When Someone’s Spiritual Practices Turn Your Stomach—Literally
In my medieval studies class this week, amongst other writing, we had to read through “Memorial” by 13th century Italian female mystic Angela of Foligno. I don’t particularly care for her work, for a number of reasons, many of them centering around issues of translation (as well as a certain distaste for Franciscan spirituality in general) but I gained a valuable insight nonetheless. This was the first time that reading an account of someone’s spiritual practices actually made me throw up…and I’m ok with that. Bear with me.
About half way through her narrative, which her confessor bade her to share with him (1), she is discussing charity as an ascent into divine joy. On Maundy Thursday, she suggests to her companion that they go to the hospital to “find Christ there among the poor, the suffering, and the afflicted.” (2) Her narrative continues thusly:
And after we had distributed all that we had, we washed the feet of the women and the hands of the men, and especially those of one of the lepers which were festering and in an advanced stage of decomposition. Then we drank the very water with which we had washed him. And the drink was so sweet that, all the way home, we tasted of its sweetness and it was as if we had received Holy Communion. As a small scale of the leper’s sores was stuck in my throat, I tried to swallow it. My conscience would not let me spit it out, just as if I had received Holy Communion. I really did not want to spit it out but simply to detach it from my throat. (3)
I find this utterly repugnant and disgusting. I cannot articulate the level to which this sickens me. I am so profoundly glad that my own spirituality does not involve anything quite so revolting. To me. Revolting to me. Because I also realize, that for Angela of Foligno, this was a moment of profound connection to her God, something that gave her tremendous joy, something that was a deeply powerful expression of her devotion and faith. She saw Christ in those lepers and the skin was essentially, for her, the Eucharist and there’s a deep Eucharistic piety echoing through much of her work. Moreover, she doesn’t recount this in order to exhort others to do it, she is responding to her confessor’s difficulty with the idea that connecting with Christ through sharing his cup (the metaphor the narrative uses) could be sweet. He had apparently asked for examples and she provided him with one. He chose to record it and give it a place in the finished narrative.
As we were discussing this text in class tonight it struck me powerfully that I was responding to this woman’s spiritual practices (which are, in the end, between her and her god) with the same type of narrow-minded hostility and disgust with which some people respond to any mention of ordeal work.
I’ve never understood the deeply visceral and negative response some people have toward the idea of ordeal when a) they’ve never seen or participated in one, b) they’re not being asked to participate, nor are they being told that it’s something that everyone must do and c) it’s only one part of my and other ordeal worker’s spiritual practice, in some cases not even a particularly large part. I mean, if you aren’t called to it, don’t do it. It seems a pretty simple rubric (and it is, but our senses are not so simple or always accommodating). I can sympathize a bit better now with the cognitive struggle that some people must go through when faced with something so alien to their own approach to their Gods.
Here’s the thing though, my gut-clenching response to Angela and her lepers was my response. It had nothing at all to do with her, her expression of her devotion to Christ, the work that she did, the act she performed that so revolted me, or the integrity of her practice. My response had to do with me and my own personal aesthetics. I think it’s important when something affects us that instantaneously, that viscerally (and when we’re talking about consenting adults) that we step back and really do a little soul searching as to why. I think all too often we as a species tend to foist our own mental and emotional baggage onto others, blaming them for our own responses rather than owning up and owning our shit.
Without that honest self examination, the impulse that led me to express revulsion over a woman’s spiritual practice (not feel it—i don’t think it’s wrong to feel a particular gut response — no pun intended here—but rather it’s unwise not to examine our responses and bitterly small-minded to project them onto others), the impulse that leads Heathen John or Jane to condemn ordeal workers out of hand as perverts is the same impulse that at its very worst, has led to things like a grown woman cyber-bullying a teen-age girl until the latter committed suicide. At the very worst, ti’s the self-same impulse that leads a bigot on the street to bash a young gay or trans person to death. At its very worst it grows not just into narrow-mindedness but into an egregious lack of humanity and compassion.
I think it’s important to take care what seeds we nourish in our characters. We become that which we feed.
1. He asked her to share with him her experiences and recorded them, eventually preparing two redactions of the text.
2. Angela of Foligno. Complete Works. trans. Paul Lachance. New York, NY: Paulist Press, p. 162.
3. ibid, p. 163