This article is the first in a series titled: Saints, mystics and other holy people.
From the time of Jesus to the era of Pope Francis, Christians have looked to individual examples of holy living, as a means of facilitating their own spiritual journey. To that end, history has produced no shortage of fascinating, complex and sometimes eccentric figures, whose ideas have been regarded with reverence or repulsion.
It is the goal of this series to consider the life and teachings of some of these people, with an eye to their contemporary relevance. It is hoped that readers will benefit from ancestral wisdom that touches on themes such as love, morality, self, suffering and community.
Angela of Foligno (1248-1309) is a fascinating figure, whose forays into the perplexing and ineffable world of mysticism have led to her 2013 canonization by the Catholic Church.
Born in Foligno, Italy, to a family of some wealth, Angela married young and had children, before her conversion in 1285. It was then that she began, progressively, to renounce her ‘worldly’ life in favour of a spiritual one. To be sure, this was a long process, the details of which are available to us through a text called the Memorial, a work composed between 1292 and 1296 by Angela’s confessor, Brother Arnaldo.
The Memorial is a complex and illuminating work, one that provides a rare glimpse into the spiritual experience of a medieval woman such as Angela. Although it wasn’t directly written by her, the Memorial reflects Angela’s dictation of her experiences to her confessor, who claims to have set her story to ink as faithfully and literally as possible, to the extent that each line was read back to her to ensure accuracy. The text is divided into nine chapters, detailing Angela’s 26 ‘steps’ (passus) toward the divine—a term suggestive of a spiritual journey or pilgrimage.
According to the Memorial, Angela’s conversion began with the recognition that she was sinful. She needed, first, to recognize her faults and shortcomings in respect to God. Next was penance, the details of which are unspecified.
According to Angela, both of these steps are full of shame and bitterness, with the soul feeling “no love, only pain.” The subsequent step seeks to affirm the truth of God’s grace, as expressed through Christ’s sacrifice—his brutal death on the cross, by which the soul was freed from Hell.
An inquiry into the self
The path towards mystical union thus begins with an inquiry into the self and the cosmos. We must turn both inward and upward, in order to observe and dwell on the truths that unite us:
First of all, humans are flawed creatures and we necessarily fall short of our ideals. This can be understood narrowly, in terms of morality, or even more broadly, in the sense that our physical bodies are imperfect and are necessarily subject to disease, decay and ultimately death (perhaps it is useful to think of the Buddhist concept duhkha).
Second, we have reason to be hopeful, despite this fact, for there exists a ‘way out,’ so to speak. For Angela, this escape was the Crucified Christ, but (as will be seen) not in the way that 21st-century people might assume.
“When it seems to you that God has most abandoned you, that is when you are most loved by God, and He is in fact closest to you.”
It is important to note that for Angela, the proper response to the fact of Jesus’ suffering was imitation, not worship. Indeed, the ninth step details how she “was moved to seek the way of the cross,” a truly lifelong process that best encapsulates Angela’s spirituality.
This involved stripping herself naked, both literally and symbolically. It meant becoming ‘lighter’ by forgiving those who had wronged her, freeing herself of all familial and earthly ties (friends, relatives and money simply could not stay), and finally, erasing her ‘own self.’ In other words, God willed that she “proceed along the path of thorns, that is, the path of tribulation.”
This she did, and the consequences proved both brutal and euphoric. Throughout this time, Angela suffered a great deal, experiencing tremendous pain in response to her desire to share in Christ’s passion. In one instance, while contemplating Jesus’ divinity and humanity, she reportedly collapsed to the ground, losing her ability to speak. She was later found by a friend, who immediately panicked, as it looked like Angela was on the verge of death.
She also spoke about how demons would oppress her, recounting that they would beat each part of her body, to the point at which she felt such pain and weariness that she thought her body “would give itself up to death rather than suffer in … [that] way.” The Memorial is full of such references—pain seemed to be a constant in the mystic lifestyle. Yet, all of this suffering was a cause to rejoice, for it reflected Angela’s increasing oneness with the divine.
At one point, after going through an illness that left her bedridden, Angela began to hear the voice of God speak to her:
“My daughter, you are loved by God almighty and by all the saints in paradise. God has placed His love in you.”
“How can I believe this,” she responded, “when I am so full of tribulations? I seem to have been abandoned by God.”
