Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on prominent holy women from the Middle Ages. He spoke Nov. 3 about Margaret d’Oingt, a 13th-century Carthusian prioress and mystic.
Margaret viewed life as a journey of perfection, leading to complete conformity to Christ, above all in the contemplation of his saving passion. She imagined Our Lord’s life as a book that he himself holds out to us — a book to be studied and engraved on our hearts and on our lives. Her writings radiate a warm love of God and a deep gratitude for his grace, which purifies our affections and draws us closer to him.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, I would like to speak to you about Margaret d’Oingt and introduce you to Carthusian spirituality, which found its inspiration in the Gospel experience that St. Bruno lived out and passed on.
We do not know when Margaret d’Oingt was born, although some people place it around the year 1240. We do know that she was from a powerful and noble family of Lyon, the Oingts. We know that her mother was also named Margaret and that she had two brothers, Guiscard and Louis, and three sisters, Catherine, Isabelle and Agnes. Agnes followed her sister to the Carthusian order, later succeeding her as prioress.
We have no information about her childhood, but we can gather from her writings that it was spent within a very peaceful and loving family.
Indeed, in order to express God’s boundless love, she was fond of using images related to the family, especially to fathers and mothers. In one meditation, she prayed the following prayer: “Kind and sweet Lord, I think of the special graces you have given me out of your care for me — above all, how you have protected me since my infancy, how you have kept me from the perils of this world, how you have called me to dedicate myself to your holy service, and how you have provided me with everything I have needed to eat, drink and clothe myself (and you indeed did so) — such that I never had to think about all these things, but to only think about your great mercy” (Margaret d’Oingt, Scritti Spirituali, Meditazione V, 100, Cinisello Balsamo 1997, p. 74).
From her meditations, we also learn that Margaret entered the Carthusian monastery of Poleteins in response to a call from the Lord, leaving everything behind in order to embrace the strict rule of the Carthusians so she could give herself totally to the Lord and be with him at all times.
“Sweet Lord,” she wrote, “I left my father and my mother and my siblings and all the things of this world for your love. But this is very little, since the riches of this world are nothing but sharp thorns: Whoever has more of them is more unfortunate. For this reason, it seems like I have left nothing behind but poverty and misery. But you know, sweet Lord, that if I possessed a thousand worlds and could do with them as I please, I would abandon them all for your love. Even if you gave me everything that you possess on heaven and on earth, I would not be satisfied until I have you, because you are the life of my soul, and I do not have nor do I want any father or mother besides you” (ibid, Meditazione II, 32, p. 59).
We also have little information about her life at the Carthusian monastery. We know that she became the monastery’s fourth prioress in 1288, a position she held until her death on Feb. 11, 1310. Moreover, we find very few details in her writings regarding turning points along her spiritual journey.
Margaret viewed life as a journey of purification leading to complete conformity to Christ. Christ is the book that must be inscribed each and every day on a person’s heart and in a person’s life, particularly his saving passion. In a work entitled Speculum, Margaret — referring to herself in the third person — stresses that it is because of the Lord’s grace that “she had engraved in her heart the holy life that God the Son, Jesus Christ, had led on earth, his good examples and his good teaching. She had placed the sweet Jesus Christ so well in her heart that she felt as though he were present with a closed book in his hand to instruct her” (ibid, I, 2-3, p. 81), and “in this book she found written the life that Jesus Christ had led on earth, from the moment of his birth to his ascension into heaven” (ibid, I, 12, p. 83).
Every day, upon awakening, Margaret devoted herself to studying this book.
After she had taken a good look at it, she began to read the book of her own conscience, uncovering the falsehoods and the lies in her own life (see ibid, I, 6-7, p. 82). She wrote about herself in order to benefit others and to impress more deeply upon her own heart the grace of God’s presence so that each day of her life could be examined in the light of Jesus’ words and actions — in the light of the book of his life. She did this so that Christ’s life would be engraved on her soul in a deeper and more lasting way until she could see the book within — until she could contemplate the mystery of the triune God (see ibid, II, 14-22; III, 23-40, p. 84-90).
Through her writings, Margaret offers us a glimpse into her spirituality, thereby enabling us to glean some traits of her personality and her gift for leadership.
She was a very well-educated woman. She usually wrote in Latin, the language used by scholars, but she also wrote in the Provençal language of France, which in itself was a rarity: Her works were the first works ever recorded to have been written in this language.
She lived a life rich in mystical experiences, which she described with simplicity, hinting at the ineffable mystery of God, while pointing out the limitations of the human mind to grasp this experience and the inadequacy of the human tongue to express it. Her personality was genuine, simple, open, loving, highly balanced, acutely discerning and capable of entering into the depths of the human spirit in order to grasp its limitations and its inner contradiction — but also its aspirations in order to understand the soul’s reaching out to God.
