It is the 24th of July 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1224
The early 13th century was a busy time. Knowledge of a larger world brought trade opportunities but also for war. This is the time of Marco Polo as well as Ghengis Khan. Ghengis Khan was in his last stages of dominating the East. His incursions into the Middle East caused a diaspora of Muslims. Many relocated to the Indian Subcontinent and the Western coast of Africa.
If I asked you to imagine a “gothic cathedral,” you would likely imagine something like the grand churches that were being built or rebuilt in 1224. The Salisbury cathedral began construction in 1224. It is home to the most ancient and complete copy of the Magna Carta. The Toledo Cathedral was also built during this time, one of the grandest Gothic Cathedrals in Spain. It was built to cover up the site of a former mosque. Cathedrals in Brussels, Amiens, Toulouse, and York were all in the process of being rebuilt, and they were finished with that high medieval Gothic aesthetic so familiar to the 13th century.
The 1220s saw the birth of Thomas Aquinas, a man who would almost single-handedly define high medieval theology. The 1220s also saw the death of the Genghis Khan mentioned above. And it was on this, the 24th of July in the year 1224 that Christina the Astonishing died. The Belgian saint is emblematic of much of medieval Christianity, and what the church has done with her and her story can be a lesson in practical, popular ecclesiology.
Christina was born in Belgium in 1150, according to the records. The youngest of three girls, she was small and sickly as a child, and her survival is considered by some her first miracle. She and her sisters were orphaned, and in her teens, she worked as a shepherdess. Her reputation was for being pious, but also prone to bouts of what they called hysteria. Check out the history of this word; it’s wildly misogynistic.
Nevertheless, she likely suffered from epilepsy. In her 20s, she had a bout that was so bad, those around her assumed she was dead. Her sisters took her to the priest, she was pronounced dead, and her funeral service was arranged.
When the funeral started, it is reported that she sat up in her coffin, shocking the crowd. That’s crazy enough, but it is reported that she then levitated to the rafters. She told those in the church that she had been to purgatory, came back to warn them, and that, by the way, she was levitating up in the rafters because of the stench of the people’s sin. It was too great for her.
Christina became a local and then national curiosity; she began to submit herself to fire and freezing temperatures, allowing herself to be attacked by dogs, and running herself through thorn bushes. She eventually joined a Dominican monastery, and the abbess attested to her piety despite erratic behavior. She would often climb trees before speaking to people because of her claim that she could smell their sin. She was known to act out in ways that we might attribute to schizophrenia today. Her ecstatic and erratic life came to close when she died of natural causes at the age of 74.
The questions that arose after her life are significant for a few reasons: first, for how the Medieval church processed the question of the stories about her, and secondly, for how they processed her sainthood. Theologians and churchmen, including Cardinal Jacques De Vitry and Robert Bellarmine, warned Christians from discounting the supernatural, if not bizarre, aspects of her stories. The church could be skeptical, but they warned about dismissing things immediately out of hand. Secondly, she remains a favorite saint, not just for Belgium but also for those suffering mental illnesses, for psychiatrists, for those suffering from Women’s disorders, and for those accused of faking supernatural experiences. The Catholic church does not recognize her as a saint, as she does not fit the standard model, or have the requisite confirmed miracles. But the official church is in the minority here and recognizes that it best not take away a saint who has been a folk favorite for centuries. Her story is one that we might learn from, to recognize those we might see as disturbed as having a vocation in the Kingdom, and to see the saint (and sinner) in all Christians. Christina the Astonishing —alive/dead/alive/dead— her unofficial feast day is this, the 24th of July.
The reading for today comes from R.S. Thomas, the 20th c. Welsh poet and priest. This is his “When We Are Weak.”
"When we are weak, we are strong. When our eyes close on the world, then somewhere within us the bush burns. When we are poor and aware of the inadequacy of our table, it is to that uninvited the guest comes."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of July 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher “I’m not dead yet” Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.