The answer: “When it seems to you that God has most abandoned you, that is when you are most loved by God, and He is in fact closest to you.”
In other words, there is something ‘divine’ about adversity. This is a powerful statement, and one that can remain useful in our own lives.
Rather than seek to avoid suffering at all costs, perhaps we should subject ourselves occasionally to voluntary hardship, as a means of building character and discipline. This will better prepare us to weather the storms that lie ahead—a necessary skill in light of the absolute certitude of suffering.
“Their teachings are mere human rules”
As Angela progressed on her journey towards the divine, she started to realize some peculiar things about God.
To begin with, His nature was ineffable—impossible to grasp completely: “Nothing at all can be said about it, because no word can be found to speak of or explain it; nor can any thinking or understanding reach these things, they are so far beyond everything.”
This notion is typical of mysticism, which seeks to experience the divine directly.
God was also everywhere, at all times. For Angela, this teaching seemed to conflict with the theology that she had been familiar with throughout her life: namely, that the Eucharist was an earthly locus of the divine. “Why do I delight so much in this tabernacle?” she asked. “Why am I not everywhere so delighted, since you are everywhere Lord?” The answer was apparently too obscure to recall—it would remain a mystery.
Interestingly, then, this particular vision did not result in Angela rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, a cornerstone of contemporary orthodoxy. Rather, when faced with new information that seemingly threw doubt on her pre-existing belief, she chose to harmonize, however crudely, rather than replace, even if this meant ultimately throwing her hands up.
One cannot blame her, in an age of Inquisition. Still, this is a reminder of the continual pressure exerted on Angela’s thinking. Indeed, the openness to experience that characterized her mysticism could only go so far before bumping into the need to restrain itself; in this case, through the result of a culturally hegemonic Church, and Angela’s own fidelity to its teachings.
Logically, the next conclusion was that, since God was in all things, He must also make up the worst, most evil elements of the universe. This became abundantly clear to Angela during one of her mystical experiences, in which she saw God as a great ‘darkness.’
She explains, “When God is seen in this darkness, it does not bring a smile to one’s face, nor does it bring about devotion, fervor, for fervent love … And when I am in that darkness, I do not remember anything about humanity or the God-Man, or anything that has form. Yet when I am in that darkness I see everything and I see nothing. And as I depart from what I have been talking about (or as I remain behind), I see the God-Man.”
These passages are important for a couple reasons. First, they emphasize that one cannot separate evil from God. Thus, Angela believed (in her own words) that God was present in every devil and every angel, in heaven and in hell, in every adulterer, in every murderer and in every good deed.
Second, they draw an important distinction between Christianity’s material and spiritual elements. The God-Man, which refers to the fact of the Incarnation, appears in this vision to be inferior to the ultimately non-physical (and indeed, non-dual) reality of God. This effectively distances Angela from many of her contemporary Christians, who cultivated a strong devotion to Christ’s humanity.
In such, Angela espoused a theology that privileged mysticism over the fact of Jesus’ life. Sure, Christ was integral to her religion. But, as a mere God-Man, He was not the highest reality. That was reserved to God, as a non-dual reality, alone.
Spirituality vs. organized religion
This is a reminder for us of the fine line between organized religion and spirituality, one which we must constantly be aware of, and which Jesus himself cautioned about:
After some Pharisees chastised Jesus and his disciples for not ritually washing their hands before eating, Jesus replied: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are mere human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7: 1-7).
The Memorial was completed around the year 1296, after which it was sent for inspection by a number of Franciscan theologians, as well as the Cardinal Giacomo Colonna. In the end, it was deemed theologically-pure; therefore, it was allowed to stand. This is perhaps surprising, considering the more ‘questionable’ aspects of the work.
Yet, one must remember that Angela ultimately sought to maintain the work’s orthodoxy as much as possible. If she hadn’t done this, and instead truly transgressed, without consideration for authority or the bounds of what was acceptable, her work may have been condemned or destroyed—and thus forever lost to history. Thankfully, it was not, and we may enjoy and profit from the work of Angela of Foligno, even seven centuries after she walked this earth.
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1 Old artwork public domain via Wikipedia Commons image 2 via Wikipedia Commons 3 Angela of Foligno, fresco by Francesco Mancini, Dome of Foligno Cathedral photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)