|St Lutgarde of Aywieres|
CHILDHOOD - FIRST MYSTICAL GRACES
Lutgarde was struck with both terror and love. Her eyes fixed themselves upon the wound in the Heart of Christ, she lost all consciousness of her surroundings and the sudden pallor of her face indicated to her visitor that something extraordinary had happened. Indeed, Lutgarde, penetrated to the depths of her soul by supernatural light of Jesus, felt the desire of her worldly affection suddenly become completely dispelled, and forever.
Her original biographer, Thomas of Cantimpre, does not go into much detail in describing her emotions on recovering her senses. He simply tells us that she turned to her friend with the words: "Go away from me, for I belong to another Lover."
From this point onward, she knew that she was to become a professed nun, offering herself and her virginity to Christ, to become His spouse forever.
LUTGARDE BECOMES A PROFESSED NUN -A MIRACULOUS LEVITATION
In fact, her intimate familiarity with God is illustrated by what might seem to some to be a presumptuous or cavalier attitude in expressing her likes and dislikes to Him, which we shall now see. For it came to pass at this time that she was granted a certain power of healing in which her very touch had the effect of instantly curing the little sicknesses of those who came to her. She perhaps thought it would help her lead souls to Jesus, yet it seemingly became a great distraction for her and her fellow nuns. Understandably, she soon found herself beginning to be very busy with those who appealed to her to cure them of their minor ailments. She complained to God of this, assuring Him that it interfered with her and the others prayer life: "Why did You go and give me such a grace, Lord? Now I hardly have any time to be alone with You! Take it away, please," and she added, artlessly, "only give me another grace, give me something better!'"
"What grace do you want Me to give you, then, in its place?" Jesus asked of her.
Lutgarde, being a choir nun, thought it would be very appropriate if she were to be granted a miraculous understanding of Latin, in order that she might have more devotion in reciting the psalms. As matters stood, she did not understand a word of what she said in choir, although she prayed with great fervor. The grace granted, she discovered to her surprise that once again it did not have the result she expected. She began to receive many vivid intellectual lights at the Office, and to be illuminated by numerous penetrating intuitions into the meaning of the psalms. But somehow all this new knowledge left her heart empty and dry.
THE EXCHANGE OF HEARTS- LUTGRADE IS LED TO A MYSTICAL UNION WITH THE SACRED HEART OF JESUS
St. Lutgarde is perhaps the first saint in whom this mystical "exchange of hearts" was effected. Since her time, the exchange has become rather common in the lives of mystics devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We read of it in the lives of St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde (both Cistercians), and St. Margaret Mary. The term is, of course, purely symbolic. There is no question of a physical exchange, but only of a mystical union of wills. Nor does it imply the perfect union of wills in mystical marriage. The exchange of hearts can take place in the degree of union known as spiritual betrothal. The gift then becomes not a sign of perfect transforming union but rather a pledge of that union, which still remains to be desired and which God withholds until His own good time. In more recent times for example, Sister Josefa Menendez, a lay sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart, received a similar grace as a protection against temptations to leave the convent.
Suddenly, she heard the voice of Jesus urging her to rise and go to choir with the others. "Get up, quickly, Lutgarde! Why are you lying there? For at this very hour, sinners are wallowing in the mire of their vices, and you ought to be doing penance for them, instead of lying there and letting your body perspire!'"
Filled with fear, Lutgarde leapt from her bed and hastened to choir where the Office had already begun. At the door of the Church she saw Jesus.
She beheld His living body, nailed to the cross: but the lance wound was open in His side. As she approached Him, Jesus let down one of His arms from the Cross to embrace her and draw her to Himself. As He did so, He pressed her lips to the bleeding wound in His side, and from His Sacred Heart the young nun drew forth from a infinite Spring which filled her with love and joy.
And so we have in her first vision, Lutgarde had been promised the knowledge of all that was worthy of love, if she would turn aside from creatures and concern herself with the Heart of Jesus alone. In her second vision, she had been granted an exchange of hearts with Jesus. Now she had been privileged to draw, from that same Heart, the Precious Blood and Water which flows from the Heart of our Lord.
