All the Saints You Should Know

Bodies, bones, relics, lore, and oddities from the Catholic Church

Mexico City Photo Set from The Metropolitan Cathedral

Top: Chapel of the relics. The effigy in repose above the altar is Santo Entierro, or Holy Burial, a life-sized depiction of Jesus in the tomb.

Bottom: Chapel of the relics. The bones of St. Vitalis, Martyr, translated from the catacombs of St. Calixtus in Rome, December 13, 1819.

All photos by me.

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Mexico City photo set from Iglesia del la Santisima Trinidad

Two effigies of the passion: Scourged Christ with the cross (above), and Santo Entierro (below)

All photos by me.

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Mexico City, Iglesia Santa Ines 
Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows)
Photo by me

Mexico City, Iglesia Santa Ines 

Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows)

Photo by me

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Mexico City photo set from The Tabernacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral

Top to bottom:

The relics of St. Felicitas in an effigy.

The relics of St. Felicitas with milagros (ex vote in thanks for answered prayers).

An effigy of a soul in purgatory.

Santo Entierro (Holy Burial, a life sized effigy of Jesus in the tomb)

All photos by me

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If you read this blog, I assume you know about Morbid Anatomy. Morbid Anatomy is the blog/library/lecture hall/workshop/rapidly expanding cabinet of curiosities of Joanna Ebenstein. She’s been hosting lectures and events from her tiny space in Brooklyn for years but now Morbid Anatomy is becoming a legitimate museum and meeting place for curious people.

HERE is the Kickstarter. 

Personally, I’ve decided to become a founding donor. Here’s why.

Joanna is directly responsible for inspiring me to write about and lecture on relics. See, I’m not an academic by trade- I’m a lighting designer and I never thought in a million years that I could add to the body of knowledge on relics or that anyone would be interested in reading it even if I did. But here we are. And that’s what I love about Morbid Anatomy- it encourages everyone to become a scholar and pursue learning about what they love, even if (and especially if) it seems a little strange. The result is that fields of study that might have otherwise been dismissed or slipped through the cracks are now being revitalized by passionate people coming in with entirely new perspectives. 

That’s how Morbid Anatomy benefits us all, even if you don’t live in New York. It’s an amazing platform and resource for people who are excited to share their passion- whether it’s online, in print or in person. 

The museum leadership is in good hands behind the scenes too. They have an excellent board in place and the project is backed by the Brooklyn Arts Council so they’re the real deal.

If you like what they’re doing, please take a second and bust the piggy bank, check under the couch cushions and see what you’ve got. The $25 level in particular is a pretty sweet mix of affordability and a really cool gift. You get 2 tickets to the museum and a hardcover copy of the beautifully illustrated, 500 page Morbid Anatomy Anthology. 

(Oh, and more relics soon, dear readers. I’m headed to Mexico City on Monday.)

If you read this blog, I assume you know about Morbid Anatomy. Morbid Anatomy is the blog/library/lecture hall/workshop/rapidly expanding cabinet of curiosities of Joanna Ebenstein. She’s been hosting lectures and events from her tiny space in Brooklyn for years but now Morbid Anatomy is becoming a legitimate museum and meeting place for curious people.

HERE is the Kickstarter

Personally, I’ve decided to become a founding donor. Here’s why.

Joanna is directly responsible for inspiring me to write about and lecture on relics. See, I’m not an academic by trade- I’m a lighting designer and I never thought in a million years that I could add to the body of knowledge on relics or that anyone would be interested in reading it even if I did. But here we are. And that’s what I love about Morbid Anatomy- it encourages everyone to become a scholar and pursue learning about what they love, even if (and especially if) it seems a little strange. The result is that fields of study that might have otherwise been dismissed or slipped through the cracks are now being revitalized by passionate people coming in with entirely new perspectives. 

That’s how Morbid Anatomy benefits us all, even if you don’t live in New York. It’s an amazing platform and resource for people who are excited to share their passion- whether it’s online, in print or in person. 

The museum leadership is in good hands behind the scenes too. They have an excellent board in place and the project is backed by the Brooklyn Arts Council so they’re the real deal.

If you like what they’re doing, please take a second and bust the piggy bank, check under the couch cushions and see what you’ve got. The $25 level in particular is a pretty sweet mix of affordability and a really cool gift. You get 2 tickets to the museum and a hardcover copy of the beautifully illustrated, 500 page Morbid Anatomy Anthology. 

(Oh, and more relics soon, dear readers. I’m headed to Mexico City on Monday.)

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The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial
The good folks at Atlas Obscura recently asked me about my favorite bit of morbid history for their Morbid Monday feature. I’ve written about the Cadaver Synod before but I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit it and dig into the papal politics of 9th century Rome in the years leading up to the Pornocracy. 
You can read the piece here and if you like it I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Bad Popes by E. R. Chamberlin. It’s a fascinating, well-researched look at the most chaotic and corrupt years in church history.

The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial

The good folks at Atlas Obscura recently asked me about my favorite bit of morbid history for their Morbid Monday feature. I’ve written about the Cadaver Synod before but I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit it and dig into the papal politics of 9th century Rome in the years leading up to the Pornocracy. 

You can read the piece here and if you like it I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Bad Popes by E. R. Chamberlin. It’s a fascinating, well-researched look at the most chaotic and corrupt years in church history.

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Here are a few articles I’ve written for your reading pleasure in the new year:
Documenting the Holy Dead Through Saints’ Relics
A Thief’s Severed Arm and a Count Buried Alive in One Prague Church
Revealing the Hidden History of Paris Through Saints
That last one explains the story behind the fellow above. It’s based on an illustrated lecture I gave in December at the Morbid Anatomy Library. You might have noticed the new “Map of Paris” at the top too- it’s part of the same series so you can navigate the oddities of Paris on your own.
By the way, the Morbid Anatomy Library is soon to be the Morbid Anatomy MUSEUM and they even have a gift shop! So kick em a few bucks if you’ve got it.
Happy 2014, relic hunters!

