Blessed Angela of Foligno’s Spiritual Journey
Pope Benedict XVI's weekly catechesis.
Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on some of the great women saints of the Middle Ages. He spoke Oct. 13 about Blessed Angela of Foligno, who led a carefree life, often taking to task those who lived their faith conscientiously. Following several tragic events and great personal suffering, however, she eventually realized the seriousness of the sin in her life.
Blessed Angela recounted her spiritual journey to her confessor, who wrote it down in the “Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno.” There, she indicates the measures needed for conversion: penance, humility and trials. She also relates her numerous mystical experiences — ecstasies that she had great difficulty putting into words because of the intensity of her spiritual union with God. Her fear of sin and punishment was overcome by her growth in love for God, drawing her along the “way of the cross” to the “way of love.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak to you about Blessed Angela of Foligno, a great medieval mystic who lived in the 13th century.
In general, our attention is caught by the heights she attained in her experience of union with God. However, perhaps too little attention has been given to her very first steps, to her conversion, and to the long journey that led her from her initial “great fear of hell” to complete union with the Trinity.
The first part of Angela’s life was by no means the life of one of the Lord’s fervent disciples. She was born around the year 1248 into a well-to-do family. Her father died when she was little, and her mother provided her with only a superficial education.
At a young age, she was introduced to Foligno’s worldly urban atmosphere. She met a man whom she married at the age of 20 and with whom she had children. She led a carefree life, so much so that she looked down on those who were called “penitents” in her time — people who sold all their goods in order to follow Christ and live a life of prayer, fasting, service to the Church and charity.
Several events — the violent earthquake of 1279, a hurricane, a protracted war with the city of Perugia and its aftermath — had a dramatic effect on Angela’s life.
Little by little she became aware of her sins to the point where she was able to take a decisive step in her life. She asked for the help of St. Francis, who appeared to her in a vision, in making a good general confession of her sins. In 1285, Angela went to confession to one of the friars at San Feliciano.
Three years later, another development took place on her road to conversion. Every emotional tie with her family came to an end when, over the course of a few months, her mother passed away, followed by the death of her husband and the death of each one of her children. At that point, she sold all her earthly possessions and, in 1291, entered the Third Order of St. Francis. She died in Foligno on Jan. 4, 1309.
The “Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno,” a collection of documentation about the life of Blessed Angela, recounts her conversion and points out the measures that are needed for conversion: penance, humility and trials. This account also relates the key experiences of Angela’s life, beginning in the year 1285.
Angela sought to recall and relate them with the help of a friar who was also her confessor. He faithfully transcribed them and later tried to arrange them systematically according to the various stages, which he called “passages” or “transitions.” However, he was not totally successful in doing so (see Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno, Cinisello Balsamo, 1990, p. 51).
The reason for this is that this experience of union is, for Blessed Angela, one in which the spiritual and bodily senses are totally involved. What she “understood” during these moments of ecstasy remained, so to speak, only a “shadow” within her mind. “I truly heard these words,” she confessed after a mystical rapture, “but what I saw and understood, and that he [God] showed me, I cannot know or say in any way. I would gladly reveal what I understood with the words I heard, but it was an absolutely indescribable abyss.”
Angela of Foligno presents her mystical “experience” to us without analyzing it with her mind, because it consists of insights that God communicated to her soul in a totally unforeseen and unexpected way.
Her confessor found it difficult to narrate these events “also because of her great and admirable discretion as regards God’s gifts” (Ibid, p. 194).
In addition to Angela’s difficulties in expressing her mystical experience, listeners also experienced difficulties in trying to understand her. This situation clearly illustrates how Jesus, the one, true teacher, lives in the heart of every believer and desires to take total possession of that heart.
This is what occurred in Angela’s heart, as she herself wrote to one of her spiritual children: “My son, if you could see my heart, you would be absolutely constrained to do everything that God wills, because my heart is that of God, and God’s heart is mine.” Here we find an echo of St. Paul’s words: “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
A Fear of Sin
Let us now reflect on only a few of the “steps” in Blessed Angela’s rich spiritual journey. Indeed, the first one serves as the preface: “It was coming to know sin,” she tells us, “after which my soul had a great fear of being damned. In this stage, I wept bitterly (Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno, p. 39).
This “fear” of hell reflected the kind of faith that Angela had at the moment of her “conversion,” a faith that was still poor in charity, that is, in love for God.
Repentance, fear of hell and atonement opened Angela’s eyes to the prospect of the painful “way of the cross” that — from the eighth to the 15th steps — would lead her to the “way of love.” As her confessor writes: “The faithful woman now then told me: ‘I had this divine revelation. ... After the things you have written, now write that whoever wants to preserve grace must not take the eyes of his soul off the cross, whether he be in the joy I grant or the sadness I permit’” (Ibid, p. 143).
In this phase, Angela did not yet “feel love.” She herself affirms this: “The soul feels shame and bitterness and does not yet experience love, but sorrow” (Ibid, p. 39). Yet, the soul remains unsatisfied.
