Little is known about the life of the Italian mystic Angela de Foligno. Tradition reports that she was born to a wealthy family but lost her father while still young. She married at an early age and had several sons. She had no formal education, but possessed an open mind and vigorous intelligence. She was beautiful, impetuous, and vain. After living a worldly early life—including, in the words of one of her biographers, “washing, combing . . . dressing in luxurious clothes, indulging in fancy foods . . . maligning others . . . letting loose with fits of anger and pride”—she converted to a life of contrition by confessing her guilt and shame, selling her land and possessions, and joining the Third Order of St. Francis as a Tertiary hermit. Despite the joy she found in her new life, Angela faced opposition from family and clergy. The remainder of her life was passed in seclusion (the members of her immediate family had all died by about 1288) in the area of the Church of the Friars Minor at Foligno, except for a pilgrimage to Assisi in 1291 at age 43, during which she received a vision “of God’s love for her.”
Angela confessed her doctrinal revelations, visions, and consolations, some of which occurred while she slept, to her scribe, Brother Arnoldo; some parts she may have recorded herself. These works were collected in The Book of Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno, which includes a detailed account of her inner journey toward purification. The first Italian edition (translated from Latin), 1510, became one of the most popular religious works printed in the Italian vernacular and is an important specimen of medieval psychology. Her mystical writings have influenced many writers and philosophers, even to the present day.
In the first of the two visions excerpted here, Angela vividly describes the intensity of her desire to die, much as St. Paul [q.v., New Testament: Philippians: “Paul on the Desire to Die”] had earlier written of his desire to die and be with Christ. In her second vision, which expresses a desire not unlike St. Ignatius’s [q.v.] eagerness to become “God’s wheat”—a martyr ground in the teeth of wild beasts—Angela wishes fervently for a slow and agonizing death. For Angela, as for Paul and Ignatius, however, suicide is not in question and is not explicitly discussed. These writings are crucial for examining the distinctions between voluntary martyrdom and suicide in early and medieval Christianity, emphasizing as this tradition does both the martyr’s promise of a personal, beatific afterlife and a thoroughgoing prohibition of suicide. One may desire intensely to die, but one must not deliberately end one’s life.
Angela de Foligno, The Book of Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. Treatise III, First and Tenth Visions, tr. Mary G. Steegmann, New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1966, pp. 157-161, 163-168, 196-200. Text also online from the Internet Archive. Quotations in introduction from Paul Lachance, Angela of Foligno: Complete Works, New York, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993, pp. 16-17, and Elizabeth Alvil Petroff, The Mystics.
from THE BOOK OF DIVINE CONSOLATION OF THE BLESSED ANGELA OF FOLIGNO
Of the Many Visions and Consolations Received by Angela of Foligno: First Vision and Consolation
Blessed God and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, Thou hast verily deigned to console me, a sinner, in every tribulation. For during the time of my conversion and after the enlightenment miraculously granted unto me as I was repeating the Paternoster, I did feel great consolation and sweetness in this manner.
I was inspired and drawn unto the contemplation of the blessed union of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and in this contemplation did I feel an exceeding great delight, the which was greater than any I had ever felt heretofore. For this reason did I remain for a great part of that day standing in the cell where I was praying, astonished, locked in and alone. My heart was all wrapped up in that joy and I became as one dumb and did lose my speech. Wherefore did it happen that when my companion came she believed that I was about to die; but she did only weary me and was an hindrance unto me.
Once, before that I had finished giving all I possessed unto the poor (albeit but little then remained for me to give), when I was persevering in these matters, it chanced that one evening when I was at prayer methought I did feel nothing whatsoever of God. Wherefore I lamented and prayed unto God, saying:
“Lord, that which I do, I do only that I may find Thee; wherefore, having done it, do Thou grant me the grace that I may find Thee.”
And many other similar things did I say in my prayer, and this answer was vouchsafed unto me, “What desirest thou?”
Then I said: “I desire neither gold nor silver; yea, if Thou wouldst give me the whole world I would not accept it, seeing that I desire Thee only.”
Then did He say unto me, “Strive diligently and make thyself ready, for when thou hast accomplished that which thou art now doing, the whole Trinity will descend unto thee.”
Many other things were also promised unto me, which did ease me of my tribulation and fill me with divine sweetness. And from that hour I did await that the thing which had been told me should be immediately fulfilled.
