Mabel Aghadiuno reviews a new book on St Angela of Foligno.

[New City Magazine – March 2007]

Passionate Mystic of the Double Abyss, edited by Paul Lachance, is an intriguing book. It is not an easy or a comfortable read, but it is certainly challenging. The book is an account of a ‘love affair’ between Angela of Foligno and the ‘suffering God-man’ and was originally written to ‘demonstrate the possibility of becoming aware of the presence of the Trinity within oneself.’

Angela was born in Foligno, a small town near Assisi some years after the death of St Francis of Assisi and is his spiritual daughter. Wife and mother, at the age of 37 in 1285 she has a strong conversion experience and becomes aware of the futility of her life up until then. The account of her journey (‘twenty steps’ and then ‘seven supplementary steps’) then begins and this is where the reading becomes challenging. Although from a well-to-do family, Angela of Foligno, was illiterate. Her spiritual insights were transcribed for her and I had to constantly remind myself that I was attempting to engage with a woman separated by more than seven hundred years of history, with all the changes in culture, understanding, philosophy, language, customs and mentality that this entailed. Thirteenth century people cannot be scrutinised with twenty-first century lenses, and once I removed those lenses, I was in a better position to learn from Angela’s teaching.

The overriding theme in Angela of Foligno’s writings is the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. The other theme is love for Christ crucified. In the sixth step Angela sees that she has ‘offended all the creatures that had been made for me’ and she asks for forgiveness. Knowledge of self helps her see the defects in her soul. In the ninth step she realises that to go to the cross she has to go empty-handed and strip herself of everything – attachments to family, friends, possessions and ‘even my very self’. Angela had many dreams and visions and I found them thought-provoking. I found myself tempted to view her fainting as hysteria or imagination run completely riot especially when she says things like:

Afterwards this fire of the love of God in my heart became so intense that if I heard anyone speak about God I would scream.

Externally, these fainting episodes would probably have been viewed as such today. However I found that they were also irrelevant because through the archaic language, Angela declared the truths that are immutable: the intensity of God’s love for each one of us, the fact that this love is not a ‘hoax’, while our love for him often is, the fact that the Trinity does dwell within us if we only seek to find him. Mystics who came after use some of Angela’s language and mirror her experiences: Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales and Teihard de Chardin.

Something that at times makes me recoil from mystics is the seeming preoccupation with the self and salvation. Angela of Foligno’s last words are a testimony instead to what her life was:

Truly there is no greater charity on earth than to suffer for the sins of others… the charity which does this is not of this world. My children, strive to have this charity.

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