On Medieval Mystic Blessed Angela of Foligno
"Jesus Lives in the Heart of Every Believer and Desires to Take Total Possession of It"
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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 13, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in St. Peter's Square.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to speak to you about Blessed Angela of Foligno, a great medieval mystic who lived in the 13th century. Usually, one is fascinated by the heights of the experience of union with God that she attained, but perhaps too little consideration is given to the first steps, her conversion, and the long path that led her from the beginning -- the "great fear of hell" -- to the goal: total union with the Trinity.
The first part of Angela's life is certainly not that of a fervent disciple of the Lord. Born around 1248 in a well-off family, she remained orphaned of her father and was educated by her mother in a rather superficial way. She was soon introduced to the worldly environments of the city of Foligno, where she met a man, whom she married at 20 and with whom she had children. Her life was carefree, so much so that she looked down on the so-called "penitents" -- very widespread at that time -- those, namely, who to follow Christ would sell their goods and live a life of prayer, fasting, the service of the Church and charity.
Some events, such as the violent earthquake of 1279, a hurricane, the age-old war against Perugia, and their harsh consequences affected Angela's life, who became progressively aware of her sins, until she took a decisive step: She invoked St. Francis, who appeared to her in a vision, to ask him for advice in view of undertaking a good general Confession. In 1285, Angela went to confession to a friar in San Feliciano. Three years later, her path of conversion took another turn: the dissolution of her familial ties. Within a few months, the death of her mother was followed by the deaths of her husband and all her children. She then sold all her goods, and in 1291, joined the Third Order of St. Francis. She died at Foligno on Jan. 4, 1309.
"Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno" (The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno), which gathers the documentation on our Blessed, recounts this conversion; it indicates the necessary means: penance, humility and tribulations; and narrates in passages, the succession of experiences of Angela, begun in 1285. Recalling them, after having lived them, she sought to recount them through her friar confessor, who transcribed them faithfully, trying afterward to systematize them in stages, which he called "steps or changes," but without succeeding in ordering them fully (cf. "Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno," Cinisello Balsamo, 1990, p. 51). This is because the experience of union of Blessed Angela was a total involvement of the spiritual and corporal senses, and of what she "understands" during her ecstasies remained, so to speak, only a "shadow" in her mind. "I really heard these words," she confesses after a mystical rapture, "but what I saw and understood, and that he [God] showed me, in no way do I know or am I able to say, though I will willingly reveal what I understood with the words that I heard, but it was an absolutely ineffable abyss."
Angela of Foligno presents her mystical "experience" without elaborating them with her mind, because they are divine illuminations that are communicated to her soul in an improvised and unexpected way. The friar confessor himself had difficulty in reporting such events, "also because of her great and admirable reserve regarding the divine gifts" (ibid., p. 194). To Angela's difficulty in expressing her mystical experience is added also the difficulty for her listeners to understand her. A situation that indicates clearly how the only and true Teacher, Jesus, lives in the heart of every believer and desires to take total possession of it. Thus in Angela, who wrote to one of her spiritual sons: "My son, if you saw my heart, you would be absolutely constrained to do everything that God wills, because my heart is that of God, and God's heart is mine." The words of St. Paul resound here: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
We will now consider only some "steps" of the rich spiritual path of our blessed. The first, in reality, is an introduction: "It was the knowledge of sin," as she specifies, "following which the soul has great fear of being damned; in this step she wept bitterly" ("Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno," p. 39). This "fear" of hell responds to the type of faith that Angela had at the time of her "conversion"; a faith still poor in charity, namely, of love of God. Repentance, fear of hell, and penance opened up to Angela the prospect of the sorrowful "way of the cross" that, from the eighth to the 15th step, would then lead her on the "way of love." The friar confessor recounts: "The faithful one now said to me: I had this divine revelation: 'After the things that you have written, now write that whoever wants to preserve grace must not take the eyes of his soul off the Cross, whether in joy or in sadness, which I grant him and permit'" (Ibid., p. 143). However, in this phase Angela still "does not feel love"; she affirms: "The soul feels shame and bitterness and does not yet experience love, but sorrow" (Ibid., p. 39), and is dissatisfied.
Angela feels she must give God something in reparation for her sins, but understands slowly that she has nothing to give him, in fact, of her "being nothing" before him; she understands that it will not be her will that will give her love of God, because it can only give her "nothingness," "non-love." As she will say: only "true and pure love, which comes from God, is in the soul and makes one recognizes one's defects and divine goodness. [...] Such love bears the soul in Christ and she understands with certainty that no deceit can be verified or exercised. Together with this love nothing can be mixed that is of the world" (Ibid., p. 124-125). To open oneself only and totally to the love of God, which has its highest expression in Christ: "O my God," she prays, "make me worthy of knowing the most high mystery of your most holy incarnation for us. [...] O incomprehensible love! Above this love, that made my God become man to make me God, there is no greater love" (Ibid., p. 295). However, Angela's heart always bore the wound of sin; even after a well made confession, she found herself forgiven and still prostrated by sin, free and conditioned by the past, absolved but in need of penance. And even the thought of hell accompanied her because the more the soul progresses on the way of Christian perfection, all the more it will be convinced not only of being "unworthy" but of deserving hell.
