Blessed Margaret of Castello Chapter

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Blessed Margaret of Castello, Part IV: The Outcast

This is the fourth 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, Mar 18, 2007.  by Anita Moore, J.D., O.P.L.

The first chapter of John, verse 11, says of Jesus: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Chapter 6, verse 4 of the Gospel of Mark records these words of Jesus’: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Little Margaret’s greatest ambition was to imitate Christ; now that her parents had abandoned her in a strange town, and left her without the means to support herself, she was to imitate His forsakenness.

Just as Christ was forsaken by His own and welcomed by tax collectors and women of ill repute, Margaret – abandoned by her noble parents – found a welcome among the beggars and outcasts of Castello. The professional beggars may have been calloused by cruel fortune, and hardened by life on the streets; they may not have been respectable; but they were resourceful: compelled to live by their wits and to make a little go a long way, they were not bums. They also must have had some decency in their hearts, since they were capable of being moved to sympathy by Margaret’s plight. They took her under their wing, teaching her the ways of the city, leading her through the streets until she learned to navigate them for herself; they taught her where to find water for washing and cleaning, and showed her how to find shelter for the night.

It is impossible for a blind, lame, hunchbacked dwarf to remain anonymous, especially in a time and place when everyone knows everyone else’s business; but a blind, lame hunchbacked dwarf who remains cheerful, patient and forgiving in the face of crushing poverty and homelessness is soon an object of considerable controversy. Margaret’s friends admired her for her fortitude in the face of adversity, while her detractors watched her every move for signs of the mask slipping. But as time passed, and it became apparent that what the town saw was no mask, the poor eventually decided it was time to take Margaret off the streets and into their own homes.

In chapter 13, verse 2 of his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Over the years, Margaret stayed with a succession of poor families who shared their meager resources to shelter and feed her for as long as they could. Some of these homes were very unpleasant places, not only for their physical squalor, but also because of their spiritual squalor: quarrelling, irreligion and downright hatred were hard for Margaret to bear. But even in the worst of these homes dwelt that small spark of decency that had led the family to share the little that they had with Margaret. In return, Margaret must have prayed to God to reward their kindness, because every single home that took her in underwent a change for the better. Quarrelling ceased; hatred and anger dissipated; tepid souls rose toward fervency; families found relief even from material destitution. There was not one home – except one – that Margaret would not leave better off than she found it.

Rumors of the little outcast whom the poorest of the poor of Castello had adopted penetrated the cloister of the Monastery of St. Margaret. Just as we do not know the precise identity of the noble parents who treated their daughter so shamefully, the identity of the nuns of St. Margaret’s Monastery, and their order, have also been consigned to oblivion. St. Margaret’s became a Dominican convent in later years, but in his biography of Bl. Margaret, Fr. Bonniwell is at pains to refute the theory that these were Dominican nuns – for which, as we shall see, we have reason to be thankful.

When persons of influence approached the anonymous nuns of St. Margaret’s about receiving little Margaret into the order, the Council of the convent met to discuss the matter. Margaret’s determination to shield her noble parents from the disgrace of having abandoned her gave them a problem, since legitimacy of birth was a requirement for entry into the religious life; so they submitted the matter to the local bishop. When the bishop investigated the matter, and discovered the powerful family in whose closet Margaret was a skeleton, he sent the nuns hasty assurances that Margaret’s birth presented no impediments – suppressing, at the same time, the name of Margaret’s family, for fear of Parisio’s marauding armies. And so Margaret, to her great joy, was invited into the convent of St. Margaret’s.

Yet Margaret was unsettled in the midst of her happiness. Like all the other sisters, she bound herself to uphold the Rule of the order; but unlike the other sisters, she actually upheld the Rule. The Rule was coldly and persistently violated, and every violation had its justification, the echoes of which reverberate down to the present day. Just as, today, no one hesitates carry on a noisy conversation in a church, or even in an adoration chapel, the nuns of St. Margaret’s vacated the discipline of silence, on the grounds that charity required sociability. Just as, today, too many unqualified people neglect their true vocations in favor of the power and authority of vocations that do not belong to them, the nuns of St. Margaret’s gave up on prayer and sacrifice and abrogated the rule against receiving too many visitors, on the grounds that they could thereby dispense spiritual advice. Just as today, in too many dioceses, only the rich and powerful have the ears of the local bishops, the nuns at St. Margaret’s accepted expensive gifts, on the grounds that it would be tactless to refuse. In an argument all too familiar to modern ears, the prioress of the convent assured Margaret that the Rule was too old-fashioned, and that times had changed too much for it to be strictly adhered to any longer; but Margaret, who was too sharp not to notice that the Church had not seen the need to adapt the Rule to changes in the times, could not buy it.

And so, Margaret, encouraged by her confessor, continued to strive to uphold the Rule in every particular –not only for her own sake, but for the sake of her sisters who had fallen away from its observance. She hoped to persuade them, by her example, to embrace the Rule they had flouted for so long; but this alleged house of prayer, penance and sacrifice would prove to be the one home Margaret could not influence. At first, the other nuns thought her strict adherence to the Rule was cute: the honeymoon fervor of a novice that would soon dissipate. But when the honeymoon showed no signs of ending, Margaret’s fervor descended, in the nuns’ estimation, from cute to obnoxious, and from obnoxious to downright hateful. But Margaret never wavered, in spite of her sisters’ hostility. Even when the prioress ordered her to conform her behavior to the established custom of abuses at the convent, she could not cease to obey the Rule.

In the 6th chapter of Luke, verses 22-23, Jesus says: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” Here was a truth that Margaret must have known rather than felt, as she found herself out on the street again, listening to the convent doors clang shut behind her. She had been expelled from the order for the iniquitous crime of observing the Rule. This was her sorest trial of her faith since her parents left her at the Franciscan shrine.

<Part III  Part V>

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