher than my head, beyond other hills of oaks, olives and almond trees, they say that there is the sea, an immense expanse of water the colour of the sky. On some evenings I seem to smell its scent. I follow with my eyes the most beautiful line of the green bell tower of Cartuja [the Carthusian Monastery] to the top and in my imagination come down on the other side….
My father dies when I am four years old and my mother when I am 10. I am the second last of seven siblings – not even the privilege of being the youngest.
3. Olive tree
As an orphan I am taken into the care of Joan and Maria, my maternal uncle and aunt in Son Gallard. In exchange for my keep, my uncle and aunt send me to tend the grazing livestock, we go to church only on Sundays. I build the church where I am. I find myself beneath the branches of a twisted olive tree as tall as a father. I build an altar of small stones, those that I can manage to carry. I kneel down. They say that for the Lord the heart is enough.
While I watch over the animals, their eyes filled with wisdom and patience, I count the rosary on the leaves of an olive branch. I walk barefoot among thistles and brambles. They say that suffering helps one to understand.
I always needed another world. Without myself.
Purity of heart, which interests me, very soon becomes a need for purity of body. I feel no desire for a human love. I feel no desire for another body. Purity, for me, coincides with solitude. I leave my body alone.
One day I meet a man, Fr Antonio Castañeda, a former soldier in Charles v’s army who, having miraculously survived a shipwreck, chose to live as a hermit in the College of Miramar. He is 25 years older than me. We meet during one of his visits to the farm and straight away his soul reads my soul: together with him I decipher my desire, I decide that my wish will become my destiny. Therefore, with his help, I find the courage to tell my uncle and aunt that I want to enter a monastery.
They are against it for financial reasons: I am only an ignorant shepherdess and I am useful to them so they have no intention of investing money to permit me to study. In addition, they have no dowry to offer to the convent for me.
The father of my soul does not abandon me, he thinks of everything: he puts me into service in Palma de Mallorca with a noble family, the Zafortezas. I learn to read and write and at last I can draw on the beauty and goodness of the Scriptures by myself. I impose upon myself the nourishment of only bread and water and I use a porcupine skin as a hair shirt. I am convinced that the mortification of the body unfolds invisible scenes. I wait. I wait to understand and to see.
As is obvious, I fall ill.
Fr Antonio is always beside me, his trust supports me, he succeeds in convincing the Canonesses Regular of St Augustine to take me into the Monastery of Santa Magdalena de Palma as a chorister, even without a dowry. He says that in any case I am a good investment, that I am fervent and sincere. It is 1553. I am 22 years old.
My novitiate is extraordinarily long, two years and seven months.
They say that I am extremely pale, the deprivations to which I subject myself impoverish my physical body. They think I have tuberculosis. But I am very healthy. Within myself I feel very strong. I am beginning to understand. All this suffering is not for nothing. I am determined to continue. I chew pepper to bring a little blood to my cheeks, so that they will stop worrying.
I pray and I pray, I fight against temptations, doubts, contradictions and disputes. The devil sets me harsh trials. He is astute and intelligent, he knows me and he knows where to strike.
But my will is stronger than his. Bull against billy goat.
Then finally, at the age of 24, I take my vows. I am clothed in a habit handed down by a sister and I don’t want gifts. The greatest gift is to be your bride at last, Jesus. To be unworthily worthy of you. Humble, a handmaid, all those things and those customs. But I have fought hard to deserve this passed-down habit.
It is 24 August 1555. The date of my true birth.
And here, at last, is what I wanted. To be dead in life. To be elsewhere.
I obey even when I am in an ecstasy. Monsignor Giovanbattista Campeggio, Bishop of Mallorca, comes to ask my advice. And later his successor, Diego de Arnedo. I am a simple sister. I am self-taught. Not much of a woman. I am only one of your go-betweens, the undermost loudspeaker of God’s voice. I always obey. I go to the grille even if I don’t want to. I did not desire fame, I desired God. What ever is fame among human beings for those who want the One who is all?
Yet men and women stand in need of his words, which he has the kindness to pour out through my useless body that serves only as a conduit of the blessed water of his voice. For he speaks in silence – and we need silence in order to hear him.
We sisters here have the privilege of silence, the luxury of silence. The body almost no longer exists. There is the infinity of love. Full stop.
Considering time in silence, in spite of myself I become a worker of miracles. I don’t want it known but it becomes known: my ecstasies last so long that I can no longer hide them. Whole days, and then more days and days. I see the angels and I make prophesies. When I fight against the infernal legions I have wounds to show. The saints heal me. They might have not done so.
I look at the world, Jesus, and I don’t see the world, I see you everywhere. Just as a woman in love separated from her husband surrounds herself with images of him, buries her face in his clothing to continue to breathe in his smell, so I desperately bury my face in myself, I seek the fragrance of infinite love, I seek within me what does not end: in the profound darkness, in absolute silence, in the headlong nothingness which is within a human being. What do I care about the world?
I would like all the creatures to have trust in their own resources, I want them to entrust their salvation to their very own hands.
For I know, I know it, you can make yourself as small as our hands.
I die. I am released from this prison.
Maria Grazia Calandrone
Maria Grazia Calandrone is a poet, writer, playwright, author and presenter of the Italian Radio and Television (RAI) and is the director of “I volontari” [the volunteers], a documentary on the reception of migrants for Corriere TV. She holds poetry workshops in schools and prisons. Among her latest books are: Serie fossile [fossil series] (Crocetti, 2015; Marazza e Tassoni, Rosa Viareggio Prizes), Gli Scomparsi. Storie da “Chi l’ha visto?” [the disappeared. Stories from “Chi l’ha visto”], (Pordenonelegge, 2016; Dessi Prize), Il bene morale [the moral good] (Crocetti, 2017) and Per voce sola, [for voice alone], a collection of theatrical monologues, drawings and photographs with a CD of Sonia Bergamasco and EstTrio (ChiPiùNeArt, 2016). Her work appears in anthologies and periodicals of numerous countries (www.mariagraziacalandrone.it)
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