Here are a few articles I’ve written for your reading pleasure in the new year:

Documenting the Holy Dead Through Saints’ Relics

A Thief’s Severed Arm and a Count Buried Alive in One Prague Church

Revealing the Hidden History of Paris Through Saints

That last one explains the story behind the fellow above. It’s based on an illustrated lecture I gave in December at the Morbid Anatomy Library. You might have noticed the new “Map of Paris” at the top too- it’s part of the same series so you can navigate the oddities of Paris on your own.

By the way, the Morbid Anatomy Library is soon to be the Morbid Anatomy MUSEUM and they even have a gift shop! So kick em a few bucks if you’ve got it.

Happy 2014, relic hunters!

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Bless Thou! Thou Art Translated!

Or How the Relics of St. Helena Wound Up in an Obscure Crypt in Paris

Église Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles

Paris, France

92 Rue St-Denis, 75001; 12pm-7:30pm Monday-Saturday, 9am-12pm Sunday

Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles is just a small parish church. It sits on a grimy street in Les Halles, uncomfortably sandwiched between dozens of porno shops and places to buy knock-offs. It’s not particularly grand but it is old. The little shield sign that designates historic places in Paris only confirms that the church is, in fact, as old as it looks. You won’t find it listed in Frommers, or Lonely Planet, or the Blue Guide or even Secret Paris.

I showed up by chance one weekday morning after visiting St. Eustace. During my visit the morning clouds turned into a full-on downpour and of course my umbrella was back at the apartment. I saw the towers of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles and thought I’d give it a shot.

It was dark and locked. I considered running down the street to a cafe and waiting out the rain with bad coffee but before I could turn away, a man stopped me. I thought he was going to ask for money but instead he said, “You’re here to see the relics?”

I was shocked, my research hadn’t turned up any mention of relics here. But being “here to see the relics” pretty much describes most vacations for me. Of course I said yes.

He pulled out a ring of keys, unlocked the front door and led me to a little side door under the altar.

“Here is the crypt.”

And just like that he left. I found myself alone with the relics of not just any old martyr from antiquity, but of St. Helena. How did a Roman Empress wind up here?

Ÿ——— 

If you’re interested in relics, you’re probably well aware of St. Helena, the woman credited with spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Though she raised her only child, Constantine the Great, at the court of the notorious martyr-maker, Diocletian, she converted to Christianity at the age of 60. In her 70s she traveled to the Holy Land. With unfettered access to the imperial treasury, she set about restoring old churches, building new ones, founding monasteries and ripping down pagan temples.

During one of these temple-removals she came across her most famous discovery: the True Cross, which is still venerated today in reliquaries all over the world (notably in Santa Croce in Rome which was built around her imperial palace). She gathered nails from the crucifixion, the rope Jesus was tied with, Jesus’ tunic, and pieces of his tomb. She took her treasures back to Rome.

Helena died in Rome in 330. She was originally buried in a mausoleum you can still visit today. It’s right off the Berardi train stop. Of course now it’s empty. As is her elaborate sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum. So where are the relics of the first relic hunter?

To answer that, let’s start back at the Carolingian period again. As I mentioned in the last blog post on St. Genevieve, this was a time of consolidation and greater conformity within religious orders. Practically speaking, this translated into more monks traveling to Rome. Some of those monks noticed that Rome had an awful lot of priceless saint’s relics lying around and no one was overly particular about documenting exactly what was where or even locking them down (as is sometimes still the case). During this time, a relic could still bring prestige to a monastery and support a pilgrimage industry in a small town, not to mention the miracles it could work. Thus, stories of furta sacra, or holy theft, began springing up all over Europe.

What makes holy theft different from plain old theft is in part the belief that the relics have some say in where they rest. The relics of St. John Chrysostom, for example, could not be moved by any man or animal until the ancestor of the saint’s persecutor wrote St. John a letter apologizing for his persecution. St. Johns relics then allowed the translation, which is what the formal process of moving a relic is called.

The body of St. Helena must have wanted to come to France. A monk named Theogisus returned to his monastery in Hautvillers on February 7th, 840 carrying a portion of her body he stole from her tomb in Rome. Upon finding out about the theft, the Pope didn’t order the return since St. Helena had clearly consented. (The rest of her body was later enshrined in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome in 1140 where you can still find it in an urn.)

From 840 to 1789 this piece of St. Helena stayed in the monastery at Hautvillers. While somewhat remote, it wasn’t a bad place for an empress since it was here Dom Perignon perfected champagne. When the French Revolution broke out the monastery was destroyed but the cellarer, Dom Grossard was able to hide the relics so they wouldn’t be desecrated like those of St. Genevieve.

By the mid 1800s it was safe to venerate relics in France again but Dom Grossard was now quite old. He wanted to ensure that after his death the relics of St. Helena would continue to be venerated and draw pilgrims. Fortunately, the last abbot of the monastery at Hautvillers was now Bishop of Paris. The two men arranged for the relics to be translated to a church were the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre were reconvening after being suppressed during the Revolution. The Knights took St. Helena as their patron, so it was fitting she would rest in their church, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, in the middle of Paris.

These days, the church and the Knights are separate entities, but the relics remain in the church, largely unknown to Parisians, let alone tourists. While the relics seem to trace directly back to Helena’s death in Rome, the complete story is never so simple. Scammers, opportunists, and wishful thinkers have plagued the history of relics. This was particularly true in the days of furta sacra. Plenty of unscrupulous Roman merchants were eager to offer deals on the holy dead to traveling monks hesitant to raid the churches and catacombs themselves.

This, combined with the difficulty of communicating over long distances and the fact that bodies were divided into infinitely smaller pieces helps explain why so many saints have duplicate body parts. Helena has a whole second body, which turned up in Constantinople. Those relics were partially translated to Venice in 1204 despite the fact that she was apparently already resting in Rome and Hautvillers by then. To this day Trier and Rome both still claim to possess her head.