A VISION OF ST JOHN THE APOSTLE
LUTGARDE IS ELECTED SUPERIOR OF THE CONVENT, BUT LEAVES TO JOIN THE CISTERCIANS (TRAPPISTS)
She asked the advice of a learned preacher of Liege, Jean de Lierre, who urged her to give up her post as prioress and leave the Benedictine Order for the Cistercian convent of Aywieres, (Awirs) which had recently been founded near Liege, but had been transferred to a site in Brabant, near the village of Lillois. She was very reluctant to accept this particular choice, because French was spoken in Brabant, and she felt it would be unwise to enter a convent where she would not understand the language of her superiors or spiritual directors.
Meanwhile, Christ Himself intervened, and spoke the following words to her: "It is My will that you go to Aywieres, and if you do not go, I will have nothing more to do with you."
When the nuns of St. Catherine's discovered their loss, they were inconsolable, but it was too late to do anything about it. Lutgarde, in her turn, prayed earnestly for the peace of the community she had left and was assured by the Blessed Virgin that her prayers would be answered. Indeed, Thomas of Cantimpre ends the first book of his life of St. Lutgarde with the comment: "The indubitable effect of these prayers is to be seen even today [some fifty years later] in the community of St. Catherine's. For this particular convent continues to grow in fervor more than ever, and to increase, at the same time, in temporal prosperity."
The sorrowful Virgin replied: "Behold, my Son is once again being crucified by heretics and bad Christians. Once again they are spitting in His face. Therefore, if you accept, I ask you to do penance, and fast for seven years, to appease the anger of my Son which now hangs heavy over the whole earth!"
A FAST FROM FOOD
St. Lutgarde was more than once ordered, under obedience, to take other food besides bread, but it was physically impossible for her to swallow anything else, "even a bean'" as her biographer tells us. Indeed, he adds that her fasts, instead of weakening her health, only increased her strength and her power of resistance.
St. Lutgarde had the character of her vocation more and more deeply impressed upon her soul by a series of visions during the time of this fast--visions which occurred almost daily, and usually took place at Mass. She would see Jesus standing before the face of His heavenly Father, showing Him His wounds, which had the appearance of having been freshly opened and were full of blood. Turning to Lutgarde, our Lord would say: "Do you not see how I offer Myself entirely to My Father, for My sinners? In the same way, I would have you offer yourself entirely to Me for My sinners, and avert the anger which has been kindled against them, in retribution for sin."
Her third seven-year fast brought her to the end of her life. Its intention was more specific and more urgent than either of the others. In 1239 or 1240, Christ again appeared to her, and warned her that His Church was exposed to attack by a powerful enemy. This attack would result in terrible harm to souls, unless someone undertook to suffer and win grace from God. Thus St. Lutgarde began her third and last fast. She was to die in its seventh year: but her death would be serene with the confidence of victory. Even in the year that preceded it, she was to tell Thomas of Cantimpre:
Frederick II, cultured and skeptical, devoured with pride and ambition and given to a life of indulgence, scarcely concealed his contempt for the Church and for the Christian religion - indeed, for all religion, and for the very notion of God. He had been heard to say that "three impostors, Christ, Moses, and Mohammed had led the world to its ruin." Presumably men like himself were destined to build it up, again by unbelief, debauchery, and war. It was also said of him that once, on seeing a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament to a sick person, he had exclaimed: "How much longer will this comedy last?" With this we can see that he was a likely candidate who was seeking to overthrow the Church at that time.
LUTGARDE IS GIVEN THE STIGMATIC WOUND IN THE SIDE AND A BLOODY SWEAT
Thomas Merton also tells that on many occasions, this saintly Cistercian, in meditating on Christ's Passion, would fall into ecstasy and sweat blood. A priest who had heard of this sweat of blood watched for an opportunity to witness it himself. One day he found her in ecstasy, leaning against a wall, her face and hands dripping with blood. Finding a pair of scissors, he managed to snip off a lock of the Saint's hair which was wet with blood (he did so thinking to have proof of the event, and also to have the lock of hair as a relic) As he stood marveling at the blood on the lock of hair, the Saint suddenly came to herself. Instantly the blood vanished; not only from her face and hands, but also from the lock in his hands, and also the blood that was on his hands! Thomas Merton writes “At this, the priest was so taken aback that he nearly collapsed from astonishment.”
