Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Chapters 3 and 4

Audio recording of this post:

In Chapter 3, Father Bonniwell relates some of the reactions at the fort of Metola to the cruel imprisonment of Margaret by her parents . I wrote about their abominable selfishness last week, so I don’t want to focus on them in my reflections this week. I do want to quote the reaction of Father Cappellano, however, not to dwell on Parisio and Emilia’s wrongdoing, but in relation to Father Cappellano’s conversation with the knight Leonardo and his wife, Lady Gemma. Here is Leonardo continuing to tell his wife Gemma about Father Cappellano’s confrontation with Parisio:

“[Father Cappellano] told Parisio to his face that he was lower than a beast to imprison his daughter, and he demanded that the girl be released at once!”

Pages 13-14

After Lady Gemma expresses her disbelief, he continues:

“But wait! The worst is yet to come. Parisio bellowed that Margaret would remain where she was, and he added, ‘If you don’t mind your own business, I’ll rip the tongue out of your head!’ I thought that threat would silence the Padre. Instead, he invoked the wrath of God upon both Parisio and his wife!

Page 14

When Father Cappellano comes to visit Leonardo and Gemma, they express their worries about Margaret’s future:

“Father, what is going to become of the poor creature?” asked Lady Gemma. “Her afflictions cut her off from the rest of her fellow beings even more that her prison walls do. She knows that she can never live the normal life of a woman. She will not be able to marry and have a home of her own. She knows that she is not wanted. What a horrible future lies before her! Mark my words, Father, one day that unhappy girl will go insane.”

“That is very likely,” agreed her husband. “Either she will lose her mind, or, if she lives, she will become a bitterly unhappy creature, hating herself and every human being.”

“I know I should not say it,” cried Lady Gemma, bursting into tears, “but it would be better that the unhappy child die and be released from her misery.”

Pages 15-16

Father responds:

“Isn’t it strange how few of us Christians really put into practice what our faith teaches us?” . . . “Our faith teaches us that God created us to love Him, and in that love to find eternal and perfect happiness. My greatest aim then, in a life filled with all kinds of obstacles and distractions, should be to develop to the highest degree my love of God. To do this, I do not need eyesight, or a normal body, or the love and affection of my fellow man–agreeable and pleasant as all these things are.”

Page 16

He continues:

“Now, little Margaret understands this very clearly. And she also knows that one of the most efficacious ways in which love can be deepened, strengthened, purified, is by suffering. Our Savior taught us that the royal road to perfect love is the Cross. Everyone has noticed how contented and cheerful Margaret has always been; the reason is that she regards her handicaps and deformities as being merely the means whereby she can more surely reach her God.”

Page 16

Then, turning to Gemma, he says,

Lady Gemma, a moment ago you said that it would be better for the child to die. You are wrong. It is better, a thousand times better, both for herself and for countless others, that she should live.”

Page 16

A little later, Father Cappellano tells of his visit to Margaret’s cell when he found her “sobbing as if her heart were broken.” He says with an “unsteady” voice:

“As well as I know Margaret, her reply left me shaken. She said, ‘Father, when they brought me here this morning, I did not understand–because of my sins–why God let this happen to me. But now He has made it clear. Jesus was rejected even by his own people, and God is letting me be treated the same 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

The priest concludes his account saying, “She was so overcome by the thought of God’s live for her that she could not continue.”

I think this conversation, which occupies most of Chapter 3, is marvelous. I heartily agree with everything Father Cappellano and Margaret say, and I don’t think I have much to add. I would, however, like to tease out what this passage implies about God’s providence.

Margaret tells Father Cappellano that, at first, she “did not understand . . . why God let this happen to me.” in my ministry as a hospital chaplain, I have heard suffering people say that hundreds of times. I have never heard anyone answer that question the way Margaret did when she said, “God is letting me be treated the same [as Jesus was] so that I can follow Our dear Lord more closely.”

Father Cappellano says he was “shaken” by Margaret’s words to him. He expresses surprise at Margaret’s explanation of her tears. To say he is impressed by what Margaret says would be a huge understatement. Clearly, he thinks her words are profoundly true. Moreover, Margaret’s words perfectly concur with what Father Cappellano says more dispassionately about suffering and sharing Christ’s Cross being “the royal road to perfect love.” But isn’t this interpretation of Margaret’s suffering inconsistent with Father Cappellano’s earlier condemnation of Parisio? After all, Parisio is the one who put Margaret on that “royal road” by locking her in her cell.

