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
“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
“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).
- 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?
- 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 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.