Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Chapters 14 and 15

Audio recording of this post:

Chapter 14 is titled “The Troubled House of Peace.” The trouble in the “House of Peace” — the name of the house where Margaret lived with two noble families after she became a Mantellata — had to do with a couple of incidents. The first was Margaret’s request, on behalf of a daughter of one of the families, for permission to become a Mantellata. The second was the arrest and trial of a son of the other family. In both cases, Margaret spoke prophetically and, in the end, peace was restored.

But there was another trouble in Margaret’s “house of peace” that Father Bonniwell does not reveal until Chapter 15. He says:

[Margaret’s friends] were sure that her happiness was complete because her earnest desire to be a member of a religious Order had been fulfilled, and she now had a permanent home in which there was every comfort. But as a matter of fact, the blind girl was far from happy. As a Mantellata, sworn to follow the footsteps of Christ, she felt uneasy in the midst of all this luxury.

Page 81

By this time, Margaret was living with the Venturino family in another home, more luxurious than the House of Peace. Father Bonniwell says that it “was literally a palace.” Margaret was not at peace living in luxury. She solved this problem by obtaining permission to live in small, barely insulated room in the “garret,” the attic of the house. At first, Messer Venturino refused. But he relented when he perceived the good influence of Margaret upon his children.

Margaret’s unhappy brush with luxury in the Venturino home turned out to be short-lived. But I think her feeling “uneasy in the midst of luxury” is worth considering. Father Bonniwell suggests that Margaret’s unease was related to her profession as a Mantellata: “As a Mantelatta, [she had] sworn to follow the footsteps of Christ.” Surely this is true, though other Mantellate, like Lady Gregoria, Venturino’s wife, don’t seem to have the same unease. Moreover, Mantellate, like lay Dominicans today, did not make vows of poverty. I think there is more to Margaret’s being uneasy with luxury than her profession as a Mantellata and, again, I think it’s worth considering.

Of course, imitating Christ’s poverty and eschewing luxury are part of the vocation of every Christian. There are many Gospel passages that attest to that. We might think, for example, of Jesus’ parable about the rich fool who built larger barns to store the fruit of his bountiful harvest (see Luke 12:16-21). And Jesus praises the poor widow who “contributed all she had,” saying that she “put in more than all the other contributors” who “contributed from their surplus wealth” (Mark 12:41-44). Every Christian is called to imitate the poor widow and avoid acting like the rich fool. That is surely easier said than done. We all struggle with temptations to hoard and selfishly aquire, and it can be hard to judge between the possessions that we really need and those that are superfluous.

Margaret’s rule is her commitment to follow Christ, which she began in early childhood and now continued in the Order of Penance of Saint Dominic. Margaret’s commitment to following Christ informed what she did and how she felt. In the midst of luxury, Margaret felt uneasy because her circumstances seemed inconsistent with the commitment to Jesus that governed her life. I don’t think her aversion to luxury came from her becoming a Mantellata. I think her becoming a Mantellata focused and intensified her lifelong commitment to follow Christ, which made her uneasy about anything not consistent with that commitment. In other words, Margaret’s aversion to luxury is greater than mine, not because her state in life (as a Mantellata) was different than mine, but because her commitment to follow Christ (informed by her profession as a Mantellata) is greater than mine.

Margaret felt unhappy and uneasy with anything that impeded her following of Christ. Her sense of right and wrong, what was consistent or inconsistent with her Christian life, was not just in her mind but in her heart and, we might say, in her gut. We read in Chapter 15 about Margaret’s extraordinary gifts of intellect, enabling her to quiz the Venturino children about their lessons in school. Surely Margaret had a wonderful understanding of her faith. But she lived her faith based, not only on her intellectual understanding, but also her great love, such that following Christ came to dominate her emotional life. She felt happy and at peace when she was following Christ, and unhappy and uneasy when something impeded her from following Christ.

By this time in our story, Margaret’s way of following Christ was focused and intensified by her profession as a Mantellata. We read in Chapter 14 about how Margaret’s influence upon Ceccha made her want to become a Mantellata and how, through Margaret’s influence and prophesy, both Ceccha and her mother Ysachina did become Mantellate. Margaret was strongly attracted to this religious form of life and deliberately drew others to it. As a Mantellata, she was able to live her Christian vocation to the full and encouraged others to do the same.

