(c.1248–1309), Umbrian mystic. She came of a wealthy family and spent almost her whole life at Foligno. After the death of her husband she was converted to a life of austerity and prayer and later became a Franciscan tertiary. She was the recipient of frequent visions, especially relating to the Lord’s Passion. The accounts of them, taken down from dictation by her confessor, Brother Arnold, and later circulated as ‘Liber Visionum et Instructionum’, reflect early Franciscan piety at its highest. Angela was beatified by Innocent XII in 1693. Feast day, 4 Jan.
Her ‘Liber Visionum’, pub. at Alcalá, 1502, ed. L. P. Rosello (Venice, c.1510); also Paris, 1598, and Cologne, 1601. Crit. edn. by L. Thier, OFM, and A. Calufetti, OFM (Grottaferrata, 1985). Eng. tr. of her Works by P. Lachance, OFM (Classics of Western Spirituality; New York and Mahwah, NJ ) and of the ‘Memorial’ [the first part of her Book] by J. Cirignano, with editorial matter by C. Mazzoni (Cambridge, 1999) L. Leclève, Sainte Angèle de Foligno (1936). P. Lachance, OFM, The Spiritual Journey of the Blessed Angela of Foligno according to the Memorial of the Frater A. (Studio Antoniana, 29; Rome, 1984). C. Schmitt, OFM (ed.), Vita e Spiritualità della Beata Angela da Foligno: Atti del Convegno di Studi per il VII Centenario della Conversione della Beata Angela da Foligno (1285–1985), Foligno 11–14 dicembre 1985 (Perugia, 1987). P. Lachance, OFM, in NCE (2nd edn.), 1 (2003), pp. 411–13, s.v.
Audience of Benedict XVI, October 13, 2010
Today I would like to speak to you about Blessed Angela of Foligno, a great medieval mystic who lived in the 13th century. People are usually fascinated by the consummate experience of union with God that she reached, but perhaps they give too little consideration to her first steps, her conversion and the long journey that led from her starting point, the “great fear of hell”, to her goal, total union with the Trinity. The first part of Angela’s life was certainly not that of a fervent disciple of the Lord. She was born into a well-off family in about 1248. Her father died and she was brought up in a somewhat superficial manner by her mother. She was introduced at a rather young age into the worldly circles of the town of Foligno, where she met a man whom she married at the age of 20 and to whom she bore children. Her life was so carefree that she was even contemptuous of the so-called “penitents”, who abounded in that period; they were people who, in order to follow Christ, sold their possessions and lived in prayer, fasting, in service to the Church and in charity.
Certain events, such as the violent earthquake in 1279, a hurricane, the endless war against Perugia and its harsh consequences, affected the life of Angela who little by little became aware of her sins, until she took a decisive step. In 1285 she called upon St Francis, who appeared to her in a vision and asked his advice on making a good general Confession. She then went to Confession with a Friar in San Feliciano. Three years later, on her path of conversion she reached another turning point: she was released from any emotional ties. In the space of a few months, her mother’s death was followed by the death of her husband and those of all her children. She therefore sold her possessions and in 1291 enrolled in the Third Order of St Francis. She died in Foligno on 4 January 1309.
The Book of Visions and Instructions of Blessed Angela of Foligno, in which is gathered the documentation on our Blessed, tells the story of this conversion and points out the necessary means: penance, humility and tribulation; and it recounts the steps, Angela’s successive experiences which began in 1285. Remembering them after she had experienced them, Angela then endeavoured to recount them through her Friar confessor, who faithfully transcribed them, seeking later to sort them into stages which he called “steps or mutations” but without managing to put them entirely in order (cf. Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno, Cinisello Balsamo 1990, p. 51). This was because for Blessed Angela the experience of union meant the total involvement of both the spiritual and physical senses and she was left with only a “shadow” in her mind, as it were, of what she had “understood” during her ecstasies. “I truly heard these words”, she confessed after a mystical ecstasy, but it is in no way possible for me to know or tell of what I saw and understood, or of what he [God] showed me, although I would willingly reveal what I understood with the words that I heard, but it was an absolutely ineffable abyss”. Angela of Foligno presented her mystical “life”, without elaborating on it herself because these were divine illuminations that were communicated suddenly and unexpectedly to her soul. Her Friar confessor too had difficulty in reporting these events, “partly because of her great and wonderful reserve concerning the divine gifts” (ibid., p. 194). In addition to Angela’s difficulty in expressing her mystical experience was the difficulty her listeners found in understanding her. It was a situation which showed clearly that the one true Teacher, Jesus, dwells in the heart of every believer and wants to take total possession of it. So it was with Angela, who wrote to a spiritual son: “My son, if you were to see my heart you would be absolutely obliged to do everything God wants, because my heart is God’s heart and God’s heart is mine”. Here St Paul’s words ring out: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2: 20).
