Blessed Margaret of Castillo Chapter

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Blessed Margaret of Castello, Part II: The Ladder of Suffering

This is the second in a series of talks about Bl. Margaret of Castello, delivered at the meeting of the Idaho Lay Dominicans, Bl. Margaret of Castello Chapter, at St. John’s Cathedral in Boise, Idaho on Sunday, November 19, 2006.

            It is staggering to meditate on the differences between our own time and the late 13th century.  Amid the holocaust of abortion and the perils of a world war that threatens to dwarf even the unspeakable and unprecedented bloodshed of the last hundred years, the wealth, personal freedom and physical comfort of the 21st century, especially in the United States, have never been surpassed in human history.  Poor people in this country are better off in a lot of ways than the rich were in the 13th century.  Ordinary people can traverse a continent or an ocean in just a few hours, converse in real time with someone on the opposite side of the globe, or send documents to other countries instantaneously.  Our advances in hygiene and climate control allow us not only to keep ourselves clean without leaving the warmth of our homes, but to create completely germ-free environments.  Most of all, the principles of due process and equal protection are enshrined, however imperfectly, not only in law but in practice.  The world is still a cruel place, but we have the means to make ourselves quite comfortable in it.

            Many of us would not manage well in little Margaret’s 13th-century world, even under the best conditions.  For one thing, in a world without indoor plumbing, refrigeration, or ready supplies of soap or hot water, the smell had to be unbearable.  For another, deprived of central heat and air conditioning, people had little means of escape from extremes of temperature, even indoors.  For yet another, whereas our meat comes packaged in Styrofoam at our local supermarkets, and our supplies of fresh food are steady, varied, and plentiful, a 13th-century peasant was far more likely to get rancid or contaminated food, when food supplies were not interrupted by war or bad weather.  Finally, although the seeds of political freedom and individual rights had already been planted, for most, they were still far from fruition.  Even at its best, life was nasty, brutish, short and cheap. 

Few lives could have been nastier or more brutish than little Margaret’s for as long as she was under the control of Parisio and Emilia.  Under our law, nobody can be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, and a child under seven cannot be charged with a crime.  But, innocent of any crime, and without notice or a trial or an advocate, six-year-old Margaret was walled up in a tiny cell.  Criminals condemned to death for heinous crimes can stave off the executioner with decades of appeals; but there was no court of appeal for Margaret.  Today’s murderers and rapists are kept in comfortable cells with doors; Margaret had no door, and therefore no hope of departure.  Today’s convicted felons file lawsuits if they can’t watch dirty movies in their cellblocks; Margaret was lucky to get the odd visit from her own mother.  Even in an age when abortion on demand has been enshrined as a constitutionally guaranteed right, our consciences can still be shocked by the treatment that Margaret’s parents meted out to her with impunity.

            Even Nazi war criminals were incarcerated under better conditions than this innocent child.  Margaret would have had a slit through which food could be passed, and perhaps another through which to hear Mass and receive Communion.  How would she keep warm in winter?  Fiberglass insulation hadn’t been invented yet (and probably would have been dispensed with anyway), and she couldn’t have had a fireplace.  How could she stand the heat in summer, with so little air circulation?  How could she get clean clothes or fresh bedding?  How could she keep herself clean?  How would she stay dry?  How could she stand being confined to such a small space?  She must have known every last stone in the wall, as far up as she could reach, and every crack between every stone.  She must have known down to the last quarter inch the length and width and depth of her windows, and been intimately acquainted with every bump and depression in the floor.  How could she stay sane?

            Margaret’s superior intelligence must have been yet another source of anguish.  It must have made her feel keenly the injustice that was inflicted upon her, and the loss of all that had been taken away from her.  But her extraordinary mind was a gift from God, and God does not give His gifts in vain.  Her intellect gave Margaret wisdom and understanding beyond her years.  With it, she absorbed all the lessons that Father Capellano had taught her about her faith, and about her Heavenly Father Who loved her so much, and Who ordered all things to her good and His glory.  She realized that her crosses were gifts of the Savior Who had borne the sins of all humanity in order to save them from damnation, and that her sufferings were a ladder to heaven. 

            In chapter 3, verse 8 of his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul might have been writing about Margaret when he said: “For His sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ….”  Margaret had the same natural aversion to pain and suffering that we all have; but she so wanted to gain Christ that even though she had lost everything, she was determined to give even more.  By the time she turned seven, she had started wearing a hair shirt that someone had smuggled in to her, and bound herself to a strict fast from mid September to Easter.  The rest of the year, she fasted four days a week.  Every Friday, she restricted herself to bread and water.  Her weak, twisted body, her miserable prison, the passionate nature that would emerge as she matured, and the disdain of her parents were fountains of unending sorrow; but it was in the early days of her imprisonment, fed by the Eucharist and the Masses that she heard every day, that Margaret began the career of extraordinary penance that she would pursue for the rest of her life. 

The years rolled on.  Spring ran into summer; summer faded into autumn; autumn hardened into winter; winter melted into spring, over and over in an unending cycle.  Maybe at night, in her dreams, Margaret’s parents held her and loved her, and let her throw her arms around their necks and tell them how much she loved them.  Every morning when she woke up, she must have felt a fresh pang when the dream dissolved and she remembered where she was, and who had put her there, and that she had no hope of escape.  Minor setbacks make the rest of us want to give up on God; but in spite of the bitter winters and sweltering summers, the dampness, the filth, the awful smells, the hopeless confinement and the hatred of her family, Margaret’s boundless trust in God preserved her inner peace.  In her Diary, St. Faustina records that Jesus said to her:

The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive. Souls that trust boundlessly are a great comfort to Me, because I pour all the treasures of My graces into them. I rejoice that they ask for much, because it is My desire to give much, very much.  [1578]

 

Even from the very first days of her imprisonment, Margaret understood that her torments were themselves a great grace, because they made it easier for her to imitate Jesus.  Like Him, she was rejected and abandoned by those closest to her.  Like Him, she gave love, and was repaid by hatred.  Even in her imprisonment, she was like Him, Who has made Himself a prisoner for love of men in the Blessed Sacrament.  She must have strained her ears, listening in vain for the sound of her parents’ footsteps, just as He listens in vain from the tabernacle for the sound of our footsteps.  Margaret knew that the more closely she imitated Jesus, the more closely she would eventually resemble Him.  She took to heart the words of St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”  [2 Timothy 2:3]  And she must have found hope in St. Paul’s promise in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”  [2 Corinthians 1:5]

Margaret was destined to spend thirteen years confined to her few square feet in the wall of the Church of St. Mary of the Fortress of Metola until, in 1305, in the city of Perugia, an earthquake in the Church precipitated a political tidal wave that would inundate Massa Trabaria, and sweep Margaret out of her cell.  In enduring her excruciating captivity with resignation, good cheer, and trust in God, Margaret witnessed powerfully to the truth of St. Paul’s declarations in his letter to the Romans:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For Thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  [Romans 8: 35-39]

 

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