The answer to that question is No. What Parisio did remains evil, and in doing it Father Cappellano is right to say he is “lower than a beast.” God’s permission of Parisio’s action is good. God takes the evil deed of Parisio and makes of it the thousandfold good “both for [Margaret] and for countless others” of which Father Cappellano has spoken. That’s what God did when Jesus was crucified. The chief priests and the Jewish mob, Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers wickedly conspired to do the worst thing imaginable, to murder the innocent Son of God. But out of that evil God brought about the greatest good imaginable, that redemption of the whole world. It is as Joseph said when he forgave his brothers who wickedly sold him into slavery, “Though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Chapter 4 of Father Bonniwell’s book is titled, “Margaret’s Suffering.” He describes the sufferings of Margaret during the 12 years of her imprisonment. I won’t comment on that here because I think Margaret’s words to Father Cappellano that I already quoted give us the best summary of what she suffered and what her suffering meant to her. But I would like to comment on what Father Bonniwell writes at the beginning of this chapter about Margaret’s understanding. He says,

In describing the blind girl’s mind as “luminous,” the chaplain had used the right word. Margaret’s understanding of life and its problems was truly extraordinary. This was partly due to the instruction given her by the patient chaplain. But there can be no question that it was, in a far greater degree, due to divine grace. We are irresistibly reminded of a like early development of intelligence in St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine de Ricci, and St. Rose of Lima, when they were the same age. The course of instruction she received was so thorough, and so completely absorbed by Margaret, that years later she astonished the Dominican friars at Citta di Castello with the extent and depth of her theological knowledge.

With Margaret, to know was to act. She possessed so generous a nature that she felt she had given nothing to God so long as anything remained to be given. With her, therefore, there could never be any question of compromise or of half measures. Since she had chosen to serve God, she would do so with her whole heart, her whole soul and her whole mind.

Page 19

“With Margaret, to know was to act.” This is not the place for an exposition on Saint Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on the interdependency of intellect and will in human action. Suffice it to say that knowing and loving go together. Margaret’s astonishing knowledge of theology was not something dryly abstract. Theology is about words or thoughts (logos) about God (theos). Knowing God, thinking and speaking truly about God, are inseparable from loving God. A scholar can know a great deal about what has been said about God. He or she can even know much about what can be truly predicated of God. But if one does not love God, one can not know God as God really is. Margaret “so completely absorbed” the divine “course of instruction she received” because “she had chosen to serve God . . . with her whole heart, her whole soul and her whole mind,”

Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that, by the grace of God, knowing and loving God in this life leads us to the perfect knowledge of God, the beatific vision, enjoyed by the saints in heaven. Saint Margaret of Castello never read Saint Thomas’ Summa. Strictly speaking, she never read anything. Nevertheless, “due to divine grace,” she knew God “with her whole heart . . . and her whole mind.” It reminds me of something Jesus said: “I came into this world . . . so that those who do not see might see” (John 9:39).

Questions

  1. I find Chapters 3 and 4 of Father Bonniwell’s book tremendously rich. I quoted and commented upon some of the passages that most impressed me. What was most striking to you?
  2. Father Bonniwell writes in Chapter 4 about Margaret’s voluntary suffering, that is, the suffering she inflicted upon herself. Christians don’t seem to do that or talk about that as much as we used to. Is there anything about that which you find confusing or disturbing?
  3. I mentioned how Margaret’s initial thoughts about her suffering relate to my ministry as a hospital chaplain. In your reading of these chapters, is there anything that relates to your experience?

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.

20 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Chapters 3 and 4”

  1. To me, the concept of suffering is best communicated as a mystery. Margaret indeed feels saintly in not only not pushing suffering away, but seeking more of it. Perhaps in the time this book was written (1952) that was a message that resonated with many Catholics, but I think speaking to contemporary parents to “take on suffering and ask for more” is a tall order. As people of faith, I believe it is important to meet people where they are, with all of their doubt and the unfortunate effects of a secular society heaped upon them.

    I appreciate that in order to get Margaret’s story published, Father Bonniwell felt the need to write it as historic fiction. In doing so, he anchors Margaret’s story in the more faithful culture of the time in which he wrote it. In New Haven, my home town, when I was growing up there were 70,000 Catholics; today there are 10,000. Today, we must strive even harder to reach today’s parents, as the notion of “offering suffering up”, as Father Jonah points out, is not an easy thing to do. Sometimes as portrayed in the book, Margaret is a role model seems who quite out of reach to me. Growing up in a family where two out of the four of us siblings had a serious medical condition, I have grappled with the meaning of suffering all of my life. My sisters persisted in their faith, but had times of feeling abandoned by God; that feels more real to me than Margaret. I wonder how Margaret’s life would be written by a contemporary author….would suffering be characterized as a great mystery?

