For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.
- Julian of Norwich
I have always admired anchoresses.
How devoted must one be to live such a life devoted to an ephemeral love, doing nothing but write and dream about someone you can never truly touch? Thusly do I love all women who became sainted. Letting the body waste away to hunger, to decay, letting the mind whither and the skin turn thin for want of sun, but still, the soul persevered.
I recall mornings spent in worship growing up. Raptly attending, not with my ears to sermons, but with eyes ever-loving to Saint Catherine's visage, the wheel which could only break her body tucked under her arm. Every Sunday, the light would pour through her and on to me in too-tight shoes and too-tight bones. Every Sunday, I would imagine this was a message from her and God.
Is it not natural, then, that I came to be as I am now?
Although you would not know what it is I am, would you? Forgive me, I have begun in such a way as to mislead you. It was not intentional, be assured. One can say many unkind things about me. That I am a liar is not one of them.
To atone for any upset the confusion may have caused you I will answer what I presume is a question in your mind- If I found such grace in religion and the sainted women thereof, why would I not become a nun?
This is an incorrect question followed through an incorrect train of thought. In reply I will ask you a question in return and answer it also. What is a nun, my friend?
A nun is pious, one who spends her life on her knees in cloisters. A nun even is one who may eternally turn her mind towards the holy. While you may have an impression that these are the goals after which I wander, this would be a mistake.
A nun may only worship God and Christ.
I found this limitation unsuitable.
To begin at the absolute beginning, you must understand sainthood and womanhood. You may believe you have a comprehensive view of both, but I cannot risk the case being other than that and must explain. I will tell you variously of three saints of sorts that inspire me particularly.
The first is Mother Julien, Dame Julien, Saint Julien. She who walled herself up in Norwich and suckled at the wounds of Christ, who wrote and learned and read in venerable study for her whole long life. I modeled the first part of my life on her. A canonized saint she may not be, but she is good enough. Any woman who gave her life, through death or dedication, ought to be good enough.
Cloisters as they were are hard to come by in this modern day, and single cells in which to wall oneself are yet rarer. My parents, though I do honor them, would not allow me pure solace in which to read and learn. It worried them. Half-joking, it was once suggested they nail the door shut and wait for me to get tired and beg for egress. My quite serious eight-year-old reply- a suggestion that we do that and cut a hole in the door so that I would not miss them -resulted in the privileges of “door” being taken from me for five entire years. I am sure they thought to save me from myself. I grew to hate that yawning entryway and learned to bide my time and wrap my longings tight against my chest. I honoured my father and mother well and never complained, but they did not understand.
As I grew, so too did the desire to sculpt myself in the image of the women I obsessed over. I wondered what Julian looked like, so wan, so fair. I imagined her there in her cloister, sweating, screaming, thrashing under the whips and touches of Christ himself as his mother watched on impassively. The voyeuristic need of it all driving her into frenzy. I came, as she must have, to the realization that women are holy through their punished bodies.
Women are blood seeping through hands and over thighs in all the forms that bleeding comes. Women are the raw and textual, sub-textual, sexual pieces of the holy.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Within what cloister I could find, I studied, and I hid. Tight sports brassieres layered over one another did not hide my shape for long. Soon it became clear that my burden was not only with temporally misplaced holy purpose, but a physical body that screamed impiety. Where I ought to have grown tall and slender as a willow, a stately virgin made of alabaster, I paunched. Matron before Maiden, my girlhood spent itself time and time again upon self-loathing. Care learned early kept me out of too much trouble, although no matter how much I bound and squeezed the damned tits would not become smaller. I grew to hate the cumbersome body cursed on me.
For a time, I tried to emulate the glorious women who manifested the anorexia mirabilis, but my will was both too weak and body unwilling to shape itself accordingly. Still, I cannot pretend I do not enjoy the Lenten fasting a bit more than one might imagine. Hollow vessels, we hungry ones, to be filled with grace.
The body uncooperative and my desires of it soon fell to the wayside.
The flesh, weak, would be my Catherine’s wheel.
No matter how many times I declared this true, I could not help but feel burdened by my very self.
Every day it seemed they weighed me down more. A constant, nagging, itching, cloying weight in the back of my mind.
From these thoughts, I suppose you may have guessed which glorious Saint the beloved Mother Julien made way for.
