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So human but so imbued with the divine

· ​The saint of the month ·

After a childhood complicated by a long battle with her step-mother, Margaret of Cortona fell in love with Arsenio Dal Monte, a young nobleman from Cortona, and he with her. They had a child but since the couple never married, the comfortable lifestyle to which Margaret had become accustomed came to a sudden end on the day he was killed during a hunt.

This episode marked the beginning of Margaret’s conversion. Despised by all and accused of witchcraft, she returned to her father’s house but was harshly rejected. Having settled in Cortona in the home of two generous women who introduced her to the Friars Minor of the Convent of San Francesco, she was permitted to practise the Rule of the Third Order of St Francis and to live an eremitic lifestyle in a cell not far from the Convent. Here she remained for 13 years in continuous prayer and penance and supported by ecstasies and revelations from Christ. Her intense contemplative life did not prevent her from devoting herself to the neediest people and to the sick, to such an extent that her commitment contributed to the construction of the Hospital of Santa Maria Misericordia.

The inn in the film by Mario Bonnard (1950)

In 1288 Margaret moved to an even colder, narrower and more isolated cell on the rock of Cortona, located close to a church dedicated to Sts Basil, Egidio and Catherine which she herself had had built: thus she removed herself from the spiritual direction of the Franciscans, entrusting herself to a priest, Ser Badia Venturi, who was to guide her until her death in 1297.

Much has been written about Margaret of Cortona but the characteristics of this most personal and original saint are to be sought in the Legenda written by her confessor, Fra Giunta Bevignati. Having said this, the account is not a historical work in the strict sense. The purpose is not only to tell of a life for the edification of the faithful but also to portray Margaret as a model who may be actualized and lived in the reader’s own day – a journey of knowledge and awareness.

The idea according to which remorse and love experience a progressive graduation is not new in the history of spirituality: Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux had already addressed this subject. Fra Giunta passes it on to us, identifying three important levels on Margaret’s journey of asceticism.

On the first level, disaffection too long ignored opened her eyes and had a revelatory function: to enable the soul to intuit the discord of sin, understood as an offence to God. The insignificance of the present time and of not belonging caused such a wound within her that it forced her to accept suffering. Love reflected an unknown light on her life, enabling her to intuit that sin is a disvalue, since it is very distant from God.

The second level is characterized instead by a typical expression which refers to an important mystical experience: compassio sui, indulgence for the soul itself. The suffering that descended upon her was a leaven that served as a disaggregating factor and her soul found itself to be poverty-stricken and destitute, deprived in a melancholy manner of any lasting good. Jesus said to her: “Without me you can do nothing”. This was one way of saying that only after experiencing the illusion and precariousness of every human project, he is the sole source of redemption.

The third level was that which an angel calls an impulsive craving and which vertically exalts the mind, understood not as intellect but rather as the superior part of the soul. And since desire is never satisfied, Margaret continued to seek until all things exploded in total communion with God.

Margaret’s torments rotate around the central role of afflicted humanity, typical of the spirituality of the late Middle Ages. Furthermore, she lived her spiritual experience in the environment of Franciscanism, a direct legacy of the Saint of Assisi, for the poor, humiliated and offended Christ. It was a dynamic meditation in which Margaret had a precise task on behalf of the citizens of Cortona: to make herself a mirror for sinners and for the unfaithful so that they might understand that a divine and saving mercy exists. In her, all must see Calvary clearly. Called to play a role in recalling her city to reconciliation and peace, she saw the small town as the place and opportunity for experiencing the suffering of the Crucified Christ. And therefore wandering and proclaiming that torture became a need for Margaret.

Through the events of her life, most human but imbued with the divine, what is proposed for the imitation of the faithful is not only an ecstatic experience but rather the possibility of finding in Christ the barycentre for bearing life’s sufferings and many adversities gently.

Her life is the best example of how, choosing the most difficult path and letting wounds take their natural course, aware and patient, we may at last succeed in fully intuiting God’s love. Like a backwash which sweeps away all detritus on the returning wave.

Gaia de Beaumont

Gaia de Beaumont

A Roman of aristocratic origins, she has written various novels, both linked to events in her family and inspired by figures of the American intellectual world of the 1930s. Among her books are: Care cose (1997), La bambinona (2001), I bambini beneducati (2016).

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