God’s Love for Man
Angela felt she had to give something to God in reparation for her sins, but she slowly came to realize that she had nothing to give him. Indeed, she was “nothing” before him. She understood that it was not her will that could give her God’s love, since her will could only give him its “nothing,” “non-love.” She herself said that only “true and pure love, which comes from God, is in the soul and makes it recognize its defects and his divine goodness. [...] Such love brings the soul to Christ and it understands with a certainty that cannot be verified, but in which there can be no deception. Nothing that is of this world can be mixed together with this love” (Ibid, p. 124-125).
This can happen only by opening oneself totally to God’s love, which finds its ultimate expression in Christ: “O my God,” she prays, “make me worthy of knowing the highest mystery which your most ardent and ineffable love brought about along with the love of the Trinity: the highest mystery of your most blessed incarnation, for us. ... O incomprehensible love! There is no greater love than this, which caused my God to become man so that I could become God” (Ibid, p. 295).
Nevertheless, Angela always bore the wounds of sin in her soul. Even though she had made a good confession, she found herself both forgiven and yet grief-stricken by her sin; she was free yet conditioned by her past; she was absolved yet in need of doing penance. The thought of hell continued to accompany her, because the more the soul makes progress on the road of Christian perfection, the more it will be convinced that it is not only “unworthy,” but also deserving of hell.
Little by little, Angela came to a profound understanding of the central reality: What would save her from her “unworthiness” and from her “deserving hell” would not be her “union with God” or her possession of the “truth,” but the crucified Jesus, “his crucifixion for me,” his love. In the eighth step she tells us: “However I did not yet understand which was the greater good: my deliverance from sin and hell through conversion and by choosing penance, or his crucifixion for me” (Ibid, p. 41).
This unstable equilibrium between love and suffering can be seen all along her difficult journey to perfection. It is precisely for this reason that she prefers to contemplate the crucified Christ, because in such a vision she sees the perfect equilibrium fulfilled: There on the cross is the God-man; his supreme act of suffering is the supreme act of love.
In her third instruction, Blessed Angela stresses the need for such contemplation: “The more perfectly and purely we see him, the more perfectly and purely we love. ... Therefore, the more we see Jesus Christ, God and man, the more we are transformed into him through love. ... What I have said about love ... I say also of sorrow: The more the soul contemplates the ineffable sorrow of Jesus Christ, God and man, the more it experiences sorrow and is transformed in sorrow” (Ibid, p. 190-191).
This means becoming totally like Christ, transforming oneself through the love and suffering of the crucified Christ — identifying oneself with him.
Angela’s conversion, which began with her confession in 1285, reached maturity only when her soul perceived God’s forgiveness as a gratuitous gift of the love of the Father, who is the source of love. “No one can have any excuse,” she affirms, “because anyone can love God, and he does not ask anything of the soul except that it love him, because he loves it; he is its love” (Ibid, p. 76).
Transformation in Christ
On her spiritual journey, the transition from conversion to mystical experience, from that which can be expressed to that which is inexpressible, came about through the crucified Christ. The “God-man in his passion” was her “teacher of perfection.”
Thus, all her mystical experience has as its aim perfect “likeness” with him through increasingly profound and radical purification and transformation.
Angela devoted her entire body and soul to this, without sparing herself any mortification or suffering from the beginning to the end. Her desire was to die while suffering all that the crucified God-man suffered in order to be totally transformed into him.
“O children of God,” she recommends, “transform yourselves totally in the suffering God-man, who so loves you that he deigned to die for you the most ignominious death and in an effably painful and bitter way. This only for love for you” (Ibid, p. 247).
Such identification also meant living as Jesus lived, thus facing poverty, contempt and suffering, because, as she herself tells us, “through temporal poverty the soul will find eternal riches; through contempt and shame it will obtain supreme honor and very great glory; through a little penance, done with pain and sorrow, it will possess with infinite sweetness and consolation the Supreme God, God eternal” (Ibid, p. 293).
This journey — from her conversion to her mystical union with the crucified Christ and then to the inexpressible — was a sublime journey, the secret of which was constant prayer.
“The more you pray,” she insists, “the more you will be illumined; the more you are illumined; the more profoundly and intensely you will see the Supreme Good, the supremely good Being. The more profoundly and intensely you see him, the more you will love him. The more you love him, the more he will delight you. And the more he delights you, the more you will understand him and become capable of understanding him. You will subsequently arrive at the fullness of light, because you will understand that you cannot understand” (Ibid, p. 184).
Lesson for Today
Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed Angela’s life began in a very worldly way, in a way that was very distant from God.
But the encounter with St. Francis and, ultimately, the encounter with the crucified Christ awakened her soul to God’s presence, to the fact that only with God would her life truly become life; because only in sorrow for sin does it become joy and love.
This is what Blessed Angela says to us today. Today, we risk the danger of living as though God did not exist; he seems to be distant from our daily life. But God has thousands of ways to be present to the soul — to each one of us — and of showing that he exists and that he knows me and loves me.
Blessed Angela wishes to draw our attention to the signs with which the Lord touches our souls. She teaches us to be aware of God’s presence that we might discover the path with God and to God, in communion with the crucified Christ. Let us ask the Lord to make us attentive to the signs of his presence and to teach us truly to live. Thank you.
- November 7-20, 2010