May 25 – St Mary Magdalen de Pazzi (1556-1607), Carmelite Mystic & Great Catholic Reformer, “To suffer and not to die”

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“Our Lady of Carmel and Saints”, by Pietro Novelli, 1641, Simon Stock (standing), Angelus of Jerusalem (kneeling), Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Teresa of Avila, Museo Diocesano, Palermo

It would be easy to concentrate on the mystical experiences God gave this saint, rather than on her life. In fact, it would be difficult to do differently, so overwhelming were those gifts from God. The temptation for many modern readers (including the author) would be to see little to identify with in these graces and walk away without seeing more. The other temptation would be to become so fascinated with these stories that one would neglect to dig deeper and learn the real lessons of her life.

But Mary Magdalene de Pazzi is not a saint because she received ecstasies and graces from God. Many have received visions, ecstasies, and miracles without becoming holy. She is a saint because of her response to those gifts — a lifelong struggle to show love and gratitude to the God who gave her those graces.

In fact Mary Magdalene saw her ecstasies as evidence of a great fault in her, not a reward for holiness. She told one fellow sister that God did not give this sister the same graces “because you don’t need them in order to serve him.” In her eyes, God gave these gifts to those who were too weak to become holy otherwise. That Mary Magdalene received these gifts proved, in her mind, how unworthy she was.

Born into one of the wealthiest and most distinguished noble families in Florence on April 2, 1566, the normal course would have been for Catherine de Pazzi to have married wealth and enjoyed comfort.  Baptized Catherine, she was taught mental prayer when she was nine years old at the request of her mother. Her introduction at this age to this form of prayer which involves half an hour of meditation did not seem to be unusual. And yet today we often believe children incapable of all but the simplest rote prayers.  At twelve years old she experienced her first ecstasy while looking at a sunset which left her trembling and speechless.  She received religious training from the Jesuits.

With this foundation in prayer and in mystical experience, it isn’t surprising that she wanted to enter a contemplative monastery of the Carmelite Order. She chose the monastery of St. Mary’s of the Angels because the nuns took daily Communion, unusual at the time.

In 1583 she had her second mystical experience when the other nuns saw her weeping before the crucifix as she said, “O Love, you are neither known nor loved.”

Mary Magdalene’s life is a contradiction of our instinctive thought that joy only comes from avoiding suffering. A month after being refused early religious profession, she fell deathly ill. Fearing for her life the convent had her professed from a stretcher at the altar. After that she experienced forty days of ecstasies that coexisted with her suffering. Joy from the graces God gave were mixed with agony as her illness grew worse. In one of her experiences Jesus took her heart and hid it in his own, telling her he “would not return it until it is wholly pure and filled with pure love.” She didn’t recover from her illness until told to ask for the intercession of Blessed Mary Bagnesi over three months later.

As a safeguard against deception and to preserve the revelations, her confessor asked Mary Magdalene to dictate her experiences to sister secretaries. Over the next six years, five large volumes were filled. The first three books record ecstasies from May of 1584 through Pentecost week the following year. A severe five-year trial would follow. The fourth book records that trial and the fifth is a collection of letters concerning reform and renewal. Another book, “Admonitions”, is a collection of her sayings arising from her experiences in the formation of women religious.

What her experiences and prayer had given her was a familiar, personal relationship with Jesus. Her conversations with Jesus often take on a teasing, bantering tone that shocks those who have a formal, fearful image of God. For example, at the end of her forty days of graces, Jesus offered her a crown of flowers or a crown of thorns. No matter how often she chose the crown of thorns, Jesus kept teasingly pushing the crown of flowers to her. When he accused her, “I called and you didn’t care,” she answered back, “You didn’t call loudly enough” and told him to shout his love.

She learned to regret the insistence on the crown of thorns. We might think it is easy to be holy if God is talking to you every day but few of us could remain on the path with the five year trial that followed her first ecstasies. Before this trial, Jesus told her, “I will take away not the grace but the feeling of grace. Though I will seem to leave you I will be closer to you.” This was easy for her to accept in the midst of ecstasy but, as she said later, she hadn’t experienced it yet. At the age of nineteen she started five years of dryness and desolation in which she was repelled by prayer and tempted by everything. She referred to her heart as a pitch-dark room with only a feeble light shining that only made the darkness deeper. She was so depressed she was found twice close to suicide. All she could do to fight back was to hold onto prayer, penance, and serving others even when it appeared to do no good.

Her lifelong devotion to Pentecost can be easily understood because her trial ended in ecstasy in 1590. At this time she could have asked for any gifts but she wanted two in particular: to look on any neighbor as good and holy without judgment and to always have God’s presence before her.  She dedicated herself to the reform and renewal of the Church.  Her great desire for Church reform was born during this time, after witnessing rays of light from on high in the summer of 1586, showing her the true state of the Church in the era after the Council of Trent.  Like Catherine of Siena, she felt ‘compelled’ to write letters to the Pope, cardinals of the Curia, her archbishop and other Church leaders, encouraging them to work for the renewal of the Church.

Far from enjoying the attention her mystical experiences brought her, she was embarrassed by it. For all her days, she wanted a hidden life and tried everything she could to achieve it. When God commanded her to go barefoot as part of her penance and she could not walk with shoes, she simply cut the soles out of her shoes so no one would see her as different from the other nuns. If she felt an ecstasy coming on, she would hurry to finish her work and go back to her room. She learned to see the notoriety as part of God’s will. When teaching a novice to accept God’s will, she told her, “I wanted a hidden life but, see, God wanted something quite different for me.”

