By Fr. C. C. Martindale, S.].
FVER since the Gospels bequeathed to us, with reticent candour, the story of Mary the Magdalen, the Church has cherished the thought that many of her Saints had been sinners. (Archbishop Goodier has written a characteristically understanding book called "Saints for Sinners.") But the story of the Magdalen fades off into legend. We do not think that reliance can be placed upon the charming stories that waft her away, along with St. Martha and with Lazarus, to Marseilles. On the other hand, Margaret of Cortona is firmly based in history.
She was born at La.viano, in Tuscany. Her father was a small farmer; and, unhappily for the child, her mother died when she was seven. Two years later he married again, and, if we have any right to assign human responsibilities, it was to the hard domineering woman who thus became her step-mother that Margaret owed her disasters. And forthwith, I break off to moralise a little.
A " Modern Child" We hear a great deal about the "modern child," or the young man or woman of today, and how they cut loose from their parents, show them no consideration, let alone respect, and deride the idea that a parent should have any authority over his or her children. (I know at least one school where that is taught, and where the destruction of the family tie and all the morality associated with it is openly aimed at.) There is same truth in that, But the tyrannical parent still exists, who wishes to retain a complete strangle-hold over his children. lie (or she—but by no means only mothers) will even prevent them from marrying, so bitter is the jealousy of any rival within the parental heart.
This is all the more ;ikely to happen when the parent is neurotic and requires to be waited on hand-and-foot, day and night.
We may have watched girls withering their youth out, in attendance on a mother (or father) who may, certainly, have become ill, but wasn't at first, and anyway, ill or not, has never been anything but one hundred per cent. selfish.
Since we all like to suppose ourselves in the right, I would recommend children, who (after reading this) will begin to think that their parents bully them, to look into their own behaviour, and see whether they on their side are making the home happy: and, if parents think their children are ungrateful and umnanagable, not to decide about that until they are sure that they do not nag, or demand the amusements that they won't allow to others, or may not, in short, be intolerable within the family. After this somewhat smug piece of , moralising, we proceed!
At Least, High-spirited
Margaret, at any rate, was high-spirited, eager for affection, and very beautiful. No wonder that a young nobleman from a neighbouring castle near Montepulciano became enraptured with her and carried her off.
For nine years they lived together and had one son.
True to her temperament, she swung from mood to mood. She would go riding out, in magnificence, through Montepulciano, defying opinion, flaunting her frivolity; at other times, she was consciencestriken, and implored him to keep his promise of marrying her. One day he went off to visit a farm. He did not come home. At length she saw his dog run ning back alone. He plucked at her dress. In a torment of anxiety she followed him through a wood till he began to scratch at the foot of an oak tree. There inc discovered the body of her lover, who had been assassinated, horribly mutilated, and thrown into a pit.
Mind, Not Flesh
Instant was the conversion of her will, but not at once, of her instinct. She began by selling her personal jewels, for the poor: she made over all that could be considered to have belonged to her lover, to his relatives.
In pentent's dress, she returned to Laviano and begged re-admittance to her father's house. Her step-mother caused him to refuse it.
There are women who, in despair such as hers then became, would have taken the most tragic of all methods at least to earn bread for her little boy; and that again would have lain at the step-mother's door. But she had heard of the Friars Minor of Cortona, and that they were gentle with sinners. On arriving there, such was her pitiable exhaustion that two kind-hearted women gave welcome to her and the boy; after a while she was introduced to the Friars, and they undertook her spiritual guidance.
Guidance was what she needed, for not only, in her more bitterly repentant moments, was she in danger of exaggerated penance—she wanted even to injure the beauty of her face—but she experienced still the back-tug towards her old way of life. This went on for three years. " Father," she said to her director. "do not ask me to come to terms with this body of mine. I cannot afford it."
Meanwhile, she could display towards others that balance which was not yet perfectly established within herself. She started to earn her living by nursing the ladies of Cortona; but afterwards, devoted herself entirely to the poor.
When her son was old enough to go to school, she felt more free, especially as he was destined to become a Franciscan. She herself had for long wished to enter the Third Order, and finally did so.
Much of her life now became ecstatic.
On this part of it we do not mean to dwell, not only oecause ecstacies are unusual and alien to common experience, but beeause she iterself kept them very private and mentioned them to her confessor only when The was ordered to seek advice. After all, the Saints are as frightened as anyone of self-delusion, are modest, and know well that the stuff of sanctity is not composed of mystical abnomalities.
What we must again repeat is this: No mistake can be greater than to suppose that the ecstatic or penitential Saint was self-absorbed. We saw that in the case of St. Anthony and St. Simeon of the Pillar, and no doubt shall mention it again. For even now, among some, there is a morbid appetite for miracles.
Margaret had a very realist outlook on her world. Like St. Catherine of Genoa, she organised. In 1286 a bishop had given her a charter which enabled her to turn her almost casual nursing-work into a permanent hospital.
She got into touch with the leading citizens of Cortona and the Council, and with their help established the Hospital of Our Lady of Mercy: the nurses were members of the Third Order of St. Francis, whom she formed into a special society with statutes of its own. She called them the Poverelle, or the Little Poor Women (which just shows how tersely and musically Italian can put what we need to say in three ungainly words!) But she formed also an allied congregation, which surrounded the central work with due assist
ance. It supported it financially, and, sought out the seriously sick poor in their homes and brought them there. It also assisted the sick who were not sufficiently ill actually to go to hospital but needed help. This shows how well thought-out was her work. The Saints are not impessionists!
On another side of her activity we need not dwell, because on the whole our Bishops are not apt to go forth to battle and invade foreign territories. She had, however. a certain success in this department, but though she got the Bishop of Arezzo to make peace with Cortona, this did not prevent his getting killed in a later battle.
There Were Sceptics
And only briefly can I touch on the final phase of her this-life purgatory. There were those who had never believed in her conversion. Their own minds were such that they had to continue believing her a
hypocrite. In view of her close association with the Friars, they calumniated them too, and especially her confessor who was, in fact, sent away to Siena. I suppose life had been made really too difficult for him and for the community at large.
So she was left lonely—doubly so, since God withdrew from her the consolations with which He had supported her heroism. And thereupon He gave her yet further work. He insisted that the graces He had given her were not for her alone.
She, of old a sinner, must convert sinners. I am not clear what her methods were: but after a while penitents flocked from not only distant parts of Italy, but from France and Spain.
Public opinion came right round, and when she died, aged 50, she was canonised by "popular acclamation" and in the very year of her death the townsfolk built a church to her honour.
Her local cult was ratified by the Holy See, and in 1728 she was formally canonised and her body is still in her new church at Cortona, surmounted by the statue of herself and her dog.
The Sinning Good
It has often been said that only the Catholic Church really knows what to do with Sinners and with Saints. There is truth in that. Anyone who can act vigorously in any direction, has it in him to do
so in every direction. The one fatal verdict to pass on sin is that "after all, it doesn't seem to matter very much. I know plenty of sinners, and they are just as good fellows as anyone else—better, in fact." And certainly it would be false to argue that because St. Margaret of Cortona became a Saint, her •earlier wrong-doing could slackly be condoned. That waa not in the least what she thought.
We will ask her to pray that there may he amongst us men and women of vigorous innocence. white-hot purity; and that when we sin, we may not. like St. Augustine, pray (though what more human prayer?) "Give me chastity . . . but not yet!" but that God may lay hold of our will, and make us prse as later Augustine did: "When our will'gainst Thee rebel —Lord, our wills towards Thee compel!" may God lay forceful hold upon our characters,