Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wisdom from the Diary of St. Gemma Galgani

It's All Saints Day today. It seems appropriate to post about a saint. Recently I finished reading the Diary of St. Gemma Galgani. A little background on this saint, thanks to Glenn at Born in 1878, she was an Italian mystic, and at the time of her writing, she was 22. She was advised to write this journal at the prompt of her spiritual director. She passed away at age 25. I usually use an ereader now, and below are some of the highlights I made and additional reflections on this modern saint.

[E]yes that have been mortified will see the beauty of Heaven. (p. 10)

St. Gemma recalls numerous encounters she has with apparitions of Christ, saints, and her guardian angel. The previous quotation was told to her by her guardian angel. The eyes are often mentioned in Scripture for both good and bad. Job, feeling the torments of earthly life, cries out:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
There is a certain goal for Job to "behold" God. Divine revelation gives another perspective on the "eyes" in the Gospels. For instance, in shocking language, it is written:
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:9)
And so we are taught by the voice of God through Scripture 2 realities. 1) We must remove our "sinful eye"; and 2) The one who does this, in an ironic twist of sorts, ends up with the ultimate beatific vision in heaven. St. Gemma's angel encapsulates this idea in a tidy sentence.

The days pass and here I am always in the same worldly abyss. (p. 19)

It is not unique to St. Gemma to express grief in a Christian's place in the world. A few years ago, I read St. Padre Pio's letters to his spiritual director, and he often felt terrible weight and pain, particularly when he could not "feel" God's love. As I understand, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta expressed similar sentiments in her letters. Some interpret this skeptically, as a pock mark of sorts against Catholicism or those who walk in the way of the Church. I see it entirely the opposite. I'm reminded of the words of Christ:
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  (Matt. 5:46)
If we look at these saints, like St. Gemma, feeling the strife of the world in light of Christ's counsel, there is evidence of a phenomenon. These saints retained their faith in Christ even through the darkest hours. There were times when they rejoiced, but they didn't demand the constant feelings of joy in order to keep coming to Christ's table, to keep believing in his promises spoken as the Incarnate Son of God. St. Gemma repeated a paraphrase of this sentiment more than once in the diary. It speaks of a heroism in her resolve against the weight of the worldly pilgrimage. The idea can be inspiring rather than discouraging. Such saints exhibit love for Christ.

Later, she demonstrates exactly the kind of love born of conviction rather than emotion or feelings:

Sunday has arrived. What indifference, what dryness! Still, I do not want to abandon my usual prayers. (p. 24)

This is a similar aspect of love to which married couples are called. They vow to remain faithful "in good times and in bad." Both married and unmarried saints, as members of Christ's bride, the Church, are thus called to love in good times or bad. The inclusion of St. Gemma's heavy sentiments in her diary is rather an inspiration.

That night I suffered a lot because I too wanted to go to heaven, but no one thought to take me. (p. 29)

St. Gemma wrote this after telling of her vision of a Mother Giuseppa who appeared to her and thanked her for praying and offering penance to help Mother Giuseppa attain the heavenly joy. St. Gemma's longing to go to heaven is reminiscent of St. Paul:
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Phil. 1:23-24)
You see how Paul, too, desires to "depart" and be "with Christ" in heaven. The Christian soul feels a sense of detachment to the world, belonging somewhere "else," so to speak. Yet, Paul, and St. Gemma, stayed true to their devotion, work, and prayers in accord with the call they received. There remains a certain importance in toiling in the world during one's life. As one of my professors noted, this is the time, the opportunity for "merit." Recently, I saw Dr. Peter Kreeft speak, and one of the lines he said that remains with me is, "Grace perfects nature." In Catholic theology, the world is not just some fallen place of evil, even if it is a pilgrimage "on the way" to point B. We remember that Christ came incarnate to the world. Mary, giving birth to personified grace himself, delivers grace into the terrestrial realm. As dwellers of this place, we can receive that grace made possible through his solidarity with mankind. Elsewhere St. Gemma wrote:

I find a little peace only in that bit of suffering Jesus sends me, offering it first for sinners, and in particular for me, and then for the souls in Purgatory (p. 23)

As members of "Christ's body, the Church" (eg. Eph. 1:22-23, Col. 1:24), we suffer in union with him. It is because we are "sharing" Christ's suffering that there is merit and power to our toil. You see in the second-to-last quote how St. Gemma, though she had an inward desire to depart this world and go to heaven, plods in this world for the sake of her soul and for others. This is another example of love working through this saint.