In the past, it was hard to prove the absolute legitimacy of a relic. St. Helena initially discovered three crosses so she had a dying woman brought in to touch each one. After one cured her, Helena pronounced it the True Cross. According to some reports, Theogisus stepped into boiling water without being burned to prove the body he brought back was really St. Helena’s. Today we have carbon dating, DNA analysis and a host of other verification tools at our disposal yet there’s little interest in using these to trace the bodies of the holy dead, even among their most ardent defenders. But it isn’t simply a case of the faithful ignoring evidence that the objects in their shines might be fakes. Many Catholic theologians are aware of the diaspora of relics but use a test similar to the one that’s been used since Helena’s time: If it looks like a relic and performs like a relic (by drawing in the faithful and working miracles) then for all intents and purposes, it’s relic.

 

Sources

"A City Of Saints: The Forgotten Reliquaries Of Paris." Road to Emmaus, Vol. VII No. 2 (25). N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_25/A_CITY_OF_SAINTS.pdf>.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Harbus, A. Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Print.

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If it Wasn’t for Me, You’d All be Speaking Hunic

Saint-Etienne-du-Mont

Paris, France

Rue de la Montagne Ste. Geneviève, 75005; 8:45am-7:45pm Tuesday-Sunday, closed from 12pm-2pm Saturdays and Sundays

Lately I’ve been focusing on female saints from the Middle Ages. These women were looking for a way to be both holy and female during a time when the female body was assumed to be an inherent source of evil. So to express their religiosity, they brought their (presumably sinful) bodies to the brink of death, without stepping over the line and committing suicide. They talked directly to God through mystical experiences because they were cloistered away from the majority of church functions. Without a way to participate in their religion, they devised a path to holiness that was completely contained within themselves.

 

But it wasn’t always like that. One of the radical tenets of the early Christian church was the inclusion of women and that sentiment carried through early Catholicism. Before the Carolingian rulers imposed stricter regulations on religious orders, holy women were expected to have a public role. They could take on high-profile leadership positions in their communities and even operate as international diplomats, petitioning kings for peace. This is the world of St. Genevieve, who was born some time around 420.

 

St. Genevieve is the patroness of Paris. Her image is a bit less striking than the decapitated patron St. Denis, but if you look for her, you’ll find her in the architecture and stained glass of the city as well. And who better to represent Paris? You can learn an incredible amount about the history of the city just by following her life and relics.

 

Genevieve spent most of her life as a nun in Paris. She took at active role around the city to decidedly mixed results at first. Some thought she was a saint, others a bit of a nut (or even wanted her killed, which is what you did with nutty women back in the day). All this changed when Attila and his Huns began marching straight for Paris. People panicked and threatened to flee but Genevieve convinced them to stay and pray. Miraculously, Attila took a turn for Orléans. (To their credit, the people of Orléans don’t seem to hold this against Genevieve.) Later, she took an even more active role- passing through enemy lines during a siege to deliver food and successfully bargaining with kings to show mercy and release prisoners of war.

 

After her death she was buried in the abbey Clovis built for her in Paris. From there, like the bodies of most saints, she certainly stayed active. In 847 the Vikings sacked her abbey, which was rebuilt in 1177 after her relics stopped a plague of ergot poisoning in 1129. In 1222, the pope decided that the abbey was too small to accommodate all the pilgrims and the site required a full church. Work began on St. Ètienne-du-Mont, the future home of St. Genevieve’s relics, though originally named for and dedicated to St. Stephen. With the establishment of the Sorbonne nearby in 1257, the population in the Latin Quarter grew rapidly, so they just kept adding on to the church. It was finally completed in 1537.

 

Skip to 1744 when Louis XV becomes seriously ill during the War of Austrian Succession. He vows that if he recovers, he’ll build a church worthy of the patroness of Paris to replace her original abbey (which by now is falling apart). He recovers and makes good on his promise. Work begins on a building just across the street from St. Ètienne-du-Mont- the building that’s now known as the Pantheon. The grand church is completed in 1790, just in time for the French Revolution. The following year it secularizes, as does St. Ètienne-du-Mont, which becomes the Temple of Filial Piety. In 1793 St. Genevieve’s relics are publically burnt at the Place de Grève. By 1801 St. Ètienne-du-Mont is restored to the Catholic Church. What’s left of St. Genevieve’s relics, some dust and the stone her coffin rested on, are enshrined in their current location there. The Pantheon flips back and forth between the church and state a few more times before finally settling as a secular crypt for French luminaries in 1885.

 

Both buildings are worth visiting today. Over at the Pantheon you can see the tombs of Voltaire, Rousseau, Zola, Hugo, Monnet, Dumas and the Curies (just to name a few) as well as an exact replica of Foucault’s pendulum. Across the street at St. Ètienne-du-Mont, you can visit the remaining relics of St. Genevieve as well as the tombs of Pascal and Racine. When you walk in, the fist thing you’ll notice is the magnificent double spiral staircase carved in stone. This architectural feature is called a jubé and it’s the very last of its kind in Paris.

  

There’s one additional bit of lore about St. Ètienne-du-Mont that you won’t find in the guidebooks but it’s too good to overlook. On January 3rd, 1857, the Archbishop of Paris, Marie Dominique Auguste Sibour, was assassinated here.

  

Three years earlier, Pope Pius IX issued a papal bull that formally defined the Church’s views on the Immaculate Conception. Archbishop Sibour upheld the bull and promoted it in Paris. A ne’er-do-well priest named Jean-Louis Verger saw this as the Archbishop promoting idolatry and stabbed him to death as he lead a novena to St. Genevieve. Verger shouted, “Down with the Goddess!” as he killed the Archbishop, a possible reference to both the saint and his stance on the Immaculate Conception.

 

A former seminarian at St. Sulpice known as Eliphas Lévi supposedly witnessed the bloody incident; though it’s anyone’s guess what brought him to the church that day (or if he was telling the truth about being there in the first place). He had become a well-known Occultist after leaving the seminary. He later reported that Verger approached him before the assassination and asked for a book of spells called Honorius. There, Verger believed he would find a spell powerful enough to conjure the devil. Lévi said he refused.

