Catholic World – Maria Von Mörl

Maria Von MörlIn the beginning of this year (1868) a remarkable human life came to a close. That wonderful being whose name and fame travelled from South Tyrol all over Germany, and made her residence become a frequented pilgrimage without her will – but for the great consolation of multitudes during a whole generation – that extraordinary woman is no more. Maria von Mörl died on 11 January 1868, in the fifty-sixth year of her age, and in the thirty-sixth of her ecstatic life.

It is now over a score of years since the masterly pen of Görres sketched, in his Mystik, so striking a portrait of Maria von Mörl, and still the attention of the believing world is attracted to the life of the ecstatic virgin. Since then thousands have gone to the South Tyrol markets to behold as a reality what would sound legendary to read or hear, and to bear testimony to the truth of what Görres wrote about the stigmata of that holy woman. All the pilgrims found his statements perfectly correct. Although Görres, in describing the phenomena, abstained from a definitive judgment regarding her sanctity, according to the rule that no one must be called a saint before death, we are not restrained any longer from expressing our convictions, now that she is no more. Her happy and holy death is the strongest confirmation of her unimpeachable life.

We have now all the necessary documents to form a correct estimate of her holiness. Let us glance at the most interesting events in her life, and sum up briefly and simply the chief traits of her inner and exterior character.

Three miles south of Botzen, in a charming landscape, with a prospect extending over a wide and smiling valley, lies the vine-crowned spot in which Maria Theresa von Mörl first saw the light of day, on October 16th, 1812. She was the daughter of a reduced, but noble, vine cultivator in Caldaro, Joseph von Mörl, of Mühlen and Lichelburg, who was blessed with a very large family, but not with sufficient means to raise them as became their blood.

Maria received from her good, sensible mother, whose maiden name was Selva, a pious and simple education; and the young girl grew up in virtue, modest and gentle, affectionate and obliging to all, of good understanding, but with no great powers of fancy. She was an expert little housewife, and aided her mother in the management of their domestic affairs. Frequent illness, which began to trouble her as early as her fifth year and continued to affect her through life, as it had its seat in her blood, rendered her, even at an early age, rather grave, and increased her zeal in prayer, which showed itself especially in her love and veneration for the Blessed Sacrament. This was her character until, in the year 1827, her beloved mother was taken from her by death; and she, at the age of fifteen, was left in sole charge of the family, her father being unable to provide better for the care of her eight younger sisters.

Maria undertook the task of their bringing up with courage and readiness. She sought among her increasing labors and responsibilities, more than ever, consolation in religion, and in the frequent reception of the sacrament of the altar.

But the burden was too heavy for her young shoulders, and she sank under it. In her eighteenth year she fell into a wearisome sickness, which was increased in painfulness by reason of violent cramps, which broke down her constitution. Only by slow degrees was her pain alleviated, without the disease having been completely driven out. She never became perfectly sound again. Yet she bore all her afflictions with heroic resignation, although to her physical torments mental struggles were often added temptations of the devil; and troubles of soul which we cannot dwell upon here.

Such was her condition during about two years, when her confessor, Father Capistran, a quiet, prudent man, and for years a true friend of the distressed family, observed “that at certain times, when she was interrogated by him, she did not answer, and seemed to be out of herself.” When he questioned her nurses and others on this point, they informed him that such was always the case when she received the holy communion. This was the first symptom of her ecstatic state, into which she entered in her twentieth year, and which soon became more and more striking. On the feast of Corpus Christi, 1832, which in Kaltern, as throughout the whole Tyrol, is celebrated with unusual solemnity, Father Capistran, for special reasons, gave her the holy sacrament at three A.M., and immediately she fell into an ecstasy which lasted, to his personal knowledge, for several hours! He left her to attend to other duties; and when he returned, at noon on the following day, he found the ecstatic still kneeling in the same place where he had left her thirty-six hours before; and heard, to his astonishment, that she had remained the whole time thus undisturbed in contemplation. The good Franciscan now comprehended for the first time that ecstasy had become almost a second nature to her; and undertook the regulation of this supernatural condition of his saintly penitent.

The power of the perceptive faculties increased wonderfully with her ecstasies, as several presentiments and prophecies demonstrated in a surprising manner. Her fame was soon noised abroad. The report of her ecstatic kneeling and prayer spread through the Tyrol, and great excitement was created throughout the whole land. Crowds of people flocked to see her, and to be edified by the sight. From different and distant places numbers came as pilgrims to Kaltern. During the summer of 1833, more than forty thousand persons, of all classes, visited her, without the slightest disorder or scandal, although sometimes two or three thousand people in a day passed through the room of the rapt maiden, kneeling undisturbed in contemplation. Many sinners were moved and converted by the spectacle.

