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In last week’s post, I reflected on the double meaning of the title of Chapter 14: “The Troubled House of Peace,” which referred to the troubles in “The House of Peace,” the name of the physical house where Margaret was living, but also to the troubles in the “house” of Margaret’s soul as her inner peace was disturbed by her luxurious accommodations. The title of Chapter 16, “House Afire!”, has a similarly intriguing double meaning. It refers to the literal fire that raged in the Venturino house. But, like “The House of Peace”, the “House Afire” is also a description of Margaret’s inner “house.” And Father Bonniwell begins Chapter 16 with a description of that “house.” He writes,
While she was yet a child, Margaret had set out on a long, arduous journey: at the end of it, she hoped to see her God. . . . The blows dealt by life hurt her deeply, but she never wavered in her high resolve; instead, knowing that suffering purifies and deepens love, she accepted all the trials and hardships so that her love of God might become purer and deeper.
And now, after many years of patient, humble suffering, signs were not wanting that she was indeed drawing close, very close, to the God she loved so intensely.Page 86
Father Bonniwell’s recollection of Margaret’s childhood love of God makes me think of Margaret’s words to Father Cappellano in Chapter 3:
Jesus was rejected by his own people, and God is letting me be treated the same way so that I can follow Our dear Lord more closely. And oh! Father, I am not good enough to be so near to God!Page 17
Margaret was right about God’s plan for her. In her childhood and again and again in the course of her life, God let Margaret be treated like Jesus in his suffering and abandonment. I think Margaret was also right about her own unworthiness. No one is worthy of God’s grace. Or, to put it another way, it is by God grace that the saints are made worthy. As a child, Margaret perceived that God was inviting her to be close to Him. The passing years had brought her many more afflictions, sorrows, and rejections. Through it all, Margaret persevered in her childhood conviction. She continued to interpret all of her sufferings as she had interpreted her childhood imprisonment: as invitations from God, who was drawing her closer and closer to Himself. The result was that now “she was indeed drawing close, very close, to the God she loved so intensely.”
The fire of love in Margaret’s heart is wonderfully illustrated in the miraculous way that she extinguished the literal fire. Father Bonniwell writes,
Margaret removed her black mantle, and rolling into a bundle, threw it down the stairs. Then she returned to her room in the garret to resume her interrupted prayer. The terrified Gregoria did as she had been told. The medieval biographer tells us what happened next.
“In the sight of the crowd of men who had rushed to Venturino’s house to fight the blaze, when the cloak of Margaret was thrown into the flames, the raging fire was instantly extinguished.”Pages 88 and 89
Margaret remained serene in the midst of the deadly fire. As she prayed, she was close to God and was fully confident that God would do as she asked. She showed no anxiety about the fire or the damage it might do. Her attention was completely fixed on “the God she loved so intensely.”
In Chapter 17, Father Bonniwell tells us about Margaret’s burning love at the hour of her death. He writes,
The friars and the Mantellate began the prayers for the dying, but Margaret did not hear them. She was rapt in loving contemplation of the God who had come to her in the Holy Eucharist. She could not bear to be separated again from Him Whom she loved so completely; she longed to be dissolved and to be with her Eternal Love forever. Flesh and blood could no longer hold so ardent a soul, and Margaret’s spirit, freed at last from its shackles, soured aloft to her God.Page 99
As a child, Margaret heard God calling her to be hear Him in the suffering she shared with Jesus. In the course of her life and the multiplication of her suffering, she continually grew close to God. At the time of Margaret’s death, the fire of God’s love had wholly consumed her such that her ardent soul “soured aloft to her God.”
According to medieval physics, different kinds of substances (earth, air, fire, water) tend to move upward or downward according to their inherent inclinations or loves. That might strike us as silly or quaint, though to me it seems a better metaphor than our modern language about natural things “obeying laws.” In the medieval model, fire is the substance that loves to go up, tending to rise above earth, water, and air. Margaret’s soul, her inner “house,” was truly afire, “souring aloft to her God” “whom she loved so completely.”
