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A winter flower

· Lucinda M. Vardey recounts the life of Venerable Benedetta Bianchi Porro ·

In Sirmione on Lake Garda, in the Church of St. Anne a photo is displayed of an elegant young woman smiling. Her dark eyes do not look towards the camera, but rather they seem to fix upon something that goes far beyond rational understanding, on the joys of love experienced by following a path of suffering under the weight of a heavy cross.

Complications at the time of her birth would have already indicated a future of suffering. Worried about her life, her mother promised the Lord that if she survived she would offer herto his service alone. At the age of just three months, Benedetta - born in 1936 - contracted polio, which left her with a permanent limp. This was the first of many physical afflictions. Having to wear an uncomfortable metal bust, she struggled with self-pity, writing in her diary that all she w asked was to be “normal” like everyone else. In what could be perceived as a prophecy, she added: “I want to become someone important,”then noting her tears and inner melancholy.

A young woman ever determined to overcomeher increasing physical difficulties, she enrolled at the University of Milan to study physics, but then returned to her first love, medicine. Her dream was to become a doctor. Despite hergrowinghearing loss, she passed all of her exams except the last. Benedetta’s body was unable to keep up with her determination, and she slowly began to stop all activity. Despite suspicions that her increasing paralysis and deafness were psychosomatic, she correctly diagnosed herself as having Von Recklinghausen's disease, a progressive genetic disease that attacks the nervous system. Despite multiple surgeries she was forced to a wheelchair and was finally confined to her room.

Benedetta remained in touch with friends by writing letters, until she could no longer hold a pen, although at that point the impact of her personality and the greatness of her faith had already started to become contagious. Friends and strangers alike began to crowd her room, experiencing the healing peace and serenity of her spirit. She welcomed everyone with loving warmth, sincerity and friendship. Influenced by the example and teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the simplicity and poverty of St. Francis, she also turned to the Epistles of St. Paul to find encouragement to receive strength from weakness.

She began to express a gratitude that went far beyond common understanding, writing “what a wonderful thing life is (...); and my soul is full of gratitude and love toward God for this”. Without their suffering - she explained to a friend - she would not have been able to perceive the suffering of others, noting it would have been unfair to devote her time to consoling only herself.

Although, at the end, she lost all the senses - the last were taste and sight - Benedetta continued to serve and heal others. Assisted at home by her mother, she communicated through sign language (with one hand) and transmitted to the world her messages. Although blind, she was able to see into the soul of those who came to visit her, understanding even before they themselves what they needed. She discovered that silence is the means by which God speaks to the soul, and in that total silence of her senses, she grew in intimacy with Jesus. “We need to give God to others: without love, nothing matters," he wrote in the diary. After losing sight whispered, "How hard, my God, give with joy. They are in the garden of the Mount of Olives.”

At the end of a pilgrimage to Lourdes said, “I don’t need a cure. I have faith and that is enough. I came for others”. And that statement fueled her intention to be little and to give extraordinary love in the everyday things of his day. “Whoever comes closer to Jesus throughsuffering - she suggested to a young visitor - will become kinder, whoeverdistances himself becomes more cruel without even realizing.”

Patience, said Benedetta, was “the weapon with which Christ conquered the darkness”. To a visiting priest she explained: “In living we must make known to him, and to him only, the meaning of our lives, whichsometimes he lets us catch a glimpse.”Quoting the Magnificat, she acknowledged that “God has done great things in me, my soul magnifies the Lord.”

After dreaming about a white rose on the family tomb, Benedetta predicted her imminent death. The morning she died, her mother discovered that a tender white rose had blossomed in the garden. Her father said that her deformed face, tired from the long suffering,returned to being as beautiful as it was when she was young. It was 1964. Declared venerable by Pope John Paul II, Benedetta Bianchi Porro was laid to rest in a sarcophagus in the abbey of Saint Andrew, in Dovadola near Forlì. The cause of her beatification continues.

Born in 1949 in London, Lucinda M. Vardey is the author of numerous books, including The flowering of the soul: a book of prayers by women (1999). She was the guardian of a secular association recently formed in Toronto, Canada, called The Contemplative Women of St. Anne, which is dedicated to prayer and the study of the saints and mystics of the Church.

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