Life’s True Drama is Found on the Inside
Today’s Carmelite saint was the Italian counterpart to Spain’s famous Carmelite, Teresa of Ávila, although Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi is less well known than her Spanish contemporary. Teresa was a well-traveled and extroverted reformer and founder of a large and vital branch of the Carmelite Order. Mary Magdalene, on the other other hand, was not even a Mother Superior, much less a founder, and followed the ancient observance of Carmel, not its “Teresian,” or discalced, offshoot.
Named Caterina at her baptism, today’s saint was from a very wealthy, pious, and respected Florentine family who expected their only daughter to marry young and marry well. But young Caterina was well trained in the things of God from the start and was destined for a higher calling. While Caterina was still a girl, her spiritual director taught her the benefit and discipline of meditating half an hour a day. At the tender age of twelve, she experienced her first ecstasy. She gazed transfixed at the gorgeous sun setting over the rolling countryside and shook at the awesome beauty of God’s creation. Her mother was there, but little Caterina was speechless, unable to describe what hidden forces caused her body to tremble so.
When she was sixteen, she entered a Carmelite convent, over her family’s initial objections. Taking the religious name of Mary Magdalene, she experienced a number of shocking spiritual events, which were documented and witnessed by her fellow Carmelites and by priest confessors. The young nun was rapt in God for weeks and months on end. She shook violently and showed signs of the stigmata. In her ecstasies, she received a crown of thorns from Jesus to share in His sufferings and a ring to symbolize her mystical marriage to Him. She lived on only bread and water for years, in reparation for the sins of mankind. When a priest ordered her to eat the simple fare of the convent, she became ill and had to return to her more meager nourishment. After one ecstatic vision, a near-death experience, Mary Magdalene described how she had given her heart to Jesus and how He had returned it to her with the purity of the Virgin Mary’s own heart. Jesus had even hidden Mary Magdalene in His side, subjugating her will and desires to His own.
These years of spiritual fireworks were followed by dark years of dryness and isolation from her Divine Spouse. During this time, Mary Magdalene struggled with self-love, a distaste for God, and the normal temptations of the flesh and the devil. But she persevered and became novice mistress of the Carmel, recommending poverty, obedience, and abandonment to the will of God as the surest forms of holiness. Mary Magdalene died young, exhausted from her spiritual contests, fasts, and demanding life of prayer.
Behind her spectacular displays of spirituality was the day in and day out austerity of Carmelite convent life: the longing for a nice piece of meat, going to bed on an empty stomach, knees and hips aching from scrubbing the floor for endless hours, no dessert to satisfy the sweet tooth, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament and almost falling forward due to eyes burning with lack of sleep. Only by long practice do actions mature into habits and habits mature into the highest virtues. The proving ground of a strict convent proves a soul. And only then might spiritual, flowers bloom. Only then might ecstasies sparkle against the dark of night, to the wonder of all around.
For Mary Magdalene, Christ was not all rod and lash. She was a happy nun who played her part in keeping her convent running. She kept her personality, like all stigmatists and elite spiritual warriors, yet became one with Christ in a mysterious manner best described in poetic rather than theological terms. Her renown was widespread and her cult immediate. She was canonized in 1669. Her body lies in peace in her native Florence and is still incorrupt.
Saint Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, we ask your divine intercession before your Mystical Spouse to give all Religious the gift of perseverance, obedience, and poverty. Your spiritual ecstasies were unique and destined for few. Grant those gifts that are common and destined for many.
Patron Saint of:
Sick people, Naples, Against sickness, Against sexual temptation, and Against bodily ills
Intimate union, God’s gift to mystics, is a reminder to all of us of the eternal happiness of union he wishes to give us. The cause of mystical ecstasy in this life is the Holy Spirit, working through spiritual gifts. The ecstasy occurs because of the weakness of the body and its powers to withstand the divine illumination, but as the body is purified and strengthened, ecstasy no longer occurs. See Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, and John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, for more about various aspects of ecstasies.
Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray that we will make a commitment to seek the presence of God in prayer the way you did. Guide us to see the graces God gives us as gifts not rewards and to respond with gratitude and humility, not pride and selfishness. Amen