Studies in the Lives of the Saints: The Blessed Angela of Foligno

17th century print of Blessed Angela of Foligno; artist unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThat Christian mysticism is neither a mere reproduction of the experience of Asiatic ascetics nor a madness that has occasionally possessed the mind of those few who, it may be, have dared to think too profoundly and intimately of God is evident to us almost at once on reading the Book of the Visions of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. A daughter of Saint Francis, she is even in her wildest experiences still in touch with the world that had not always been a matter of indifference to her. While failing to reach the profound and solemn wisdom of Saint Teresa or Saint John of the Cross she continues always to retain a little humanity, so that one loves her more than those others, finding in her simplicity something that is almost of ourselves, transfigured by a great light. Of her life we know almost nothing beside the few facts contained in her autobiography, and even the year of her birth is doubtful. And yet one is content; the few facts of her life are significant of much ; they suggest at least what can never be made certain.

It is perhaps almost with a feeling of relief we learn that her childhood was not overshadowed by the seriousness of that dream of eternal life, that self-examination and introspection, that in the lives of Saint Teresa and Saint Catherine of Siena are to the modern mind, with its curious delight in childhood, so distressing. Happiness! after all that is the peculiar right of childhood, a right less often enjoyed than is generally supposed, one may think. And yet, indeed, that freedom from serious preoccupation, that dreamy well-being, with the limitless horizons of childhood, ignorant of the necessity of death, have something of that serious, almost profound contentment that is happiness or something very near to it, that one loses completely as one grows older, how completely one only realizes in reading the lives of the saints.

For Blessed Angela we may believe that state of childhood lasted long – till indeed we find her married and the world breaking in on that silence and the sweetness of life concealing the true death, calling her, calling her, and almost without thinking, scarcely wakened from that pleasant dream, she runs with open arms into the world that has entrapped her. How long her captivity lasted we do not know – “many years,” she herself says – until one day at dawn perhaps, or at evening, in the silence of the sunshine, or in the song of the stars, she hears a voice irresistible, implacable, and almost like a frightened child she discovers herself, sees herself really for the first time, becomes self-conscious, and bursts into tears. And in the overwhelming impulse of that moment she decides to go to confession, a duty forgotten in the long sweet business of the world. But before that crucifix that was gradually becoming so real and terrible a fact to her she was afraid and could not tell the more grievous of her sins; and again, with a feeling of remorse almost, profoundly curious, fearing the impossibility of ever separating herself from that supreme and terrible love, she swiftly communicated, adding sacrilege to her other sins.

And now her conscience, hitherto almost silent, awakens, suddenly and violently accusing her day and night without rest, so that in utter dismay and terror she flies to her old Father Saint Francis, beseeching him for his aid in many things, especially asking him to send her a confessor who will understand her sins. And it was in the morning after her appeal to Saint Francis that she finds a friar, “a true Chaplain of Christ,” preaching in the church of Saint Felician, to whom she makes a full confession in bitterness, shame and grief, receiving, still with those after sobs shaking her like a weary child, his absolution.

It was from this point Blessed Angela set out upon her slow and wonderful journey towards purification. Nor is there anything easy, or even pleasant by the way. For many years, she says, she was full of grief and without consolation.

In her simple and still child-like way she traces her progress for us in the little chapters of her life. Here she considers among other things the mercy of God; applying herself after she began to be enlightened by that profound love, to a severer penance “of which,” says she, “I speak not here.”

In the terrible caverns of the self-accusing spirit, far from any light of day or sound of life, what agony of darkness has not the soul of man suffered, what fear in the hissing silence, since Christ rose from the dead! The experiences of man in these encounters with himself have become in our own day something very far removed from the Visions of Blessed Angela, have become indeed ugly and consumed with a desire that is almost never spiritual. Yet gross as one may suppose had been the life of the Blessed Angela before she heard that most sweet voice calling her over the Umbrian hills, it is in a mood as simple as that of a maiden that she desires to be gathered to the heart of God, that she hears indeed the words of Christ as the words of a splendid Lover.

“After this,” she says, speaking of an ecstasy of prayer, “after this I went to Saint Francis’s, at Assisi, and as I went along the way praying, just as I had arrived between the cave and the narrow path which leadeth up to Assisi, and a little beyond the cave, in that place it was said unto me, “Thou hast asked of My servant Francis, and I have been pleased to send another messenger. I am the Holy Ghost, and I have come unto thee to give thee consolation which otherwise thou hadst never tasted. And I will come with thee, inwardly within thyself as far as Saint Francis’s, and some of those who are with thee will notice it a little. And it is My will to come with thee and speak with thee the whole of that way, and I will not give over speaking nor wilt thou be able to listen to anything else but Me ; for I have bound thee fast and I will not depart from thee … if thou lovest Me . . . Love Me, for thou art much beloved by Me, much more than I am loved by thee!” And He added in an under breath, “I love thee more than any woman in the valley of Spoleto. Because My servant Francis hath loved me much therefore have I done much for him.” And Christ speaks further with her, telling her that there were few good and at that time but little faith; and complaining, as she says, He speaks to her of the Love He bears the soul. “So great I say is the love which I have for the soul that loveth Me, without malice, that were there now any soul that perfectly loved Me I would give unto it greater grace than formerly I gave unto saints. Ah, there is not any one who can excuse himself from this love, because He Himself truly loveth the soul and He is Himself her love.”

