St Christina the Astonishing (July 24) had been taken for dead but sat up in her coffin in the middle of a Requiem Mass
Christina (1150-1224) no longer appears in every collection of saints’ lives. In truth, the reports of her deeds are sufficiently astonishing to challenge the most ardent faith.
Born into a peasant family at Brusthem in the Diocese of Liège, Christina lost both parents by the age of 15, though she had two elder sisters.
After suffering a seizure in her early 20s she was given up for dead and taken in an open coffin to a Requiem Mass. At the end of the Agnus Dei, though, she suddenly sat up, and flew “like a bird” into the roof beams of the church.
Unsurprisingly, the congregation fled, save for Christina’s elder sister, who dutifully remained seated until the Mass had ended. The priest then persuaded Christina to descend from the rafters, whither she had flown, as she explained, to escape the stench of human flesh.
She further related that she had indeed died and been conducted by angels to gloom-filled spaces where souls were suffering from torments terrible beyond description.
Christina imagined she must be in hell, only to be informed that this was merely purgatory. She was, however, then taken to hell, where she recognised several people whom she had known.
Finally she was transported to heaven, where she had the satisfaction of being favourably received. She was also assured that one day she would dwell there for all eternity. In fact, she was offered a choice. Either she could remain before the Godhead from that moment, or she could return again to earth in order to liberate souls from purgatory through her charity and suffering. It was also suggested that her example would help to convert sinners.
Christina chose to re-enter the world. Thenceforward, she promised, her life would be “so extraordinary that nothing like it has ever been seen”.
She embraced extreme destitution, living in rags as a wandering beggar. She climbed trees and rocks, and sought out desolate places in order to escape her fellow humans, whose smell continued to disgust her.
She appeared to be impervious both to heat and to cold, which was just as well given her propensity for climbing into ovens or plunging into icy water. She was also drawn to diving into mill-races, somehow emerging unscathed from under the turning wheel.
It is recorded, though, that after she climbed into a font in Wellen, and settled down into the baptismal water, her behaviour became somewhat quieter. She even became capable of supporting the reek of homo sapiens.
Whereas some contemporaries concluded that Christina was “full of devils”, others discovered that she had been touched by God. Whatever, she passed her last years in relative normality at the convent of Saint-Trond.