 

Verger, for his part, freely admitted to murdering the archbishop and believed he would not be found guilty. He was, in fact, found guilty the very day of his trial. Ever confident, he was certain the Emperor Napoleon III would pardon him. He didn’t and Verger was dead by the end of the month.

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So, where on Earth have I been lately&#8230; 
Well, Paris for one. I happened to wander into Notre Dame right when it reopened after a right wing commentator shot himself in the head on the altar. His suicide was (at least in part) over the legalization of gay marriage in France. That week the protests against the new law came to a head and resulted in a night of riots. Needless to say, some churches, particularly those off the beaten tourist path (and allied with the right, of course) were feeling a little skeptical of a young American toting a camera. But I was still able to get some really great photos and information on the embalmed heart of the dauphin, the tomb of St. Genevieve, and little-known crypt of St. Helen (for all you relic hipsters out there who prefer the obscure stuff). More on that to come.
I&#8217;ve also been posting over on Atlas Obscura. If you&#8217;re not already hep to that, go there now. You&#8217;ll love it. I&#8217;ve been adding some of my favorite shrines to their collection of weird and wonderful places. I also wrote a feature for them on how I got into relics and why researching them is awesome.
Last but certainly not least, I&#8217;ve been putting together the Uncommon Corpse Cabaret for Death Salon LA with the illustrious Megan Rosenbloom (aka @libraryatnight). It takes place October 18th at the Bootleg Theatre and features musical acts Jill Tracy and Adam Arcuragi. You can catch me during the daytime at the panel discussion &#8220;Death and the Feminine&#8221; where I&#8217;ll be ruminating on female saints of the Middle Ages and their obsession with destroying their bodies. Here&#8217;s an interview I did for the Death Salon website.

So, where on Earth have I been lately… 

Well, Paris for one. I happened to wander into Notre Dame right when it reopened after a right wing commentator shot himself in the head on the altar. His suicide was (at least in part) over the legalization of gay marriage in France. That week the protests against the new law came to a head and resulted in a night of riots. Needless to say, some churches, particularly those off the beaten tourist path (and allied with the right, of course) were feeling a little skeptical of a young American toting a camera. But I was still able to get some really great photos and information on the embalmed heart of the dauphin, the tomb of St. Genevieve, and little-known crypt of St. Helen (for all you relic hipsters out there who prefer the obscure stuff). More on that to come.

I’ve also been posting over on Atlas Obscura. If you’re not already hep to that, go there now. You’ll love it. I’ve been adding some of my favorite shrines to their collection of weird and wonderful places. I also wrote a feature for them on how I got into relics and why researching them is awesome.

Last but certainly not least, I’ve been putting together the Uncommon Corpse Cabaret for Death Salon LA with the illustrious Megan Rosenbloom (aka @libraryatnight). It takes place October 18th at the Bootleg Theatre and features musical acts Jill Tracy and Adam Arcuragi. You can catch me during the daytime at the panel discussion “Death and the Feminine” where I’ll be ruminating on female saints of the Middle Ages and their obsession with destroying their bodies. Here’s an interview I did for the Death Salon website.

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Over on Twitter, @theteasemaid, aka Carla Valentine asked if she could feature me on her blog. Of course I said yes, I’m a huge fan of her work. 

You see, Carla is not only a curator at Bart’s Pathology Museum. She also has a little side project called Sacred Tarts, a pop-up shop featuring incredible Catholic-themed desserts. And the only thing I love more than saints is sweets.

So I took the opportunity make my own amateur sacred tart. It’s a rose-flavored St. Rose of Lima cake. You might remember St. Rose from part two of the mortification series. As a young girl she was so ashamed of her vanity she nailed a crown of roses to her head. My nails are painted marzipan. After this I might need a good long fast.

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Old World in the New World

Church of the Most Holy Redeemer

New York, NY, USA

173 E. 3rd St. 90005; 9am-8pm Monday-Friday, 9:30am-5:30pm Saturday, 8am-2pm Sunday

I love Atlas Obscura. Their website is the first place I go when I’m in a new city. Their list of strange and frequently macabre places is an incredible resource for travelers more interested in local lore than the big tourist attractions. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be adding some places I’ve featured on the blog over there. My handle is CadaverFormosus (just like twitter) if you want to see what I’m up to.

The first place I picked to add is an unusually large but little-known relic chapel, right in the middle of New York City’s East Village. It contains the first complete set of relics in America. All of the earthly remains of St. Datian are encased in the wax effigy pictured above.

Not much is known about the life of St. Datian. His body was discovered during a time when a palm branch (the symbol of martyrdom) etched on a tomb was enough of a reason to exhume the bones and send them off to be venerated. Sometimes a life-story would be “found” or invented along the way which is why so many of the early Roman martyrs have eerily similar stories. According to one anonymous internet commenter, Datian could also be spelled Dacian, the jailor of St. Vincent who converted and was subsequently martyred. Obviously that’s no kind of reliable source but the story of the converted jailor or executioner is one of the classics of the genre. The church itself admits it has no information on the life of this obscure saint.

St. Datian’s bones came to the church in 1892. At that time the parish was already known for having a supply of water from Lourdes and had reported several miraculous cures.  The relics were sent by a wealthy Italian woman who had kept them in her private chapel. When she went broke she sent the relics off to the church to avoid having them confiscated by the Italian government. There were rumors that the bones were not actually that of a saint, but of a policeman who died defending the collection boxes, but that was just an urban legend. The relics arrived several years before the policeman’s death.

Over the years, over 150 smaller relics were added to the shrine including passion relics, relics of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and the apostles. It’s an impressive collection and a must-see if you enjoy a different kind of sight-seeing in New York.

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On Mortification of the Flesh, Part III

image

St. Catherine of Siena with crucifix, skull, stigmata, and crown of thorns.

