#10: Angela of Foligno and Holy Bodies

#10: Angela of Foligno and Holy Bodies


5 march, 2019

Last semester, I took a class on women & mysticism. We read widely: from Hildegard of Bingen to the Vineyard church I was raised in. For a week, we had to give group presentations on late-medieval European women. I was assigned Angela of Foligno, and I still can't get her out of my head, which is, to my understanding, how people become medievalists. 

Angela was born into a wealthy family of tradesmen in Umbria, in the second half of the 13th century, just after St. Francis of Assisi. Right up until her middle age, she had a pretty normal life: she married, had children, managed a household, all the things that were expected of her. Eventually, she starts taking her faith a little more seriously: going to church more often than was strictly necessary, thinking more about the ways that her wealth and relative good fortune are wrapped up in sinfulness. Then, in the span of a few months, her children, husband and mother all die. Her autobiography is unclear on how she felt about this. The first time it is mentioned, she says it was something of a relief, because it allowed her to have an uninterrupted relationship to God, but then later on, talks about the period of mourning and despair that enveloped her after these deaths. I'm ok with the idea that maybe it was both, maybe one or the other or both of them are stories she told herself to get through the night. 

What we do know, largely from what she tells us in her memoir, is that after the deaths in her family, she spent some time unshackling herself from most of her wealth and social obligations, and a great deal more time making solid and tangible her connection to the one she called the God-Man. Her vision of what her faith looked like was radical and sometimes frightening: her original connection with her confessor came after she was kicked out of the church in Assisi for loud weeping and screaming when she saw the crucifix, one of the first steps in her memorial involves stripping absolutely naked in front of the cross, making literal and concrete the idea of casting all else aside to be only yourself before Jesus. 

I'll probably end up writing about Angela again, possibly as soon as next month, because there are two different dimensions of her experience that interest me: the ways in which her wild devotion were lived out, and how she expressed them specifically to her scribe and confessor, a nameless Franciscan monk, and how he, in turn, expressed them to the future reader. But for today, I want to think a little bit about Angela of Foligno and the body. Here's why:

"We washed the feet of the women and the hands of the men, one of whom was a leper whose hands were withered and decomposing. And then we drank from the water that we used for the washing. And the sweetness we felt was so great that it lasted all the way home -- it felt as if we had received Holy Communion. In fact, because of that intense sweetness, it seemed to me that I really had received communion. And when a scab from the leper's sores had become lodged in my throat, I tried to swallow it; and my conscience kept me from spitting it out -- just as if I had received Holy Communion." 

Lepers show up a lot in the Christian imaginary--Jesus heals them in the Bible, a lot of saints spend time with them in a penance-y way--they're the ultimate way to show that you're a Good and Accepting Person of even the lowest of the low. This sort of falls into the same fallacy: leprous body not as an actual human body but as an encounter with rot, and death, and decomposition, in the scariest way you can think of. A leper is basically a zombie, someone who gets to be alive while all the most terrifying parts of death happen to them in front of their very eyes, the process of decomposition, of un-becoming. 

What's really interesting about this, though, is the comparison of the scab to the Eucharist.

“This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” The wafer of the holy communion is meant to represent Jesus' body, at once human and divine, also just at the point of death, and because of that, at the point when it is closest to God. For all that Christians like to talk about the two-in-oneness of Jesus' body, its total humanity and its total divinity, the scales are a little unbalanced towards the divinity. Jesus' body is pinned up all over churches, the image of his tortured body on the cross is venerated. Even in the agonies of his death, his body is all smoothly curving planes of polished wood. A body in pain, yes, but a whole, young, healthy body, part of the tragedy of the crucifixion lying in the demise of a beautiful human body. 

And so here comes Angela, doing regular old Penitent Saint stuff: washing leper's feet, being present to suffering, even eating scabs was, to a point, uh, fairly popular among a certain group of the devout. But to claim that a scab from a leper held the same beauty and "sweetness" as Christ's body is to make a kind of radical claim about all human bodies, all of the earthbound, the enfleshed, even when that flesh is terrifying or undesirable or not whole. The sanctity of the body doesn't rely on wholeness or goodness or beauty. 

And all of this, and still we're left with the man sitting back in his chair, dampened hands and feet, watching Angela of Foligno lift a bowl of his flaking skin to her lips, watching her cough, and gag, and then be transported, recieve grace. We don't know if he felt grace, or how he felt for his flesh to be taken as a shortcut to God. All bodies are holy, but not everyone gets the room or support to live into the realization of that.