Let us then consider only a few “steps” of our Blessed’s rich spiritual journey. The first, in fact, is an introduction: “It was the knowledge of sin”, as she explained, “after which my soul was deeply afraid of damnation; in this stage I shed bitter tears” (Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno, p. 39). This “dread” of hell corresponds to the type of faith that Angela had at the time of her “conversion”; it was a faith still poor in charity, that is, in love of God. Repentance, the fear of hell and penance unfolded to Angela the prospect of the sorrowful “Way of the Cross”, which from the eighth to the 15th stages was to lead her to the “way of love”. Her Friar confessor recounted: “The faithful woman then told me: I have had this divine revelation: “after the things you have written, write that anyone who wishes to preserve grace must not lift the eyes of his soul from the Cross, either in the joy or in the sadness that I grant or permit him’“ (ibid., p. 143). However, in this phase Angela “did not yet feel love”. She said: “The soul feels shame and bitterness and does not yet feel love but suffering” (ibid., p. 39), and is unrequited.
Angela felt she should give something to God in reparation for her sins, but slowly came to realize that she had nothing to give him, indeed, that she “was nothing” before him. She understood that it would not be her will to give her God’s love, for her will could give only her own “nothingness”, her “non-love”. As she was to say: only “true and pure love, that comes from God, is in the soul and ensures that one recognizes one’s own shortcomings and the divine goodness.... Such love brings the soul to Christ and it understands with certainty that in him no deception can be found or can exist. No particle of worldly love can be mingled with this love” (ibid., p. 124-125). This meant opening herself solely and totally to God’s love whose greatest expression is in Christ: “O my God” she prayed, “make me worthy of knowing the loftiest mystery that your most ardent and ineffable love brought about for our sake, together with the love of the Trinity, in other words the loftiest mystery of your most holy Incarnation.... O incomprehensible love! There is no greater love than this love that brought my God to become man in order to make me God” (ibid., p. 295). However, Angela’s heart always bore the wounds of sin; even after a good Confession she would find herself forgiven and yet still stricken by sin, free and yet conditioned by the past, absolved but in need of penance. And the thought of hell accompanied her too, for the greater the progress the soul made on the way of Christian perfection, the more convinced it is not only of being “unworthy” but also deserving of hell.
And so it was that on this mystical
journey Angela understood the central reality in a profound way: what would save
her from her “unworthiness” and from “deserving hell” would not be her “union
with God” or her possession of the “truth” but Jesus Crucified, “his crucifixion
for me”, his love.
In the eighth step, she said, “However, I did not yet understand whether my liberation from sins and from hell and conversion to penance was far greater, or his crucifixion for me” (ibid., n. 41). This was the precarious balance between love and suffering, that she felt throughout her arduous journey towards perfection. For this very reason she preferred to contemplate Christ Crucified, because in this vision she saw the perfect balance brought about. On the Cross was the man-God, in a supreme act of suffering which was a supreme act of love. In the third Instruction the Blessed insisted on this contemplation and declared: “The more perfectly and purely we see, the more perfectly and purely we love.... Therefore the more we see the God and man, Jesus Christ, the more we are transformed in him through love.... What I said of love... I also say of suffering: the more the soul contemplates the ineffable suffering of the God and man Jesus Christ the more sorrowful it becomes and is transformed through suffering” (ibid., p. 190-191). Thus, unifying herself with and transforming herself into the love and suffering of Christ Crucified, she was identifying herself with him. Angela’s conversion, which began from that Confession in 1285, was to reach maturity only when God’s forgiveness appeared to her soul as the freely given gift of the love of the Father, the source of love: “No one can make excuses”, she said, “because anyone can love God and he does not ask the soul for more than to love him, because he loves the soul and it is his love” (ibid., p. 76).
