Carmel in the World Magazine
Carmel in the World
2016. Volume LV, Number 1
- Opening Address at the Lay Carmelite Conference in Atlanta
- Nada Te Turbe – Teresa’s Antirrhetikon
- Two Carmelite Women
- Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi
- Carmelite Mariology and the Second Vatican Council – Part II
- When God touches our lives
- Murdering Naboth: Elijah attends a meeting of the Carmelite NGO
- Let everything be common to you
- St Thérèse and the Little Way
- Desert Spirituality
- Reflections on Pain, Suffering and Limitations
- Consecration of the Chapel at Thicket Priory Carmelite Monastery, York
- Carmel around the World
Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi (1566-1607)
Falco Thuis, O.Carm., is a member of the Dutch Province and a former Prior General of the Order.
In the corridor of our monastery in Boxmeer (at the side of the refectory) there is a beautiful stained-glass window with a baroque picture of St Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi. The window tableau alludes to her great love of the Eucharist. The window was donated in 1654 by Countess Madeleine de Cusance, wife of Count Albert van den Bergh, both of whom, together with the parish priest, were founders of the monastery. In 1669 Mary Magdalen was canonized. She was also the patroness of the cloistered nuns’ monastery in Boxmeer that was founded about that time in the house of the parish priest of Peelen. Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi is one of the most colourful mystics in Italy of the ‘seicento’, and of the Order of Carmel too.
Mary Magdalen originates from the noble family de’ Pazzi in Florence. She was born in 1566, and received the baptismal name Caterina. Her father was (Mesmer) Lord Lorenzo di Geri de’ Pazzi, her mother Madda-lena Maria of Mesmer (Lord) Lorenzo Buondelmonti. They were well-to-do people with more than one villa.
When she was eight years old, she was brought to the monastery of Giovanni dei Cavalieri for formation and education. She was entrusted to an aunt on her mother’s side who was a religious sister. In 1576, aged 10, she received her First Communion in a church of the Jesuits, and one month later vowed – young as she was – to be always dedicated to God and to remain a virgin.
Two years later, on November 30, 1578, feast of St Andrew the Apostle, she received her first ecstasy towards the evening in the presence of her mother, in the garden of their villa close to Prato.
When Camillo de’ Pazzi was sent by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to Cortona to become the Commissary, young Caterina was again put in the care of a convent. The Jesuit, Pietro Blanca, had suggested this convent with the condition that she might receive Communion on all feast days. This was very unusual in those days. On Ascension Day that year she received an exceptional experience of love (‘eccesso di amore’) and also an awakening to God’s grandeur and his grace. After a year in the convent she returned to her family.
In 1582 she was permitted to spend fifteen days in the monastery of the Carmelite nuns ‘Maria dei Angeli’ to get to know the Carmelite Rule and to see if this answered her divine vocation and her special desire. The sixteen-year-old Caterina indeed decided to choose this Carmel monastery, also motivated by the fact that those sisters, as a special exception, received Holy Communion every day.
On the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent that year she entered the Carmelite monastery of Santa Maria dei Angeli in Florence – the Chapter of the monastery having unanimously accepted her as a postulant. On December 3 she was clothed with the Carmelite habit and was given the name ‘Sister Maria Magdalena’, and begun the novitiate. During that Advent she felt an extraordinary love in her heart which she had experienced before as a young girl in Perugiano.
In 1584, when she was still a novice, a mysterious sickness manifested itself: high fever, strong fits of coughing with much pain in her chest. Because of the heavy cough she could not lie in bed and so she hardly slept, neither could she eat. Two months she was sick. The doctors had given up on her.
The prioress, Mother Vittoria Contugi, and novice mistress, Sr Evarista del Giocondo, decided to let her make her profession in advance. That took place on May 27, 1584, on the Sunday morning of the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, even though she was still six months of completing the novitiate. Lying on a bed before the altar of Our Lady she made her vows. Afterwards she was immediately brought back to the sick room.
From that time a surprising time of ecstasies began. Every day after Communion she remained in ecstasy for two to three hours. It happened that she had new and repeated experiences of extraordinary love. This lasted uninterrupted for forty days, accompanied by various mystical phenomena: a vision of the Passion drama of the Lord, an ‘exchange’ of her heart with the heart of Jesus Christ, the first invisible imprint of the stigmata; she received from the Lord (who was accompanied by St Catherine of Siena and of St Augustine) the crown of thorns which she would wear for the rest of her life and which was accompanied by a mysterious pain.
