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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.