Reading the lives of many woman saints (both mediaeval and modern), one is struck by the way in which suffering is heaped upon suffering – often in the form of distressing physical illness – as the individual becomes progressively conformed with the suffering Christ, giving expression at the root of her being to the vocation (repeatedly referred to in St Paul’s letters) to share in Christ’s passion and death in order that she might be more fully united with him in his resurrection.
St Lidwina of Schiedam (in the Netherlands) was born in 1380 and died in 1433. From an early age she developed a profound devotion to the Virgin Mary, and pledged her virginity to Christ while still only 12.
Aged 16, she injured herself while ice-skating and became an invalid. Her injury proved to be the catalyst not just to chronic disability but to a succession of painful and highly unpleasant illnesses, and also to the full range of emotional, psychological and spiritual trials which inevitably accompany a lifetime of pain and sickness.
For thirty years Lidwina endured this unremitting suffering, offering it up in reparation for the sins of others. By day and by night she meditated on Christ’s passion, uniting her meditation with that of the Church in its seven canonical hours of prayer (she divided her meditation into seven “hours”), and uniting her sufferings with Christ’s passion, plunging deeper and deeper with the passage of time into the mystery of the Cross.
This participation in Christ’s passion transformed the bitterness of her condition into sweetness and delight, so, ever faithful to her vocation to suffer in Christ and with Christ, she implored God to increase and intensify her agony. At this point, aged about 27, she was graced with visions in which she experienced participation in Christ’s passion – a translation into the realm of spiritual ecstasy of the participation into which she had already entered through prayer and suffering.
The remainder of her life consisted in an ever more intense commitment to self-abandonment and union with Christ. She lived in voluntary poverty, giving away most of the alms on which she lived. She was in almost constant pain, and, bizarrely, shed skin, bones, and parts of her intestines, which her parents kept in a vase and which gave off a sweet scent.
Although suffering horrendously herself (she was in almost constant pain, and it has been suggested that her symptoms were consonant with a severe form of multiple sclerosis), she had the gift of healing others. For the last two decades of her life she ate nothing but the Blessed Sacrament, and, as years passed, was unable to sleep, unable to see, and, for the most part, unable to move.
After her death, Thomas à Kempis, who was impressed by the absoluteness of her consecration to suffering in conformity with Christ’s passion, and who had witnessed some of her miracles, wrote her biography, and further accounts of her life were gathered together by her cousin John Gerlac, by her confessor John Walter, and by the provincial of the Franciscans John Brugman – all of whom had personal knowledge of her extraordinary sufferings and of the way in which she had borne them and offered them up in a grace-filled union with (and imitation of) the redemptive sufferings of Christ.
The lives of the saints frequently illustrate in an extreme and disturbing way some truth about what it means to live the life of grace in union with the crucified and risen Lord, and St Lidwina’s life can be seen as an icon of the dominical injunction to “take up thy cross”.