As a Dominic friar, I am tempted to conclude that the best way to follow Christ is to enter a religious order (preferably Dominican), forsaking marriage and “the emptiness of the world” (page 76) , as Ceccha, under Margaret’s influence, was inclined to do. Remember that, as Fra Luigi said, “only widows of a mature age are eligible to join [the Mantellate. Though] it is true that occasionally an exception is made for an elderly woman, provided her husband gives public consent” (page 65). The special exception for Margaret came only after “a careful investigation” (page 65). We can presume that similar investigations and special exceptions were required for Ceccha and, later, Catherine of Siena. Unlike lay Dominicans today, Mantellate in the 14th century did not include people engaged in the practices of marriage and child-rearing.

I am tempted to conclude that religious life is the better way to follow Christ, and claim that Margaret thought so too. But the Church won’t let me do that. The Church teaches that all are called to heights of holiness. Monks, nuns, friars, and Mantellate are not called to a greater holiness than butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Margaret of Castello lived a saintly life as a Dominican Mantellata. Many others have also lived saintly lives in religious orders. But the apostle Peter, Saint Louis, and Saint Gianna are just a few of the many followers of Christ who have lived saintly lives as married people.

I think it is better and truer to say that religious life is the more direct way follow Christ, and the way that Jesus himself and also Saint Paul have counseled (see Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:25-40). Religious life better approximates the life of heaven (see Matthew 22:30). But marriage is a sacrament, a sign of the love of Christ and the Church that effects the love it signifies (see Ephesians 5:21-33).

Margaret, having become a Mantellata, was uneasy with the luxury of the Vernturino house. Gregoria, the matron of the house, was also a Mantellata and presumably did not share Margaret’s unease. Members of religious orders like myself and the sisters of the Monastery of St. Margaret don’t fully share Margaret’s aversion to luxury either. I think that’s because we do not share her holiness — the holiness that we are all called to imitate.


Questions:

  1. What do you think about Margaret’s unease with luxury in light of her commitment to follow Christ? What do think about your own unease with luxury in light of your commitment to follow Christ?
  2. These chapters tells us about some extraordinary supernatural gifts that Margaret received: her prophesies in the House of Peace and the knowledge that “suddenly came to her.” What do you think of those? Are you familiar with other instances of such extraordinary supernatural gifts?
  3. I loved the account of Margaret and her Mantellate sisters’ ministry to the prisoners in Chapter 15. What does that tell us about Margaret and her life as a Mantellata? How is Margaret and example to you in her ministry to the prisoners?

Please share your thoughts in the “Comment” section below. Feel free to respond to the questions I posed above or to reflect upon anything else in this week’s reading, my reflections on this weeks reading, and/or comments that other people have posted.

6 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Chapters 14 and 15”

  1. Thank you again, Father Jonah, for hosting this group reading. You managed to select a book that is appropriate for your Health Care Ministry and timely regarding Margaret’s canonization. But most importantly, it challenges each of us to do better with less. In so doing, we gain so much more than we give up.

    As much as many of us are at unease with luxury, we are also uncomfortable with the alternative. Maintaining balance is key. I personally enjoy enough creature comforts to facilitate the good that I wish to do, but not so much luxury that I lose focus on God or intentionally deprive another person of goods.

    Margaret’s extraordinary supernatural gifts seem very fitting. Of course, Pentecost comes to mind when I think about the Holy Spirit guiding us. Margaret’s prayers and gifts also remind me of King Solomon of the Old Testament asking God for wisdom. She prayed to God to do His will, and He gave her the tools she needed to succeed. There have been times when I have prayed similarly and been gifted with some small tidbit of insight that proved helpful in completing a charitable task. I am not operating on the scale of a saint, apostle, or king, so I bear witness much more modestly.

    I am moved by the way that Margaret and her sisters ministered to the prisoners. Here is an instance where wealth and power were used for the greater good. This is a marvelous example of how the problems in our society can be solved if just one or two people have the courage and the will to make it happen. I especially appreciate how Margaret was more concerned with the spiritual void of the prisoners than their deplorable conditions. It is a great reminder that life on this earth–although very important–pales in comparison to the promise of eternal salvation.

    A few weeks ago, I told you that I was working on a web-based tool regarding our call to holiness. The concept is spiritual personal training. It is targeted toward baptized people who would like to be more faithful but do not know how to fit it into their secular lives. I am not providing religious advice–just helping people form healthy habits. I hope to motivate others to learn how they can make Christ front and center in their lives with just a few baby steps every day. Please join me by sharing my website with people you think might benefit from such a program. And because most of you are much farther along in your spiritual journeys than I am, please help me help others by leaving a comment in the monthly “habit forming” section. Together, we can accomplish much more than we can individually. The web address is alleluia.nyc (https://www.alleluia.nyc), but I do not think I can post a link here.