No one could explain the sudden and extraordinary commotion excited in a whole people. The civil and ecclesiastical authorities wished to prevent the concourse; so it was announced that no further pilgrimages would be allowed. They gradually ceased. The priests, however, bore testimony to the good results which had flowed from those pilgrimages. In the autumn of the same year, Francis Xavier Luschin, Prince-Bishop of Trent, caused an investigation to be made, and the witnesses to be examined on oath, regarding the state of the ecstatic virgin, to prevent any further proceedings and annoyances on the part of the police, but especially to remove all suspicion of pious fraud. The prince-bishop, who was impartial enough not to give a final decision, informed the civil authorities “that the sickness of Maria von Mörl was certainly not holiness, but that her undoubted holiness could not be called a sickness.”

All this excitement was unknown to the cause of it, who remained undisturbed by the throngs who came to see her. Her inner life seemed to be completely developed in the year 1834, when she received the stigmata. How this happened is best told in the words of Görres himself: “In the fall of 1833, the father-confessor occasionally remarked that the centre of her hands, where the wounds appeared at a later date, began to fall in, and the places became painful and troubled with frequent cramps. He suspected that stigmatization was about to happen, and the result justified his expectations. At early Mass, on February 4th, of the year 1834, he found her wiping her hands with a cloth in childish astonishment. When he perceived blood on it, he asked her what was the matter. She answered that she did not well understand what it was; that she must have cut herself in some strange way. But it was the stigmata, which from that day remained unchangeably in her palms, and soon appeared in her feet also, as well as in her side. So simply did Father Capistran act in the whole affair, and so little desirous of wonder-seeking did he show himself, that he never asked her what were her interior dispositions or phenomena immediately before the reception of the wounds. They were almost round, slightly oblong, about two inches in diameter, and appearing on both the upper and under parts of her hands and feet. The size of the lance stigma in the side, which only her most intimate female friends saw, could not be determined. On Thursday evenings and on Fridays, clear blood flowed in drops from the wounds; on the other days of the week, a dry crust of blood covered them, without the slightest symptoms of inflammation or the slightest traces of pus ever appearing. She concealed most carefully her state, and all that might betray her interior emotions. But on the occasion of a festive procession, in 1833, she fell into an ecstasy in the presence of several witnesses. She appeared like an angel, blooming like a rose. Her feet scarcely touching the bed, she stood up, with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, and the stigmata in her palms manifest to all beholders.”

Maria von Mörl became a sister of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and, in virtue of the obedience due to him, her confessor undertook to keep her ecstasies within due bounds. She promised him complete obedience. A word from him recalled her to herself. But his experience was very little. No one at home paid much attention to her. She was left very much alone. Her confessor was a sensible man, but very simple and not at all inquisitive. The circle of her spiritual phenomena rolled round within the ordinary limits of the feasts of the church. Father Capistran did not interfere at all in the singularities of her interior condition, or even try to investigate their nature with curiosity. “If she is not questioned,” wrote the good and simple confessor to Görres, “she says very little, and seldom speaks at all; thus, for instance, it is only to-day that I learned completely her vision of Saint Paul – on the feast of his conversion. Only now and then does she tell a particular circumstance, which I listen to quietly; and if she says nothing, I do not trouble her with questions. She sometimes says to me, ‘I cannot properly express what I see by word of mouth or by writing; and perhaps I might say something false.’ My direction is extremely plain: I want her to be always humble and devout to God; and I am satisfied when she prays so fervently to God, and intercedes for others, for sinners as well as for the just. It always seems to me that it is not the will of God that I should inquire too curiously about her visions and revelations, as Brentano did with Emmerich.” Thus wrote Father Capistran, who describes himself in his letter better than our pen could do it.