After this I went unto the church of Saint Francis, near untoAssisi, and the promise was fulfilled by the way as I went thither. Nevertheless, I had not yet finished giving all things unto the poor, but there was little yet remaining.
As I went unto Saint Francis, therefore, I prayed by the way. And amongst other prayers, I did ask the Blessed Francis that he would implore God for me, that I might serve well his Order, unto which I had but lately renewed my promises, and that he would obtain for me the grace that I might feel somewhat of Christ, but above all, that He would make me become poor and end my days in poverty. For this cause (namely, to have the liberty of poverty) had I journeyed unto Rome, to pray the Blessed Peter that he would obtain for me the grace of true poverty. And thus, through the merits of the Blessed Peter and the Blessed Francis the gift of true poverty was vouchsafed unto me by divine mercy, even as I was asking for them in prayer as I walked by the way.
Now when I was come to that place which lieth between Spello and the narrow road which leadeth upward unto Assisi, and is beyond Spello, it was said unto me:
“Thou hast prayed unto My servant Francis, and I have not willed to send thee another messenger. I am the Holy Spirit, who am come unto thee to bring thee such consolation as thou hast never before tasted. And I will go with thee even unto Saint Francis; I shall be within thee and but few of those who are with thee will perceive it. I will bear thee company and will speak with thee all the way; I will make no end to my speaking and thou wilt not be able to attend unto any save unto Me, for I have bound thee and will not depart from thee until thou comest for the second time unto Saint Francis. Then will I depart from thee in so far as this present consolation is concerned, but in no other manner will I ever leave thee, and thou shalt love Me.”
Then began He to speak the following words unto me, which did persuade me to love after this manner:
“My daughter who art sweet unto Me, my daughter who art My temple; My beloved daughter, do thou love Me, for I do greatly love thee and much more than thou lovest Me.” And very often did He say unto me: “Bride and daughter, sweet art thou unto Me, I love thee better than any other who is in the valley of Spolero. Forasmuch as I have rested and reposed in thee, do thou also rest thyself and repose in Me. I have been with the apostles, who did behold Me with their bodily eyes, but they did not feel Me as thou feelest Me. When thou shalt be come unto thine house thou shalt feel another sweetness, such as thou hast never yet experienced. I shall not speak unto thee as I now speak, but thou wilt only feel Me. Thou hast prayed unto My servant Francis, hoping with him and through him to obtain the things thou desirest, seeing that as my servant Francis hath greatly loved Me, I have done many things for him. If there were to-day any person who loved Me more, much more would I do for him.”
Then said He unto me that there are few good persons in these days and but little faith, for which cause He did lament, saying, “So great is the love of the soul who loveth Me without sin, that, if there were any one who loved Me perfectly, I would show him greater mercy than I have ever shown hitherto, and Thou knowest that many great things are recorded which I have done unto divers persons in times past.”
None can excuse themselves for not having this love, because it is possible for all persons to love God, and He asketh nothing save that the soul shall love and seek Him. He is the love of the soul. But these are deep sayings.
In the meantime I had remembered all my sins, and on my side I beheld nothing save sins and wrong-doing, so that I did feel greater humility than I had ever felt before. Then did He tell me that I was beloved, that the Son of God and of the Virgin Mary had inclined Himself unto me and was come to speak with me. Wherefore Christ said unto me:―
“If all the world came now unto thee, thou couldst not speak with others; for when I come unto thee, there cometh more than all the world.” But in order to calm my doubts He said: “I am He who was crucified for thee, and for thy sake did I endure hunger and thirst, and so greatly have I loved thee that I did shed My blood for thee,” and He expounded unto me all His Passion and said: “Ask mercy for thyself and for thy companions and for all whom thou wilt, for I am much more ready to give than thou art to receive.”
Then did my soul cry aloud, saying, “I will not ask, for I am not worthy and I remember all my sins!” And it said further, “If Thou who hast spoken with me from the beginning wert truly the Holy Spirit, Thou wouldst not have told me such great things; and if Thou wert verily within me, then my joy would be so great that I could not bear it and live.”
I can never describe the joy and sweetness which I felt, especially when He said, “I am the Holy Spirit who am entering into thee;” but briefly, great was the sweetness which I received at each one of His sayings.
In this manner, therefore, I did arrive at Saint Francis’, as He had foretold. And He departed not from me, but remained with me, even when I sat down to meat, until I went unto Saint Francis’ for the second time.
