A Foremost Catholic Mystic or/and A Life Consecrated to Expiation
It’s not rare for mystics to be prolific writers and Veronica Giuliani is no exception, indeed, with 22,000 handwritten pages in the Diary, in which she narrates her dramatic and exultant path to God. The saint writes about it “mortified and blushing…out of pure obedience”; but to say the truth, she could have added with great fatigue and sacrificing sleep, because the memories were recorded during the night, cheating her body of very needed rest.
The Diary covers the Saint’s complete sixty-seven years, from her first infancy memories – mentioned in five specific stories – until March 25th, 1727, when, in Veronica’s words, the Virgin suggested she write: “Final period”, and her tired hand abandoned, forever, the pen.
On Christ’s side
Veronica was born in Mercatello sul Metauro on December 27, 1660, and was baptized the following day with the name of Ursula. Her father, Francisco, was in charge of the local regiment, with the rank of second lieutenant. His marriage to Benedicta Mancini had given him seven girls, two of which died at a very tender age. Ursula was the last one, and, like the others, grew in a very pious environment, created most of all, by her mother, a profoundly religious woman, who would leave her offspring on April 28th, 1667, at only 40 years old.
Before she died, calling her daughters to her side, showed them the crucifix, assigning one wound to each of them. To Ursula, the youngest, she assigned the one on the side. This speaks loudly about the Giuliani family’s religiosity, where prayer as a family, harmony, and deeds of mercy would feed daily life. During Veronica’s canonization process someone added: “At the Giuliani’s they read the life of a saint every afternoon.”
That’s the way it was in Mercatello, and it continued through 1669-1672 in Piacenza, where the girls moved to with their father who had been appointed tax superintendent at the service of the Duke of Parma; and would continue uninterrupted when they returned to Mercatello once again.
Of this happy time in her life, Veronica always remembered her antics, the goodness of those around her, the tender devotion of her prayers to the Virgin and the Infant Jesus, the first callings to religious life, and her father’s long and debilitating opposition to the fulfillment of her ardent vow.
Francisco Giuliani had allowed his other four daughters to enter the monastery freely, but was not willing to allow Ursula – the most loved, the most intelligent and, in her own words, the most spoiled of his daughters – to follow. He wanted her to remain with him, to have her own family. But Ursula, since she was nine years old, had made her decision, and the old second lieutenant had to give in to her immovable determination. So on October 28, 1677, not even 17 yet, Ursula donned the religious habit among the capuchins at Citta di Castello, taking the symbolic name of Veronica.
The Ascent to Sanctity
But whose image would she aspire to be? Veronica’s enthusiasm and youth (at the monastery she was called “the girl” for a long time), left no doubt: with her whole being, her will was to become the real image of Christ Crucified.
When she joined the capuchins, she brought with her inestimable spiritual riches: innocence, prayer habits, an infinite enthusiasm, the will to labour hard and a great amount of naiveté that prevented her from anticipating obstacles to her burning thirst for religious perfection. Veronica was ready and willing to ascend to sanctity, heroically, like her role models the saints, about whom she had learned at a very tender age. The monastery was the stage which would provide the means to emulate their generosity. She believed the tracks that she had to follow were made up of prayer and penitence, contemplation and suffering.
In few words, on these tracks Veronica travelled for about 20 years, amid obstacles and incomprehension, determined to obtain sanctity no matter the cost. Around her, in the monastery, everything evolved ordinarily, but her itinerary towards God registered memorable dates: on November 1st, 1678, her religious profession; on April 4th, 1681, Jesus placed on her head the Crown of thorns; on September 1st, 1688, she was elected novice mistress, position that she held until September 18, 1691; on December 12, 1693 she started to write the Diary; from October 3rd, 1694 through March 21st, 1698 she was novice mistress again; on April 5th, 1687, Good Friday, she received the stigmata; during that same year she was reported to the Holy Office and, in 1699, she was dispossessed of both her active and passive voice.
