The Shocking Mysticism of Angela of Foligno
Prayer, for Patricia Hampl, is the “human response to the fact of this endless mystery of bliss and brutality, impersonal might and lyric intimacy that composes our experience of life.” Angela of Foligno, the 13th century Umbrian mystic and nun, would agree to a certain extent, but only after admonishing Hampl for neglecting to mention “the knowledge of sin, which makes the soul very much afraid of being damned to hell.” (23) Although, as we shall see, there are similarities between Hampl’s understanding of a life of prayer, it is important that we focus first on what is specific to Angela’s historical situation.
The fear of damnation that I mentioned was just the first step out of thirty or so in the series of mystical revelations that Angela, although she was born rich and may well have been literate, dictated to a scribe in the late 1200s. It’s hard to say exactly how many steps there are, or how they’re divided. Even the scribe was a little confused and shapes the structure a bit. He writes:
[S]tarting from the nineteenth step, I did not know for sure how to number and distinguish one step from the other. So I organized the remaining material under seven steps or revelations which coincide with the gifts of divine grace that I perceived that she had received, as well as her growth in those gifts and in the charisms of grace, which I had observed and learned about, and also as I thought more fitting and appropriate. (34).It is important for us to think for a moment about the relationship between Angela and her scribe. He was related to her and from the same town and had already heard her confessions and become her “primary spiritual advisor.” (37) Here is the scribe’s account of the origin of the text we have to this day:
The following account explains why I began to write: One time, while I was in residence at the friary in Assisi, Christ’s faithful one [that’s Angela!] came to the Church of Saint Francis; she was sitting at the entrance of the church and was screeching very loudly. Since I was her confessor, her relative, and her primary spiritual advisor, I was very ashamed especially because of the many other brothers who had come to see her there screeching and crying out; these brothers knew both me and her … But I was too embarrassed to approach her; my pride and embarrassment were so great that I waited indignantly at a distance for her to finish making those noises. And when she finished screeching, she got up from the entrance and approached me. I could hardly speak to her calmly. I told her she could never again dare come to Assisi, where such evil was possessing her; I also told her companions never to bring her there again (37).Our scribe approaches Angela a few days later back in their hometown to ask what was going on that day at Assisi. He is amazed when she begins telling him of her mystical encounters with God in Christ. He urges her to recount them in detail to him so he can record them for the edification of the Church. As we learn from the scribe’s words as he speaks of the difficulties keeping track of Angela’s progressive journey of revelation, his stamp is all over the text we are left with. We do, though, have a relatively clear recording of her first-hand account. Consider St. Joan of Arc, who never read or wrote a word. The only words of hers that have withstood history are those reported by others, usually with an ax to grind. The primary text of Joan’s that we are left with is the transcript of her heresy trial. There, as scholar Francoise Meltzer tells us, “she is both explicit and secretive[, and t]he trial itself [was] inscribed and produced by the forces bent on [her] destruction.” If we are to understand the world of St. Joan, who was executed almost a hundred fifty years after Angela died, we must read between the lines of a text recorded by men out to destroy her. Angela of Foligno, however, benefited from a confessor and scribe with a heart, an ear, and a pen sympathetic to her cause. Although we must bear in mind that even the unusual depth of access to her experiences as a medieval female is filtered through the pen of her male scribe, his devotion to an accurate representation of her life and words is clear in his epilogue to her book:
I also tried to use her own words – the ones I could grasp – since I did not want to write – nor did I know what to write – when she was not present, out of fear and zeal, so that I would not use even one word which she had not really spoken. That is why I always reread to her what I had written, repeating it many times, so that I would use only her very own words… Furthermore, the Lord saw to it that two other truly faithful friars, who were familiar with Christ’s faithful one, [Angela] and heard her speak; they also examined and discussed these things with her many times. And what is more, these friars were made certain of this work’s validity by the Lord’s divine grace, and they bear faithful witness to it both in word and in deed. (78).Aside, perhaps, from a few political figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine, the female mystics from the medieval period are among the few whose stories are accessible to historians. The life of a mystic, inspiring a combination of awe, reverence, fear and revulsion, which we see in the complex reaction of Angela’s scribe, was also in many cases the best possible life for medieval women. The husbands dominated the family. Marriage outside of social class was verboten; young women’s families, under the dowry system, bought the best husbands and family connections they could afford. For many, the religious life was the only chance for even the smallest degree of personal autonomy.