This is part three of a three part series on mortification of the flesh in female saints. Read part one here and part two here.

Part III: Psychological Sisters

When Catholic scholars warn modern readers not to label these mortifying saints mentally ill, it’s because the label implies disordered or impaired thinking that detracts from the hyper-correctness of the saint’s theology.  Their immoderate behavior is what earned them the permanent and infallible title of saint so it can’t also be a condition that requires treatment to correct.

However, the label of “Saint” also obscures the similarities between the mortifying saints themselves. “Saint” makes each of these women an anomaly. It turns a specific group of people who belong to a time, place and culture into individual holy oddities. We seem to remember only the hagiographies and the works, not the similarities in upbringing and the culture that shaped them.

In this light, lone peculiar saints like Francesca Romana or Umiliana d’Cerchi can actually be seen as a much larger and important part of the Church. They weren’t oddities. They were part of a group that not only included the mortifying saints we’ve discussed but also the un-canonized women who suffered and died by emulating their self-destructive behavior. When viewed as a part of this larger group we can see the logic in what at first appears to be some kind of holy madness that Catherine, Rose, Veronica, Margaret and the rest all succumbed to. The society they lived in both inside and outside the church winnowed down options for women in a way that drove this particular style of mystic religious expression. Once the early saints like St. Catherine gained freedom and power via this counter-intuitive path, other women followed suit and extreme mortification became entrenched within the Church as a feminine path to holiness.

But even if these saints behaved logically given the constraints of their culture, they were still self-harmers, bulimics and anorexics. Those words just hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, their behavior was interpreted through the ideology of Roman Catholicism, an ideology in which misogyny drove society to reward women for punishing their bodies in ways that decorum wouldn’t permit others to. While Western culture is no longer dominated by Catholicism, society is still shaped by the philosophy and patriarchy that it built and it still uses some of the same mechanisms to label and reward self-harming women.

Great strides have been made in identifying and treating self-harm and eating disorders, but even the clinical names for these disorders become a label when used in the more common, colloquial sense the same way that “saint” became a label for the women of an earlier time. The problem with labels, religious or secular, is that they strip the labeled parties of context. Labels tell you that a “saint” harms herself because she’s “holy” and neglects to mention the equally relevant sexual repression of her time.  A “mentally ill person” harms herself because she’s “chemically unbalanced” without acknowledging the lingering pressures society places on young women. Both labels may be technically correct but they make it easy to ignore the pressures that make self-harm neither holy nor crazy, but a drastic solution the problem of being powerless and crushed by unreasonable expectations.

Somehow in 2013, these expectations are still present. Women are routinely punished, shamed and shunned for expressing their sexuality outside of a few very narrow norms. The idea of women’s inherent weakness and irrationality is alive and well and probably living somewhere in the gap between men and women’s salaries. And of course, the fight to control the female body drags on in a conversation dominated by the heirs of St. Jerome, men who fear the day when women who have sex won’t be “betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants”. Though much has improved, it’s still no wonder that some modern secular women follow the path forged by St. Catherine and try to find freedom from the patriarchy by attempting to achieve perfection by its definition.

These modern women get themselves in line by punishing themselves violently for failing to live up to the impossible. The popular reactions to their eating disorders and self-harming behavior is still a mixed bag of revulsion and awe. The eating disordered woman never has to look far to find women and men impressed by her “thigh gap”, jutting collarbone or coveted bony hip. The self-harmer’s symptoms may be more shocking to outsiders but her incessant perfectionism is praised instead of being seen as a crippling and all-consuming. The praise these modern women receive for their single-mindedness, strictness and austerity is reminiscent of St. Jerome describing the masculine virtues of another woman he admired, St. Fabiola, “forgetful of her sex, unmindful of her frailty”.

For all the strides being made to help modern women with these urges, it remains a stubborn issue to treat for some. For these women, perhaps nothing short of curing an entire culture will help. The legacy of St. Paul and St. Jerome still hangs over Western ideas about the ideal way for a woman to act, look and love. It is an impossible standard that St. Jerome summed up so neatly when speaking about great women being “forgetful of her sex”- perfection in a woman has long meant purging and carving out all that is womanly.

 

Bibliography/Further Reading

Bell, Rudolph M. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. Print.

Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981. Print.

Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, Ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.

"Letter 22, Letter 117, Against Jovinianus (Book I &2).” CHURCH FATHERS: (Jerome). N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.  <www.newadvent.org>

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On Mortification of the Flesh, Part II

Part one looked at the concept and history of mortification of the flesh and introduced a group of female saints from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance who was its most extreme practitioners. In part two, we’ll explore their lives and examine their unusual methods of torture.

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St. Catherine of Siena Besieged by Demons, Anonymous 

Part II: The Vitae

“Women soon age, and particularly if they live with men.” –St. Jerome, To A Mother In Gaul

Our group of future saints understood what St. Jerome meant when he wrote that way before they could ever read it. They learned it first-hand from their mothers. Even with the comforts of a middle or upper class home, life for a married woman was hard. St. Catherine of Siena’s mother, Lapa was in her early forties when Catherine was born. She had already had twenty-two other children and over half of them didn’t survive infancy, including Catherine’s twin sister. She had at least one more child after Catherine that we know of and that daughter died young too. Simple math tells us Lapa spent at least eighteen years of her life pregnant. (Feel free to take a moment and remember what you were doing eighteen years ago and then imagine being pregnant from then until now.) Blessed Umiliana d’Cerchi was one of seventeen children. According to her, one of her earliest memories was watching her mother die.  She wasn’t alone. According to a survey of saints in Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia, female saints of this time period lost their mothers early in life at a higher-than-average rate. (And that rate was not-so-great to begin with.) St. Veronica Giulani, St. Margaret of Cortona and St. Teresa of Avila all lost their mothers as children or teenagers. While Lapa survived her many pregnancies, St. Catherine’s favorite sister died in childbirth. The message of Against Jovainus came through loud and clear: the life, let alone the happiness, of a woman who wasn’t a virgin didn’t count for much. Her job was to produce more virgins.

