St. Margaret of Cortona’s Soul Was Washed in an Ocean of Divine Mercy

In Christ’s presence, St. Margaret finally found the unconditional love that had eluded her throughout her life.

Gaspare Traversi (1722-1770), “St. Margaret of Cortona”

I love the story of St. Margaret of Cortona. I love that she is a saint for the “all or nothing” mentality we face so often. Margaret was a woman of enormous passion who teetered between extremes for much of her life.

Born to a farmer in Tuscany in 1247, Margaret suffered the loss of her mother at age 7. Without her mother’s guidance and with a widowed father unsure how to raise a daughter, Margaret became wild and high-tempered. Starved of affection, she craved love. Her father eventually remarried, but her new stepmother deemed her too unruly and did not love her.

Vivacious, beautiful, and neglected, Margaret sought love elsewhere, running off with a young man and living as his mistress for nine years. Even as she lived a life of sin and scandal, Margaret’s generous heart was always moved with compassion for the poor, and she later would write that she wanted to live purely, but she was not prepared to leave her sinful life behind. Margaret eventually bore the man a child out of wedlock and despite her wish to live a virtuous and respectable life, she could not bear to be parted from the child’s father.

After nearly a decade, her lover was murdered. The sight of his corpse terrified Margaret into repentance, and she vowed to atone for her sins. Ostracized by her father and stepmother, she found shelter with the Franciscans in Cortona, and sought their spiritual direction in her conversion. True to her passionate nature, Margaret was not satisfied with the penances of prayer and fasting given to her by the holy friars. Haunted by her life of sin, she was determined to demonstrate her repentance for all to see. She was terrified that her beauty would lead her back into sin and that she would not be able to withstand the temptation, so she decided to maim her face. Thankfully her wise confessor intervened.

This intervention would not be the last. Deprived of true love for so much of her life, Margaret felt that only the most severe penances would merit God’s forgiveness and love. Often the Franciscans had to step in to stop her mortifications and strict self-denials.

Gently, they pointed out that Christ was not asking for such penances. He wanted her to repent; he wanted her to purify her soul, but mostly he wanted her love. Most importantly, they pointed out that there was no penance that could earn her Christ’s love, just as no sin could make her unlovable in his eyes. She was his, and he would always pour out his mercy abundantly upon a repentant heart.

Guided by her wise spiritual directors Margaret redirected her piety and settled her fervor, not on physical mortification, but on a burning love for Christ. In his presence, she finally found the unconditional love that had eluded her throughout her life.

For the remaining years of her life, until her death in 1297, Margaret allowed Christ’s love to fill her and in turn she poured all of her considerable stores of compassion into those around her. She founded a hospital and a congregation of Franciscan tertiaries dedicated to the service of the poor and sick. She nurtured a deep and abiding love for the Eucharist, spending hours in prayer and adoration. Although Margaret did leave behind her inclinations for severe penances, she maintained her repentant attitude throughout her life, fasting often and living her life in humble service of the poor, becoming like them in her poverty. Her humility and piety were so admired that many came to her for spiritual guidance and advice, oftentimes returning to the sacraments after listening to her speak and witnessing her faith and love for Christ.

Margaret was not canonized until the 18th century, but she was venerated almost immediately after her death. The same formidable energy and zeal that had made her a social exile as a young girl, when once she placed herself in Christ’s hands, served to ignite the faith of those around her. Rightly ordered, her capacity for love and passionate nature became magnets He used for the salvation of souls.

St. Margaret of Cortona, pray for us!

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