On Holy Disorders

When I was young, I conflated the story of Saint Maria Goretti with that of Saint Gemma of Galgani. The former, a woman who at 18 years of age while her parents were away at Mass refused the sexual advances of a young man who lived nearby.

So, he stabbed her multiple times. Her saintliness installed as a mark of her womanly virtue in resisting his overtures and because she was already saintly in word and deed. 

Not unlike Gemma, who did not suffer such a hideous fate, at least not in the first instance, but Hilary Mantel in her Memoir of my Former Self uses Gemma’s story, among others, to illustrate what she calls, ‘Holy Disorders’, namely holy anorexia.

The way these women, as part of their subjectivation to Jesus, not only purged their bodies of food, and suffered the stigmata on their wrists and feet – wounds that bled where nails were driven into Christ’s body – but also purged themselves of all desire. To get closer to his heavenliness and stay a step ahead of all things earthly. 

It was playtime during my fourth year at primary school when I visited the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The church still stands today alongside the primary school where I spent at least six years of my early education from grade one till I shifted to the convent in year seven. 

The school sat in its concrete playground alongside the green manicured gardens beds that snaked around the church. No fence between, but a winding pathway alongside the rows of standard roses stripped of flowers post midyear prune, with the ground below freshly turned to fallow during the cold of winter. 

I can’t say why I decided to visit the church this day, most likely to escape the tumult of the playground and my abiding sense I had no friends.

Perhaps I was lonely and went in search of the company of saints whose ghosts inhabited the church and might well rustle about the aisles in the quiet of the morning when early Mass was over and no one else around. 

I entered through a side door, genuflecting. Then made a sign of the cross. My arms automatically took up this position at the holy water font in the doorway, as if checking my entire body for goodness.

Right hand to forehead. Then to stomach, across to left shoulder, then diagonally to right to complete the cross that is necessary in front of the altar where the Holy Eucharist rests snug in its gold tabernacle, pushed back against the altar stone.

The Church of Our lady of Good Counsel, like so many suburban churches of my childhood, was rectangular in shape with sections on one side that formed miniature replicas of altars where statues of saints, like Joseph or Mary, prevailed. 

Behind the main altar at the head of the church with stain glass windows overhead and flooded in the light of the morning sun, shadows danced against the wall.

The altar, separated on a dais, created a hidden corridor against this back wall. From there I imagined Christ would soon materialise to visit me. I’d recognise him from his long white robes and dark flowing hair, his beard and pale skin.

I prayed, knees against the hard wood of the kneeler, hands joined in prayer and my face towards the altar’s light. Then waited and waited. 

I had read the story of the three children of Fatima, the story of Bernadette, those children to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary once appeared with a series of promises and requests.

These young people, girls mostly, were famed throughout the church for their goodness and the fact they were chosen for visitation. I wanted my share, but to improve matters I was convinced mine would include a visit from Jesus. 

I waited until I heard the bell in the distance and sensed the call of the classroom with Mrs Alexander’s wrath if I was late. This greater than any disappointment in Jesus who failed to visit me.

Like so many childhood memories the rest fades from view. Until I read Hilary Mantel’s take on certain female saints who suffered immeasurable horrors in the name of abstinence.

Saint Bartolomea, took abjection to the extreme by licking floors and eating the spiders and other bugs she found there. She licked the floor till her tongue bled. Her blood a sign of her love of His sacred heart. 

In the fourteenth century, Lidwina, a Dutch mystic, the patron saint of chronic pain and ice-skating, kept her rotting flesh in jars during her bedridden state.

The Italian Saint Angela of Foligno ate scabs from a leper’s sores.

Catherine of Siena drank pus, while the Sacred Heart of Jesus glowed bright from many a church wall. A sword pieced its side. The heart exposed in Jesus’s hands was ringed by a crown of thorns to signify his suffering pre-crucifixion.

Along with the impulse to capitalise His masculine preposition. Not to do so, blasphemy. 

The old lessons sit hard in my psyche. When Hilary Mantel talks of the ‘medicalisation of unhappiness’, as when she was 19 years old and took herself to a doctor in search of help for the unbearable pain she had been experiencing since she first copped her period at eleven. He sent her to a psychiatrist.

Endometriosis did not exist then or was considered a psychological malady however much it took physical form. I remember my own experience of those who suffered such womanly ailments.

Just as the doctors dismissed Mantel’s pain as emotional, given the stress of life, put first on antidepressants then off to the psychiatrist, not diagnosed with endometriosis till it was too late when surgery and the removal of her ovaries left her in premature menopause and infertile. 

At Prince Henry’s Hospital in the social work department, we shared the prevailing medical view that endometriosis was essentially a psychological complaint. As if we too, women in the main, believed the clap trap of the medicos of the day, men mostly, who did not understand the fact that the female body with its tendency to menstruate and common ailment of such bodies, including those renegade cells in endometriosis that take themselves beyond the womb and could cause excruciating pain in the pelvic region. 

The doctors of my day considered endometriosis, like chronic thrush, to be an ailment of a person’s mind.

Similarly, a young woman whose life was dogged by chronic epilepsy and seizures -I’ll call her Gloria – was given the sad label of a woman who could not handle her emotions. Could not keep them in check. 

Gloria was demanding, excessive, a typical epileptic, or so we were told. She needed to be constrained with medication. No one used the throwback word ‘hysteric’ then, but they might as well have done so, both for epileptic seizures of the brain and for endometriosis those wandering cells away from the womb. 

Perhaps, because I was born into a female body and identified with the gender assigned to me at birth, I was prone to identifying with my female counterparts in these young female saints who worked hard to curb their desires and thereby get closer to Jesus.

They weren’t the only ones. Boys too were urged to emulate the lives of saints. And go through ritual punishments but they at least had a chance to become God’s representatives on earth, as priests, while we girls could only take the place of His handmaidens. 

How I despise the term ‘handmaiden’.

Spilt the word. Maiden: a young female, and hand. Whose hand? And where might we apply it? Other than to serve. The patriarchal nature of all religions goes without saying, but in the Catholic Church of my childhood it was pronounced from on high. My fantasy of a visit from Jesus an aberration. 

I should have better expected a visit from Jesus’s mother.

Mary visited small children. Jesus remained the province of men, however much the saints Mantel describes were desperately trying not so much to serve him, as to emulate Him, to become more Christlike in his suffering than Christ. 

What a way to go?