These future saints could see what was going on. The path they were on, the one of the good daughter, who married whomever and whenever her parents told her to, was actually just a trudge to worthlessness and probably an early grave. They had to find a way out. It was quite literally a matter of life and death to them.

A few rebelled against Catholic doctrine and tried to find their own ways of expressing their sexuality. St. Margaret of Cortona ran away to be a rich man’s mistress. St. Veronica Giulani was a self-described daddy’s girl who hit the gambling tables at carnival in men’s drag (a scandalously hot outfit back in the day). St. Teresa of Avila lost herself in romance novels, crushes and fashion. They could never quite sustain these lifestyles on the fringes of acceptable society though. Either their families or the guilt they were steeped in caught up with them and called them to pay for these indulgences with pain. For them, these early experiments were the catastrophic events that marred them forever, even in the almost laughably innocent case of St. Teresa. They paid for these sins compulsively, hundreds of times over, always describing themselves as “wicked” or “bad” even when living as penitent nuns. It was stain they never really felt they could wash away.

Others caved in and reluctantly married the men their families chose for them. In many cases these were men they had no chance of ever loving. St. Jeanne de Valois was married off at age 12 to her father’s second cousin. Bl. Umiliana d’Cerchi’s in-laws and husband beat her for distributing food and alms to the poor. St. Francesca Romana also married a man who didn’t support her spiritual life. This group may have had it worst of all. Despite their desire to remain virgins, they couldn’t. The Middle Ages were a time when the difference between sex and rape was still consent, just not the consent of the woman. Her father’s blessing allowed her to be married to a stranger, then raped by him. These marriages were traumatizing and a particularly dark psychosexual undercurrent was never far from the surface of their later mortifications as widowed nuns. Bl. Umiliana d’Cerchi gave an unintentionally heartbreaking window into her psyche when she said that she wasn’t sad when her children died young; she was happy that they could always keep their virginity. That’s how much they prized what they were unable to keep.

Still others like St. Catherine, Bl. Columba of Reiti and St. Rose of Lima successfully opposed their families and joined a religious order. But not without a fight. Religious orders were socially acceptable alternatives to marriage but one that burdened the girls’ families. They were good girls, so they were expected to marry a man of their parent’s choosing who would be a political, social or financial asset to the family. Each daughter was a chance for upward mobility within a class system that didn’t offer a lot of other opportunities. The first act of rebellion for this last group was usually their attempts to derail their families’ marriage plans for them.

They looked to the early virgin-martyrs of Rome for inspiration. In medieval and renaissance Europe, choosing a patron saint was one of the few avenues for self-expression that was considered socially acceptable. The saint you were devoted to let everyone know what you were about. For them, St. Lucy was particularly relevant.

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St. Lucy by Domenico Beccafumi

According to legend Lucy was betrothed to a pagan against her wishes during the Diocletian persecution. When the unfortunate suitor admired her eyes, she gouged them out and gave them to him.  Now deformed and unmarriageable, she allegedly shot back to him, “Now let me live to God”. The dejected suitor, ever the gentleman, turned her in to the Emperor for being a Christian. Since virgins couldn’t be executed in Rome, she was sentenced to a brothel. She protested:

“No one’s body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind…. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.”

Like St. Lucy, this group refused to give up their virginity under any circumstance- including marriage. If their pleas to join a convent were denied, they would be like her and make themselves unmarriageable by whatever means necessary. St. Catherine and Bl. Columba cut off their hair. St. Rose of Lima rubbed pepper and lye on her face. St. Oda went so far as to rush out of her wedding ceremony and cut off her nose with her father’s sword (St. Margaret of Hungary merely had to threaten to cut off her nose and lips after refusing to bathe didn’t work). By marring themselves on the outside, the girls forced their families to look at them. The physical marks they left conveyed the urgency and weight of their needs so they couldn’t be written off. And that was the catch; if the girls’ needs were God’s needs then anyone who defied them risked defying God.

All three groups of women, the rebels, the unhappily married and the fighters eventually fought or found their way to the comparatively peaceful environment of a convent. There they could be brides of Christ and he was a husband who would never degrade them. They forged intimate relationships with him, largely because they were removed from the liturgy as well as the secular world. Thanks to the legacy of St. Paul, women were expected to be passive participants in the mass while men took active roles. This led these women away from codified worship and towards mysticism and meditation, what St. Teresa of Lisieux (another ardent mortifier) would later call “the little way”.

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The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, Bernini, Italy

But if Christ represented their ideal husband, there were plenty of earthly men within the Church hierarchy who were interested in taking on a husband’s less desirable traits. They were the men who wanted to control and regulate the religious experiences and expression of these women, to make sure it stayed within the acceptable bounds of orthodoxy (unsurprisingly also defined by men). These women’s male confessors, priests and spiritual directors were all at times deeply suspicious of their one-on-one relationship with God. However they ultimately found themselves in the same position as everyone else the women encountered. If a holy woman was speaking directly to God, who was a priest, bishop, or even a pope to correct her?

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St. Catherine of Siena, receiving a ring from Christ she said was made of his foreskin. She would claim to wear it all her life but only she could see it.

Though it can be tempting to read this power reversal as a feminist victory, these saints were more misogynistic than any man they encountered. Men equated original sin in women with weakness and approached it with a mixture of pity, scorn and trepidation (lest they get sucked in like Adam). Women were assumed inferior so their failings were written off to some degree. But these women held themselves to a higher standard. They believed that an inner, sinful nature was inherent to their sex but that they could overcome it by burning it out, cutting it out, purging it out or starving it.

By buying into the accepted difference between female and male sin, penance morphed from something these women did into something they lived. Penance couldn’t be meted out in doses because they weren’t atoning for specific sins in any kind of finite way, they were atoning for their sinful being. The result was a state of constant punishment leveled at their body- the cause of so much shame and distress for them. However, like their mystic and meditative faith, their penance was also internally guided instead of formally instructed by the Church. This lead to mortifications that were much more intense than could reasonably be assigned by another human being as well as more varied and peculiar punishments.

