Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Incorruptible virginity

Warning: this post is creepy and a bit tragic. 'Tis the season to be ghoulish, after all.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know I have a perverse fondness for mummies, and particularly for tracking down the corpses of "incorrupt" saints in Catholic churches across Europe.

Pictures here is the body of Blessed Imelda Lambertini, patron of First Communicants, who died in 1333 and was beatified in 1826. Her body is on display in San Sigismondo in Bologna, a church which almost never seems to be open, so I was pretty lucky to have the chance for this picture last year.

Her story is actually rather awful. A pious child from a very early age, she became obsessed with becoming a nun and her great goal in life was to be allowed to take Holy Communion - she'd been told that there was no greater ecstasy on this earth than receiving the very Body of Christ into oneself. "Tell me," she'd ask, "can anyone receive Jesus into his heart and not die?"

Because she was too young to be allowed to partake, she could only watch, "weeping bitterly". Take it away, hagiographers:

"This great and deep love for the Blessed Sacrament caused Imelda to burn with desire to be united to her Eucharistic Lord. When others knelt before the altar to receive Holy Communion, tears filled her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks. “When, oh when will He come also to me?" she murmured. The nuns knew of this longing in her heart. They knew, too, her purity and piety. Yet in that country, First Communion was only for those fourteen years or older, and they could do nothing to help Imelda. They encouraged her to persevere in her love and to pray while she waited. The little girl tried to bear the pain this caused her. At holy Mass, she thought of the sufferings of Jesus, and begged Him to help her to carry this heavy cross of being kept away from Him.
To some, it may have seemed that Jesus was ignoring the pleadings of this tender loving soul but, in reality, He was merely purifying her love and her soul by these sufferings which He permitted her to endure. God only sends us crosses if we can benefit by them; if we don’t waste them. By patiently offering up her sufferings to Our Lord and humbly accepting His Holy will, she was meriting a higher place forever in Heaven and therefore a tremendous increase in her eternal beatitude.
And in reality, Imelda’s heart was not the only one that burned, with ever increasing intensity, for union. As her soul became more increasingly beautiful to God, His Own desire to be one thing with her became increasingly more difficult to restrain. Finally, He could wait no longer."

Ewwwwwwwwwwww... It's like a horrible religious version of Lolita.

So what happened was that in May 1333 little 11-year old Imelda was watching all the nuns at Mass, and in an overwrought state as usual, when there appeared around her a light and a vision of the Host descending toward her. The priest felt compelled to give her Holy Communion at last and the girl was so ecstatic that she dropped dead on the spot.

I remember what it was like being eleven, with all its hormonal highs and frustrations, and consider myself to have got off lightly. See: you can die of sexual excitement.

Her face is, btw, clearly and obviously a wax mask, not flesh at all. Bologna has a long and famous tradition of anatomical wax modelling. Contrast this with St Catherine of Bologna (died 1463, I've seen her several timnes but haven't been able get a pic of my own) : she's a dried, smoke-blackened mummy.


Jo said...

I dunno. People are ridiculous.

Has no one considered that the priest might have poisoned her for spectacle?

Chris said...

"A horrible, religious version of Lolita." I'd laugh out loud but it's too sad.

Janine Ashbless said...

Oh, poisoning hadn't occurred to me - I'd just assumed she had some sort of heart defect and the stress (or possibly the disappointment) was too much.

As an atheist ex-Christian I can't be said to be unbiased: I think all religions are mistaken in their attempts to describe reality - however, it does seem to me that Catholicism is more obviously crazy than most. Sometimes farcical and funny and sometimes just really awful.