She showed an outstanding aptitude for governing, combining her profound mystical and spiritual life with service to her fellow sisters and to her community.
In this regard, a passage from one of her letters to her father is worth noting: “My sweet father, I am writing you to say that I have been so very busy because of the needs of our house that it is not possible for me to apply my spirit to good thoughts. In fact, I have so much to do that I do not know which way to turn. We were unable to harvest any grain in the seventh month of the year, and our vineyards were destroyed by a storm. Moreover, our church is in such poor shape that we have been forced to rebuild part of it” (ibid, Lettere, III, 14, p. 127).
One Carthusian nun described Margaret in the following terms: “Through her work, she reveals to us a fascinating personality, with a lively intelligence oriented toward speculative thought. At the same time, she was favored with mystical graces. In short, she was a holy and wise woman who could express affection that was totally spiritual with a sense of humor” (A Carthusian nun, Certosine, in Dizionario degli Istituti di Perfezione, Rome 1975, col. 777).
In the dynamism of her mystical life, Margaret particularly valued the experience of natural affections purified by grace — that privileged means for understanding more deeply and complying more promptly and ardently with God’s work.
The reason for this is that the human being is created in God’s image and is therefore called to weave a marvelous love story with God by being totally caught up in his initiative.
The triune God, the God of love who is revealed in Christ, enthralled Margaret, and her relationship of love for the Lord was profound. By contrast, she was also aware of man’s ingratitude which became contempt and which became the paradox of the cross.
She compared Christ’s cross to the bed upon a woman gives birth: Jesus’ suffering on the cross can be compared to a mother’s pain while giving birth. “The mother who bore me in her womb suffered greatly in giving birth to me for a day or for a night,” she wrote. “But for me, good and sweet Lord, you have been tortured not just one night or one day, but your entire life of more than 30 years. … How bitterly you suffered because of me for an entire life! When the moment of delivery came, your torture was so painful that your holy sweat became like drops of blood running down your body to the ground” (ibid, Meditazione I, 33, p. 59).
Echoing the accounts of Jesus’ passion, Margaret contemplates these sufferings with deep compassion: “You were laid on the hard bed of the cross in a way that you could not stir nor turn nor even move your limbs, as a man suffering great pain would do, because you had been fully stretched out and immobilized by nails ... and … all your muscles and veins were torn. ... But all these tortures ... were not enough for you, so much so that you desired to have your side pierced so cruelly by a lance that your whole body was plowed through and tortured, and your precious blood gushed forth with such violence that it formed a long path as though it were a long current of water.”
Referring to Mary, she notes: “It was not surprising that the sword that had pierced your body also penetrated into the heart of your glorious mother who would have wanted so much to hold you ... because your love is superior to any other love” (ibid, Meditazione II, 36-39, 42, p. 60f).
Message for Today
Dear friends, Margaret d’Oingt invites us to meditate daily on Jesus’ life of pain and love, as well as on the life of his mother, Mary. This is where our hope, the meaning of our existence, lies. Contemplating Christ’s love for us gives us the strength and joy to respond with this very same love, thereby placing our lives at the service of God and of others.
With Margaret, we, too, are able to say, “Sweet Lord, everything that you have done out of love for me and for the entire human race stirs me to love you, but the remembrance of your most holy passion gives unequalled vigor to my power to love you. It is for this reason that I believe … I have found that which I have most desired: not to love anything else but you or in you or for your love” (ibid, Meditazione II, 46, p. 62).
At first glance, this Carthusian nun from the Middle Ages — just like her life and her thinking — might seem rather remote to us and distant from our lives, from our way of thinking and acting. But if we look at the essential points of her life, we see that they concern us as well and must become essential even in our own lives.
We have heard that Margaret considered Our Lord to be like a book, that she gazed upon the Lord as a mirror in which to see her own conscience. From this mirror, light came into her soul.
She allowed Christ’s word and Christ’s life to enter into her own being and was thus transformed. Her conscience was enlightened.
She found guidance and light, and she was cleansed. This is exactly what we need — to let Christ’s words, Christ’s life and Christ’s light enter into our conscience so that it might be enlightened to perceive what is true and good and what is evil, so that our conscience may be enlightened and purified!
There is trash not only along the many streets of this world. There is also trash in our consciences and in our souls.
But only the Lord’s light, strength and love can cleanse us, purify us and set us on the right path.
Therefore, let us follow the example of this holy woman, Margaret, by gazing upon Jesus. Let us read the book of his life. Let us be enlightened and cleansed so we might learn what true life is. Thank you.