In September, 1835, Görres came to Kaltern, in the Southern Tyrol, where he saw frequently the stigmatized girl, whose health was becoming every day worse. He found her in her father’s house, lying in a neat, plain, whitewashed room, on a hard mattress, and covered with clean white linen. At the side of her bed was a little family altar; behind it, and over the windows, were a few religious pictures. She had a delicate figure, of medium height, and somewhat emaciated from the use of sparse diet, yet not unusually thin. When he saw her for the first time, she was in an ecstasy, kneeling on the lower part of her bed. Görres describes her thus: “Her hands, with the visible stigmata, were folded on her breast; her face turned to the church, and slightly raised; her eyes having a look of complete absorption which nothing could disturb. No movement was perceptible in her kneeling form for a whole hour, except a gentle breathing, occasionally a muscular action of the throat as in swallowing, and sometimes an oscillatory movement of the head and body. She seemed as if looking into the distance, gazing in rapture at God, like one of those angels who kneel around his throne. No wonder that her appearance produced such a great effect on the beholders, so as to bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened. During her ecstasy she contemplated the life and passion of Christ, adored the Blessed Sacrament, and prayed according to the spirit of the season of the ecclesiastical year. This we are told by her spiritual director. Her visions and revelations had all reference to something holy and ecclesiastical; and, unlike somnambulists, she remained entirely blind, like other persons, to her own bodily state.”

In her natural condition, Maria von Mörl left the impression of her being a simple and candid child on those who visited her. Görres gives a characteristic description of her: “No matter how deeply she may be lost in contemplation, a word of her confessor, no matter in how low a tone it may be uttered, recalls her from her rapture. There seems to be no medium condition; only sufficient time elapses to make her conscious of the word having been spoken, before she opens her eyes and becomes as self-possessed as if she were never in ecstasy. Her appearance becomes immediately changed into that of a young child. The first thing she does on awaking from her ecstasy, if she perceives spectators, is to hide her stigmatized hands under the bed-clothing, like a little girl who soils her hands with ink, and tries to conceal them at the approach of her mother. Then she looks curiously among the crowd, for she is now accustomed to the sight of multitudes, and gives every one a friendly greeting. As she has been dumb for some time, she tries to make herself understood by gestures; and when she finds this method unsuccessful, she turns her eyes entreatingly, like an inexperienced child, to her confessor, to ask him to help her and speak for her. The expression of her dark eye is that of joyous childhood. You can look through her clear eyes to the very bottom of her soul, and perceive that there is not a dark corner in her nature for anything evil to hide in. There is nothing defiled or deceitful in her character; no sentimentalism, no hypocrisy, nor the slightest trace of any pride; but all in her is childlike simplicity and innocence.”

Clement Brentano bears a similar witness to her virtue when he visited her at Kaltern, in 1835, and again in the harvest of 1837. In one of his letters he says of her: “Here lives the maiden Maria von Mörl, who is now in her twenty-third year. She is a lovely, pious, and chosen creature. She is incessantly rapt in ecstasy, kneeling in bed, her hands outstretched or folded. She is so wonderfully lengthened during her ecstasy, that one would take her for a very tall person, though really she is quite short. Her eyes remain open and fixed, and though the flies run over her eyelids, she moves them not. She is like a wax figure, and her look is striking. Now and then her spiritual director interrupts her visions, and immediately she settles into repose on her couch, but after a few minutes rises to her knees again. She makes no effort to rise; she seems carried by angels into a kneeling posture. The whole appearance of this extraordinary girl is moving, yet not shocking, for the moment the priest commands her to resume her natural state, she becomes like one of the most simple and innocent of children, as if she were not seven years old. The moment she perceives persons around her, she hides herself to the very nose under the bed-clothes, looks timorous, yet smiles on all around, and gives them pictures, preserving always a serene and attractive countenance, like that of the blessed Emmerich.”

Like a child, she was fond of children, of birds and flowers. It was observed that birds seemed to have a great liking for her. They sang in flocks around her windows, and if they were brought into her room they flew to her. On one occasion three wild doves were given to her, and although they never allowed any one to fondle them before, they alighted on her, two of them on her arms, and the third on her clasped hands, putting its bill to her mouth as she prayed. This beautiful scene was repeated for several days, until the doves were driven away. The same thing happened with a chicken which a little sister of Maria’s, a child of nine years old, accidentally brought into her chamber.