Understand that, in her mystical journey, Angela understood profoundly the central reality: What would save her from her "unworthiness" and from "deserving hell" will not be her "union with God" and her possessing the "truth," but Jesus crucified, "his crucifixion for me," his love. In the eighth step, she says: "However I did not yet understand if my deliverance from sin and hell and conversion to penance was a greater good, or his crucifixion for me" (Ibid., p. 41). And the unstable balance between love and sorrow, perceived in all her difficult journey toward perfection. Precisely because of this she contemplated by preference the crucified Christ, because in this vision she saw realized the perfect balance: On the cross is the man-God, in a supreme act of suffering, which is a supreme act of love.
In the third Instruction the blessed insists on this contemplation and affirms: "The more perfectly and purely we see, the more perfectly and purely we love. [...] That is why the more we see the God and man Jesus Christ, the more we are transformed in him through love. [...] What I have said of love. [...] I say also of sorrow: The more the soul contemplates the ineffable sorrow of the God and man Jesus Christ, the more it sorrows and is transformed in sorrow" (Ibid., p. 190-191). To be immersed, to be transformed in love and in the sufferings of Christ crucified, to be identified with him. Angela's conversion, begun with that confession of 1285, came to maturity only when God's forgiveness appeared to her soul as the free gift of love of the Father, source of love: "There is no one who can give excuses," she affirms, "because each one can love God, ad He does not ask the soul other than that He wills it good, because He loves it and is its love" (ibid., p. 76).
In Angela's spiritual itinerary the passage from conversion to mystical experience, from what can be expressed to the inexpressible, happens through the crucifix. And the "suffering God-man," who becomes her "teacher of perfection." Hence, all her mystical experience tends to a perfect "likeness" with him, through ever more profound and radical purifications and transformations. In such a stupendous enterprise Angela puts her whole self, soul and body, without sparing herself penances and tribulations from the beginning to the end, desiring to die with all the pains suffered by the God-man crucified to be transformed totally in him. "O children of God," she recommended, "transform yourselves totally in the suffering God-man, who so loves you that he deigned to die for you the most ignominious and all together ineffably painful death and in the most painful and bitter way. This only for love of you, O man!" (ibid., p. 247).
This identification also means to live what Jesus lived: poverty, contempt, sorrow because, as she affirmed, "through temporal poverty the soul will find eternal riches; through contempt and shame it will obtain supreme honor and very great glory; through a little penance, made with pain and sorrow, it will possess with infinite sweetness and consolation of the Supreme God, God eternal" (Ibid., p. 184).
From conversion to mystical union with Christ crucified, to the inexpressible. A very lofty way, whose secret is constant prayer; "The more you pray," she affirms, "the more you will be illumined; the more you are illumined, the more profoundly and intensely you will see the Supreme Good, the supremely good Being; the more profoundly and intensely you see him, the more you will love him; the more you love him, the more he will delight you; and the more he delights you, the more you will understand him and become capable of understanding him. You will arrive successively to the fullness of light, because you will understand that you cannot understand" (Ibid., p. 184).
Dear brothers and sisters, the life of Blessed Angela began with a worldly existence, quite far from God. But then the encounter with the figure of St. Francis and, finally, the encounter with Christ Crucified awakened the soul by the presence of God, by the fact that only with God does life become true life, because it becomes, in the sorrow for sin, love and joy. And thus Blessed Angela speaks to us.
Today we are all in danger of living as if God did not exist: He seems too far away from today's life. But God has a thousand ways, for each one, of making himself present in the soul, of showing that he exists and that he knows and loves me. And Blessed Angela wants to make us attentive to these signs with which the Lord touches our soul, attentive to the presence of God, to thus learn the way with God and to God, in communion with Christ crucified. Let us pray to the Lord that he make us attentive to the signs of his presence, that he teach us to really live. Thank you.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted people in several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today recalls the medieval mystic Blessed Angela of Foligno, born in 1248. A carefree wife and mother, Angela at one time looked down on the mendicants and observers of strict poverty in religious life. However, tragic events and suffering in her personal life gave her cause to become aware of her own sins, leading her to a decisive moment of conversion in the year 1285. Invoking the aid of Saint Francis, who appeared to her in a vision, she made her confession at San Feliciano. Upon the death of her mother, husband and children, she sold all she had and joined the Third Order of Saint Francis. She died in 1309.
The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno recounts her conversion, and indicates for us the necessary means of our own turning to the Lord: penance, humility and tribulations. This same book describes the numerous mystical experiences of Blessed Angela, ecstasies which she had great difficulty putting into words because of the intensity of her spiritual union with God. Her fear of sin and punishment was overcome by her growth in love for God, drawing her along the "way of the Cross" to "the way of love." My dear brothers and sisters, may we share her prayer to the Father: "My God, make me worthy to know the most high Mystery, which is your strong and ineffable love ... the greatest love possible!"
I am pleased to welcome the delegates of the International Association of Financial Executives Institute. I also extend greetings to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States . May God bless you all!
Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[He concluded with the following remarks in Italian:]
I now turn to young people, the sick and newlyweds. My thought goes to Our Lady of Fatima, whose last apparition we recall in fact today. To the heavenly Mother of God I entrust you, dear young people, so that you will be able to respond generously to the Lord's call. May Mary be for you, dear sick people, a comfort in your pains; and accompany you, dear newlyweds, in your incipient family path.
[Translation by ZENIT]