On July 16 – the Feast of Carmel – she was cured through the intercession of the Blessed Maria Bagnesi. Her life then became a succession of visions, ecstasies and other mystical phenomena accompanied by penances and ‘self-torture’.
In the evening of March 24, the Vigil of the Annunciation, the words Verbum caro factum est were written on her heart by St Augustine. On April 15 she received the invisible stigmata imprinted on her soul; on April 28 she received from Jesus the ring, as a seal of the mystical marriage to her Lord; on May 17 she had an ecstasy that lasted longer than all the ones before; on May 21 she received an instruction from the Lord to take only water and bread (except on feast days when which she was allowed to eat the food of fasting days); moreover, Jesus made known to her that she was to rest for five hours a day on a paillasse. All this as satisfaction for all the offenses done to the Lord.
On June 8, 1585, on the Vigil of Pentecost, a second cycle of ecstasies started which continued for eight days uninterrupted. She was, day and night, unconscious except for two hours that were given to her for praying the Breviary, to eat something and to rest. Seven times she received the Holy Spirit, in the morning at the third hour, in different forms: fire, stream of water or in the form of a pigeon, a pillar or something else.
On June 16 (1585), on the feast of the Holy Trinity, the great temptation: ‘the lake of the lions’ began and would last five years. After a year of spiritual dryness, on July 20, Mary Magdalen suddenly entered an ecstasy to the great surprise of the sisters while she prayed with them in choral prayer. This ecstasy was accompanied by great grief because God wanted to lessen and soften the temptation ‘until October’ to make her life a bit lighter and to ask her to focus on a great work: ‘the renewal and reform of the Church and in particular the life of the religious’. From that day on she had, from time to time, similar ecstasies.
In the month of August she was four days and nights in a rapture (except during choral prayer and eating a piece of bread with some water) where she was pulled from this earth. God revealed to her how much the Church needed reform. All the faithful were called to give their own contribution to it. Mary Magdalen received a special mission in this: to urge the religious and those with authority in the Church to take up their responsibility in this reform. Mary Magdalen shuddered at this revelation of the Lord because it was at odds with her humility; she would rather die a thousand deaths.
Because she was afraid of being a victim of deception or deceit of the devil she spoke about this with her superiors. She consulted several religious authorities, known for their wisdom and holy life style. All encouraged her without hesitation to obey God’s orders that were so clear, repeated and resolute.
After the Reformation of Luther and Calvin the reform council of Trent took place from 1545-1563, in several difficult sessions. In the Church of the Counter Reformation, thus in particular after the Council of Trent, the ‘reform in head and members’ (reformatio in capite et membris) remained an important perception in our Church, also in the Italy of those days, where Protestantism did not get a firm footing.
In this context Mary Magdalen wrote a number of fictitious letters (in astratione di mente) to the Pope and other prelates and servants of God about this necessary reform and renewal in the Church, even while she was still a novice!
In October 1586 she left the novitiate. When her brother, Alamanno, died in 1587, Magdalena saw his soul suffer in purgatory. In that time she saw in moments of meditation the Suffering Christ from whom she received a special gift: a passion belt (fascetto della Passione) and her severest temptations reached a climax.
When, in 1589, Sr Evangelista became the novice mistress, Maria Magdalena becomes assistant novice mistress (sotto maestra).
At Easter, 1590, the Lord again asked her in a vision to fast once more on bread and water for fifty days, until Pentecost, on which day she would finally be freed from ‘the lions’ pit’. She was rewarded with great gifts and divine messages.
Her mother, Maria Buondelmonti, died in August, 1590. She saw her too in purgatory, but she was content and happy for she understood what great joy was prepared for her in Paradise because of her life of love for her neighbour. Fifteen days later Maria Magdalena saw her mother enter paradise and remain among the saints.
In the meantime her confessor and counsellor, Augustinus Campi da Pontremoli, also died. In 1592 she had a long-lasting ecstasy in which she was partaking in the Suffering of the Lord and which would last for seven years. In that same year she became sacristan and she again had an experience of delirious love. She ran through the monastery ringing the bells to call the people to ‘love Love’.
In 1595, Maria Magdalena asked the Lord for ‘total suffering’. Not only for herself but also for her closest religious sisters who considered this request of Sr Magdalena as something very special. In the archives lies a testimony of this request with the signatures of Mother Evangelista, Sr Pacifica del Tovaglia, Sr Maria Pazzi and Sr Maria Graziaq, niece of Sr Magdalena. However, the Lord granted this suffering only nine years later.