We can imagine Angela’s yearning for this autonomy. She had been married off at 20, and, as we learn early on in her book, didn’t have the happiest relationship with her family. It paled in comparison with her budding relationship with her Lord and Savior. She tells the story this way:
And then I began to reject fine foods, fancy clothing and headdresses. But there was still shame and sorrow, because I did not yet feel any love. And I was still with my husband – and so there was bitterness when I was spoken to or treated unjustly; nevertheless, I endured as patiently as I could. And then in accordance with God’s will, my mother died; she had been a great hindrance to me. Later, my husband and all my children died within a short time. And because I had already begun the way of the cross and had asked God that they should die, I felt a deep consolation following their deaths. I knew that God had accomplished these things for me, and that my heart would always be in God’s heart and God’s heart would always be in mine. (26-7).The religious path was often an escape from a stifling family life. Although the ill treatment of women was not absent from the Church itself during the medieval period, the way of Christ and the religious life, in many ways, was the best option out there for the women who chose it. We might pause to consider, for a moment, that women all over this country and the world might be praying, like our Angela did, for God to relieve them of the burden of an abusive family or of the pressures of womanhood in a harsh and unfair world. Angela’s prayer might not truly be as shocking to us as it first appears.
Patricia Hampl, writing at the beginning of our century, tells of the prayerful existence of a group of contemporary Franciscan nuns and priests on a pilgrimage to Assisi, the site of our Angela’s screeching.
Existence was prayer. The day was prayer, and [Felix] was in the day, therefore in prayer. That was the feeling he and Donnie and Bridget – and even Thaddeus – all gave off. Prayer was not effort, not just something they did. It was something they were in, as obviously as they were in the world. (Hampl, 147).This prayerful life is what Angela has attained when God speaks to her on the same road, we might imagine, as Hampl’s pilgrims. “On the way to Assisi,” she tells us, “[God] also told me, ‘Your entire life: your eating, drinking, sleeping – every aspect of your life – is pleasing to me.’” (44) In honor of one Angela of Folingo’s titles, “Mistress of theologians,” I hope you’ll permit me a little foray into the world of theology. Paul Tillich, one of the giants of 20th century theology, calls this state of being ‘absolute faith’:
Absolute faith … is not a state which appears beside other states of mind. It never is something separated and definite, an event which can be isolated and described. It is always a movement in, with, and under other states of mind. (Courage to Be, 188).In this sense, the essence of Christianity lies a this “divine act of self-affirmation.” The Christian life is a mindset where God is always present to you, shining through each moment of your experience. Hampl illustrates this by means of a dream, in which she meets Donnie, her mentor, riding a donkey through a dreamscape in which Hampl had been frolicking: “I suddenly understand: she has gone on the real part of the trip. I’ve been hanging around the theme park.” (Hampl, 236) Hampl, in the dream, wishes to go where Donnie has gone, but, “No, she says. You’re too late – or maybe she says, You don’t have a donkey.” (ibid.) Later, Hampl remembers where the donkey comes from. It’s the donkey from a painting of the Nativity of Christ. “It’s an icon of the Word made flesh, which is the opposite trick literature keeps trying do do: making flesh into word.” (238) Instead of controlling one’s seeking – Hampl had been trying to find meaning and the divine in her life – the contemplative, prayerful life consists of allowing the Word of God to find you and carry you into and through the world. At this point, it is not you, who are doing things in the world, your will is surrendered to the word of God. This is what Paul speaks about when he says in Galatians:
