Like many people, I have had a fascination with the lives of the saints. When I was a child they absolutely drew me in. I loved to read about the diversity of their lives and the things they said and did. Truthfully, I think they were intriguing to me mostly because these holy men and women seemed so amazingly perfect. I wondered how anyone could be that holy. I imagined that their every act was one of faultlessness and virtue. However, trying to imagine how it must have been to love Jesus so much that one would aspire to heroic virtue was not only a challenge, but also a point of vexation. As much as I desired it, I knew there was no way on earth that I could ever be… well… perfect. But that did not dissuade me from wanting to be like them, far off as attaining that goal might have seemed.
As I grew older I realized that wanting to be a saint should be the goal of every Christian. But what I also learned is that the saints were (and are) not perfect. In fact, what makes them so attractive to me now is that they all had feet of clay. In other words, being holy is not about being perfect, it is about responding to God’s love with love. Therefore the goal is more attractive because it is attainable by all. There are no perfect people, but there are people who strive to imitate Christ for the sole reason that they love Him first and foremost in their lives. These are people who have so responded to God's love that they have allowed themselves to be transformed by it. They are madly in love with God, as He is with them. Given that God is madly in love with all of us, we all have the ability to respond as did the saints and holy ones. There is hope for us that we, too, can grow in sanctity; but like them, we have to do the work.
Some of us give up on our desire to become holy because we often read glorified biographies (or badly written hagiographies) which lead us to believe that saints were born with a halo around their heads. The great saints all struggled, most of them for their entire lives. There are many I could mention, but I would like to highlight two such holy women: St. Hildegard of Bingen and Adrienne von Speyr. Both women were physicians and mystics, and both died on the same day, though hundreds of years apart. Both were very holy women, and both had human weaknesses which were part of their struggle to live the spiritual life. Both had a difficult road to holiness, battling numerous obstacles along the way.
Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967) was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. At 6 years of age she had a vision of St. Ignatius Loyola, of whom she had never even heard, but which set the course of her spiritual life. Nine years later she also had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Adrienne had poor health as a girl, battling tuberculosis, she eventually went to medical school in Basel and became a doctor with a successful practice. Her first marriage was short, ending when her husband died suddenly. It was not until 1940 that she was baptized and became a Catholic, this after she began spiritual direction with one of the most prominent theologians of the day, the Jesuit Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. Between her continual health problems, including a major heart attack, diabetes, severe arthritis, and blindness, losing a husband to death, and her very distinctive mystical experiences which often involved intense suffering, she was a woman who truly struggled through life. Yet Adrienne dictated an incredible volume of mystical experiences to von Balthasar, similar to many great mystics who came before her, and she was said to have a cheerful, positive attitude, which no doubt came from her faith and her love for God.
St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) had a similar struggle in her life. As a little girl she also had mystical experiences, reportedly beginning at the age of three. She was subsequently sent off to live with a spiritual mentor in a religious community at a very young age. Separated from her family she had to learn the ways of religious life, growing into leadership in the community. During a clash with the abbot of a nearby monastery who wanted things his way, she suffered a mysterious illness in which she was paralyzed for a time. Though she was a strong leader known for her holiness, she also struggled with a relationship that ended in a separation which was very painful for her. In both cases, the conflict with the abbot and with the relationship, the issue was that she would not let go. Though both were painful lessons, she learned from both of these situations, growing into the freedom to truly lead. She was remarkably talented as a physician, an inventor, an ecologist, a poet, a musician, an artist, and in leadership. Like Adrienne, she had visions and mystical experiences throughout her life, many of which are recorded in her many writings, especially Scivias. The most notable spiritual similarity between Hildegard and Adrienne is that they both had visions of the Trinity.
Of her vision of the Trinity, St. Hildegard said that she saw a bright light and described the Father, Son, and Spirit in terms of this light. (1) Adrienne also had some very vivid experiences of the Trinity which involved light. She perceived the Trinity as a union of three lights, such that there were "three interacting lights that are at the same time one light." (2) She essentially experienced the Trinity as an exchange of love and felt that everything the Son and Holy Spirit did on earth was to reveal the Trinity. Adrienne dictated her visions to von Balthasar who observed her while she was having these mystical experiences, resulting in many books on a huge range of spiritual topics. She did all this while suffering many debilitating physical ailments, including her eventual blindness.
Lest we think that these experiences somehow put the mystic above the rest of us or that these women were in some way perfect, that is not true. What I have learned from my study of the saints and mystics is that the saints had many weaknesses and their lives were filled with the challenges we all face. They do not cease to be human, they did make mistakes and they did have their times of darkness. For example, St. Hildegard wrote in her first visionary work, Scivias, "My self-doubt makes me miserable. I feel oppressed by all things. I grow desperate. Then I hear the devil's voice and my problems worsen." She then continues, "But when God helps me remember that He created me, then--even in the middle of my depression--I tell the devil, 'I won't give in to my fragile clay. I'll fight you.' How? When my inner self decides to rebel against God, I'll walk with wise patience over the marrow and blood of my body." (3) Reading of the difficulties and the type of brokenness with which they wrestled helps me to see that being a mystic or a holy person does not make one impervious to the rest of the human condition. If anything, it intensifies it.
In reflecting on Adrienne’s life I realized that what makes the difference in the saint’s attainment of holiness is their sense of faith and love. God invited Adrienne to a deep relationship with Him at an early age and she accepted the invitation, though she had to learn how to do so in the midst of an ordinary life. She allowed herself the courage to follow the path and to let her love of God lead her closer to Him. She did not choose to be a mystic, but she did choose to say yes to the call to do so. From her I have learned that the saint sees the path and desires God so much so that it affects everything they do. Saints see their path as illumined differently, (4) but they continue to struggle with uncertainty, decision making, and discernment. They wrestle with suffering, issues of justice, health, and all the circumstances of human life no differently than anyone else. But what makes them different is that faith and love informs all their decisions such that they respond differently. That is, they have let God's love so infuse their lives that they are able to stay on the path, living their lives transformed by that love such that all is done in joy. They learn how to put self aside and focus on the Lord in a heroic way. They reflect God, even in the midst of their imperfections, not because they are born that way, but because their love for God has transformed them into someone who shines by the power of the grace they receive from Him. It is really a love story.
May we ask for the intercession of Adrienne von Speyr and St. Hildegard of Bingen that we might respond to God’s invitation with love! May we imitate the holy men and women who we celebrate in the coming weeks for their inspiration to holiness! May we recognize that in our brokenness is our path to holiness! And may we accept the gifts of grace from our Triune God who calls us into deeper relationship with Him! Let us continue to meet in the heart of the Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
(1) "Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light, and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential." (Hart & Bishop, trans. Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias. NY: Paulist Press, 1990, p. 161)
(2) For more on this read Heaven Opens:The Transforming Mysticism of Adrienne von Speyr, by Matthew Lewis Sutton, Fortress Press, 2014.
(3) St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader by Carmen Butcher, Paraclete Press, 2007, 2013) p. 58-59
(4) Heaven Opens - as above
The first painting is The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, by Fra Angelico, also a saint.
The next two works are both by Fr. William Hart McNichols:
St. Hildegard of Bingen, which can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/holy-women-and-girls-gallery/product/58-st-hildegaard-of-bingen
Servant of God Adrienne von Speyr, which can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/holy-women-and-girls-gallery/product/85-the-servant-of-god-adrienne-von-speyr
The last is a drawing by St. Hildegard of her vision of the Trinity.
Heart Speaks to Heart