If friends were around her, she could sometimes remain mistress of herself and take part in their conversation; but this was only for a short time, and she fell again into ecstasy. The passion of our Lord seemed to be the special object of her contemplation, and on Fridays especially she suffered agony in her mystical life. In the forenoon her sufferings began to be noticeable. As the great drama of the crucifixion proceeded, its traces were visible in her; her pains increasing until the hour of the death on the cross, when her whole person became as if it were lifeless. Görres paints, in his usual graphic style, all these phenomena, even to the most minute details. (P. 505-508.) For the sake of brevity, we shall quote only Brentano’s words. As he was an eye-witness of what he narrates, he is perfectly reliable: “I have never seen anything more awful and astounding; all the patience, anguish, abandonment, and love of Jesus dying was represented in her with inexpressible truth and dignity. She is seen dying by degrees; dark spots cover her face, her nose becomes pinched, her eyes break, cold sweat runs down her person, death struggles in her trembling bosom; her head is raised, while her mouth opens in pain; her neck and chin form almost a straight line, her tongue becomes parched, and is drawn up as if withered; her breathing is low and slightly gurgling; her hands fall powerless to her side, and her head sinks on her bosom. A priest, to whom Father Capistran, who was present, gave authority, commanded her to repose. In a moment she lay fatigued, but calm on her bed, and after about three minutes rose again to her knees, and returned thanks for the death of the Lord.”

These phenomena were repeated every Friday throughout the year. Her sufferings became more and more extraordinary. In the year 1836, it was observed that, on the Fridays after the ascension of Christ, when she finished her mystical agony, beginning at three P.M., she fell into a new ecstasy which lasted until half-past four o’clock. Her body lay extended on her couch as on a cross, her arms outstretched as if powerfully wrenched; her head hung on one side, bent somewhat back off her pillow, and unsupported by anything. Thus she remained sometimes two hours as if dead, and could not be recalled without violent and painful convulsions. But when she came back to her natural state, she was ever the same innocent and gentle girl, as if she had never been blessed by God with extraordinary visitations.

So much had ecstasy become a second nature to her, that she was self-conscious only at intervals and by great efforts of the will. During Görres’s stay at Kaltern, Maria was asked to stand godmother for a newly born child. She accepted the invitation with great joy, and took the most lively interest in the ceremony; but during it she became ecstatic several times, and had to be repeatedly recalled from her trance.

Yet with all this, she did not neglect the care of her family as far as it lay in her power, and with the direction and counsel of her good confessor. Two o’clock in the afternoon was the hour appointed by him for her to attend to her household affairs. At that hour she was commanded by him to leave her trance, and then, with the greatest diligence, and with the care of a mother, she directed business matters, dictated letters, and arranged all the necessary temporal concerns with great prudence and good sense.

In the year 1841, she left her father’s house, and went, in the beginning of November, to live in the convent of the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis, where, as one of its members, she received a separate dwelling next the church. Here she enjoyed great repose, for access to her became less easy, as visitors were required to procure permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to see her. Still, pilgrimages did not cease; and the good influence exercised by her increased. Of the deep religious impression produced by her ecstasies, the Bishop of Terni, Monsignor Vincent Tizzani, speaks authoritatively in a pastoral letter published regarding Maria von Mörl in the year 1842. He had seen her, one Friday, in her ecstasy and agony, and he could not repress his tears at beholding the text so literally verified, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” His testimony concerning the stigmata and the circumstances of her supernatural state agrees in every particular with that rendered by Görres and Brentano seven years previously. Louis Clarus also, at that time a Protestant, afterward a Catholic, in his studies on mysticism, felt compelled to render this witness concerning her. “The force of truth and reality,” says he, writing of his visit to Kaltern, “impressed me so, that I felt necessitated, like the apostle John, to announce what I had heard, my eyes had seen, and my hands touched.”

Many others, among them Lord Shrewsbury, attest the same fact, every succeeding witness confirming the testimony of his predecessor.

A whole generation has passed since then, and no one has been able to contradict their statements, or explain the phenomena on any natural principles. For thirty years every one could behold her in ecstasy or agony, and see the wounds plainly on her hands and feet, while she remained ever humble, meek, modest as a child, and intensely pious and holy. Her history could be written in two words: “She suffers, and contemplates.” She was a passion-flower clinging to the foot of the cross. In ecstasy she spent her life, contemplating the sufferings of Jesus Christ, praying for all, for the church, and for her native land; doing good to countless poor people, alleviating their sorrows, like the divine Master who dwelt in the recesses of her soul.

Three years before her death she lost her confessor, Father Capistran, who had guided her soul for almost forty years. He was a distinguished theologian, a good priest, and had been judged worthy to be chosen provincial of his order, the Franciscans. He died on the 4th of May, 1865. She mourned his death like a child, and longed more than ever to be dissolved and be with Christ.

Her wish was soon gratified. She became very weak in the autumn of 1867, and the numerous visits she was compelled to receive, as well as the frequent requests made of her, completely prostrated her physical powers. The number of pilgrims to her “Swallows’ Nest,” as Görres called her abode near the Franciscan church, was extraordinary; men, women, priests, and laity, all came to her shrine.