The Pope revealed to her three causes why he had rendered himself worthy even of hell, but said he had merited grace to escape that torment by founding a monastery dedicated to the Mother of God. Nevertheless, he said he had been consigned to purgatory until the Day of Judgment, but begged for her prayers - and added that the grace to appear to her and make known his great need had also been obtained for him by our Lady.
Lutgarde undertook some extraordinary penance for the soul of the great Pontiff, but its nature is not revealed to us by her biographer. Neither does he tell us the three causes of this suffering. Lutgarde had made them known to Thomas of Cantimpre, but he decided to bury them in oblivion, out of respect for the memory of so eminent a Pope. A confirmation of her vision can be supported through a similar vision concerning Pope Innocent III was had by Blessed Simon of Aulne, a contemporary of St. Lutgarde's, famous for his charismatic gifts, especially for his miraculous knowledge of the secrets of souls. This holy Cistercian lay brother had even been summoned to Rome by the same Innocent III, at the time of the Lateran Council, that is, shortly before his death, and the Pope had consulted him not only on matters of Church policy but even personal spiritual affairs. Thus we can find some additional confirmation from this holy personage.
ANOTHER VISIT FROM A SOUL IN PURGATORY
Simon (as the abbot was called) tried to enforce the Rule in the harsh, disciplinarian spirit of an army officer, instead of applying it with the wisdom and discretion of a loving father. He had the misfortune to die suddenly in this frame of mind, and soon found out how little there was of the spirit of Christ in his way of training men.
St. Lutgarde had known him before his entrance into the Order, and was greatly afflicted at the news of his death, so that she began to pray, do penance and fast, fervently begging God for his release. Soon she received an answer, from a heavenly Voice, that her prayers were favorably received, and that all would be well with her friend. But Lutgarde was not satisfied with so vague a statement. It was not enough to know that he might get out of purgatory some time soon, she wanted to hear that he was definitely in heaven. Until then, she could not rest, and, returning to the attack, she pleaded with the Sacred Heart to take away whatever consolations He had destined for her, and to grant them all to the poor suffering soul of the abbot of Foigny.
Christ did not keep her ardent charity any longer in suspense. He presently appeared to her, and brought with Him the soul for whom she had interceded with such loving insistence.
Lutgarde flung herself face downward on the floor, adoring the mercy of God and blessing Him for His bounty. The soul of Abbot Simon, exulting and praising God, thanked his benefactress, and she saw him pass on into heaven.
We must not imagine that these visions of disembodied souls passed before the mind (perhaps even the bodily eyes) of St. Lutgarde without striking her to the depth of her soul with movements of wonder, love, and fear. Perhaps the most terrifying experience was that by which she was supernaturally informed of the death of her own sister. Suddenly, one day, in the air above her head, she heard a terrible, resounding cry, the voice of a woman in great anguish: "Have mercy on me, dearest sister! Have mercy on me and pray for me, and obtain mercy for me, as you did for all those other souls!" Soon afterward, the news of her sister's death reached her by ordinary means, confirming what she had heard.
Then there was the holy priest Jean de Lierre, on whose advice she had entered Aywieres, He did not have to appeal to her from purgatory. These two saintly souls had made a pact with one another, in which they mutually promised that the first of them to die would appear to the other and make the fact known.
There was a good lady of Liege called Matilda, who had two grown sons in the army and had lost her husband. Leaving what property she had to the two soldiers, she entered Aywieres to finish her life peacefully in the service of God. She was getting to be an old lady, and was quite deaf.
One day, while the choir was singing Vespers of some great feast, someone made a sign to old Sister Matilda, to the effect that the nuns were singing very high and it was just beautiful to hear them. The poor old lady caught the meaning of the sign, and bowed her head and began to cry because she was so deaf that she had not heard a thing.
