Today is the feast of the 13th-century holy woman St. Margaret of Cortona, whose journey to sanctity included suffering abuse by her stepmother and rejection by her father; loving a man who fathered her child but refused to marry her; suffering public chastisement for having a child out of wedlock; and having to support her child on her own after her lover was murdered.
I initially intended to include Margaret’s powerful story in My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, but ultimately felt I could not do a better job than Father Emmerich Vogt, O.P., who packs a number of pertinent psychological insights into his brief article on her. Here is an edited excerpt, but do read the whole thing:
She was born in 1247 in Tuscany, the daughter of a farmer. Her mother died when Margaret was seven years old. Her father remarried. The stepmother considered Margaret a nuisance. As is very common today among children who feel unwanted, Margaret was easily drawn to a man who showed her the attention and love she craved, and so she ran off with him, bore him a son, and lived as his mistress for nine years. In 1274 he was murdered by robbers, and his body dumped in a shallow grave.
Margaret saw the incident as a sign from God. She confessed to the affair and returned to the Sacraments. She tried to return to her father’s house, but he would not accept her. She and her son took refuge with the Franciscan Friars in their nearby shelter in a town called Cortona. …
She earned her keep by caring for the sick poor, living on alms, asking nothing for her services. At the age of 30, having fallen in love with the Franciscan charism, of which she was a grateful beneficiary, she became a Franciscan tertiary. The sense of belonging that this commitment gave her helped Margaret develop a deep and intense prayer life and to overcome her need for attention from men. …
[She] founded a hospital in Cortona for the sick poor. Sharing her “experience, strength, and hope”, she preached against vice to any who would listen. She gradually developed a great devotion to the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ. Her spiritual life taught her the great graces given her through her trials. She came to see the power of Christ’s passion as operative in her own life, where through her perseverance in overcoming vice, through being “crucified to the world” by denying her wounded impulses, she “rose from the dead” to the new life of grace which bore great fruit for her, for the Church, and for the poor.Drawn by her tenderness, affection, and understanding love, the poor flocked to her. And yet despite this, the sins of her earlier life followed her the rest of her life, and she was forever the target of local gossips. Margaret bore this with great equanimity, always praying for her persecutors. [Full article]
I am currently reading Canon Anthony Giovagnoli’s eighteenth-century biography of St. Margaret (available as a free download), which was reprinted in the United States with the approbation of St. John Neumann when he was bishop of Philadelphia. It includes an introduction by the noted Abb#eacute; Bergier, who relates a beautiful story about how Christ consoled the penitent Margaret:
Our Lord deigned to favor her with his private converse, and at first gave her no other name but poverella (poor thing). Happy at first, she at last saddened to receive no other name from her Beloved, and she humbly complained. She was long kept in this lot, already most sweet and consoling. At last, she heard herself called daughter, and her joy was great. Not long after Our Lord called her by a still dearer title: spouse. Her longings were now crowned, there was naught more to desire; but Our Lord, who is infinite, wished to console her beyond all hopes, and he, who is truth itself, called Margaret, the poor companion of his virgins, consequently his virgin. She could not believe it, she was alarmed, thinking doubtless that the devil wished to deceive her. He, who is the resurrection and the life, reassured and confirmed her, promising to place her in his kingdom in the rank of virgins, because all is possible to love.