Some still might think it was easy for her to be holy with all the help from God. Yet when she was asked once why she was weeping before the cross, she answered that she had to force herself to do something right that she didn’t want to do. It’s true that when a sister criticized her for acting so different, she thanked her, “May God reward you! You have never spoken truer words!” but she told others it hurt her quite a bit to be nice to someone who insulted her.

Mary Magdalene was no pale, shrinking flower. Her wisdom and love led to her appointment to many important positions at the convent including mistress of novices. She did not hesitate to be blunt in guiding the women under her care when their spiritual life was at stake. When one of the novices asked permission to pretend to be impatient so the other novices would not respect her so much, Mary Magdalene’s answer shook this novice out of this false humility: “What you want to pretend to be, you already are in the eyes of the novices. They don’t respect you nearly as much as you like to think.”

Mary Magdalene’s life offers a great challenge to all those who think that the best penance comes from fasting and physical discomfort. Though she fasted and wore old clothes, she chose the most difficult penance of all by pretending to like the things she didn’t like. Not only is this a penance most of us would shrink from but, by her acting like she enjoyed it, no one knew she was doing this great penance!

In 1604, headaches, paralyzation, and tuberculosis confined her to bed. Her nerves were so sensitive that she could not be touched without agonizing pain. Ever humble, she took the fact that her prayers were not granted as a sure sign that God’s will was being done. For three years she suffered, before dying on May 25, 1607 at the age of forty-one.  Even to this day, her body remains with the Carmelite community in which she lived and is incorrupt, and is under the altar of the Church of the Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi in Careggi, Florence.

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-The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi” ,1670, by Alessandro Rosi (1627-1707), oil on canvas, 120 x 102 cm. Sold $90,900 (2008, Christie’s), Musée des Beaux-arts, Chambéry, France

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-“The Vision of Santa Maria Maddalena de Pazzi”, 1702,  by Giovanni Sangrestani

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-Carmelite Saints:  Prophet Elijah; Cyril of Constantinople ;Andrew Corsini, Bishop and Peacemaker; Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi; Brocard, the first Superior of Mount Carmel; Thérèse, The Little Flower; Simon Stock; Our Lady of Mount Carmel with Child Jesus; Albert of Sicily; Teresa of Jesus; Berthold, the Second Prior General of the Carmelites; Patriarch Peter Thomas; Angelus of Sicily; John of the Cross; and the Prophet Eliseus.

Prayer ought to be humble, fervent, resigned, persevering, and accompanied with great reverence. One should consider that he stands in the presence of a God, and speaks with a Lord before whom the angels tremble from awe and fear.”
– Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi

“Come, Holy Spirit. Spirit of truth, you are the reward of the saints, the comforter of souls, light in the darkness, riches to the poor, treasure to lovers, food for the hungry, comfort to those who are wandering; to sum up, you are the one in whom all treasures are contained.
Come! As you descended upon Mary that the Word might become flesh, work in us through grace as you worked in her through nature and grace.
Come! Food of every chaste thought, fountain of all mercy, sum of all purity.
Come! Consume in us whatever prevents us from being consumed in You.”
– from the writings of Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

“A little drop of simple obedience is worth a million times more than a whole vase of the choicest contemplation.”
– Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi

“If I thought that by saying a word, however indifferent, for any other end than the love of God, I could become a Seraph, I certainly would not say it.” – Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi

“If I had a voice sufficiently loud and strong to be heard in every part of the world, I would cry out to make this Love known, loved, and honored by all men as the one immeasurable Good.” -St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

“Trials are nothing else but the forge that purifies the soul of all its imperfections.”
-St Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi

“You will be consoled according to the greatness of your sorrow and affliction; the greater the suffering, the greater will be the reward.” –St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

Prayer:
Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray that we will make a commitment to seek the presence of God in prayer the way you did. Guide us to see the graces God gives us as gifts not rewards and to respond with gratitude and humility, not pride and selfishness. Amen

“St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi is a symbolic figure of living love that recalls an essential dimension of every Christian life,” said Benedict XVI in 2007. The Pope said this in a letter to the Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of Florence, Italy, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Carmelite mystic’s death.”She did not let herself be conditioned by the world; the world, though Christian, did not satisfy her desire to become ever more similar to her crucified Spouse,” wrote the Holy Father.  “Purified love, which beat so strongly in her heart, opened her to the desire for full conformity with Christ, her Spouse, even unto sharing with him the ‘nudo patire’ [naked suffering] of the cross,” the Pope continued. “The last three years of her life were a true Calvary of sufferings for her.”  Benedict XVI added: “During her life she would ring the bells and exhort her fellow sisters saying: ‘Come to love Love!’  The great mystic from Florence, from her convent and from the Carmelite monasteries that aspire to her, we pray that we may still hear her voice in the entire Church, spreading the proclamation of God’s love for every human creature.”

“In order to understand the greatness of Your divinity, O Lord, I need faith; and in order to accomplish anything, I need hope, for if I did not have hope of possessing You some day, I would not have the strength to labor here below. I no longer desire the things of earth, although I have never hoped in them. I do have a lively hope of obtaining, not the things of earth upon which worldly people usually set their hopes, but only You, my God.

O God, give me a firm hope, for I cannot be saved unless this virtue is firmly rooted in my soul. I need it in order to implore pardon for my sins and to attain my end. What delight hope gives to my soul, making it hope for what it will one day enjoy in heaven, and by permitting it a partial taste here on earth of what it will savor, understand, and possess eternally, which is You, my God” (St. Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi).

Love,
Matthew

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