St. Christina the Astonishingly Nasty

A reimagining of the life of Christina the Astonishing is not so much secular as scandalous.

Saint Christina the Astonishing (Mirabilis) prayer card from 1892
Saint Christina the Astonishing (Mirabilis) prayer card from 1892 (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

I cannot remember to which Facebook friend I owe my introduction to Kirstin Valdez Quade’s reimagining of St. Christina the Astonishing.  Published in The New Yorker, Quade’s longform story incorporates text from Christina’s thirteenth-century vita into a first-person narrative from the mouth of one of Christina’s sisters, covering many of the events recorded of Christina: her miraculous levitation; her report of having visited purgatory; her eccentric avoidance of people who carried the stench of sin; her extreme penances; the accusations of madness and possession; and, ultimately, her entrance of a convent.

Quade takes the outlines of Christina’s story and her penchant for “astonishing” behavior and weaves a disturbing tale.  I was reminded of The Toast’s epic transformation of “The Velveteen Rabbit” into a horror short—except that while The Toast keeps tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Quade appears to have intended her smackdown of Christina seriously.

For it is a smackdown.  What comes across in Quade’s narrative is not the portrait of a woman strangely touched and holy, but of an astonishingly nasty human being, who loathes and mistreats her normal sisters, to the point of spitefully causing one of them to miscarry.  The mechanism by which this occurs is left vague, but Christina’s cruel intentions are crystal clear.

Now, perhaps I am unfair to Quade and her intentions; the discussion in comments here suggests that plenty of readers took no offense at the story, and even found the depiction of religion “nicely ambivalent.”  But by the story’s midpoint, despite my own efforts to read ambivalently, I could no longer parse the narrative without recognizing a strong critique of Christina … and Christina’s religion.

The story is puzzling as well as offensive.  Since the reformation, debunking of Catholic religiosity has typically involve a debunking of the miraculous: flows of blood and water, halos of light, and levitations are explained by appeals to sleight of hand, hallucination, and occasionally science.  But Quade offers no such deflation.  Admittedly, her story is presented as the narrative of one of Christina’s sisters; and it may be that the unreliability of the narrator’s reporting is intended as given.  (One recalls, in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, the jaundiced views of the narrator Orual.)  But Quade’s protagonist bears none of the marks of an unreliable narrator: she does not lie, have lapses of memory, or contradict herself in describing the miracles surrounding her sister.

There is a second possible explanation from the literary point of view.  “Magical realism” deliberately combines real world settings with elements of the supernatural or mythological; Jorge Luis Borges and Salman Rushdie are two notable writers in the genre.  So it may be that, drawing on this literary style, Quade aims to reimagine the life of Christina in a way that is neither religious nor irreligious.

If that is the intent, however, the story fails.  Introducing magic into ordinary scenes has one effect; degrading the purportedly miraculous has another altogether.  Magical realism, if anything, sacralizes the ordinary world; at minimum, like a fairy tale, it reminds readers of the wonders and terrors of everyday life.  What Quade has wrought is rather a desacralization: Christina’s life and actions are made to seem grotesque and even devilish.  And whatever the author’s conscious intentions, it is hard to read the story as anything less than the product of odium fidei.

This is not to say that Christina, or any saint, deserves a whitewashing that would smooth over the peculiar, problematic, and even sinful aspects of her character.  The reported facts of Christina’s life are strange enough, without the sinister spin Quade’s story puts on them.  Take, for example, this …

After being released [from jail] the second time, she joined a Dominican monastery. Her prioress said that, despite her extreme behavior, she was always obedient. Her reputation spread across the region, and both rulers and other holy people sought her out for advice and spiritual aid.   (Source)

There, if you like, is seed for a complex portrait of a character.  But there are different ways to sketch that portrait out.  One imagines (to take an author mentioned above) C.S. Lewis retelling it thus:

During matins, the Prioress found herself staring at Christina again.  Already the girl’s face had changed.  The twisted anxiety that had covered it before, when she was manacled to the jailor, was subdued.  True, she was still squeezed into the corner, as far away from Sister Miriam as she could be.  Probably she could smell Sister Miriam too.  But she had obediently put on the veil provided, and was doing her best to follow along in the missal.  She ought to have been illiterate—at least, the Prioress could not discover where she had learned to read—but she had been commanded to sing matins, and her obedience appeared to overcome her natural infirmities.