  2. 1. What was most interesting to you?
    I loved these same passages, as they help me understand better why Jesus had to suffer and die. I also liked the references to the three saints who, like Margaret, practiced self-mortification out of love for Jesus and for the salvation of souls.

    2. Voluntaray suffering? Is this confusing or disturbing? Until recently, this was disturbing and unsettling. God gives us good bodies, minds, souls; why would we do what nature tells us to avoid? I am starting to understand that God tells us to surrender our bodies to Him for the salvation of souls, and I have come to understand more about joining suffering to Jesus. I have come to see that I had a very one-sided picture of being with Jesus: being in Heaven, when all suffering was done and I was rejoicing with the saints in God’s presence in eternity. One day, as i looked at the crucifix above the tabernacle, I saw that the body of Christ, the corpus, was surrounded by golden rays which looked like spears or lances piercing His Body. I realized that, besides Mass, I have many opportunities each day to be with Jesus in this world; that I don’t have to wait to be with Him in the next because I can join Him in offering up my own sufferings for the salvation of souls. Until now, I have not been ready to join with Jesus in suffering. I only wanted the good times. He is our Spouse, and I wonder if our vows are the same as our mortal marriage vows: in sickness and in health, good times and bad, richer or poorer? I was looking to find Him in the good things; now I can find Him everywhere, and where He is, is Heaven. Since this is a new discovery for me, I have a lot of trouble remembering that I am suffering with Christ in the moment, but sometimes my guardian angel reminds me afterward, and then I offer it up. God knows my weakness, so He doesn’t send me much suffering, for which I am very grateful, but there are little trials and frustrations in each day that I can practice on.

    Margaret’s understanding of her closeness to Christ in suffering is, to me, miraculous.

    How much of this conversation is purely fiction, and how much is based on what contemporaries said to the original biographers? Either way, it is a beautiful but difficult teaching.

    Thanks for the zoom; it was good to meet some of the people reading the book and posting.
    Thank you for doing the book study.

    1. I love this, Mary Ellen! Reading this book help you understand Jesus better. What could be better than that? Thank you for your reflection on being with Jesus in this world and not only looking forward to being with Jesus in heaven.

  3. Vera O -l. The fact that Margaret seeks out additional suffering (as if she did not have enough! ) strikes me as awesome and amazing.
    . I was a little disturbed she fasted and then wore big clothes…Today, this would be an “eating disorder”?? I think. It was a little confusing to me, too. I think back to my childhood..giving up in Lent…e.g. candy, etc. As I grew up in the Catholic faith, the focus seemed to switch to “doing good” rather than “avoiding candy or such”…even giving alms…more so, being of “service”…The “service” aspect seems to me to be more important…maybe it’s just the part that has gotten into my soul….good works, service, etc. however small, but
    maybe to another pilgrim, “big”. !. I am a member of a family and extended family which has been greatly blessed and greatly trialed (?)..many blessings…many crosses…Many include the “disability” type. (too many to mention or discuss)…some .even going on today.. my POINT one of the most valuable “works” I have ever done as an individual…separate and apart from my lawyering days, or even my teaching days…was to have been blessed to become or chosen to become a Eucharistic Minister in Rusk Institute first and then various nursing homes…as my life changed …before marriage, family. This “work”…God’s work is soo far above and beyond in value than any legal brief I ever wrote or oral argument I ever won!. Margaret reminds me of the phrase St Theresa is said to have used “if this is how you treat your friends…no wonder you have so few of them” …as to suffering, disabilities, and such.

    1. Awesome and amazing and a little disturbing. I think you capture Margaret’s story pretty well with those three adjectives!

  4. Most striking to me was how despite the absolute cruelty and cold heartedness of her parents , who should love her most , that Margaret , not only still had the capacity to love but had a heart filled with love and forgiveness. She also was so in tune with God, that in her moment of despair, she was able to hear Him and understand the purpose of how this road would bring her even closer to Jesus. This is astounding for anyone , never mind a mere child.

    2-
    I understand and appreciate the holiness and value of prayer, penance, fasting and sacrifice
    , however, I do find mortifications concerning.

    I admit my weakness and spiritual flabbiness when I share with you that I find just fasting difficult , never mind the self torture imposed by bodily mortification !