In the meantime she became mistress of the young sisters and in the Chapter of 1598 she was elected to the position of novice mistress.
In 1604 she had a ‘rapture’ that lasted a whole day. With this her ecstasies finished and the time of her ‘total’ suffering began, suffering that would last until her death. Against her will she was elected by the Chapter as sub-prioress of the Community. Shortly after this she became ill and started suffering morally and physically as never before.
In 1607 she received the last sacraments. On Friday, May 25, her agony started and she died six hours later as her religious sisters recited the Creed of the Holy Trinity, also named the ‘symbolum’ of Athanasius. From her earliest youth Saint Maria Magdalena had prayed this.
She was buried in the monastery’s cemetery and after a year was reburied within the clausura of the monastery. When the coffin was opened, they saw the dead body and described it as ‘fresh, intact, and supple, only the habit was moist’.
In 1611 the process for her beatification was opened. There were many miracles and testimonies and, in 1626, she was beatified by Urban VIII. On April 28, 1669, Pope Clemens IX adds her name to the list of the saints.
Her love of the Church
In some religious circles in Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a strong desire for Church reform. Sometimes it almost looked an obsession after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. This coloured the whole of Italian spirituality of that time, and in particular with religious who lived far away from the hustle of the world, as with Maria in her nunnery. Among the contemplative religious she is considered as one of the most impassioned advocates of the renewal of religious life. Her separate life and her detachment from the world apparently contributed to the fact that this eminent contemplative who was in a short time at the height of her transformation in love, could be enormously concerned for the wellbeing of the Church. This was seen as a sign that her mystical experiences were authentic.
The painful calls for renewal came from Maria Magdalena’s knowledge of so much evil in the ecclesial community. Her mystical ecstasies went hand in hand with her most ardent desire to reform and help expand the Church. Her desire for God radiated in a social sensitivity which made any form of isolation impossible which would make her disinterested. Although staying within the walls of her monastery, far from the tumultuous life outside, she became a participant in the problems of the world. She was open to the most important problems of the Counter Reformation, especially in relation to the ecclesial reality in Italy. And so, her life and her efforts on this historical moment in history remained connected with the concrete ecclesial affairs.
Maria Magdalena lived her life of prayer and sacrifice not only for the expansion of God’s kingdom and the salvation of the souls in general, but also in particular she begged God for reform of the Church, and she wanted to help promote it. Her deep concern for the Church moved in two directions: outwards, for growth and expansion of the Church; and inwards, for reform and renewal of the life of faith.
In the process for her beatification her fellow sisters spoke of Maria Magdalena’s great passion for the expansion of God’s kingdom. Mother Evangelista, her novice mistress and guide during her entire life, has heard her say many times that she would gladly give up all pleasure and satisfaction for the salvation of souls (if she would not offend God in doing this). She thought apparently in terms of “quantity” (as more people did in the ecclesial piety of that time): she prayed for the souls in many ways. “(Save) as many souls as steps she made in the monastery”, or as many souls as words as she recited in choral prayer. She invited the sisters to do the same.
On one occasion Maria Magdalena said that if Our Lord would have asked her what remuneration she would have wanted, she would, just as Thomas Aquinas, have asked for salvation of all souls. Hardly an hour would pass without her showing this ardent desire. ‘Let us offer the blood of Christ for the sinners …’; ‘I would like to go to the infidels, and take those little Indians and teach them the principles of our faith, so that Christ might ‘have’ these souls and they Christ’.
She prayed so ardently for the salvation of the souls and with such an affection, that she was often ‘carried off’ (raptus) in an ecstasy. The blood of Christ and the many drops of blood spilled by Christ for the salvation of the souls were, in one way or another, always images in her prayer and oblation for the Church, the entire body of the Church and all its members.
She wanted to bring all the infidels into the bosom of the Church. Priests were to come back to be the light of the world, sisters should not want to belong to the ‘foolish, ignorant girls’. Infidels and ‘heretics’ were to enter into or return to the sheepfold of God. All souls had be saved, and were to ‘let themselves be penetrated by the blood of Christ’.
Innumerable times in the manuscript of her Ecstasies, it is mentioned that she ardently and passionately desired the renewal and reform of the Church. She considered the Church as a ‘mystical priesthood’. Within this community she constantly prayed with her hands raised to heaven, and with her hands also her heart, as she offered to the Holy God the infinite merits of the most precious blood of Christ, while she herself was willing to offer to God a thousand times her soul and body for the salvation of her neighbours.