Chesterton would handle the material rather differently, perhaps:

The prioress stared up at the tree.  “Christina, come down this instant!”

Christina came down, as she usually did, sliding down the vertical trunk amidst a shower of apples and leaves.  Apples, although it was only April.

“Christina, I told you not to climb the tree.  The sisters find it … unnerving.”

“But mother, if they would only climb the tree, they would want to spend as much time there as I do.  It is so much closer to the sky!”

“Christina, I am more concerned that you disobeyed me.  I told you not to climb it again.  Don’t you remember?”

Christina bowed her head.  “I didn’t climb,” she murmured.

The Prioress raised her eyes to heaven.  “Holy mother of God,” she said, half to Christina and half to herself.  “Very well then.  No more sitting in the tree, however you get up there.  Except this once more.  I want you to put the apples back.  By hand.”

Without a protest, Christina filled her apron with apples and slowly climbed back up the gnarled branches, that stretched out over the convent walls like the great fingers of a sleeping giant.  For the next half hour the Prioress, reading in the shadow of the walls, could hear the rustling as Christina painstakingly restored each apple, by hand, each to its proper stem on its proper spur.  Even Christina could be tidy, when she was told to be.

Quade does this:

A second, older nun leads Christina in by the wrist. My sister towers above the woman but is docile in her grip. She doesn’t seem to want to run, even when she sees me, and, though her habit is crooked and untidy, she appears calm. The nun delivers her to me, then drops her wrist.

“Christina,” I say. I bow and move to kiss her, because she’s a holy woman and because she is my sister.

Christina turns wildly to the nun. “Please don’t leave me with her!” She’s afraid of me, I realize with a pang. The old woman comes back, drops onto a chair, and watches us warily.

My sister is as thin as she ever was. A blue vein is visible on her forehead. She smiles at me—suddenly, mirthlessly—and the skin pleats around her wide mouth.

In a burst of motion, she flings off her wimple and veil, casts them away from her, and looks back at the attending nun in triumph. She regards me and pulls a gray strand of hair, sucks the end.

My sister doesn’t answer me, and I have to break away from her gaze. The old nun has retrieved Christina’s veil from the floor and is smoothing it in her lap. I imagine that later, after I’ve gone, she will rearrange it on Christina’s head, and my sister will be still before her, as obedient as a child.

Quade’s narrative ends with the oldest sister “summoning God with those old empty words” through the intercession of “Holy Christina, patron saint of lunacy and bad behavior.”  On the surface level, it’s an indictment of Christina, at least the fictional Christina.  But ultimately, it’s an indictment of the whole system—earthly and supernatural, conventual and divine—that elevates Christina to sisterhood and graces her eccentricities—in Quade’s telling, her nastiness—with signs of divine indulgence.  In this story’s universe, if there is a God—and the miracles suggest that there is—then God favors Christina; and that’s no point in His favor.

That is what I mean when I write of “odium fidei.”

*                      *                      *

Because I believe in ending on a happy note (at least in the old, theological sense of “happy”), here are some thoughts on Christina from the saint and cardinal Robert Bellarmine (source):

We have reason for believing [Thomas of Cantimpré’s?] testimony, since he has for guarantee another grave author, James de Vitry, Bishop and Cardinal, and because he relates what happened in his own time, and even in the province where he lived. Besides, the sufferings of this admirable virgin were not hidden. Every one could see that she was in the midst of the flames without being consumed, and covered with wounds, every trace of which disappeared a few moments afterwards. But more than this was the marvellous life she led for forty-two years after she was raised from the dead, God clearly showing that the wonders wrought in her by virtue from on high. The striking conversions which she effected, and the evident miracles which occurred after her death, manifestly proved the finger of God, and the truth of that which, after her resurrection, she had revealed concerning the other life. …

God willed to silence those libertines who make open profession of believing in nothing, and who have the audacity to ask in scorn, Who has returned from the other world? Who has ever seen the torments of Hell or Purgatory? Behold two witnesses. They assure us that they have seen them, and that they are dreadful. What follows, then, if not that the incredulous are inexcusable, and that those who believe and nevertheless neglect to do penance are still more to be condemned?

Clockwise from top left: Christ is adored in downtown Indianapolis July 20; Bishop Andrew Cozzens blesses the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament from the Indiana War Memorial July 20; the Host is elevated at Mass and adored at Lucas Oil Stadium on Day 2 of the NEC.

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