It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20)Angela, we might be able to say, though, goes farther along the path toward God than either Tillich or Hampl do. Both Tillich and Hampl are talking about how God is with us as we live our lives in the world. The perspective of a 13th-century mystic, though, is a little different. At the peak of her mystical encounters with God, in one of the most obscure, yet powerful passages I’ve ever come across, Angela finds herself suspended in darkness, in a sort of divine emptiness. At first glance, this is reminiscent of Tillich’s idea of a God beyond the God of theism, where contemporary analysis and the anxiety that our contemporary culture reinforces call into question every dogmatic assertion we make about God. When Angela experiences this radical emptiness, which draws her “incomparably more” than the “God-Man,” or Christ, she seems to be enveloped by a totally transcendent, formless God. Here is the peak of Angela’s mystical experience:
And when I am in that darkness, I do not remember anything about humanity or the God-Man, or anything that has form. Yet when I am in that darkness I see everything and I see nothing. And as I depart from what I have been talking about (or as I remain behind), I see the God-Man. He draws my soul with such gentleness, and sometimes he says ‘You are I and I am you.’ And I see those eyes and that face so pleasing and attractive as He embraces me. And that which comes out of those eyes and that face is the very thing I said that I see in the darkness, and which comes from within it; it is what delights me so much that it cannot be described. And while I am in this God-Man, my soul is alive; and I am in this God-Man much more than I am in God with that darkness. My soul is alive in the God-Man, but God in that darkness draws my soul incomparably more than the God-Man. Still, I am in this God-Man almost continually (70).There is another way of looking at this strange, but captivating passage, though. Some contemporary intellectuals, particularly a few somewhat notorious French thinkers and the people influenced by them, have paid a lot of attention to medieval mystics precisely because their experiences seem so foreign to us today. Tillich, on the one hand might look at Angela’s witness and see his philosophically-derived understanding of the God beyond God, who gives us courage in spite of the threat of the non-existence of ultimate meaning in the world. On the other hand, for the radical French feminist Luce Irigaray, Angela’s experience can be seen as an overflow or outburst of this frightening non-being into the male-dominated, falsely ordered world of “being.” Irigaray would suggest, I think, and not without warrant, that Tillich’s tendency to say “man” or “mankind” rather than “humans” or “humankind” calls into question his understanding of a universal notion of “being” as the sum-total of the existence of the universe. I think I’m right about that; these French thinkers can be awfully difficult to understand.
‘Woman’, for Irigaray, is a concept different from but similar to women as we know them. Woman is always outside the male structure of society, and, since this male-dominated society dictates or attempts to dictate people’s understanding of the universe and their place in it, a woman’s voice, truly expressed, is necessarily foreign and shocking. Irigaray quotes Angela of Foligno at the beginning of a chapter on female mystics. There is something true about ultimate reality Irigaray feels women like Angela (and a few men, like John of the Cross) can reveal to us. In that chapter, Irigaray writes about the Real, the essence of our existence as divided against ourself. For each of us, she says, there exists “a gulf that opens up ahead, moves away, strains, never knowing or imagining (itself) in its unfathomable nakedness.” (Irigaray, 194) Mystics like Angela, Irigaray seems to say, were proclaiming the terror that lies at the heart of an unjust society. Most people continue to fail to understand this message. From the perspective of society as a whole, the tendency is to look at people who, for instance, pray for God to kill their children or who sit at the door of a church during a service, screeching uncontrollably, and call them insane.