    Thank you! I hope you are able to gaudete tomorrow, and I look forward to seeing you on Monday evening at our Zoom chat.

  2. 1.Margaret’s unease about luxury just reminded me of St.Paul saying he was content whether he had or did not have. We each have a call. Personally I feel more like St.Paul although I lean on the side of feeling better with the plain and simple. Although I must say it reminds me of my need to have enough and sometimes a bit more than enough.

    2.Knowledge that “suddenly came to her” reminds me of the Pentecost event when the Holy Spirit suddenly appeared in the form of tongues of fire. Personally since I have been involved in many charismatic prayer meetings in the early 1970’s it is easy to understand what Margaret was speaking of in this prophetic gift and gift of knowledge. The Spirit has much to say and Margaret was well prepared and open to hear the Spirit and Courageous to speak the word. Our universal call to holiness with Margaret’s opportunity to grow in holiness in her call within the Mantellate.

    3. For Gregoria and Margaret to have needed permission from Gregoria’s husband is somewhat like the prisoners in chains to whom they felt called to visit. of course this was even stricter and expected in the times. I could understand the empathy that evolved from Gregoria, Margaret and somewhat Venterino and from other Mantellate. This empathy became a real caring outreach body, mind and spirit. This holistic approach is key in my ministry also Margaret’s and the Mantellate way of ministry indicating a letting go (the stench) and letting God (taking the question before a Higher Authority) are an important part of my ministry also. Doing my best and letting God do the rest. And God is on both sides of the equation.

    3.

  3. 3. When you find what God is calling you to do, you find out He has given you the courage and will to do His Will and answer His call. It’s the “Duc in altum” that challenges each of us to do what is contrary to the norm, and changes our lives as much as we let Him.

    1. I agree with Bart that being a bit uneasy, questioning what we do with our material goods, and thinking about whether we are using our means to follow Christ as closely as we might, is a good challenge. Reading about St. Margaret’s life gives us a chance to recognize that challenge. Sharing this book with others is a wonderful way to make others aware of the need to question our attitudes toward and uses of our material goods.

  4. I think every person has to discern for himself or herself where the line is drawn between necessity and luxury. The strength required to embrace a life of radical poverty notably exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi is a rare gift. Even many of his fellow Friars Minor struggled with where to draw the line. At the other end of the spectrum are those whose lives are consumed by the accumulation of excessive wealth for its own sake. In between those extremes, the rest of us try to make our peace with the things of this world and the things of God. Maybe we’re supposed to feel uneasy about it.
    St. Margaret’s unease with luxury is a reminder to reflect on how I use the money and material things I have. For me, it’s not hard to find fault with myself for sharing my surplus with various religious and charitable organizations rather than giving as the widow in Mark’s Gospel “everything she had.” But if I am putting what I have to good use for the support of my family’s needs and not splurging on luxuries and worldly pleasures, maybe that’s not so bad. It’s a hard line to draw, but it’s good to be challenged to think about it.

  5. Vera O – I admited her and respected her uneqse with luxury in light of her commitment to follow Christ. Similarly, I also
    feel uncomfortable, despite the fact that we are of humble means. Specifically, our basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met..and we have medical care. This is oh so much more than most of the world’s population!!!! When given a choice, I pick the low side not the high side…with exceptions, such as a prom, or something of that sort. Even that, say a wedding, is a far cry from what
    others pick to spend their means on. I say this not to be “saintly” (hardly!!) but in all truth…..extremes make me uncomfortable…
    on either side…
    2. I think, on occasion, we all are filled with “inspiration” or “heavenly wisdom”….It might be finally seeing a solution we had not seen before…or an affirmation that we have/had made the right decision, or maybe the name of the person or the rose (St Theresa) might be present in the unfolding of some bit of advice…as it does not come to us all wrapped up in a bow…we have to be able to discern it, feel it, permit ourselves to be guided by it …inner light…requires praying and then listening to the small voice within us…our inner selves…(our souls).and having the courage to follow where it leads….
    3. Margaret saw that because of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners they stopped believing in God, even if they were near death. They had no medical care, either. Some of the petty crimes in jail that were highlighted…are similar to what goes on today in our jails…with the overseers…She was brave to go to the hierarchy and ask them to help the inmates. …so they might make peace with their God before their death. with God. She wanted to preserve the degnity God had created them with. She quotes When did i see you hungry and not feed you, etc. very powerful indeed!!

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