I loved reading about Margaret’s healing of Sister Venturella’s eye tumor. The irony is, as Father Bonniwell says, “exquisite.” He writes,
She was seeking consolation for her probable loss of sight from a person who had never enjoyed sight!Page 89
When Father Bonniwell opines that “probably the exquisite irony of the situation never occurred to her,” you might find that hard to believe. From my experience as a hospital chaplain, I do not. There have been many times when patients have told me about the horrible injustice of their suffering: “how could God let this happen to me?” Sometimes it seems as if they have no clue that anyone else has ever suffered and think their experience altogether unique and unprecedented. Sometimes I feel like slapping them and telling them to wake up. Of course I don’t and I have to remind myself that their suffering really is unique and I should be understanding of their current inability to see beyond themselves. I expect Sister Venturella was a good and holy woman but, as she struggled to cope with her terrible affliction, she was blind to Margaret’s blindness.
Margaret interprets Sister Venturella’s affliction the same way she interprets her own: as a wonderful gift from God offering her the opportunity to draw close to Him. Margaret invites Sister Venturella to see what Margaret sees and accept her tumor as the gift God means it to be. When Sister Venturella shows herself to be unwilling or unable to accept the gift of God that Margaret urges her to accept, Margaret intercedes with God for a lesser gift. She lays her had on Sister Venturella’s eye and takes away the tumor.
Christians who pray to God for the sick usually see things the other way around. For most people, taking away the tumor would be plan A. If God didn’t grant the “miracle,” they might consider eternal life in heaven as a kind of consolation prize. In our Zoom Chat this week, Fr. Stephen Alcott compared this episode in Margaret’s story with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. Margaret is like Jesus in her prayer for bodily healing. She is also like Jesus in her perception and desire for the greater gift that God wants to give.
In my ministry to gravely ill patients, I frequently remind them of Jesus prayer in Gethsemane. I find it helpful both to affirm the patient’s natural desire for bodily healing, and to invite them to pray for the healing of body and soul that God wills, assuring them that God wants only their greatest good. I believe I wrote about that when we were discussing Chapter 8, when Margaret prayed for her cure at the shrine of Fra Giacomo. Then, as you might recall, Margaret asked God for her cure “only provided that my cure is in accordance with Thy Will” (page 38). In her exchange with Sister Venturella in Chapter 16, Margaret goes further. She knows that her own blindness is God’s will and God’s gift, and that Sister Venturella’s blindness would also be God gift to her if she had been able to accept it.
I think Margaret’s insight into God’s will in this exchange can not only remind us of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, but can also help us to better understand it. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus’ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. His words are similar in the three gospels: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39, see also Mark 14:35-36 and Luke 22:42). The parallel passage in the Gospel of John is not set in Gethsemane, nor is it a prayer. After his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). He continues, “I am troubled now, yet what should I say? ‘Father save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).
I think Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John clearly show that he knows that his impending suffering and death will fulfill his Father’s will for him. It is the “hour” for his glorification and he has come into the world “for this purpose.” In the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to more or less say what he declines to say in the Gospel of John: “Father save me from this hour.” It seems like a contradiction. But I don’t think it is. I think Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John expresses his refusal to shrink from the suffering and death that he knows to be his Fathers purpose for him. In the first part of his prayer in Gethsemane, which the synoptic gospels record, Jesus gives voice to his natural human desire to be spared from suffering and death. I think that is what Jesus means when he says, in the Gospel of John, that he is “troubled.” The second part of that prayer shows that Jesus’ greatest desire is his Father’s will, which, as Jesus had several times predicted, embraced his saving passion and death upon the cross.
In this way, I think Jesus is like Margaret (though it’s probably better to say that Margaret is like Jesus.) Both have the natural human desire to be spared from suffering. But they both desire God’s will more than anything else. Furthermore, both Jesus and Margaret understand their suffering as God’s will and God’s gift.
- Do you have any further thoughts about the events in these chapters that I commented on: Margaret’s quenching of the fire and her healing of Sister Verturella’s eye?
- Do you have any thoughts about the events I didn’t comment on: Margaret’s healing of the young girl, her levitation in the prison, and the conversion of the prisoner Alonzo?
- Now that our reading has brought us to Father Bonniwell’s account of Margaret’s death, what more can we say about the totality of her life?
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.