    Margaret already was suffering so much and she was a child ! Being imprisoned meant that someone had to have brought her this hair shirt . Was it the kind priest ?
    I thought of the Fatima children and how they also used a tight rope around their bodies as penance . Our Lady addressed it , saying God saw all their sacrifices but they did not need to wear the rope it at night .
    It’s hard for me to understand how this could be pleasing to God.

    3- I have been blessed to have a person in my life who endures terrible physical suffering, yet never complains and offers it all up for God to use.
    He sincerely gives thanks to God for all he has physically, mentally , spiritually and in life . He thanks God for what He has allowed in his life , as well as , for what He has allowed to be taken away , for example, physical strength.

    I think of him as we read about Margaret.

    What an example he has been in my life –
    A true blessing and a road map of what to strive for !

    1. Thank you for this, Joetta! How wonderful that you have a “St. Margaret figure” in your life who has been a witness to patient suffering.

      I love what you say about Margaret being “in tune with God” in her most desperate moments and ability to understand God purposes in what she suffered.

  5. 1. I find Chapters 3 and 4 of Father Bonniwell’s book tremendously rich. I quoted and commented upon some of the passages that most impressed me. What was most striking to you?

    — Margaret’s response to her parents cruel treatment demonstrates a remarkable insight that only a few possess i.e. saints and martyrs. She demonstrates true ” Wisdom” that I do not have. It would be hard for me to accept it as the path to being closer to God or attaining the beatific vision. I am afraid I am still too much tied to the material world and do not possess the necessary Faith at this point.

    2. Father Bonniwell writes in Chapter 4 about Margaret’s voluntary suffering, that is, the suffering she inflicted upon herself. Christians don’t seem to do that or talk about that as much as we used to. Is there anything about that which you find confusing or disturbing?

    — I still do not understand the concept of how our pain/suffering relates to the concept of Jesus as the “Suffering Servant”. It would be hard to tell an adolescent girl who is dying of cancer that she should “offer it up” to God and that Good can come out of her suffering and that it will help others as well. The harsh reality is that she will die. How does that comfort her? Not everyone is a saint.

    3. I mentioned how Margaret’s initial thoughts about her suffering relate to my ministry as a hospital chaplain. In your reading of these chapters, is there anything that relates to your experience?

    — I am a father of a child who was a patient in the hospital and suffered as a result of her illness. We were grateful for the Franciscan brother who was part of the hospital ministry and helped us through it all. But I would have gladly declined all her suffering if I was given the choice. We were not offered the option.

    1. Thank you, Horace. All three of these answers are wonderfully thoughtful and genuine. Regarding #2, I think the best way to think about our suffering in relation to Jesus’ has to do with what St. Paul says in his letters about the Church as the Body of Christ. As Christ’s body, we share Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. I think suffering is part of that.

      You are right that it’s hard to talk about this to suffering people. I had cancer 20 years ago and I didn’t find it helpful when people who didn’t seem to understand what I was going through told me to “offer it up.” Now, I talk to patients about this kind of thing all the time. There are usually things I can say that might be helpful but I have to be careful about what to say to whom. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “that which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.”

  6. Before I start searching the internet for a great deal on a hairshirt, let’s discuss mortifications. When Jesus assembled his unexpected community of tax collectors and prostitutes, he did not say to them, “first you must undergo flagellation, and then you must wear sackcloth and ashes while wailing and begging for forgiveness.” Rather, he called them by name and told them to follow him. Jesus knew they were sinners, but he also knew that they would suffer great hardships from their association with him. In a similar way, God “blesses” us by permitting the trials that help us grow on our paths toward sanctification.

    As the Church evolved, penitents attempted to deaden their sinful natures and share in the Passion of Jesus through physical punishments. Certainly, there are biblical references about “not living according to the flesh” and “putting to death what is earthly in us.” Yet, in Colossians 2:23, Saint Paul warns us that ascetic practices and harsh treatment of the body are not from God and are “of no value against gratification of the flesh.” Punishing our evil bodily shells seems reminiscent of Gnosticism.

    I have long believed that our bodies are gifts from God that should be cherished and respected. We are, after all, God’s creations. Saint Augustine explained that we become what we eat when we receive the Eucharist. How, then, can we deliberately harm the temple where God dwells?

    Prayer, abstinence, and fasting seem like reasonable ways to offer sacrifice and reparation as penance without inflicting harm. One of my confessors once told me that in addition to curbing our earthly desires, abstaining from various pleasures can help us appreciate the bounty the Lord provides for us. I also embrace the practice of using our time, talent, and treasure to help others in lieu of using them to treat ourselves.