The measure of her physical suffering was full; but the measure of her mental anguish was not yet complete. On the 8th of September, 1867, she was visited by a severe spiritual trouble. She seemed to be struggling with some power of hell. She became sad, and as if forsaken by God, to such an extent that until September 17th, and for weeks after, consciousness seems to have entirely left her. In this spiritual conflict she saw troops of demons, which surrounded, attacked her, and threatened to carry her off to judgment. She saw and heard the fiends blaspheming all things holy, and trying to bear even the most righteous away to the abyss. She heard the devils scoff at her, and boast that they had the pope in their power; that they had desecrated churches and convents, and made wickedness thrive in the land. These temptations and obsessions lasted from the middle of September to the middle of October, when peace again returned to her soul. From the 23d of October she was able to receive the blessed sacrament regularly; the struggle was over; she had conquered, and was now at rest. When she was afterward interrogated regarding these obsessions, she said that, on the night of the 7th of September, as she was praying for the pope and the emperor, the attack began. It was precisely at this time that the invasion of the pope’s temporal possessions by the Garibaldians, sanctioned by the Sardinian government, took place. The French expedition was sent to the pope’s relief toward the middle of October, just when Maria’s soul obtained rest from demoniacal aggressions; so that her personal affliction seems to have been a participation in the sufferings of the church.

But the light of her life was flickering in the socket. She had a presentiment of her death before it took place, and prophesied often that she would never pass the winter on earth. Toward All Saints’ day her weakness became greater, and everything foretold her dissolution. She could no longer bear nourishment. Lemonade or water, with the essence of quinces, was almost her only nourishment for some weeks before her death. When she felt better on certain days, she ate fruit, bread, or porridge, but never meat or meat soup. She sometimes spent several days without eating or drinking. In the last week, especially from Wednesday she suffered great torture. But she was full of resignation; indifferent to life or death, she never repined or murmured. She was patient and full of calm resignation and infantile love. On the feast of the Epiphany, five days before her death, she showed herself in her usual way to the pilgrims; there was a mission at Kaltern, and the missionaries visited her on that festival, to bid her farewell. She received them with bland hospitality, and offered them grapes to eat.

She knew nothing positive about the precise moment of her death, but only that she should die when everything on her became white. The stigmata began gradually to disappear, leaving only a blue spot, which disappeared entirely after her departure. She received the viaticum on January 6th, in the evening. Every one thought she would die immediately; but she made known by gestures that she should not die yet. She remained conscious, and was able to receive holy communion daily.

At last the day of her demise, January 11th, came. About half-past two on Saturday morning, two hours after communion, she passed from this vale of tears to her heavenly home. Her last agony was easy and calm. She lay quiet, occasionally murmuring the name of Jesus; and one of the bystanders heard her say: “Oh! how beautiful; oh! how beautiful.” Her breathing grew weaker, and she fell gently asleep in death.

Her body was exposed in the church for two days, and thousands visited it. Many felt as if they had lost a member of their own family. She lay dressed as a bride, clothed in white, with a white veil on her brow, and a crown of flowers at her feet. Her face was beautiful to look upon, half-childlike in expression, yet mingled with the dignity of a matron; her head reclined, bent toward the left side; her brow and eyes were full of dignity; her mouth like that of an infant smiling in sleep; her hands white as alabaster, and ruddy as roses. Afterward the veil was taken away and she appeared more angelic than ever, her rich flowing hair surrounding her noble head. A look of perfect happiness beamed from her entire countenance.

Her burial was solemn. Surrounded by mourning and edified multitudes, her body was borne by young maidens from the catafalque to the zinc coffin prepared for its reception. Her remains were taken on January 13th to her father’s family vault at Kaltern, where they now rest in peace.

Kaltern lost its jewel in losing Maria; but her virtues will live for ever in the hallowed spot where she was born, where she lived and died. Truly did Görres write of her to the Prince-Bishop of Trent: “God put her like a living crucifix on the cross-roads, to preach to a godless and dissipated people.” She was one of those lamps lighted by the hand of God himself to shine in the darkness, when infidelity is abroad robbing and devouring in the vineyard of Christ. For this purpose she was sent by God, and hence we may well expect that the wonderful supernatural phenomena of her ecstatic life will not cease with her death.

– text taken from The Catholic World magazine, volume 8, October 1868 to March 1869; image from Wikimedia Commons