These are dates and events that, by themselves, allow us to intuit that something unknown had happened in Veronica, which had forced the monastery environment to react to: with faith and admiration, but also, declared war. Veronica’s “humanity” had a high price to pay, subjected to hardship, pain and humiliation of every kind. The narrative of the sufferings that she sought, or better still, that were imposed on her, has a horrific meaning. Neither the biographer nor the modern reader are able to justify let alone understand such behaviour. In a way, Veronica herself renounced when, having finally transcended that aspect of her terrific self-discipline, she spoke about “insanity that would push me to love.”
From the moment she received the stigmata (1697), that “insanity” became less frequent, until it stopped completely in 1699. From that moment on, Veronica was happy to “suffer those ailments and torments that she could see and knew they were coming from God’s hand to always purify her a little more”. A golden rule that she was always instilling in her young religious was to “moderate their desire for penitence”.
“No more talk of love, but deeds and actions”
By natural inclination, Veronica would always play Mary, not Martha. During her early days in the monastery, she thought she could extinguish her thirst for perfection involving herself in contemplative meditation. This was also fuelled her distaste for humble housework and charity service. Later, to try to fill her emptiness and discontent feeling, she chose charity service. She perceived, on the other hand, manual labour as a labour of self-discipline, as a penitence. This triggered in her an insurmountable repugnance, because up to that moment, never had she imagined that doing those duties would be more productive and altruistic tan retiring to her cell for contemplation. Anyways, she wondered if just pure contemplation could resolve life’s moral problem, and tried to discern which had a greater spiritual worth, active or contemplative life. She used this phrase which revealed much about her: “you can be in the world and do good deeds, and also be useful to others”. Fortunately, she soon came to the realization that she could also be useful to others in the monastery. So, referring to life hidden in God, she wrote: “and I shall do this in prayer, in deeds, everywhere; not in the isolation of a person in a cell, but in the middle of the community must I practice solitude in Jesus…It seems to me that through deeds it will better show how much God is demanding of me”.
Veronica acquired the certainty that the most efficacious way to find and adore God is to sincerely seek Him while performing different activities. That guideline she followed until her last day and would inculcate it in her novices and nuns.
To conquer Veronica’s repugnance for manual labour took guidance and intervention from her confessors. The Jesuit Juan Maria Crivelli, in the processes, testified having given Veronica “some penitences very particular and extravagant”. But to call them “extravagant” was only a euphemism, completely out of place, after Veronica died considered a saint. In fact, in more than one occasion, he had forced her to clean with her tongue a small and dark empty room in the monastery, where the unfortunate prisoner was forced to live for a long period of time (in that occasion the poor soul had to eat spiders and spider webs); in other occasion, to mortify her sensibility and aversion to filthy things, “I ordered her to clean with her tongue the common places of the community”; and he also put her under a rustic convert, sor Francisca, who, among other labours, ordered her to clean the chicken coop. A last coup de grace: this confessor, invasive and sure of himself, appointed Veronica “the last nurse, whose duty was to be subordinate to all the others, carry water, firewood, sweep, and clean the vessels, including the filthiest”.
A whole life lived for others
We will come back to the role played by her confessors in Veronica’s tormented life. For now, we have just noted her attitude toward domestic activities and service, which all the witnesses of the process characterize as extremely committed. Even as Abbess, old and sick, “she abused herself with all the monastery chores”, ready to wash, cook, work in the pantry, the refectory, the orchard, especially “at the most inconvenient hours, like at the end of the day”, to carry water to the infirmary.
Many remember, full of admiration, how she, suffering from dropsy, would “govern the monastery, being always attentive to help the nuns”, especially doing the wash, which was particularly hard in the winter, since they were forced to do it outdoors, in the cold and the snow. On the other hand, even Veronica herself wondered how she could govern it in spite of all those drawbacks, and in 1697 she wrote “I don’t avoid anything, no nuisances, no work. But I don’t know how I can still stand”.
