By CAROLE BRESLIN
One of the most recent canonizations to take place in the Catholic Church is that of St. Angela de Foligno, which occurred on October 11, 2013. Although her feast day has been set for January 4 — the day of her death — the 1956 edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints (reprinted in 1981) records her memorial as February 28.
The common practice in the Church is to celebrate the day when the holy ones enter into eternity, unless another feast or solemnity is already on the liturgical calendar for that day. Thus the day for remembering Angela was moved from February to January.
St. Angela is one of those saints, like St. Augustine, who gives great hope to parents who have worldly children, as these saints later became holy children of God. In fact, so strong was Angela’s conversion that she became known as a great mystic, comparable to another great doctor and mystic of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena.
Evidently, St. Angela was born around the year 1248. Although her family name is not known, it is known that she came from a wealthy and good family.
As a youth she was both lovely and lively and soon became married to a very rich man, bearing him several children. She admitted that her life was full of self-indulgent pleasure-seeking — even sinfully so. Providentially, as she neared the age of 40, she experienced something that would change her life forever.
She received a vision of the “True Light,” which called her to a life of suffering. This was not so much an agony of aridity and persecution as it was a call to that love so strong that it finds great joy in the sacrificial — fruitfully sacrificial — suffering in union with Christ. This would then bring to her a peace and a joy greater than any joy of this earth could offer.
As a result of this private revelation, Angela then saw her lifestyle in its true light. Those aimless pursuits which she thought harmless and normal, she now recognized as evil. Hence, she developed a craving for repentance for the sins she then easily recognized as sinful and so offensive to God.
She would seek this reparation by a suffering and a renunciation that would be complete and joyful. She described this as someone who had lost all in this world to find the “All” of the other world. She took for her mode the unworldly St. Francis of Assisi and joined the third order of Franciscans.
Angela’s break with the world was not sudden. She continued her worldly life, perhaps because of her family, as she slowly detached herself from the wealth, dances, and dinners expected of someone in her state of life. This detachment itself came through painful loss and suffering.
First of all, she lost her mother who died shortly after her vision. Though her mother was worldly, Angela loved her dearly. Secondly, not long after the death of her mother, she lost her husband. Her depth of loss continued as she also lost her children to death as well. Although blessed with the vision for repentance and a longing for suffering, it did not make it any easier to lose her family.
Her only consolation was in loving God as is the way of the Franciscans. All suffering and all joy are a part of one unity of life in Christ. At this time, Brother Arnold, a Franciscan, became her spiritual director. He urged her to dictate her experiences.
As she sought more and more to imitate St. Francis who gave up all his possessions, she eventually sold all of hers as well. The most painful to relinquish was the family castle that she loved so greatly. Yet this too she sold in the end after she received a vision asking of her this final sacrifice.
Obediently she dictated her visions to Brother Arnold. As many mystics have claimed, however, words could not come close to describing what she had seen. When he would read back to her what he had written, she would cry out in anguish that he did not write at all what she meant. “Blasphemous” was her expression for it. He warns the reader not to be scandalized by the heights of spiritual ecstasy that she had reached.
Her conversion continued as she grew in love, entering into a new light — a contemplation beyond each of the ones before.
As time went on, several more women gathered around her, also joining the Franciscan tertiaries. Christiana became her special and closest companion during her mystical phase. Even Christiana was overwhelmed by the glow that emanated from Angela even as she walked down the street. “Cover your face!” she would beg Angela so that people would not see what happened and draw attention to them.
During Holy Week as Thursday approached she called her companions and encouraged them to follow her. “Let us go and look for Christ,” she cried. So out they went to wash the feet of the poor and sick, the outcasts and suffering. As they finished their outing and left for home, they discussed the joy they experienced in caring for the wretched men and women.
As 1308 grew to a close, Angela gathered her followers close to her, like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. She blessed each one personally by placing her hand on each one’s head. As she spoke words of comfort to them, she passed away on January 4, 1309.
Not a few holy persons testified that she had led them to live lives of much greater holiness. Because she, too, led such a holy life of detachment and joyful suffering, she had much credibility and became a channel of many graces to others.
The accounts of her visions including the great ecstasies and the depths of the dark night are described in her words as dictated to Brother Arnold in The Book of the Divine Consolation of Blessed Angela of Foligno, printed in 1909. Reprints and more updated versions of the saint’s writings describing her 18 steps in her spiritual journey are still available.
Dear St. Angela, you received the vision of the “True Light.” Grant through your intercession that we too may begin our steps to perfection by detachment and sacrifice. Help us to know the Truth that will bring us peace of mind and to act on that Truth that will bring us peace of heart by doing God’s will. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)