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Spiritual mother

· ​The saint of the month ·

St Humility, in the world Rosanese Negusanti, was born to a noble family in Faenza in 1226. Her story has come down to us through two 14th-century Lives, one in Latin, the other in the vernacular, independent of each other but which probably both derived from the same draft circulated in the monastic milieu of Vallombroso.

Although she was attracted by the religious life, after her father’s death Rosanese agreed to marry the young Ugolotto Caccianemici. She had two children who died at a tender age. Overwhelmed by increasing restlessness, she realized that she could not continue to stifle her original vocation but it was only after a serious illness that Ugolotto agreed to live with her chastely, subsequently to the point of leaving her completely free.

Rosanese entered the Cluniac Monastery of Santa Perpetua in Faenza, where soon afterwards her husband too followed her. It was the abbot of the monastery who gave her the name of “Humility”, after seeing how tirelessly she dedicated herself to heavy and humble work. She herself wrote: “With the earnings which the faithful soul acquired she constructed wings to fly to the foundation of humility”. The word Humilitas derives from humus, fertile soil, and de facto her interior gifts, her virtues, were poured out by her as co-natural qualities to the point of revealing extraordinary powers.

Although she came from a noble family she was illiterate, yet one day when she was asked to read the Gospel she read perfectly. She thus asked the sisters to teach her to read and write in Latin. A pressing call to solitude soon made her understand that coenobitic life was not enough for her: “The soul sees the Lord well when it is pure […] filled with the Holy Spirit, and is full of eyes, in front and behind, and ablaze with the fire of an immense desire for divine love” One night a mysterious voice whispered to her to leave her cell. Lifted up on high, she found herself outside the monastery. She crossed a river without getting wet and then took refuge in the house of an uncle who welcomed her.

Subsequently, after she had healed a monk, a cell was built for her as she had requested, adjacent to the Vallombrosan Monastery of St Apollinare, where she lived as a recluse for 12 years. Dedicated to prayer and penance, from her little window she listened to and helped those who turned to her to receive her assistance. She healed illnesses, brought to light the obscurities of the soul and practised prophecy.

Obedient in all things to the divine will and both poor and charitable, her figure fits perfectly into that cradle of Central Italy, through which St Francis had just made his journey – he died in the year in which Humility was born and which saw the blossoming of women of an extraordinary spirituality. St Verdiana, Blessed Humiliana de’ Cerchi, St Clare of Montefalco and Blessed Giovanna da Signa were all attracted by the solitary life and by that intimate relationship with God from which flow wisdom, virtue and charisms.

Humility’s fame for her prophetic and thaumaturgical gifts spread rapidly. Her cell began to attract women who were keen to follow her and to receive her teachings. Other cells were built beside hers until, in 1266, she agreed to leave the hermitage in order to found the monastery of Santa Maria Novella outside Faenza. Abbess, teacher of life and spiritual mother, she wrote her Sermons, a direct fount of her spirituality and of her mystical experience, a work which, although its quality was comparedwith the writings of Angela of Foligno, was not widely disseminated and to this day has remained little known.

Her highly allegorical inspired and fluent writing is reminiscent of that of Hildegard. Humility realized that everything she wrote flowed directly from God: “He himself teaches me to ask and to answer, and speaks with me while in hiding: I however, speak to you openly and publicly. He himself teaches me in the silence of the spirit and I pronounce out loud to you the divine words which I hear. Beware therefore lest you receive in emptiness these words which my tongue brings forth, moved by the Holy Spirit”.

The linchpin of her theology is the Incarnation as a possibility for all those who love Christ: “As I enter the closed womb of the Virgin, so Christ […] renews in his saints the works he carries out on earth”. Contemplating Christ’s humanity enables us to share in his love which heals and transforms: “Lovers of Christ, the sun of justice, always carry their hearts to where Christ’s Incarnation remains beyond all love”. Love alone promotes unity between flesh and spirit: “The flesh and the spirit are one and are not divided in those who want to love Christ and to give him a pure heart, sealed in order to love. Christ himself is whole, he is not divided”. All human creatures, “created in the manner of angels”, “similar to the figure of sweet Jesus”, have within them the soul and the spirit received as their birthright. They are destined by nature to glory, but since they have fallen can be led to fullness only by participating in the divine humanity of Christ: “His clemency works every good in all the creatures formed in his image”.

In 1281 Humility founded a new monastery in Florence dedicated to St John the Evangelist. Here, on 22 May 1310, at the venerable age of 84, she passed on to new life. She was beatified on 1 March 1721 and was canonized on 4 March 1948. As Claudio Leonardi declares: “Before Catherine of Siena Humility may be described, at least for Italy, as the first Christian woman “doctor”. 

Antonella Lumini

Antonella Lumini lives an experience of silence and solitude in the city of Florence, inspired by the poustinia (“desert” in Russian), a vocation to silence in the Orthodox tradition. She leads meditation groups. Her books include: Memoria profonda e risveglio (Lef, 2008); Dio è Madre (Castelvecchi, 2016); and, together with Paolo Rodari, La custode del silenzio (Einaudi, 2016).

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