If we can imagine the female mystics of the medieval period as seeking to reveal the truth about God and the world by stripping away the oppressive elements of a male-dominated culture, another seemingly strange event in Angela’s story starts to make more sense. She is, throughout the early steps on her way of the cross, consumed with guilt at her sin. As I have suggested, one way to understand her guilty feelings is by looking at the family life of women in her time and place. They are almost literally shipped off, with payment, in order to improve the social standing of their families. Their bodies are used, not to glorify God, but to, in a sense, increase the material worth of their male relatives. For medieval women like Angela, there was an important disconnect between the religious demand for repentance and the selfless following of God in Christ on one hand and the very material existence of the difficult day-to-day family life of a thirteenth-century woman on the other. It is helpful to keep this in mind when we read this passage of Angela’s:
At the eighth step, while looking at the cross, I was given a deeper understanding of how the Son of God had died for our sins. And with extreme pain, I again became aware of all my sins – I felt that I myself had crucified Him. But I still did not know which was the greater good: that He had rescued me from my sins and from hell and converted me to penance, or that He had been crucified for me. But together with this understanding of the cross I was given such a fire that, as I was standing near the cross, I stripped myself of all my clothes, and offered myself completely to Him. And although I was afraid, I promised to observe perpetual chastity and not to offend Him with every part of my body. I also accused every part of my body, one at a time, before Him. (26)
The message revealed to us in Angela’s dramatic revelations, as Irigaray put it, and as Angela is here living out quite literally, was a “union [with God] in its most outrageous nakedness.” (Irigaray, 194) Some of the things that Angela of Foligno did seem remarkably odd to us now. Even then, it must have been shocking to have been in chuch when she showed up shrieking at the door, or when she ripped of all her clothes at the foot of the cross. It might’ve been a little less odd then; St. Francis had famously stripped naked and run off into the woods quite close to the setting of Angela’s story. Because of the rigid and limited options allowed to women in her position, one of the few possibilities for an independent, self-determined existence was that of the religious life.
It is a testament to how far we’ve come that for the majority of contemporary women, at least in our culture, there are many more ways open for the discovery of meaning. This might be why we don’t see much behavior like hers. She might also inspire us to look again at the lives and stories of those who, at first, seem downright crazy. Maybe they impact us as little as they do because we try to hide them away in institutions. Is it possible that we can learn something from those who seem to be unable to function normally? The more we avoid contact with these people and the less we think about them, the harder it is to ask this question. I do believe, though, that there are mental disorders that demand treatment. If you have a friend or family member who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia or a similar disease, or if you have spoken or worked with mental patients of this type, you may well have realized that manic behaviors shouldn’t be encouraged or explained away as religious fanaticism, insightful or not. Sometimes people really need treatment. We would do well, though, to take a lesson to heart from Angela and her visions, and it is one that we might learn from those people who might remind us of the more puzzling and attention-grabbing events in her life. We must ask if there isn’t some aspect of our society that produces this kind of outrageous behavior. Is it possible that the demand for success, especially financial success, and the constant stream of pleasures and entertainments offered to us by the marketplace are the equivalent to the oppressive lots afforded to women and peasants in the medieval times? Maybe we need more Angelas to shock ourselves into a better understanding of our world and the victims all around us.
I want to end with a bit of a footnote. Angela of Foligno has left us with more than just a record of mystical revelations of a transcendent God and the bleak despair of life without this God. Her story also testifies to the power of God to help victims transcend their situation and receive new life. This is a message no less true today. As Angela approached the highest level of mystical understanding of she was told by God, “My daughter, no creature is able to come to this point of seeing – where you have come – except by divine grace.” It is God’s power alone, not hers, Angela tells us, which delivered her from her sinful and hopeless life.
Finally, Angela of Foligno also leaves us with a demand for social action. God’s transforming action in our lives is not simply for our own comfort and benefit. After her dramatic conversion, Angela founded a community of Franciscan nuns. They took the three religious vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, but did not lead a cloistered life. Unlike most other women active in the church at the time, Angela, along with her fellow sisters, spent the rest of her life out in the community to help the poor and sick. This, perhaps, is the most important message we can take from this one remarkable woman who lived about seven hundred years ago, and it’s one, it seems, we must hear again and again. God is always already giving us the power to withstand our trials. In return we are commanded to go out and give our help to those who need it most.