Veronica’s constant endeavoulr was to give herself, wholly and at all times, to others, especially the sick nuns, whom she kept a close watch on, and served them night and day; if they were gravely sick, she would not leave them, not even to eat or participate in the common prayer. Sor Ludovica Marsili, eaten up by cancer and about to die, wanted to hear her talk, because – she would tell her – “when I hear your voice I my illness doesn’t hurt”. Her former repugnance was gone, and Veronica was willing to serve as nurse even in the worst cases. She would also go to the monastery door to cure the external convert sor Antonia, suffering from gangrene in her breast, an illness that claimed her life.
She was always observant to discover and provide for the nuns’ needs, pertaining food and habit, were they healthy or sick. Her intuitions, concerning this, were more than once attributed to divine illumination. Among many occasions, we remember the story of novice Maria Rosa, who, suffering from nausea and lack of appetite, concealed her illness so that she didn’t have to go to the infirmary. Suddenly, one night, already extenuated by her long fast, Veronica came to her with sweets, and told her: “Sister, have this; I think I have intuited you need to eat something to sustain you…next time, don’t do this again”.
The eyewitnesses, and particularly the nuns, affirm the alms given to the monastery while she was Abbess, were a miracle of Divine Providence since those were years of famine. In fact, we all know that the saints, be them peregrines or reunited at our heavenly home, are the preferred channels of Divine Providence. But what is important to us is how Veronica used those alms. Sor Florida Cevoli affirmed that when Veronica was elected Abbess, “she found the monastery in ruins, in urgent need of reconstruction and repairs”, and in spite of “great difficulties and obstacles”, she finished important remodelling, like the new dormitory, the fountains, and conducting water to the orchard and the kitchen, “and some other repairs in the monastery”.
Among the works that were only mentioned in general, are the opening of a well which would provide water directly to the infirmary, thus avoiding having to walk all around the monastery to bring a jar of water. Veronica proves to be an extremely practical woman and an expert at scheduling the daily tasks to better run the monastery. She worked very fast: would finish in an hour what other nuns would do in almost a day. We are talking specifically about the “detentes”, small devotional objects to have at home or carry on oneself. They were like amulets to keep the devil away.
In the processes, we find two testimonies that talk about Veronica’s intelligence. The first one from father Vicente Segapeli, Philippine, who affirms: “she had an open understanding and great capacity”. The other one, attributed to bishop Lucas Antonio Eustachi, who affirmed he had had no problem in taking Veronica along the road to Calvary, since he considered her “capable of commanding a whole world”. Two judgments maybe a little emphatic, but certainly worth to consider if anyone wants to understand Veronica, a woman of artistic temperament (and also mystic) and an exceptional practical sense.
In summary, a mind constantly elevated in God and the minutely and tormented scrutiny of one’s own spirit, never allowed her to lose sight of the humble daily reality, did not alienate her from the small conventual world in which she was cloistered. On the contrary, it was precisely that elevation to God and that scrutiny that gave sense to her life and her actions, allowing her to empty herself completely for others. She belongs among the great mystic souls – like Catherine of Siena, Teresa de Avila, Margarita de Alacoque – extremely practical, even though the cloister hindered her from irradiating her own actions in the measure her older sisters did.
The initial conflict between contemplation and action was by then a distant memory. And Veronica, during the thirty years she was the mistress of the novitiate, took care to train her novices in manual labour too.
An eyewitness referred that she was constantly determined to “accustom them to the exercises and offices of the monastery”; Sor Maria Constanza Spanaciani, one of her novices, gave testimony about how “she would involve us… her novices…in manual labours, and would point us in the road to perfection, at the same time that she prepared us to be able to fulfill the community’s compromises”.
The words of this mystic, feet firmly planted on the earth, on contemplation-action helped Sor Maria Teresa Vallemanni find peace after confessing to the Abbess that she had, during the week, overdone work to the detriment of the spirit. And she immediately answered: “Labour is never detrimental to the spirit, but of great value for the soul”.
