So, Christina the Astonishing is sort of a saint.
She lived in the late 12th century and early 13th century, right around the time the Church was forming the modern canonization process, and she’s never been been formally canonized. Nonetheless, she was popularly considered a saint for centuries after her death. Her relics have been preserved, she was included in a version of Butler’s Lives of Saints, and was even honored on local liturgical calendars at various points. And apparently there remains a strong devotion to her in Belgium.
But what about that title? What made her so “astonishing”?
Just about everything. If anyone deserved such a title, it was Christina.
Born in 1150 in a small town in present day Belgium, Christina was orphaned as a teenager and worked as a shepherdess. Then, sometime in her early 20s, she suffered from a massive seizure. When the episode passed, she was lying on the ground completely limp. Unable to see breathing or hear a heartbeat, those with her pronounced dead. Soon after, a funeral was held at her local parish.
This is when things started to turn crazy.
In the middle of the funeral service, she suddenly woke up. Full of energy, she stood right up like nothing had happened. When she realized she was surrounded by a large group of people, she started levitating, and flew up to the roof!
This wouldn’t be the only time she levitated. She levitated often, she said, because she couldn’t bear the spiritually stinky smell of sinful people.
When she finally stopped levitating at the funeral, she explained she had in fact died. After her soul separated from her body, she was given a glimpse of the horrors of purgatory. God then gave her a choice: either remain dead and go to heaven, or return to earth and do penance for those in purgatory. Moved to zeal at the sight of those suffering in Purgatory, she chose the latter. The next moment, she came back to life.
And, my, did she take seriously her charge to do penance.
She voluntarily lived in extreme poverty, wearing only rags and living without a home. She avoided human contact as much as possible. But deprivation wasn’t enough: she also sought out suffering to increase her penance.
People watched her intentionally throw herself into fires and remain there for extended periods of time. She would appear to be suffering greatly, with terrible shrieking, but then would exit the fire completely unscathed.
She allowed herself to be attacked by dogs and would intentionally run her body through thickets of thorn bushes.
And in winter, she would immerse herself in a nearby river and remain in the nearly freezing water for hours or even days on end. As if this wasn’t extreme enough, she would apparently even allow herself to be sucked into water wheels of nearby mills, getting spun around.
Again, as painful and harmful as these things seemed to be for her, she would always emerge seemingly unharmed.
Public opinion was divided about her: Was she just insane? Was she a holy woman sent to warn people of the fires of purgatory? Or she was perhaps demon possessed? The latter possibility was taken seriously enough by some government officials she was jailed twice, though both times only briefly.
After being released the second time, she joined a Dominican monastery. Her prioress said that, despite her extreme behavior, she was always obedient. Her reputation spread across the region, and both rulers and other holy people sought her out for advice and spiritual aid.
Amazingly, despite all of her physical abuse, she died at the ripe old age of 74 of natural causes.
If this is all just too unbelievable for you, here are a few things to note: First, in addition to the many peasants who witnessed her behavior, the historian and Cardinal Jacques de Vitry claimed to have been a personal witness of her incredible behavior, such as going into fires and emerging unharmed. Second, as mentioned, some contemporary saints held her in high regard and sought her advice. Third, Thomas of Cantimpré – writer, theologian, and student of St. Albert the Great – researched her life within a few years after her death and wrote a report, with memories of her life still fresh in people’s minds.
Lastly, here’s what St. Robert Bellarmine, a Cardinal and Doctor of the Church, had tosay about her:
We have reason for believing [Thomas of Cantimpré’s] testimony, since he has for guarantee another grave author, James de Vitry, Bishop and Cardinal, and because he relates what happened in his own time, and even in the province where he lived.
Besides, the sufferings of this admirable virgin were not hidden. Every one could see that she was in the midst of the flames without being consumed, and covered with wounds, every trace of which disappeared a few moments afterwards. But more than this was the marvellous life she led for forty-two years after she was raised from the dead, God clearly showing that the wonders wrought in her by virtue from on high. The striking conversions which she effected, and the evident miracles which occurred after her death, manifestly proved the finger of God, and the truth of that which, after her resurrection, she had revealed concerning the other life.
But why would God have someone do these extreme things? Here’s what Bellarmine thought:
God willed to silence those libertines who make open profession of believing in nothing, and who have the audacity to ask in scorn, Who has returned from the other world? Who has ever seen the torments of Hell or Purgatory? Behold two witnesses. They assure us that they have seen them, and that they are dreadful. What follows, then, if not that the incredulous are inexcusable, and that those who believe and nevertheless neglect to do penance are still more to be condemned?
Let Christina the Astonishing serve as a warning: the fires of purgatory are real and terrible.