On Angela’s spiritual journey the transition from conversion to mystical experience, from what can be expressed to the inexpressible, took place through the Crucified One. He is the “God-man of the Passion”, who became her “teacher of perfection”. The whole of her mystical experience, therefore, consisted in striving for a perfect “likeness” with him, through ever deeper and ever more radical purifications and transformations. Angela threw her whole self, body and soul, into this stupendous undertaking, never sparing herself of penance and suffering, from beginning to end, desiring to die with all the sorrows suffered by the God-man crucified in order to be totally transformed in him. “O children of God”, she recommended, “transform yourselves totally in the man-God who so loved you that he chose to die for you a most ignominious and all together unutterably painful death, and in the most painful and bitterest way. And this was solely for love of you, O man!” (ibid., p. 247). This identification also meant experiencing what Jesus himself experienced: poverty, contempt and sorrow, because, as she declared, “through temporal poverty the soul will find eternal riches; through contempt and shame it will obtain supreme honour and very great glory; through a little penance, made with pain and sorrow, it will possess with infinite sweetness and consolation the Supreme Good, Eternal God” (ibid., p. 293).
From conversion to mystic union with Christ Crucified, to the inexpressible. A very lofty journey, whose secret is constant prayer. “The more you pray”, she said, “the more illumined you will be and the more profoundly and intensely you will see the supreme Good, the supremely good Being; the more profoundly and intensely you see him, the more you will love him; the more you love him the more he will delight you; and the more he delights you, the better you will understand him and you will become capable of understanding him. You will then reach the fullness of light, for you will understand that you cannot understand” (ibid., p. 184).
Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed Angela’s life began with a worldly existence, rather remote from God. Yet her meeting with the figure of St Francis and, finally, her meeting with Christ Crucified reawakened her soul to the presence of God, for the reason that with God alone life becomes true life, because, in sorrow for sin, it becomes love and joy. And this is how Blessed Angela speaks to us. Today we all risk living as though God did not exist; he seems so distant from daily life. However, God has thousands of ways of his own for each one, to make himself present in the soul, to show that he exists and knows and loves me. And Blessed Angela wishes to make us attentive to these signs with which the Lord touches our soul, attentive to God’s presence, so as to learn the way with God and towards God, in communion with Christ Crucified. Let us pray the Lord that he make us attentive to the signs of his presence and that he teach us truly to live. Thank you.
Almost all that we know of Angela's life comes from her writing. She lived in Foligno, an Italian city about ten miles from Assisi. She married and had several sons. In her 30s, about 1285, she underwent some kind of moral crisis: she had committed some sin so shameful that she would not tell her confessor, and therefore she feared hell. She prayed to Francis of Assisi, who had died some 60 years before, and in a dream he promised to help her. Soon after, she met a relative who was a Franciscan friar (whom tradition calls Fra Arnaldo), and she was able to make a full confession to him.
This incident acted as a conversion point for Angela: she did penance for her sins and came to embrace the Franciscan ideal of poverty. When her husband, sons, and mother died within a year, although she mourned her loss, she also saw it as a stripping away of attachments. She tried to give away all of her property, but at first her family and even her Franciscan counselors stopped her.
About five years later, she made a pilgrimage to Rome; on her return she did give most of what she owned to the poor, and became a Franciscan tertiary (a lay person affiliated with the order). She made a pilgrimage to Assisi; there she had the first of many visionary experiences.
Then or in the following year, she told Fra Arnaldo of her visions; after considerable initial skepticism, he believed her and began to write Memoriale in Latin as she told it in her Umbrian dialect (sometimes with results that Angela felt misstated her intentions) and with his own narration as a frame (Arnaldo's asides on his difficulties with his superiors and with his own lack of self-confidence are amusing). By 1298, Memoriale was complete, and began to be circulated in the area.
After finishing Memoriale, Angela appears to have lived quietly in
Foligno, but her influence grew, especially among those Franciscan friars who
were working to reform the order from what they saw as its decadence since the
death of Francis. For them, whom she called her "sons," she wrote or dictated
letters --- some brief encouragements, some lengthy treatises --- on the
spiritual life. After her death, these were collected into what is now called
The 9 chapters of Memoriale and the 36 sections of Instructiones are usually published together under the title, Il Libro della Beata Angela da Foligno. What is fascinating is the difference in tone between the voices of the two works: in Memoriale, Angela needs to constantly "feel" the presence of God and is unsure of her ability to make everything clear to the questioning Arnaldo; in Instructiones, Angela is sure of herself and of her God and believes that she can help her "sons."
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