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Loony Saints - Margaret of Cortona Edition

Every once in a while, Prozac Monologues reaches into my Roman Catholic childhood's fascination with saints, especially the ones who today might be assigned a diagnostic code in the DSM.  Twice, Lent Madness has introduced me to new ones that I share with you.

Lent Madness 2012

A few years ago it was Christina the Astonishing.

Today it's Margaret of Cortona.  If you're a Lent Madness regular, you'd expect Margaret to be a shoe in for the first round of voting, where her competition is a stuffy old bishop/theologian, because Margaret became a Franciscan and, more significantly, her story features a dog.  Lent Madness voters are suckers for dogs.

But alas, her story also features extreme fasting and self mutilation.  There are a few of those in the panoply of women saints, beautiful girls who disfigure themselves to avoid marriage.  But Margaret wasn't young at that point.  In fact, she already had a son by her lover of nine years who seems to have been murdered and whose body was discovered by Margaret, with the help of aforementioned dog...  See, you'd think voters would cast for her, if for no other reason than to get more of the story in the second round of voting!  It is Lent Madness, after all.

But madness doesn't sell in religion like it used to.  She might get a movie, but not a holy card.

Honestly, I was put off, too, until I read a comment that referred to a book, Rudolf Bell's Holy Anorexia. Holy Anorexia is a social history that describes the phenomenon of extreme fasting in the lives of women saints. It raises the question of how odd behavior is interpreted in its historical context. Do these women manifest a mental illness? Or do they take to an extreme a common spiritual practice? Or are they flat out saints?

If By their fruits you shall know them, their prodigious activity and good works do need to be mentioned.

And what of young women who have anorexia today?  Is this a mental illness, or a practice that has tragically lost a context that gives it meaning?  Or why not both?  Would a little logotherapy or a well-trained spiritual director be a helpful addition to their treatment?  Past saints who fasted to the point of injuring their health often modified the practice when a spiritual director - or a vision - accepted the value of fasting, but threw into the mix some wisdom about how it might be interfering with a larger call.  Do these young women today know they have a larger call?

Margaret's story also highlights the role of ACEs, Adverse Childhood Events in the development of mental illness.  The early loss of her mother and the arrival of the wicked stepmother may have set her up for later difficulties.  Then the trauma of finding her lover's dead body and her family's rejection when she returned home with her son could have retriggered those earlier traumas.

But to the matter of sainthood -- saints are windows through which we see the light of Christ.  Us loonies need saints, too, those who suffered in mind in this life, yet were not conquered by those sufferings, and often used those sufferings as their own windows into compassion for others.

I vote for Margaret for the Golden Halo.

Lent Madness widget from
needlework of Christina the Astonishing created by Cookie Scottorn, used with permission
more of Scottern's art can be viewed at
cover of Holy Anorexia from


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