    God makes good out of evil, but I don’t understand why we should be the cause of that evil. In my opinion, self-harm seems to be more of an evil than a good. Damaging and disrespecting His creations may eventually purify those who endure the pain. Our lives will naturally include many forms of suffering that could be recognized as invitations to draw closer to God. If we carry our crosses through the hardships we experience, wouldn’t we serve God better by helping others rather than by punishing ourselves?

    I would love to read what everyone else thinks about this topic, because it has been confusing to me for decades. Thank you!

    1. From what I have read of other saints, for example, St. Rose of Lima and St. Dominic, most of the self-inflicted sufferings were done in union with Christ for the salvation of others, not simply to achieve sainthood. When it is done with Christ, for others, it becomes an offering in reparation for sins, as Jesus’ Passion and death were.

      Do I have the courage to join him? No. But if He wants me to join Him there, He will provide the opportunity and the grace to see it through. The Holy Spirit helps us to discern what God wills and how to cooperate with His will and His grace.

    2. I think this is a very big and very interesting topic. Thank you, Jacqueline and Mary Ellen for your thoughts about this. I won’t attempt a comprehensive consideration of this question here. But maybe one of the first things to consider is a distinction between self-mutilation, the harming of our bodies that the Church has always condemned, and mortification, ways that we afflict our bodies for penitential purposes without causing them harm. I think some of the saints of our Church, though having good intentions, did cross that line. St. Francis of Assisi apologized at the end of his life to “brother ass” for mistreating him. “Brother ass” was what St. Francis called his own body.

      By the way, Jacqueline, https://www.cilice.co.uk/product/quality-sackcloth-hairshirt/ might be the website you are looking for.

      1. Thank you, Father Jonah! I never imagined that a penitential garment could serve so many purposes (sackcloth, hairshirt, and rope “cilice belt”). Of course, modesty prevents use for simulatenous public and private penances. I am grateful for your clarification between mortifications and self harm. If I am fortunate enough to be admitted into Purgatory, I am sure that the cleansing fires will be far worse than self-imposed sacrifices for purification. I will consider this a lesson that perhaps I have been too lenient with Sister Ass and need to perfect temperance.

  7. 1. I enjoyed reading the dialogue of such an old story. I like how the dialogue conveyed the true strength of the timid Padre. This conversation could be had today.

    2. I find it concerning that she was causing herself to suffer so much. Her life was hard enough.

    3. I wonder if her parents had loved her and given her affection, if her life would have been different. Would she have the same motivation for a relationship with God?

    1. I’m interested, Rachel, in your wondering about what might have been if Margaret’s parents had loved her. I think it touches on a paradox of divine providence. The attitudes and actions of Margaret’s parents are evil and, therefore, in some sense regrettable. But what God brought out of that evil is good and not regrettable. I think of a line from a JRR Tolkien book in which a character looks back at his life after a post-mortem purgatorial experience and says, “It could have been different, but it could not have been better.”

  8. Margaret is gifted with Grace . She has a keen understanding of Christ’s message about suffering and puts it into action in her own life. She is able to transform what could be a traumatic , heart breaking experience to one of hope and spiritual purpose. Margaret is truly Blessed. Her wisdom offers hope to others in our contemporary world who are suffering from life’s injustices.

    1. I agree entirely! I think the grace that was so powerful in Margaret is a grace that, through Margaret’s intercession, we should all be praying for.

  9. Barbara says: Most striking to me was how God brings such good out of seeming evil! How Leonardo & Fr. Cappellano had the courage to speak the truth; and Margaret coming to know God’s grace in her soul which deepened her love for God & wanting to join her sufferings with those of Jesus – what great love – just as a mother will suffer much for the love of her child. In my experience as a Nurse, I saw how patients who had faith seemed to be more accepting of their sufferings.

    1. Thank you, Barbara. My experience in health care is similar though, as I wrote in this post, I have never encountered the saintly faith-filled response to suffering that Margaret showed. I try to encourage patients to respond with greater faith while also being sensitive to what they are suffering and their always-understandable feelings about what they are suffering. I find Margaret to be a wonderful example and I have begun to more often tell suffering patients about her.

      1. Thank you, Fr. Jonah for your responses to Horace Tsu and to Barbara Brady about the difficulty of speaking about suffering to those who are in the midst of it. The example of St. Margaret is a gentle way to lead those in distress to realize that they are not alone, and that they are not abandoned by God and His saints.

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