Yet when we look at their mortifications as a group, some patterns emerge. Perhaps the most noticeable one is their obsession with food, both severely restricting it and eating purposefully horrible things. Almost all the saints mentioned in this piece suffered from anorexia mirabilis- meaning they existed on nothing but the Eucharist for miraculously long periods of time. In fact several, including St. Catherine, St. Columba, Bl. Umiliana d’Cerchi, and St. Margaret of Cortona ultimately died from complications from starvation. In most cases, anorexia occurred with other forms of disordered eating. St. Veronica Giulani cleaned latrines with her tongue and ate spiders and cat vomit. She and St. Margret of Cortona also went on occasional eating binges.  Catherine made herself vomit with a birch branch and sometimes chewed and spit food. Both she and St. Angela of Folgino drank pus from open sores.

Others were more clearly focused on the body and specifically punishing the sexual organs. St. Jeanne de Valois drove silver nails into her breasts in the shape of a cross. St. Rose of Lima wore a hairshirt studded with nails under her robe and a crown of nails under her veil. She had started mortifying herself with nails as a child. When her mother gave her a crown of flowers Rose was so ashamed of her vanity she nailed the wreath to her head. St. Marguerite Mare Alacoque cut and then burnt the name Jesus into her chest. St. Francesca Romana burnt her genitals with hot pork fat. Bl. Columba of Reiti mutilated her breasts and hips with spiked chains.

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A prayer card of St. Rose of Lima. The flowers hid a crown of nails.

Confessors, priests, family and friends begged them to stop or at least practice moderation. Less charitable men accused them of witchcraft or demonic possession. But it was useless. The women were doing what they believe God needed them to do and wouldn’t be content with any less than their full penance. Accusations of demonic involvement only redoubled their mortifications. For them, the physical pain was freeing. It purified them and freed them from sin, but it also freed them from the control of men and the limitations placed on them because of their sex.

St. Jerome referred to an unusually holy woman as being “forgetful of her sex”. In letter 108 he describes St. Paula:

“Her enthusiasm was wonderful and her endurance scarcely credible in a woman. Forgetful of her sex and of her weakness she even desired to make her abode, together with the girls who accompanied her, among these thousands of monks.”

If they only tortured their bodies enough, they could finally drive out the femininity. Those who succeeded were free to insert themselves into roles typically reserved for men and become powerful within the otherwise male-dominated Church. St. Francesca Romana founded her own religious order for widowed women (as opposed to virgins). St. Veronica Giulani and Bl. Umiliana d’Cerchi became abbesses, the highest-ranking nuns within the cloister. Bl. Columba of Reiti and St. Catherine were able to influence and even admonish the pope. And of course in the end, they all became saints.

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Catherine of Sienna, from the Mary Evans Library 

From the outside their mortifications were terrifyingly incomprehensible, but internally they reveal a logical response to seemingly impossible situations and expectations. Catholic scholars warn us not to use the concept of modern self-harm to try to understand these saints. But what I want to know is if these saints can help us understand certain aspects of modern self-harm. To be continued in part three

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On Mortification of the Flesh, Part I

(This week I’m going to mix it up a little bit and publish a long(er)-form piece I’ve been working on about the role of eating disorders and self-harm among female saints. Trigger warnings ahoy.)

I’ll admit to a certain macabre fascination with mortification of the flesh, the Catholic practice of using self-inflicted pain as form of penance. I started reading about it because along with relics, it occupies a weird little niche in the Catholic faith: things that are absolutely part of Church doctrine and even crucial to the history of the Church, but really aren’t talked about in polite company anymore, especially in America where most parishes prefer the post-Vatican II approachability of guitar masses and CYC soccer. Ancient, mysterious rituals invite ridicule from rationalists (witness the recent everyone’s-a-comedian week of pope-electing jokes) and awkward apologetics from believers.

Unlike so many other historical aspects of the Catholic Church, you also can’t talk about mortification without talking about women. The most zealous practitioners, the ones whose self-inflicted punishments are still whispered about, were almost exclusively mystic women from the late Middle Ages through the early Renaissance. They were the ones who drank pus, ate spiders, violently purged food, burnt their genitals and mutilated their faces.

But taken in context in their lives, their actions reveal a sane, even logical mind. They acted this way because they heard the world telling them that punishment is what they needed and deserved. Once they accepted the punishment, they controlled it and pushed it past superficial revulsion and concern into awe. Because of their sex, their words and motives were suspect, but their actions showed the depth of their self-loathing and paradoxically, by buying into the misogyny of their time it made them powerful. Their oppression became their choice and by choosing it they were allowed places in history usually reserved for men.

In their writings, they’re keenly aware of the both their self-loathing and the power it brings them, but sincere in their belief that their strange power over men and their urge to punish themselves are equally God-given. They are, as a group complex, contradictory, and relatable women who seem to walk among us even today. But to get to a place where we can understand them, we’ll have to take a look around Catholic dogma and first find the place where pain, sin and gender meet.

 

Part I: The Sins of the Flesh

"For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." –St. Paul, Romans 8:13 KJV

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The holy blood, Salamanca Cathedral, Spain

The only piece of hate mail I’ve ever received was from an evangelical Protestant who was angry about the “glorification of the Catholic culture of death” on my blog.  She wasn’t entirely wrong. To outsiders, Catholics seem like a morbid bunch. Walk into any Catholic church and the first image you’ll see is probably one of death. Even the most modern, sanitized parishes favor the crucifix, with the corpus of Christ suspended in agony, over the barren Protestant cross. Relic chapels contain fragments of bone and viscera from the bodies of saints and martyrs. The martyrs are pictured alongside images of torture and death. St. Lawrence stands by the gridiron he was roasted alive on. St. Bartholomew wears his flayed skin draped around him like a toga. St. Denis carries his head, St. Agatha her amputated breasts, and St. Lucy her ripped-out eyes.