A large amounts of deeds and episodes, only summarily mentioned during the processes to bring to light Veronica’s virtues, let us understand she had an excellent understanding concerning people, things and happenings. She demanded that the workers and providers were paid punctually and well. Therefore, if the monastery’s administrator tried to fall short on the prices, Veronica would order the external converts to complete the payments; would take care of the formation of the so called converts personally, entrusted to go begging for alms, and made sure that they would not lack anything; once, because she reminded a capricious cook to feed an old man who brought them timber, she was violently pushed; weekly, she would ”send a bag of food” to an old lady whom she called her sister, and, on her death bed, she reminded her nuns to continue doing it so that the poor lady would not die; she, as well as her nuns, wore old and mended habits (more than one witness testified that during the last years of her life she wore a habit made out of ninety nine old pieces), but that “she very careful and would insist – the nun affirms – that we would dress as capuchins, but we should always be clean”.
It has been said that she had the whim of propriety and decorum, especially when it involved the sacred cloths, which she would not cease to have washed, changed, cleaned. The nuns were astonished at her tact and discretion as she entrusted jobs and imposed penitence: she always had in mind the capacity and disposition of each one, which they attributed to a superior divine enlightenment, but that, maybe, was the end result of intuitive observation.
In some episodes is the spring like fragrance of a “little flower”. One year there was a shortage of fruits, and the nuns, at the beginning of Lent, were upset because their dinner, during that time, ordinarily consisted of some of them. Veronica, therefore, recommended prayer, and a small donkey, loaded with apples, stood at the door of the monastery and refused to move. Veronica bought the whole load. That’s how peace returned to the monastery, where they could fast according to tradition!
At the end of her life, Veronica was compassionate of the nuns who, tired and dejected, would not leave her side, not even to eat. To ease their pain, with her hand that was not paralyzed, she would place sweets that the pious would send her, in their mouth. Sor Maria Magdalena Boscaini told that in order to provide some recreation for the novices, she would go with them to look for crickets in the orchard, in spite of being “swollen like a ball” because of the dropsy.
These are simple stories, maybe sideline episodes in her whole life. But to these we could still add many more, a never-ending list. They all demonstrate Victoria’s very human condition and vibrant participation in daily life. They are events, and they give proof that Veronica’s mysticism is authentic, because she is not closed into herself, as it happens with the false mystics, enormously self-absorbed.
Sisters, Confessors and Readings
Religious life in the monastery, during the second half of the XVII century, was not devoid of shadows. Some fleeting references of the processes invite careful consideration. I’ll mention the Abbess’ jealous fits, publicly, in the choir; the “very grave and caustic persecution” which Veronica suffered “for many years” from some nuns, always ready to accuse her of being a witch, or possessed, or a hypocrite, and whom the persecuted one called “her benefactors” because they forced her to practice patience to a heroic level. Also as Abbess she encountered sorrows and vexation from some nuns, and had to exert all the resolve she was capable of (in the year 1695 she wrote to Fr Julian Brunori, Jesuit: “I’m naturally head strong”) to lead the monastery to observance and perfect community life. Praises for Veronica as Abbess make you guess that her ways were unusual, capable of arousing admiration. For example, it has been pointed out, that during her governance, there was peace in the monastery which she knew how to impose it without external authority; how she would “account for and publicly inform all the other nuns” about all the money received or spent; that she had no curiosity about what happened outside the monastery, and had an almost obsessive preoccupation to keep closed the external monastery doors.
