Feast Day : 27 July
'Jack of All Trades'
“Il facchino del monastero – the Monastery’s handyman”! That was the nickname the Capuchin Poor Clares of Saint Mary of the Snow (Santa Maria della Neve) in Brescia, Northern Italy gave Sister Mary Magdalen Martinengo. During her thirty two years in religious life she had been at one stage or another novice, dish-washer, kitchen hand, porter, gardener, baker, sweeper, wardrobe keeper, laundress, wool weaver, shoe maker, cellarer, seamstress, chancellor or secretary, embroiderer, sacristy assistant, Novice Mistress, turn style keeper, Vicaress and Abbess. For all intents and purposes, she appeared strong and healthy and, until just before her death. she managed to keep concealed her numerous bodily infirmities and frighteningly harsh mortifications and penances. Yet when she entered the Monastery in 1905, at the age 18, her physique and facial features were seen as being so delicate that, to the Capuchin Nuns living there, she looked like someone made wax who would need to be kept under glass. Wherein, then, lay the source of Sister Mary Magdalen’s abundant strength and surprisingly tenacious perseverance? Without doubt it was to be found in her secret inner life which, even from her childhood years, she had nurtured with almost continuous prayer, harsh penances and an enraptured love of God.
A Sheltered Upbringing
This spiritual daughter of Saint Francis of Assisi was born on the Saint’s feast day, the 4th of October 1637 at the ducal palace in Brescia. Her parents were Francis Leopold Martinengo, the Count of Barco, and his first wife, the Noble Lady Margaret Secchi of Aragon. Because she was so delicate, their baby girl had to be baptized immediately at home and given the baptismal name Margaret. Her mother died within five months of the difficult birth and young Margaret’s own health was so precarious that she hovered between life and death for the first five years of her life. Her father remarried and entrusted the education of his six year old daughter to an Ursaline Sister. From this Governess, Margaret learned how to read and pray. She received a pretty good education in Italian and Latin literature, thanks to her having access to her father’s extensive library. “I found all my contentment in reading.” she recounted in her autobiography. Her favourite book, in any case, was the Latin Breviary and, even as a child, she was seldom seen without a rosary beads in her hands. Her prayers redoubled after an accident in her early childhood years when young Margaret fell from a horse-drawn carriage but managed to escape unscathed from being trampled underfoot by run over by the horses and the carriage’s wheels. Around the age of eleven, Margaret was enrolled at the Saint Mary of the Angels convent boarding school which was run by Augustinian nuns, two of whom were her own maternal aunts. Her first Holy Communion was somewhat dramatic. This was because the Sacred Host fell on the floor and Margaret had to pick it up with her tongue. Anxiety over this incident, as well as the influence of the saints’ lives she was reading, led her to undertake severe mortifications, such as walking barefoot on jagged rocks, sharp thorns and stinging nettles. She also began to devote more time to meditation. Due, however, to her aunts who were very envious and suffocating Margaret asked, in August 1699, that her father enroll her instead in the Holy Spirit boarding school run by Benedictine Nuns.
A Teenage Girl’s First Stirrings of Love
In the meantime, during a family vacation in the mountains around Lake Iseo, Margaret began to feel a discernable attraction to the enclosed contemplative life. She later recalled how she fell in love with the scenery of those “uninhabited alpine regions and the grottoes that were so beautiful that they seemed to call me to live there. Without a doubt I would have run off to them, had the number of wolves not frightened me.” In the Holy Spirit Monastery also, she had two maternal aunts but these were not as jealous as her Augustinian aunts. They were mainly concerned about her health, her marriageability and her future as a noble-woman in high society. But despite a gllowing interior life of prayer and a divinely inspired private vow of virginity which she made at thirteen years of age, she felt little attraction to the Benedictine way of life, “I was so bored that I would not have become a religious there for all the gold in the world.” she later recalled. She began to feel stressed out by family expectations and was assailed by all sorts of temptations. In the end, she fell ill but the sisters, she tells us were “unaware of what was happening in me” and “made me even worse with repeated medicines.”
Whose Bride Was She Meant to Be?