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Flayed St. Bartholomew, Duomo Cathedral, Italy

 A martyr’s saintliness comes more from their death than their life. There are quite a few executioners who beheaded martyrs during the Roman persecutions who became saints themselves because they converted and were subsequently martyred. In terms of eternal punishment or reward, it was probably a good deal for them. Martyrs go straight to heaven and bypass purgatory, regardless of prior sins.  To become a martyr is to make death the ultimate religious expression. Their death demonstrates their faith in the afterlife, their hope for the resurrection, and perhaps most importantly, purifies their souls through the physical pain they endure during their last moments on Earth. It’s this purification makes the fires of purgatory redundant.

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A scorched handprint from the Purgatory Museum in Rome

But by the Middle Ages, martyrdom was a thing of the past for most Europeans. The large-scale persecutions were over and Roman Catholicism settled in as the dominant religion. But the martyrs were still present. From late antiquity through the Middle Ages the bodies of the martyrs were dug up, divided, and redistributed to relic shrines throughout the Western world. The bones didn’t just sit there; they were active citizens in the towns they rested in. They participated in ceremonies. They attracted tourists. The miracles they worked became a part of daily life.

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The skull of St. Agnes, preserved in a reliquary, Italy

But while the faithful venerated and lived among the martyrs’ bones, they lacked a way to mirror the martyrs’ sacrifices in their own lives. If the majority of people were Catholic then they couldn’t be persecuted. If they couldn’t be persecuted, they had no opportunity to sacrifice themselves. But if choosing death was no longer an option, choosing pain still was. Through pain, devout men and women could mimic the final purifying moments of a martyr’s life even if they couldn’t die for their faith. In this context, self-created, self-controlled suffering for the purpose of purification is called mortification. The word’s second meaning, “shame”, is also relevant.

In Catholic doctrine, the body was the first source of shame in the Garden of Eden and it’s been a vehicle for sin ever since. The body is the home of original sin - a sin committed by the first humans that was so great that it’s been passed down to every member of the human race from birth. It’s the ur-sin, the one through which all others are seen. It was also a gendered sin and it’s made all sin gendered. The perception of every sin that’s been committed ever since depends on the body of the sinner looking more like Adam or Eve.

For Adam (and thus all men) sin is just a bad response to external stimulus. In the story of the garden, Adam doesn’t find the forbidden fruit Eve presents it to him. It’s only in his response to her that he sins. Eve’s sin, on the other hand, was less reactive and more contemplative. When the serpent tells her that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge will make her “as a god”, she doesn’t take the fruit directly from the snake as Adam takes it from her. Instead, she contemplates what being “as a god” might mean, and alone through some interior fault, decides to eat it and sins.

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Adam and Eve, Gloucester Cathedral, England  

Unlike Jesus (who by all accounts was a radical egalitarian) St. Paul and St. Jerome latched on to this idea of Eve and womankind’s inherent weakness. It was a subject they retuned to over and over again in their writings. That weakness was what this group of female mortifying saints were trying to drive out of their bodies, in addition to paying for any sins they actually committed. They forged a two-tiered model of mortification rooted in this idea of inherent sin coupled with freely committed sin.

For men who practiced mortification, serious pain was usually meted out in proscribed amounts, a certain number of lashings or fasting for a particular number of days. Even when it seemed excessive, they stuck to a few reasonably mainstream sources of pain like whips, tight rope-belts, and hairshirts. Women’s mortification tended to consist of this plus private, highly personalized rituals for indefinite periods of time- even lifetimes. They made St. Dominic Loricatus’ 300,000 lashes over six days look manageable. His pain was definable, controllable, whereas the frantic energy of female saints’ mortification overtook everything else. She didn’t just punish her flesh, but her very essence.

But even if women were forced to inherit Eve’s sinful nature, they could still manage to avoid the second part of her shameful legacy by remaining virgins. Without sex and marriage, the curse God leveled at Eve could never apply to them.

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16 KJV

For theologians like St. Paul and St. Jerome, virginity became more than an ideal. It became a prerequisite to holiness for women. St. Jerome’s love letter to virginity, Against Jovinianus, was shocking even to his friend and fellow saint Pammachius who was disturbed by the vitriol he aimed at women and the institution of marriage. Using a series of biblical references and frankly bizarre twists of logic, St. Jerome concludes that it would be best if everyone were a virgin, but fortunately for the continued existence of the human race, not everyone has the moral fortitude. (An idea built upon St. Paul’s good old “tis better to marry than burn” passage in Corinthians.) In his view, the only value a married woman has is her ability to produce more virgins.

“I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell. ” –Against Jovinianus, Chapter 20

 

Throughout Against Jovinianus, St. Jerome draws a line between male and female sexuality. Using original sin as a template, he paints female sexuality as a corrupting force. Lust is feminine. It degrades both the woman and the man, but originates from inside the woman. So all women, even virgins, are left to sort out the sins of Eve, and more personally, the sins of their mother who in degrading herself and her husband, gave them life.

 

“Will the woman not then be saved, if she bear children who will remain virgins: if what she has herself lost, she attains in her children, and makes up for the loss and decay of the root by the excellence of the flower and fruit.” –Chapter 27

 

If we continue with his metaphor, the fruit already knows that the decayed root is within her and part of her. She couldn’t exist without it. But it just takes one sexual encounter to permanently transform her from flower to root. This turns sex into a cataclysmic event for the woman. There’s no going back. The root may be fruitful, but it will never be fruit again.

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St. Jerome in his Study, Caravaggio  

Catherine, Veronica, Margret, Teresa, Umiliana, Francesca, Columba, Angela and Jeanne, a few of our case-study mortifying saints, got the message. Their inferiority was considered self-evident. They were instilled with a deep loathing for their bodies and their very nature as women. But bit by bit, they freed themselves from the curse of Eve as well as the patriarchy she was doomed to serve by serving that same patriarchy.

Continued in part two, the vitae of the mortifiers… and three, their psychological sisters.

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