Lutgarde came in just then and saw her crying, and made her a sign, asking what was the matter. Sister Matilda replied that she was crying because she was deaf, and could not hear the singing. This reply roused the compassion of the Saint. She knelt and prayed a little, then, rising, she moistened her fingers with saliva and placed them in Matilda's ears. And then the old nun suddenly felt the wall that barred all sound from her mind break down with a roar, and her ears being opened, she heard the sweet singing in a rush of clear and wonderful sound. Letting out a cry of joy, both of their hearts swelled with thanksgiving to God for His infinite kindness and mercy.
THE MIRACULOUS IDENTIFICATION OF AN UNKNOWN RELIC
Shortly afterwards, the forgotten saint appeared to Lutgarde and declared that she was St. Osmanna, a virgin and daughter of the King of Ireland, who had come to France and taken up her dwelling in Brittany, where she had led a very holy life. Not wanting to rely simply on her own private revelation, Lutgarde asked the Irish saint to confirm this by appearing also to the priest from Jouarre, which she did, with great promptness and generosity, not only once but three times in succession.
For St. Lutgarde, the desire of heaven was something more than a pious wish—she longed for heaven with all of her soul. . It was a mystical affliction that united her with Christ on Calvary. Thomas himself testifies that he sometimes saw her weep¬ing so piteously in her disappointment that she was not yet dead and able to enter into heaven, that he himself could not bear to look at her without being moved to tears."
In 1244 it seemed for a time that she would have her wish. She fell gravely ill, and Fra Bernard, calling at Aywieres, found that she had been given the Last Sacraments, as though she were expected to die at any moment. At this, of course, the saint was in a high state of enthusiasm and delight. But the Father decided that he saw no evidence that she was about to leave this world, and told her so.
"Oh, don't say that, dear Father," cried St. Lutgarde, "for indeed I greatly desire to see Christ, face to face."
St. Lutgarde was not so absorbed in her desire of heaven that she remained indifferent to everything that went on around her on earth. With characteristically blunt simplicity she had observed that the nuns in the infirmary were reciting their Office in a rather careless manner, and she told them that their execution of this duty could be considerably improved. Also she did not hesitate to warn them that if they did not do better the convent as a whole would be given grave cause to regret their neglect: a prophecy which Thomas of Cantimpre considers to have been fulfilled after her death.
Finally dawned a joyful day for Lutgarde, sad for her dear friends in this world: a day which Thomas of Cantimpre had prayed to be allowed to anticipate with his own death: a day which left him lamenting his lot, and declaring that he had been left an orphan. On June 9, a Saturday, the day before the second Sunday after Pentecost, which Thomas calls the "Octave of the Holy and undivided Trinity,"23 St. Lutgarde entered upon the final stages of her sickness.
It soon became clear to all that the saint was dying. Just how many more days she had left was not clear. On the following Monday a lay brother of Affiighem saw her, and remarked that he wished his Father Abbot, a good friend of St. Lutgarde's, could be there.
When the Benedictine entered the saint's sickroom, she raised herself up in bed and greeted him with joy, saying:
Yes, all her heavenly friends who had before come to summon and to advise her individually had now gathered in a tremendous multitude. She could see the whole convent packed with them, as though they were jostling one another in the corridors, and the doorways, and in the cloister, waiting to catch up their new companion with a song of exultation, and begin their journey home into the realms of light.
With these words St. Lutgarde fell silent and remained rapt in spirit, her face shining with happiness for more than a day - the whole Friday that followed. Finally, on the Saturday, she returned to herself long enough to receive the Last Sacraments, and then, at last, took flight, peacefully and quietly to the kingdom of her Bridegroom with her friends, the glorious saints. Her passing from this life to heaven was at around 4pm on June 16, 1246--the same day of the month on which St. Margaret Mary was to have her famous vision of the Sacred Heart, in the year 1675.
-St Lutgarde of Aywières, pray for us!
Primary source for this article is the book 'WHAT ARE THESE WOUNDS? : THE LIFE OF A CISTERCIAN MYSTIC, SAINT LUTGARDE OF AYWIÈRES' By Thomas Merton