Her ecstasies and extraordinary experiences
I would like to dwell on this for a moment. For what has the greatest impression on the life of Maria Magdalena de’ Pazzi were these constant ecstasies which – during this earthly pilgrimage – caused her to live, as it were, outside this earth. To our contemporary feeling she is an extraordinary figure, and difficult to understand.
Surely, we have to see her in her own context, in her own baroque time, in the religious history of those days in Florence, and in the Church in which she lived.
According to the unanimous testimony of her fellow religious, there were periods of her life when these ecstasies were constant and frequent. ‘She was ‘carried away’ (raptus) in ecstasies, so many times … that I cannot count them … not only when she was praying …but also at any other exercise … they lasted sometimes for months on end … and there was no day that she was not carried away by God for some time …’(Maria Pacifica del Tovaglia). ‘Sometimes with a bite of food in her mouth … or while she was washing cloths … etc. she was getting in ecstasy, half an hour, one hour’.
It seems that even at night she was carried away by raptures. They heard her speaking about divine things in a high pitched voice. The novices who slept in the same room gathered around her bed to be able to hear better ‘the beautiful things of God’.
Not only is the number of ecstasies surprising but also the way in which they presented themselves. More than a magnet attracts iron, so Maria Magdalena felt her inner self being attracted to God. It was impossible for her to resist this mysterious impulse. She did not know where God wanted to lead her. A mysterious voice in her called her and she was caught in ecstasy. If she sometimes tried to resist that voice, she thudded to the floor like lead, though without hurting herself. She could remain prostrated for several hours, her soul caught in love.
It is interesting to read in Ermanno Ancilli’s article how the sisters saw Maria Magdalena react ‘bodily’ when she was in ecstasy, or carried away to higher ‘realms’.
- Often at the beginning of a ‘rapture’ she was still with her eyes directed to the floor, but then her face, usually meagre, pale and emaciated because of her constant penances and long-lasting illness, started to get the colour of a rose, red and fresh, her eyes glittered and beamed like two clear stars, now generally looking up, apparently from a not clearly defined, paradisiacal vision.
- The sister saw her beaming and gracious, she did not look a human creature, but an angel from heaven.
- If God and His holy mysteries were the centre of her contemplation, then the sisters saw on her face happiness, festive joy and a smile. Sometimes she was so touched by a ‘heavenly glow of love that the power of the divine flame of love expressed itself in the raising of her voice and external gestures’.
- But if sad happenings, such as the Passion of Our Lord, the ungratefulness of the people, the punishments of purgatory or hell, were the object of her reflection, then they saw her dejected, sad and even shaking, while she sometimes loudly expressed her complaining, sighing and compassion.
- In these moments of ecstasy they saw her perspiring, crying and sighing; sometimes her sadness was so intense and having become overpowering, that she could not say a word anymore.
- The astonishment of the sisters increased if they heard her saying Latin words and sentences as she had never studied Latin. Also the tone and colour of what she was saying was striking. You could hear if she spoke about holy matters or if she strongly reacted against the devil and checkmated him.
- In general, when she was in ecstasy, and that could last for hours, she was immobile as if turned to stone, even her eyelashes did not move, as if she slept. Very often, after Communion, she remained in deep silence, you did not even see a finger move.
Her visions, for the most part, did not show erratic traits, nor were they usually paired with clearly visible signs. In general, she could normally fulfil her daily tasks. In the morning she woke the sisters, she cooked, painted and did all kinds of things completely ‘under control’. It even seemed that during times of a transport in delight she had an enormous energy and physical strength for very heavy physical work that had to be done. After hours of a rapture during the night, she came as fresh as a rose to the choral prayer to sing the Matins, without any sign of tiredness or sleep.
Sometimes, however, if she had been united with the Passion of the Lord, she felt very tired and lacklustre.
During a vision wherein Maria Magdalena felt herself having been carried away’ (in coelo), she neither heard nor saw anything of the things around her. But if her superiors called her, she heard it immediately, especially if they told her to do something.
When a vision stopped it looked as if a veil had been covering her whole being. Her soul returned in time and space ‘to earth’. Her body was again ‘its usual self’. Humble and modest, full of benevolence and solidarity, she was among her sisters, just as if nothing had happened.
The reports of her ecstasies fill five books that are kept in the archive of the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, with the following titles: Book of the Forty Days, Book with Colloquies, Book of the Disclosures and Insights, Book of the Testing, and Book of the Renewal of the Church. As early as her novitiate the confessor had asked the sisters to write down what they heard Maria Magdalena saying when she had visions.
