The Astonishing Christina

Even in her lifetime, there was some question of whether or not St. Christina Mirabilis (Christina the Astonishing, 1150-1224) was mad, possessed, or a divinely touched worker of wonders. Her story begins in earnest when she dies at the age of 21. At her funeral mass, she revives and flies up to the roof until the priest orders her down, where she relates her tour of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Meeting God, she was given the chance to remain in heaven or return to earth as a victim soul to help free those suffering torments in purgatory. She chooses the latter option, and this explains her Astonishing wonders.

Christina returns from purgatory with the ability to smell the stench of sin on others, so she flees into the wild and live in trees “after the manner of birds.” Many modern saint dictionaries pass over the matter of how she feeds herself, but her first biographer explains the miracle of the milk. After she prays for sustenance,

”Without delay, when she turned her eyes to herself, she saw that the dry paps of her virginal breasts were dripping sweet milk against the very law of nature. Wondrous thing! Unheard of in all the centuries since the incomparable Mother of God! Using the dripping liquid as food, she was nourished for nine weeks with the milk from her fruitful but virginal breasts. In the meantime, she was being sought by her own people and was found, captured, and bound as before with iron chains—but in vain.”

Her work takes on a very particular character as she tries to subject herself to the same torments she witnessed in purgatory. She would sneak into the furnaces of bread makers and roll around in the flames, screaming in agony but emerging fully unharmed. Likewise, she would stick her hand in fires and roll around, jump into boiling cauldrons, throw herself into frigid bodies of water, allow water wheels to buffet her body, provoke vicious dogs to attack her, and hang herself beside condemned criminals. In all these things, she felt pain, but suffered no physical harm.

Her body was said to be so light that she “walked on dizzy heights and, like a sparrow, hung suspended from the topmost branches of the loftiest trees.” When she prayed,

“all her limbs were gathered together into a ball as if they were hot wax and all that could be perceived of her was a round mass. After her spiritual inebriation was finished and her active physical senses had restored her limbs to their proper place, like a hedgehog her rolled up body returned to its proper shape and the limbs which had been bent formlessly once again were spread out.”

Subsequent re-tellings of her story have coated it with a thick varnish of either pious credulity or excessive skepticism, so it’s important to return to the sources and examine just how they considered the facts. Everything just related comes from The Life of Christina of St. Trond, written by Dominican scholar Thomas of Cantimpre eight years after her death from extensive interviews with eyewitnesses. Furthermore, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, cardinal, historian and advisor to Pope Gregory IX, knew Christina in life, and wrote about her in his own Life of Mary of Oignies, retelling the story of her death, rebirth, and marvels. Jacques was the author of Historia Orientalis, and Thomas spent 20 years on his natural history De natura rerum. Both men were noted intellectuals of their age, so waving away their writings about Christina as superstitious medieval credulity would be imprudent.

Indeed, Thomas’s actual writing about Christina does not read as one who is either spinning pious fables or believing anything people tell him. He says he is “perfectly satisfied” with the witnesses he is quoting, adding:

”I do not say perfectly satisfied without cause, for I have so many straightforward witnesses to what I have described who were living at the time in the town of St-Trond and who could use their reason, and these things were not done in narrow corners but straightforwardly among the people. Nor has so much time elapsed that oblivion has swallowed up and buried [these occurrences], for I wrote this life not more than eight years after her death. I personally heard other things from people who swore they learned them from her won mouth which no one could have known except [Christina] herself. And whoever reads this might acknowledge that he has believed me by virtue of such witnesses who by no means would deviate from the center of truth even at the risk of losing their heads. We admit—and it is true—that our account surpasses all human understanding inasmuch as these things could by no means have occurred according to the course of nature, although such things are possible to the Creator.”

St.-Christina-1This is a fairly strong level of attestation. In the middle ages, hagiography might cue readers using a kind sliding scale of veracity ranging from the low end of believability, with phrasing like “some say,” up to a high level such as “a bishop reports” or even personal witness. This is evident in the Golden Legend, where Jacobus may repeat a story in order to preserve it for the purposes of preaching, but add that it should not be believed as literally true.

It wasn’t unusual for a hagiographer to assure readers that all is true!, but Thomas’s writing has a different quality to it. I hope to write about his relatively clear-headed demonology, found in Bonum universale de apibus, some other time, but it provides a fascinating contrast with his writing on Christina for a simple reason: on first glance, she appears to be more demoniac or lunatic than saint:

”No mortal at that time could restrain her when she longed to go into the wilderness. When she returned no one dared greet her, no one dared ask her anything. Once she returned in the evening and passed above the ground right through the middle of a house like a spirit, and people could scarcely tell whether a spirit or a material body had passsed by, since she barely seemed to touch the ground. Indeed, in the last year of her life the spirit so possessed her living body in almost all its parts that human minds and eyes could scarcely behold the shadow it cast without horror and trembling.

Thomas tells many other stories about Christina, but they all emphasize her characteristic marvels, mysticism, visions, and prophesy, in particular the torments she bore for the sufferings souls in purgatory. This penitential aspect seems to be the key to understanding both Christina and her life—it units an otherwise motley selection of marvels and miracles into a cohesive lesson about purgatory.

Teasing out fact from fiction is a hopeless exercise at this point in history. Only two genuine sources exist, Jacques and Thomas, and neither has the quality of hagiographic or apocalyptic fantasy found in other saints lives and purgatorial accounts. What we cannot do, however, is what previous generations often did: wave it all away as pious fictions invented or repeated by credulous fools. Reading the accounts of Christina in context, along with other works by their authors, makes it clear that while both men were certainly pious, they were neither fools nor liars.