Smooth-chested Agatha. Beautiful Agatha. If only I had prayed to her then maybe I would not have had to suffer so. Scholarship in later life for piety in youth. Alas, what was done was done. I found her through my studies early enough that once it became necessary for me to make a choice in my adulthood, there was no question of what I was to do. With years ahead of me and me years ahead of my peers, I devoted my life to studying saints.
Initially that was enough. One can just announce that one is interested in the historic value of sainthood and no one will ask too pointed questions, especially of the prim, modest girl diligently note-taking.
I got away with sainthood as an interest for three entire years before anyone thought to question which saints I would be studying. One could study the broader cultural phenomenon of sainthood, but that felt too far away and distant to provide me satisfaction.
That is what led me to saints more obscure than your Francis’, your Anthonys and your Josephs. Through research I devoured the piety of Saint Gemma Galgani, mystic and self-martyr, St Catherine of Bologna with her scented, floral grave, and others like them, small and by the wayside. Saint Agatha is not so small as they, and enjoys more popularity in the public eye, but I like to think she pointed my head towards discovery of them.
After I graduated from my first post-graduate programme, it doesn’t matter what it was, I decided to do some wandering around the Italian countryside. A hike, for my health, and to inspire me.
This is how I found my new place in the world.
In a little town at the back of beyond I found a church to Saint Agatha.
This is not so strange a thing- she is the patron saint of Malta, and of wetnurses, and against natural disasters. What was strange is this chapel had a story about her told nowhere else.
Inside their church is what amounts to a grave shrine in the form of a statue to a young woman, lying prone on her back with her severed breasts resting on the ground beside her. Clutched in her hands and crossed over her chest one could see to reaping knives. Her dress would be, I surmised, not out of place in the high Medieval period. Between the breasts rested a marble plaque which read-
Martyred for Faith and Against Temptation
15 August 1242
(Translated from the Italian by yours truly)
I was intrigued. The remainder of my itinerary lay forgotten in so many unused tickets at the bottom of my suitcase. No mission mattered now but discovering more of this different Holy Agatha.
The locals were reluctant to open up to me, though open they did. I am nothing if not persistent.
The story goes that once upon a time, there was a young girl who lived here. The chapel was built sometime in the early thirteenth century, a pretty but basic little structure. The girl’s brother had become a priest and returned to his hometown to minister his flock. Quiet sweet, you might think, but no. He had darker ambitions. You see, his little sister Agatha was quite beautiful, and young. The picture of young maidenhood. Something in her brother, his name notably lost to the ages, twisted, and he found himself desiring her carnally.
At first it didn’t amount to much, but eventually he grew more aggressive in his advances towards the young maid. For some reason either Agatha or the townsfolk did not know he was her brother, either because he was from a different marriage than her father, or because he had left home very young and was unrecognizable. Accounts varied.
Regardless, Agatha could not convince the congregation of his wickedness, and at some point, he threatened her with pregnancy. “If women were not meant to bear children, they would not have teats,” he threatened, or so the story says.
Agatha decided the logical response to this admonition was to find two reaping-knives and cut off her teats in the middle of the church, staining the floor dusty rose unto this day. Her body turned into rose petals in the style of Saint Catherine of Sienna, and her two severed breasts turned to stone, merging with the floor as a permanent reminder.
Needless to say, I was enthralled. How glorious this young lady was, how beautiful! To seize active control of oneself and, in the name of your own body, in the face of God, to martyr yourself in His name? This Agatha is an inspiration, a divine force. She enacted suffering upon herself. She was not punished! She relished her pain, thrived in it, died in it. She sacrificed her womanhood and herself in the name of chastity.
I am sure there is a time and place where her story would be different. This Agatha, like the first, might have resisted until others killed her at their leisure, but not this one. She did unto herself.
In this way, I think, I was led to the third saint of my life.
Or lead to the third potential saint.
Dear reader, if you have this in your hands, I have already ascended. I will remove that which I despise in the name of Holy Agatha. I will remove from myself that which I hate most in the same place of her namesake.
Today is Sunday, the fifteenth of August. Today, I walk into sainthood, and cut away my sins. I will cleave the vessel shut by God and release the sacred flame of divinity from within my sacred heart.