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And St. Margaret of Cortona

Posted on October 3, 2005 in Mania Myths & Mysticism

square249Mental illness is a common theme in the lives of Catholic saints. Anorexia smites some: Therese of Liseux, Rose of Lima, and Anthony of Padua were known to put themselves on strict fasts which ruined their health. No one can be sure what afflicted Christina the Astonishing who spent most of her life in bed — except for the occasional flight around a church — and who claimed she could smell sin. The Cure of Ares reported violent encounters with the Devil as did St. Anthony of Egypt. The spectacular visions of Julian of Norwich (still uncanonized) suggest either schizophrenia or high mania — but what gifts she brought in the way of art! The same can be said to be true of Hildegard von Bingen, a musical genius who also reported “supernatural” visions.

Great are the efforts made by the magical-spirtually minded to insist that angels or devils did indeed come to these people or that the extreme fasts were made in the name of piety only and were not the product of mental illness. These beiefs, I think, come from two common false assumptions about mood disorders, anxiety, and schizophrenia. The first was identified by Kay Redfield Jamison in her book Touched by Fire: unafflicted people do not understand that mental illness is not a constant state. The bipolar is not constantly raving or depressed: she can have long periods of lucidity as can the schizophrenic. Great artists often had long productive periods between their episodes. Therese of Liseux wrote movingly of her relation to God. Yet her extreme mood shifts and self-punishments point to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Furthermore, one can have a single prolonged episode and never go through the experience again, as seems to be the case with Julian of Norwich. Stemming from this comes the second problem: that of stigmatization of those of us who suffer from the “lesser” organic brain disfunctions. These are saints, the reasoning goes, not psychotics. The implication is that people such as Jamison (who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University) can’t possibly function creatively and produce meaningful material that others can grow by.

Holiness, the “defenders” of the saints I have mentioned insist, is never the same as madness.

Which brings me to Margaret of Cortona:

Her mother died when Margaret was seven years old, and her stepmother considered her a nuisance. She eloped with a young nobleman from Montepulciano, bore him a son, and lived as his mistress for nine years. In 1274 he was murdered by brigands, and his body dumped in a shallow grave.

Margaret saw the incident as a sign from God. She publicly confessed to the affair, and tried to return to her father’s house; he would not accept her. She and her son took shelter with the Friars Minor at Cortona. Still young and attractive, Margaret sometimes had trouble resisting temptation, but each incident was followed by periods of deep self-loathing. To make herself unappealing to local young men, she once tried to mutilate herself, but was stopped by a Friar named Giunta.

She earned her keep by tending to sick women. She later began caring for the sick poor, living on alms, asking nothing for her services. Became a Franciscan tertiary in 1277. Margaret developed an deep and intense prayer life, and was given to ecstacies during which she received messages from heaven.

When I read this excerpt from her biography, so many symptoms of bipolar disorder leap out at me. She appears to be well until her lover is murdered and she is not allowed to return home. In the period that follows this, she leads a promiscuous life even though she is living under the care of a community of friars. After each libidinous episode, however, she crashes into depression. During a mixed state, she takes a razor to her face; if she cannot master her urges, her reasoning goes, she will make herself less attractive to men. One hears the old misogynist chant of Judeo-Christian-Islamic attitudes about women. Margaret certainly took these in; many other women, however, did not attempt to mutilate themselves. So I conclude that insanity precipitated that incident as well as the other extremities of her life.

The “deep and intense prayer life” that Margaret took up may mark her discovery of the best form of self-medication available to her. Maniacs can calm themselves if they seclude themselves and devote themselves to quiet activities. Margaret, however, developed another symptom which were hallucinations or “ecstasies”. Teresa of Avila, another saint who underwent these symptoms, described them in terms that suggest a sexual relationship with the Holy Spirit. The intensity of the feelings and the narratives that followed amazed followers to the degree that they ascribed them to the Divine or at least redefined them to avoid the “calumnies” of local gossips.

Margaret lived to the age of 50. She preached fervently against vice (religiosity) and became addicted to the celebration of the Eucharist. The influence of her hormones had faded by then: she no longer experienced the lusts of her youth. Instead, she directed her manic energies to religion. In her own mind, she had already become a saint.

Is the life of this saint a waste? One can admire her struggles with her illness and the works of beauty that came from them. The Spirit dominated her life: she built only small foundations in her lifetime and focused her energies mostly on her own recovery. The friars who took her and her son into their household can also be praised for seeing her plight as illness rather than sin. They sheltered her no matter what she did, protected her from her own hand, and comforted her when she erred. The treatment might almost be called modern in its compassion.

And there will be those who, reading my interpretation of her life, will take offense and call me terrible names for it. They will say that I demean Margaret of Cortona. And I will reply “Not so.” Margaret’s battles with psychosis can only be described as heroic. In an age without lithium, lamictal, Abilify, or any of the other psychopharmaceuticals that help tame the chemical demons in our heads, she made do. She developed her own ways of calming the manias and the rages, of pulling through the depressions. The cure was not complete and in the end she suffered the excesses of religiosity. Knowing as I do the swirls of unmedicated madness, I can only admire her. Margaret was no victim: she was a survivor. Local gossips probably said much which was true, but like those who spurn and ridicule the mentally ill today (are you listening Mr. Cruise?), they never understood the fullness of her brilliant and awestruck humanity.

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