In all the lives of the saints there is not to be found anything more lovely than that walk with Christ through the vineyards of Umbria. Even Saint Francis, who alone of all the saints has conquered the world, has no sweeter experience to tell, no lovelier vision, no calmer or quieter hour in all his life.

Trembling with the eagerness of love that shall be satisfied, on the eve of an experience almost too good to be true, she doubts not quite seriously, but playfully as it were, that this most sweet companion is indeed the Bridegroom. “He said unto me,” she says, “I am He who was crucified for thee, and I had hunger and thirst for thy sake, and so much have I loved thee that I shed My blood for thee.” And He told her of His passion. Then my soul cried out, “If Thou who hast talked with me from the beginning wert the Holy Ghost, Thou wouldst not tell me such great things; and if Thou wert indeed within me, so great ought to be my joy that I could not bear to live.”

And like the miraculous and lovely bridegroom, Christ gives to her to whom He spoke of love, a sign. “Try now to speak with thy companions and think of other things whatsoever thou wilt whether good or evil, and thou wilt not be able to think of aught but Me.”

Wrapped in the arms of Him who had silenced, not only the world, but her own spirit also, all her evil deeds came back into her memory on account of which she realized it may be for the first time that she was worthy of Hell. And it is only in great terror she can contemplate the end of the way in which Jesus accompanied her, nor is she ever willing to loose His hand again “for the whole time that the world should last.”

What a fund of human nature, resolved from all discord it is true, but still poignantly human in its cheerfulness and its simplicity, is there in that experience or vision!

After all she was a true Franciscan. It was against the rules of her order to be more than a little sad, cheerfulness being indeed a kind of duty in those who had heard the very voice of Jesus.

So she explains to us very sweetly that the first companion that accompanied Our Lord Jesus even unto death was Lady Poverty – most perfect, who, so great was the love of God for Saint Francis, was sent even that same sweet Princess to be his companion, and the companion of all his little poor ones, all the days of the world. And with a passionate love and regret she exclaims, “O measureless madness of the world, which after that such and so great a Lord and King of kings has been treated with ignominy and contempt, is ever aspiring unto dignities and wishing for liberty, none being desirous of obedience and subjection for the love of Him, Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It was to her confessor, Brother Arnold of the Friars Minor, that she told the history of that inner life of the soul, ignoring almost entirely her actual life in the world, which was to her indeed but a dream. He says of her in his second Prologue to her Book of Visions and Instructions, that when at times, standing before him, her soul was lifted up she was not able “to understand anything of what I was reading to her; she was changed in the face and in the body by reason of the word which God spoke to her, and so great was her devotion and delight in these consolations that at times her eyes shone like candles and her face was as a rose.”

And she who had held the rose of the world so tightly in youth, so that the thorns had torn her bosom, and the perfume of the bruised petals had enveloped her, having known the wild love of the world well, ah well, threw it from her for that more excellent desire, that so transfigured her before Brother Arnold.

And it is almost with passionate ecstasy that in the last little chapter of her book she enumerates the seven gifts of this new bridegroom, who had loved her almost in spite of herself, and brought her “out of the wilderness” and spoken so sweetly to her.

Beginning really at the very beginning, she tells this Lover, as in some delightful confidence, that the first gift he gave her was Life, and the second Eternity, the third the Sacrifice of His own life, and the fourth the Reason to understand this, the fifth a Capacity to understand Him, the sixth Wisdom whereby we know the burning Love of God, and the seventh, Love himself, for God is Love.

And indeed almost her last words are concerning that sweet Charity without which there is neither “salvation nor merit.”

“The world jests,” she whispers to her children, “at what I say, namely, that a man can weep for the sins of his neighbours as for his own or even more than for his own, for it seemeth against nature. But it is charity which doeth this, and charity is not of this world.”

She makes no testament, recommending to them instead, “Mutual love and profound humility.”

And it was about Christmas time that she came to pass away to that Lover who had never left her for a moment since He called her from a little distance over the Umbrian hills and valleys on that morning in her youth.

Hesitating on the abyss of God’s infinity, she tells those few gathered around her the profound thought that had come to her almost from that other world for which she was about to set out. “Know ye not,” she says, “that Christ was in the ship while the Tempest was great? Even so is it sometimes in the world, when He permitteth temptations to come, and He Himself seemeth to sleep.”

It was after Compline on the Octave of the Innocents’ Day that having lain all day exceeding joyful in quiet of body and gladness of spirit, at the last hour of the day she fell into a light sleep, and caught up in some dream or vision more lovely by far than any that had come to her before, she let life fall, and was presented to God by Him who had loved her even from the beginning.

– from Studies in the Lives of the Saints by Edward Hutton, 1902