Thereafter, at the age of seventeen, she returned home. Many suitors already sought her out and her father had promised her hand in marriage to the son of a Venetian senator. Her older brothers were not much help either. They brought her novels full of love stories and the beautiful designer dresses. Margaret was soon seduced by these things. She read them Day and night she read what she would later term those “books from hell,” and she loved to dress up in the finest clothes money could buy. One day, however, as she cried before the Tabernacle, bewailing her dilemma, she was assured that one day she would wear the coarse natural wool clothing of the Capuchin Poor Clares. This inspiration, which a vision of Our Lady had instilled in her, infused her with a mysterious inner light and yet, she tell us that at the time she “knew nothing about the Capuchin Nuns.” By this time, she was eighteen years old. Everyone who came to know of her decision to become a Capuchin Poor Clare Sister was hostile to the idea. Her father, in particular, was vehemently opposed, but, in the end, she managed to gain his consent and in late 1704 she introduced herself to the Capuchin Poor Clares at the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Snow, saying simply, “I want to become holy.” As was the custom at the time, the Capuchiness Sisters had her undertake a period of probation at a College run by the Ursuline Sisters before being clothed in the Capuchin Poor Clare habit. At the end of Lent 1705 her father, Count Francis Leopold, arranged a fun tour of various Italian cities for her. Indeed, this was the custom at the time when a woman of noble origin was aspiring to religious life. During this tour her first cousin fell head over heels in love with her and proposed marriage. Margaret was about to agree but a loyal servant not advised her to pray to the Lord for guidance in this matter. Margaret passed the night in prayer and by morning she was had become firmly convinced once more that her vocation lay with the Capuchin Poor Clares.
'Would this Novice be ‘the Downfall of the Monastery'
On the 8th of September 1705, accompanied by a joyful procession of carriages, Margaret arrived at the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Snows and crossed the threshold of door into the enclosure for the first and last time. Thereupon she was clothed in the chestnut brown habit and white veil of a Capuchiness Novice and took the religious name of Sister Mary Magdalen. Being directed by a rigid and eccentric Novice Mistress and the envy fo her fellow novices made Sister Mary Magdalen’s novitiate year very difficult. Many Professed Sisters felt she had no vocation and would “be the downfall of the Monastery.” As well as encountering such external opposition, the young Novice experienced aridity in prayer and other spiritual trials besides. A change of Novice Mistresses improved her chances of being allowed to persevere and, in the end, with the unanimous backing of the Community she able to make her Perpetual Solemn Solemn on the 8th of September 1706.
The Apparent Monotony of an Ordinary Capuchin Poor Clare Nun’s Life
Externally speaking, Sister Mary Magdalen’s remaining thirty one years in religion appears to be a monotonous daily routine of manual work and prayer. In most respects, her life appears to differ little from that of her fellow Capuchin Poor Clares. In fact, apart from occasional bouts of sickness and frequent job switches, the most striking aspect of her external religious life was that, for the most part, her duties consisted in the most menial household chores. Gradually, however, she seems to have gained the trust of the Sisters in the Community and these in turn elected her Novice Mistress, vicaress and Abbess. As Novice Mistress and Abbess, she was noted for her maternal familiarity but also for the firmness with which she insisted that the Sisters observe the Rule of Saint Clare and the Capuchinesses’ own Constitutions and austere way of life. To her Novices she gave the following spiritual advice. “Ground yourselves in your nothingness and, in religion, desire only to be forgotten and left in a corner; thus annihilated, present yourselves to the Lord and He will accept you as His daughters.”
The Drama of Her Inner Life
The monotony of Sister Mary Magdalen’s external monastic life masked an inner life that was anything but monotonous. In her writings, she reveals that her spiritual life was one that was filled, on the one hand, with burning love for God, deep contemplative prayer, and dramatic mystical experiences and, on the other, severe spiritual trials, excruciating physical suffering and extreme self-imposed mortifications. This magnificent panorama of spirituality, she kept hidden from prying eyes and ears of even the most observant of her Capuchiness consoeurs. Only God and she herself, and to some degree her Confessors and Spiritual Directors were able to comprehend what was happening in her soul. Her writings, however, give us some hint of the beauty and the drama of this hidden life. These writings were, for the most part, written under obedience and include an autobiography, a commentary on the spiritual maxims of Brother John of Saint Samson, spiritual admonitions, an explanation of the Capuchiness’s Constitutions, a treatise on humility and her “Mystical Dialogues”. They ooze a spirituality that is both Trinitarian and Christocentric and highlight her devotion to the Cross, to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A full edition of her writings has not yet been completed and many of the works have so far gone unpublished.