As a teacher, she was able to banish musical instruments and free little birds kept in cages. We should also point out some of her constant preoccupation concerning the novices’ education; she would allow nothing that would lead them to be remiss in any way, and, above all “to be aware of everything about the monastery”: ”res communes, res nullius” (things in common belong to all). Maybe there might have been difficult moments in daily life because of her concern about having to be accountable to God for “habits” that her novices might have adopted. In the almost thirty years in which she was mistress of novices, Veronica had the opportunity to mould a whole new generation of nuns. It wasn’t easy, because we must take into consideration the practices of that time (which were bad, unfortunately). Ordinarily, the candidates were presented (euphemism to indicate they were imposed) by diverse ecclesiastical or lay groups. Very often they were girls “parked” in the monastery, poor prisoners for life to their desperation and the nuns’. In the processes was mentioned a novice of noble lineage, admitted over Veronica’s objections, from whom she suffered innumerable insults. But the witness affirms with great relief that at the end, the saint managed to dismiss her nicely, avoiding the family’s and precentors’ anger.
In the saint’s life, the confessors played a preponderant role. Through the pages of the processes we see a never ending procession, almost forty: Jesuits, Servites, Franciscans, Philippians, diocesan priests. But not all look good. With their methods, they frequently cause, in those who read them, profound sorrow. They are rude, invasive, lazy, talkative. I know I’m writing harsh words, but not without thinking, It has been proven in several episodes, which offer more than a dozen barbaric syllogisms. That’s how, Carsidoini the priest orders Veronica to leave the confessional and throw herself over the kitchen fire; the Philippian Vicent Segapeli, while administering to her in her agony, cautions her “in a harsh and reproaching manner” telling her: “Why are your hands bandaged, if they are empty? It’s all hypocrisy to deceive”. We could say that the race of Thomas is faultless in the church, but here we find one of those who insulted under the weight of the cross! The Jesuit Juan Maria Crivella, related: “many times I accused her of being a witch, and threatened her in such a way as to make her believe that she would be publicly ridiculed and burnt alive as a hypocrite and a witch”. Witch! Today that is a redundant word, used as a joke, or in the worst scenario, to freely offend. But in Veronica’s time, everybody believed in witches – peoples, magistrates, cultured men and ecclesiastics – and everywhere they were treated with the same mentality as the erudite father Crivelli insinuated about the terrified nun. There is something chilly in his words: “many times I threatened her in such a way as to
really make her believe…she would be burned alive!”. However, for all these confessors Veronica had only one name: “obedience”; a capuchin nun, in the course of the processes, explained that to Veronica, the confessor was someone who revealed, always, in a definitive and incontrovertible way, God’s will, which was obligatory to execute in complete and blind obedience. They used this terrible weapon to order her to do the most painful, weird, absurd things. That Veronica always obeyed was considered a heroic virtue, but the fact that she didn’t lose her mind, even more, that she never lost her tranquility nor ever uttered a word of despair, reveals the unalterable equilibrium of her nervous system. She was not then a hysterical person, since she was able – even with a bleeding heart – to keep her self-control,
No matter what, to understand and, at least in part, the sorrowful Calvary of her life, we need a profound scrutiny of her confessors, people certainly moved by the best intentions, but also immersed in the conceptual schemes of their times. Another theme to explore are the books available
to the nuns, the devotions usually practiced in the monastery, the images they were continually gazing upon. In that cloistered environment, away from the noise of the world, readings, devotions and images may leave a profound impression and become an obsession. I’ll give an example. In Veronica’s time, images of the blessed Clara de Montefalco’s heart in which were imprinted the objects of Christ’s passion were circulated. A colleague from the Institute, Servo Gieben, has found almost nothing Franciscan in the old monastery library. This may agree with an impression of mine, which is this: that the saint never learned about Franciscan spirituality. As an example, Veronica is concentrated on herself, analyzing I won’t say her own actions, but her own feelings. So, if she ever looks around and sees the “beautiful and starry sky”, what does she do? Considers it part of her “humanity” (her own artistic creation, a personification that she brings to the stage many times in her writings) and says: “Can’t you see, oh crazy one, that all those stars are inviting you to suffer?” As we can see, it’s the opposite of the Canticle of Brother Sun, in which all creatures are invited to praise The Lord.