[H]e brought me a cup of coffee... (p. 31)

These words, St. Gemma spoke regarding her guardian angel. It got me thinking that I would not complain if my guardian angel did some chores for me, perhaps starting with laundry.

Whoever reads these things, I repeat again, should not believe, because they are all my imagination... (p. 43)

This, St. Gemma wrote after describing an encounter with the Virgin Mary in which the Blessed Mother cradled her. Read in isolation, the statement sounds like an admission that her mystic experiences are an illusion. But such is not the case in the context of the diary, or even the remainder of the sentence which says:

Whoever reads these things, I repeat again, should not believe, because they are all my imagination; nevertheless I agree to describe everything because I am bound by obedience, otherwise I would do differently.

St. Gemma expressed displeasure in her diary at having to write it. But what is revealed here is that her spiritual directors recognized something in her that they wished to preserve. Other times revealed that her visions went beyond something mental, such as when she wrote of attacks by the devil. On one occasion, she wrote that the

devil gave me such a strong shove that I fell off the bed, causing me to bang my head on the floor with such great force that I felt a sharp pain; I fainted and remained on the ground for a long time before regaining consciousness." (p. 31)

Additionally, she would sometimes speak that her "head would take off." I read this book in English, so I am not certain what the original Italian may have said, but she used this phrase in the context of having a vision. So when she wrote that one should not believe her story about the Virgin Mary holding her, she seems to refer to it occurring in her "imagination" as opposed to in some physical encounter. As well, she distinguishes at other times incidents where her "head would take off" with other visions:

When my guardian angel comes, I am awake, and my head does not take off; Jesus, my Mom and sometimes Brother Gabriel make my head take off; but I always stay where I am; I always find myself in the same place, it's just that my head departs. (p. 13)

It is statement such as these that shed light on her description of the Marian vision occurring in her "imagination."

Finally, I wanted to point out two other occasions in which St. Gemma's name has recently come across my path.

The first is in the previous "saint" book I read, Padre Pio: Under Investigation. The book re-prints an April 7, 1913 letter from Padre Pio to Fr. Agostino. After the letter, the author, Castelli, notes that this letter from Padre Pio was "one accused of being the product of plagiarism because of the consonance, of language and theme, with a private apparition to Saint Gemma Galgani." (e-location 875) The author produces the case, however, that Padre Pio's letter was authentic, not plagiarized, and that his experience was only similar to St. Gemma's. It is interesting to note once again, the similarity in the experiences of some saints, not only with suffering, but here with the character of an apparition and inspiration of words.

The second is from another book I reviewed, The Rite. The book opens with a vivid description of an exorcism and the dialogue exchanged between the demon and the priest. During the ordeal, the priest determines that the demon is writhing against the presence of some unseen saints in the room, and at times fought against these unseen figures at which it screamed. One was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One was Bl. John Paul II. And the other was St. Gemma Galgani. The author, Baglio, determined from the possessed victim, that St. Gemma "was dressed in her traditional black, and looked very much as she had in her twenties." (p. 2)

It is what the saints do. They serve as members of Christ's body, members that do spiritual battle on behalf of the Church. All the more sense does Paul's analogy of the Church's "body" with parts of a human body having parts that work together. (cf. 1 Cor. 12) And some saints, it seems, are called to be part of the fighting hands of Christ's body.


  1. wondering what the italian words are for her"head being taken off"? Maybe it's like the expression of not being avle to take your "mind off" of something?

  2. Looking forward to finish reading this wonderful article....Love the Saints. Right now have to finish researching for the election in Florida today. In regards to plagiarism: From my own experiences, I could write quite a bit but I do not because my experiences, some of them are almost identical to others, one small example is the experience that Scott Hahn had when it was revealed to him by the Spirit(Holy) that the Catholic Church was the book of Revelation, I had a very similar experience. This is why I will always say that Saint John writing is not lifted(plagiarise) from any other writings but are identical experiences to the Prophets of Old. Another example is when I was before a great light and felt as though I was going to tremble into a million pieces and the Angle(use-to-be) said, "That is why I turned against him". I am not sure which Saint had that experience but I read it somewheres years ago. And I could go on, but you get the point. Any ways, Pray for me.