A Mystic Inflamed With Divine Love
Even as a teenager, she already led a life of prayer and meditation and now, as a Nun, her prayer life passed from affective to unitive prayer and she received the mystical gift of infused contemplation. From 1713 onwards, every Friday, she experienced in her head, in her chest and in her back something of the pain Jesus endured in his Passion. This led, in turn, to her having a vivid experience of God’s infinite love for her. In her biography she tells us that the result was often a dialogue of love. “I followed my method of speaking with God, but because I was doing this with greater love and with more diligence, the Lord in his infinite goodness corresponded with me within with the sweetest words. While speaking in this way, I put my head to the floor. Immediately in the depth of my heart the Lord answered me: ’Dear daughter, you love me, but without comparison I love you more.’ I said to him, ‘Lord, take my heart. I no longer want it.’ He was pleased with the offering. And it seemed to me that on removing my heart that he put there his own - all on fire with love. And I, unable to suffer being alight and burning in this way, fainted from the ardour that sweetly consumed me.”
The ‘Blood-soaked Bride’ of Christ Crucified
The fire of divine love continued to consume her. To extinguish this flame she inflicted unbelievable penances upon herself, which her humility kept hidden even from her doctors. A modern observer might see these penances and bodily mortifications, which included self-flagellation to the point of drawing blood, wearing a spiked iron mesh around her loins, adding bitter absinthe and fish gall to her food and piercing her body with sharp needles, as being extreme and almost masochistic but for religious of the baroque era in which she lived, such practices were considered not only helpful means of sanctification but the necessary conditions of a perfect religious life. When she entered the Monastery, she had, in fact, stood at the foot of the Cross and pledged her troth to Christ Crucified as his “blood-soaked Bride.” But the moral and spiritual trials she had to undergo caused this Capuchin Poor Clare Nun even greater suffering than all the pains she inflicted on herself over the years through penitential practices and bodily mortification. She experienced dryness in prayer and was assailed by diabolical temptations. Worse still, few, if any, of her Confessors understood her spiritual trials. One of them had even branded her “beguiled, a liar and spiritually deluded.” He even had her writings condemned as heretical and ordered that they be burned. Moreover a semi-Jansenist Jesuit priest who once gave the Sisters their Community retreat inspired such fear of damnation in the young Sister Mary Magdalen that she fell ill and seemed to be about to die. The Vicaress of Monastery forbade her to speak with her former novices of spiritual matters and four sisters in the Community did their best to undermine her right up until the very end. She endured all these humiliations and understandings in silence and offered her sufferings in union with Christ’s as an expiation for sin and for the benefit of the souls in Purgatory. Despite such opposition from superiors, confessors and spiritual directors, she remained obedient to their instructions and endeavoured to carry every last detail of whatever they commanded. “It is necessary” she wrote “to act more heroically when it comes to the more difficult things.”
Consoled by Divine Mercy
In the midst of these trials, the Lord himself would comfort her. Sometimes, while she prayed, she experienced consoling visions of Our Lord and Our His Mother. One day, for instance, as she prayed contritely before the Blessed Sacrament, shedding abundant tears of all her sins and faults and misdemeanours, she saw Our Lord, dressed as a High Priest, extend His right hand over her and heard Him reassure her with these words: “Daughter, here for you is my plenary indulgence for your every fault!”
Clasping her Confessor’s Stole She Breathes Her Last
Delighting always in the mercy of the Lord, she was truly glad when she knew that her death was immanent in 1737. As Sister Death approached, she prayed some biblical verses and taking some berries from a basket in front of her, she placed them tenderly in the mouths of her Sisters who stood around her bedside weeping. Then the fifty year old Mother Abbess of the Monastery, Sister Mary Magdalen Martinengo was heard to whisper, “I am coming, I am coming, Lord!” Then clasping her Confessor’s stole with her right hand, she serenely breathed her last on the 27th of July 1737. Only then were the traces of many of the mortifications she imposed upon her body discovered. The doctors were surprised that even hours after her death, rigor mortis had not set in and her corpse remained flexible and soft right up until the moment of her burial. So great were the throngs that attended her funeral that soldiers had to be called in to escort her remains to their final resting place.
Sister Mary Magdalen was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on the 3rd of June 1900 and, in 1972, her relics, which had lain in at least two other Churches in Brescia, were finally laid to rest in the Church of the city’s newly built Capuchin Poor Clare Monastery. Holiness seems to have run in Blessed Mary Magdalen Martinengo’s family for among her maternal relatives is the famous canonized Jesuit seminarian, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga.
"In the person of John, Jesus entrusted us all as children to His Most Holy Mother, like as if He were saying: - 'My Mother, You will be from here on in true Mother and Advocate of sinners. Your supplications on their behalf will be graciously heard by Me; every grace will pass through Your hands; You will be the treasury of my infinite mercies.' - The Most Pure Virgin heard in these brief words the intention of Her Son, and, immediately, within Her heart she accepted this task and, with all Her motherly affection. She embraced all the descendants of Adam as her children." - Blessed Mary Magdalen Martinengo