It is interesting to note that, although she never undertook theological studies, the faith messages and insights about which she speaks in her ecstasies show a theological consistency which not only surprises but is nowhere in conflict with the doctrine of the Church. She gives explanations about the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word (would have happened even without the Fall); God’s love counted as sole motive; she spoke of Jesus’ humanity as the ‘Tabernacle of God’, full of the Holy Spirit. No human being can be saved except via the humanity of Jesus. The spiritual life of the human is a kind of circular movement. Animated by love, its starting point is in God and it will arrive too at God. Her doctrine had much influence in the whole of Italy in the seventeenth century and particularly on St Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists.
The veneration of Maria Magdalena de’ Pazzi spread after her beatification and sanctification in France, Spain, Portugal and especially in Flanders, with centres in Ghent, Brussels and specially in Antwerp, from where the Carmel in Boxmeer was founded.
What is her message for us today?
We are dealing with an extraordinarily religious woman. After many testimonies of people who lived with her, she has been sanctified by the supreme authority in the Church because of her authentic faith in God who is love, because of her heroic exercise of Christian virtues, in particular of love of neighbour.
Her innumerable visions, raptures and accompanying phenomena (of sadness and joy, exhaustion of strength through to extraordinary energy, of being unmoved through to loud manifestations, etc.) do not essentially belong to sanctity and wholeness through God’s granting love.
Living with God, experiencing the all-surpassing Secret of God’s love, can fill a human being and claim them so much that the limited human nature and their senses are not equal to the ‘Presence of a love’ that stands supreme. The core of the faithful loving person is a heart that is so touched by Love that it ‘overflows’. St Thomas Aquinas said: ‘Gratia supponit naturam’ (grace presupposes nature). God’s grace, God’s love, descends in human nature, precisely in man with his physical limitations or weaknesses.
If during a mystical experience (visions, rapture) the senses, as it were, lapse into unconsciousness or clearly become active (shown by noise, immobility, perspiration, tears, etc.) it has more to do with an overpowering or a weakening of the body than with special virtue. That it can go that far into these extraordinary phenomena as experienced by Maria Magdalena has to do with a special virtue, and with a faithful surrender of a sound, receptive, loving heart.
Possibly, we can look in this way to Maria Magdalena though she lived in a completely different time to ours.
Her experience of the Secret of Love, for which she would ring all the bells in the world, prickles us today. Her intimate life with God, in radical surrender, ‘makes the difference’ in her life, that was completely marked by God’s Presence and continual prayer.
Her life makes clear too that this ‘having being filled with God who is love’ opens the eyes for the world and the people around us.
In unity with Christ, who gave his blood and his life for the salvation of all people, she wants to offer her life for the welfare and for the salvation of all. The ‘sheepfold of God’ will be the safety of all people.
Particularly in the Eucharist (the Sacrament of Love) she united her offering of herself with the crucified Lord who wants to bring all people to the House of the Father.
Her penetrating and affective devotion of the Passion of the Lord (her crown of thorns) brings us directly to the worldwide suffering of innumerable innocent people wherein Jesus’ suffering is continued today.
It can inspire us to question what, in our contemporary faith could become our penetrating and affective devotion.
Maria Magdalena sees the return of man to God as a struggle between two loves: the love of self and the Divine Love, in which love of neighbour plays an essential role, and is the fruit of humility.
Finally, her love of the Church goes far beyond her concern of the visible, shortcoming, sinful institution that necessarily needs reform and renewal. Love of the Church implies, in the first place, faithful, vital and ardent solidarity with the Lord of the Church, and with his mission in this world.
Ermanno Ancilli: Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, in Santi del Carmelo edited by Ludovico Saggi. Roma: Institutum Carmelitane. 1972. pp. 276-294.
Joachim Smet: Maria Magdalena de’Pazzi, in Cloistered Carmel. Roma: Institutum Carmelitane. 1986. pp.63-69.
Bruno Secondin, editor: Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, Esperienze e Dottrina. Roma: Institutum Carmelitane. 1974 (Second edition, 2007)
 Ermanno Ancilli: Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, in Santi del Carmelo edited by Ludovico Saggi. Roma: Institutum Carmelitane. 1972. p. 278.
 Ibid. p. 278.
 Ibid. p. 281.
 Ibid. p. 281.
 Ibid. p. 282.
 Ibid. p. 283.