Christina the Astonishing
|Saint Christina the Astonishing|
Brustem, County of Loon
|Died||24 July 1224
Sint-Truiden, County of Loon
|Patronage||millers, people with mental disorders, mental health workers|
Christina the Astonishing (c.1150 – 24 July 1224), also known as Christina Mirabilis, was a Christian holy-woman born in Brustem (near Sint-Truiden, Belgium). She was considered a saint in her own time. Christina receives attention today for the strange descriptions of her miracles as much as for her faith. Her memorial day is 24 July.
This servant of God, having passed the first years of her life in humility and patience, died at the age of thirty-two. When she was about to be buried, and the body was already in the church resting in an open coffin, according to the custom of the time, she arose full of vigour, stupefying with amazement the whole city of St. Trond, which had witnessed this wonder.
Christina was the youngest of three daughters. After being orphaned at the age of fifteen, she worked taking the herds to pasture. Born a peasant, she suffered a massive seizure when she was in her early 20s. Her condition was so severe that witnesses assumed she had died. A funeral was held, but during the service, she "arose full of vigor, stupefying with amazement the whole city of Sint-Truiden, which had witnessed this wonder. "She levitated up to the rafters, later explaining that she could not bear the smell of the sinful people there. Then "[t]he astonishment increased when they learned from her own mouth what had happened to her after her death."
She related that she had witnessed Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. She said that as soon as her soul was separated from her body, angels conducted it to a very gloomy place, entirely filled with souls whose torments endured there were such that that it was impossible for them to describe. She claimed that she had been offered a choice either to remain in heaven or return to earth to perform penance to deliver souls from the flames of Purgatory. Christina agreed to return to life and arose that same moment. She told those around her that for the sole purpose of relief of the departed and conversion of sinners did she return.
"The angels then transported me into Heaven, even to the throne of the Divine Majesty. The Lord regarded me with a favourable eye, and I experienced an extreme joy, because I thought to obtain the grace of dwelling eternally with Him. But my Heavenly Father, seeing what passed in my heart, said to me these words: "Assuredly, my dear daughter, you will one day be with Me. Now, however, I allow you to choose, either to remain with Me henceforth from this time, or to return again to earth to accomplish a mission of charity and suffering. In order to deliver from the flames of Purgatory those souls which have inspired you with so much compassion, you shall suffer for them upon earth; you shall endure great torments, without, however, dying from their effects. And not only will you relieve the departed, but the example which you will give to the living, and your life of continual suffering, will lead sinners to be converted and to expiate their crimes. After having ended this new life, you shall return here laden with merits."
Christina renounced all comforts of life, reduced herself to extreme destitution, dressed in rags, lived without home or hearth, and not content with privations she eagerly sought all that could cause her suffering. At first, she fled human contact; and suspected of being possessed, was jailed. Upon her release, she took up the practice of extreme penance.
Thomas of Cantimpré, then a canon regular who was a professor of theology, wrote a report eight years after her death, based on accounts of those who knew her. Cardinal Jacques de Vitry, who met with her, said that she would throw herself into burning furnaces and there suffered great tortures for extended times, uttering frightful cries, yet coming forth with no sign of burns upon her. In winter she would plunge into the frozen Meuse River for hours and even days and weeks at a time, all the while praying to God and imploring God's mercy. She sometimes allowed herself to be carried by the currents downriver to a mill where the wheel "whirled her round in a manner frightful to behold," yet she never suffered any dislocations or broken bones. She was chased by dogs which bit and tore her flesh. She would run from them into thickets of thorns, and, though covered in blood, she would return with no wound or scar.
After being incarcerated a second time, she moderated her approach somewhat, upon her release. Christina died at the Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sint-Truiden, of natural causes, aged 74. The prioress there later testified that, despite her behavior, Christina would humbly and fully obey any command given her by the prioress.
Such are the works of admirable penance described by the author of the Life of St. Christine. This writer was a Bishop, a suffragan of the Archbishop of Cambray; "and we have," says St. Robert Bellarmine, a great Jesuit Doctor of the Church, "reason for believing his 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."
Thus, argues Bellarmine, "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?"
No less interesting than Christina's behavior is how her hagiographers interpreted it. Modern scholarly opinion has generally held that Christina's Vita is an example of credulous medieval superstition. Robert Sweetman contends that Christina's idiosyncratic life has taken as "outsized place" in the scholarly study of Medieval women's spirituality.
Prayers are traditionally said to Christina to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness and mental health workers.
- Christina's story inspired the Nick Cave song "Christina the Astonishing", from the album Henry's Dream.
- Poets Jane Draycott and Lesley Saunders re-told her story in their collection Christina the Astonishing.
- Christina is the subject of a school pageant in an episode of the Showtime television series, Nurse Jackie; the episode is entitled "The Astonishing." 
- Sweetman, Robert (2006). "Christina the Astonishing". In Margaret Schaus. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 132. ISBN 9780415969444.
- Dickens, Andrea Janelle (2009). The Female Mystic: Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages. I.B.Tauris. p. 39-. ISBN 9780857712615.
- Saint Christina the Astonishing at the Patron Saint Index
- Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality, Elizabeth Spearing, ed., Penguin, 2002, ISBN 9781440633409
- Draycott, Jane; Leslie Saunders, Peter Hay (ills.) (1998). Christina the Astonishing. Two Rivers Press. ISBN 978-1-901677-07-2.
- Nurse Jackie, season 3, episode 8
- Thomas de Cantimpré, The Life of Christina the Astonishing. Ed. Margot H. King. Toronto, 1999. ISBN 0-920669-44-1
- Medieval Saints: A Reader. Ed. Mary-Ann Stouck. Toronto, 1999. ISBN 1-55111-101-2.
- Jennifer M. Brown, Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d'Oignies. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. ISBN 978-2-503-52471-9.