In April we celebrate two well-known mystical saints, St. Gemma Galgani and St. Catherine of Siena. Both women experienced sublime ecstasies, visions, spiritual revelations, apparitions, and even the stigmata. While some of these supernatural phenomena may intimidate or even dissuade us from the beauty of mysticism, we can look into the depth of these saints’ hearts to discover our own longings for Heaven. In turn, the lessons we learn from their spirituality can be applied to our interior spiritual development.
I’ve always been drawn to the mystical saints, because their spirituality carried a depth of character and fullness of virtue for which I longed, even as a child. Mesmerized by their heavenly experiences, I pined for the same closeness they shared with God. At first, my desire was accompanied by a curiosity regarding their visions, ecstasies, and apparitions. I wanted those, too. But as I grew older, I realized that it was unwise and unloving of me – selfish, even – to ask God for revelations and consolations of His presence.
Mysticism can be a temptation for those of us who are enticed by the supernatural phenomena that are often associated with it, but if we look beyond those aspects, we discover the beauty of a unitive and communitive love between God and a person. Ultimately, it was these saints’ magnanimity and perfect love for God that gave birth to extraordinary revelations or visions, rather than their seeking for the revelations and visions themselves. I suspect that the mystical saints didn’t put a lot of credence into these, because they simply wanted to love God and be loved by Him perfectly.
Here are some lessons I have gleaned from learning about the lives of the mystical saints, many of these being commonalities they share. From these commonalities are substantial, yet practical, ways we can all grow in our interior lives.
The gift of sensitivity
Many saints who experienced various forms of mysticism suffered from physical maladies and chronic diseases. St. Padre Pio and St. Bernadette Soubirous were afflicted by respiratory ailments, such as asthma and long-term lung infections. Likewise, St. Gemma and St. Catherine of Siena struggled with similar physiological conditions. It’s interesting to connect their physical weaknesses with a particular gift which they all exemplified – the gift of sensitivity.
Most people who are highly sensitive have bodies that are susceptible to colds and infections, probably because their entire beings are extremely attuned to both interior and exterior changes. Sensitivity, while viewed by the majority of people in our society as weakness and infirmity, is truly a grace and gift in terms of natural intuition and empathy, particularly with people who are suffering. All mystical saints are incredibly intuitive, which may likely be why they recognize God’s voice or presence in ways or places that non-sensitive individuals would otherwise overlook.
Because they personally understand the difficulties associated with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual darkness, they are also more apt to empathize with others who are suffering. This extends beyond the people who are visibly struggling to those who perhaps mask their hardships well. Mystical saints tend to be drawn to these people out of a generous love, in which they desire to reach those who are suffering with God’s healing balm. That is something we can all strive to achieve in our lives – reaching those who are overlooked, ignored, and ostracized with God’s love through our spiritual charisms.
Wounds of love as a gift-offering
Many mystical saints, including St. Gemma and St. Catherine of Siena, received the stigmata as a sign of their spiritual advancement towards unitive love with God. The stigmata, whether visible or invisible, serves as a symbol of Jesus’ love. The saints who bore His wounds did so because of love, not in spite of it. They were fully aware of the value of suffering well, so it was their delight to carry the wounds of Christ in their own bodies.
We could interpret the wounds of the stigmata to other, invisible wounds that we all carry – wounds of loss, grief, death, sorrow, depression, addiction, etc. All of us bear them in our hearts to some degree and in some form. Like the stigmata, our wounds represent the potential of pain as a love-offering to Jesus. This is the beauty of redemptive suffering, and the mystical saints carried this mystery of love both in their hearts and on their bodies.
Though it is unlikely any of us will receive the stigmata, we can recall often that our suffering, born with patience and perseverance, bears the same fruits of resurrection and perfect union with God.
Total immersion in virtue and holiness
Because of their wholehearted, and possibly even radical, desire to please God through their lives, the mystical saints are proverbial icons of virtue. Steeped in perfect humility, all of their spiritual gifts, such as reading hearts or receiving personal revelations through locutions and visions, never resulted from delusions of grandeur. On the contrary, many of these saints either hid these experiences or suffered terrible persecutions and ridicule from others who were (understandably) skeptical of the origins of such phenomena.
From the seed of humility flourished other flowers of virtue, such as complete charity, everlasting hope, fullness of faith, and others. We would all do well to learn from such examples, beginning with humility. It seems that, when we pray for and work toward the attainment of humility, all other virtues quite naturally follow suit. Most of us who honestly grow in humility will never be aware of it, though others will see this virtue in us. A person who genuinely cherishes his or her littleness and hidden intimacy with God will certainly be humble in thought, deed, and desire.
Complete union with God
The best way to understand total union with God is through another mystical saint’s testament of three stages of advancement toward perfection in the spiritual life. St. John of the Cross, the Mystical Doctor of the Church, left us with a timeless understanding of one’s journey toward sanctification, from the purgative to illuminative, and finally, the unitive, stages of spiritual growth. All of the mystical saints achieved the unitive stage of perfection in holiness while still on Earth, and they enjoyed a complete communion of love with God at all times.
It’s unlikely that most of us will reach the unitive stage before we die, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. Our path to sanctification begins with purgation of our senses, will, and intellect. Longing for perfect love shared between our hearts and God’s heart will lead us to purgation and pruning, a necessary, painful, and often spiritually dark process that can last for years or decades.
But love will not deter a sincere heart that is determined to love God perfectly. Purgation is a test of one’s resolve. From time to time, a soul who is primarily in the thick of purgation may experience the illuminative stage, which is when God chooses to reveal Himself through the invitation to contemplation or other consolations. These experiences may be fleeting and infrequent, but they serve to encourage the soul toward the path of perfection that God has selected for him. Finally, it is possible to receive glimpses or tastes of perfect union with God, especially if one is given the gift of tears or other unexpected spiritual delights, such as raptures or ecstasies. These do not occur for every soul, but God chooses how and when He will reach each soul with, for, and through love.
Ultimately, the mystical saints teach us that the interior life must be more important to us than the peripheral distractions we often make to be the center of our focus. To the one who loves well, one will learn to suffer well, and thus live well. This does not mean that life will be without its trials, tribulations, and temptations. Even the saints encountered these throughout their lives, but they were not discouraged by them. Neither should we be discouraged or disheartened when we find ourselves wrestling with a particular vice or weakness, because this wrestling is an opportunity to grow in humility and total dependence on God’s love and mercy for everything.
Like the mystical saints – and all saints – we can and must learn that life is contingent upon how we view our nothingness in light of God’s all. When we give our all for the sake of God’s all, we possess everything.