It’s also necessary to critically examine her writings, trying to establish the time and place when they were dictated (at night, in the flickering light of a candle, or in an extremely cold cell); in what psycho-somatic conditions (forced to, depressed or excited, maybe blinded by sleep, feeble as a result of long fasts, or feverish); what she thought about she was writing, the value she attributed to it, if it was true or doubtful (I’m referring especially to the apparitions and dialogues). It is also absolutely necessary to diligently examine the terminology she used. For example: the term “humanity” is an apt literary expression, a personification that sometimes is used to indicate reason, that is, her own feelings, nature, or even better the body and its primordial demands; another term used to define the devil. It’s also necessary to identify the sources of Veronica’s writings, who, as everybody knows, never studied theology: how much do her writings depend on ascetic-mystic readings, on long conferences, or on conversations with her spiritual directors, on her reflection capacity, on eventual visions or internal illuminations, or, in many instances, on the saint’s artistic temperament which finds congenial and undeniably beautiful means of expression.
“Intermediary” between God and sinners
The term “intermediary” appears many times on the pages of the Diario, spoken by Veronica, by Christ, and by the Virgin. It points to the mediator mission that the saint is called to develop, for the salvation of souls, with the expiatory offering of her life, prayer, and sacrifices. And it also indicates the profound desire for salvation that tormented Veronica through her life. In a particular her “vicarious” expiation was for the church in general, the unbelievers, the monastery, the Citta del Castello, the souls in purgatory, for whom she wants the eternal doors open immediately.
Since childhood she had ardently desired that “all creatures” knew and loved God. This love grows, increases considerably the more she understands God’s infinite mercy and sin’s malignancy. From the bottom of heart emanate profoundly moving invocations, and at the same time shows the degree of her love for God and souls. Some of them are: “Oh, my Lord,… I place myself as intermediary between you and sinners. Send me all the sorrows, torments, pains, and whatever it pleases you; but I beg for one grace, by the merits of your Precious Blood, grant it. I beg you for the health of those poor souls, those who live under the weight of thousands of sins and guilt. Give them your light, my God: really touch their hearts so that they may turn to you”. “My God, here I am, ready for any suffering so that everyone who offends you turns to you”. “My God, more suffering! I’m here as intermediary between you and the sinner. So that you will not be offended anymore, do with mw whatever you please. Torment me, send me more crosses”. “My God, I offer myself to suffer all the torments…on me, so that nobody else will offend you”. “My God, you know very well that I’m the intermediary between you and sinners. That’s why I’m here ready to accept any suffering, to placate you”. “My Lord, if it is your will, give ne more sufferings; place everything on me…Yes, my God, you have selected me intermediary between you and sinners; therefore, I ask you for souls, souls”.
This is just a small smaple of the wishes and spiritual environment of the 22,000 pages of the Diario.
On her way to glory
We have highlighted some instances that characterized Veronica’s last thirty years. From a human point of view, we have recorded all that happened in 1716: on March 7th the Holy Office declared void a disciplinary disposition, allowing Veronica to rightfully take part in the elections for 105 monastery offices; and, in fact, on the following April 5th, she was elected Abbess, an office that she exercised until her death on July 9th, 1727.
Her sanctity was so well known that the diocesan bishop Alejandro Francisco Codebo immediately ordered that testimonies about her life and virtues be collected opening to that effect, on December 6th of that same year, the ordinary informative process, closed on January 13th, 1735. This was followed by the ordinary process and the apostolic process, the former was closed in 1735 and the latter in 1746. Veronica was beatified on June 17th, 1804 and canonized on May 26th, 1839.
Why did God grant the stigmata to Francis of Assisi and to Veronica Giuliani? God alone knows the deepest reasons, but as Celano points out, the external sign of the cross is a confirmation of these saints’ commitment to the cross in their lives. The stigmata that appeared in Veronica’s flesh had taken root in her heart many years before. It was a fitting conclusion for her love of God and her charity toward her sisters.