When I did bend my knees upon entering in at the door of the church, I immediately beheld a picture of Saint Francis lying in Christ’s bosom. Then said Christ unto me:―
“Thus closely will I hold thee, and so much closer that bodily eyes can neither perceive nor comprehend it. But now, My beloved daughter and temple of My delight, the hour is come when I must fill thee with My spirit and must leave thee. I have told thee that because of this consolation I must leave thee; nevertheless, if thou lovest Me, I will not leave thee.”
Albeit the words were bitter, yet were they full of joy. Then looked I, that I might behold with the eyes of both body and mind. And I beheld; and if thou seekest to know what I beheld, truly I can only say that it was a thing full of great majesty; and more than this can I not say, save that it seemed unto me to be full of all goodness. Then He departed with great gentleness; not suddenly, but slowly and gradually. Of the words which He spake unto me, the greatest are these:―
“Oh my daughter, who art sweeter unto Me than I am unto thee, temple of My delight, thou dost possess the ring of My love and art promised unto Me, so that henceforth thou shalt never leave Me. The blessing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be upon thee and thine understanding.”
Then cried my soul, “If only Thou wilt not leave me, I will commit no mortal sin!”
And He answered me, “That say I not unto thee.” Then as He was departing, I did ask a blessing for my companion, and He replied, “Unto her will I give another blessing,” and so He departed. And at His departure He would not that I should prostrate myself before Him, but that I should stand upon my feet. But after that He was gone I fell down upon a seat and began to cry with a loud voice, clamouring and calling without any shame and uttering these words, “Oh Love, heretofore have I never known Thee, why leavest Thou me in this manner?” And more than this I could not Say, for my voice was so suffocated with crying that scarce could I pronounce even this, wherefore was it not heard by the persons around me.
This clamouring and crying did come upon me as I entered into the door of the church of Saint Francis. Here was I overwhelmed again and began to make a noise and call aloud in the presence of all the people, that those who were come with me and did know me did stand afar off and were ashamed, believing that I did it for another reason. So was I left with the certainty that it was God who had spoken with me; and because of His sweetness and the grief of His departure did I cry aloud, desiring to die. And seeing that I did not die, the grief of being separated from Him was so great that all the joints of my limbs did fall asunder.
When I was returned I stayed within the house, and I felt a sweetness so peaceful, quiet, and great that I know not how to describe it. Wherefore did I long for death, and because of the aforesaid peace and sweet joyfulness was life a greater grief unto me than I can say. I longed for death that I might attain unto that delight of the which I now felt something, and because of this did I wish to depart from this world. Life was a greater grief unto me than had been the deaths of my mother and my children, more heavy than any other grief of which I can bethink me.
Thus did I remain eight days within the house, all feeble. And I cried, “Lord, have mercy upon me and grant that I may remain no longer in this world.” From this time forth I was often aware of indescribable odours; but these and other things can I not explain, so great was the sweetness and joy which I did feel in them. The voice spake unto me many other times, but never at any great length, nor with so much sweetness or deep meaning.
Tenth Vision and Consolation
Upon another occasion whilst I was at prayer, exceeding pleasant words were spoken unto me after this manner:
“Oh my daughter, who art far sweeter unto Me than I am unto thee; thou art the temple of My delight, and the heart of the Omnipotent God resteth upon thy heart.”
Together with these words there came upon me a feeling of the utmost joy, such as I had never before experienced, inasmuch as all the members of my body felt it. And as I did prostrate myself at these words, it was further told me:
“The Omnipotent God loveth thee more dearly than any other woman of this city. He rejoiceth in thee and in thy companion. De ye both strive, therefore, that your lives be as a light unto all who desire to follow your example; but unto those who follow you not, shall your lives be as a judgment strict and hard.”
Albeit I had great joy of this matter, yet did I remember my sins and I did esteem that neither now or at any time had there been in me any good which might be pleasing unto God. Wherefore began I to doubt, seeing that great things had been spoken unto me; and I said:
“If Thou who speakest unto me wert truly the Son of Almighty God, my soul would feel a joy higher and greater than this, and I should not be able to bear it, feeling that Thou wert in me, who am so unworthy.”
Then I besought Him that He would give me some tangible sign, something which I could see; such as putting a candle into my hand, or a precious stone, or some other thing, or that He would give me any sign He pleased, promising Him that I would show it unto no person save unto whom He should desire. Then He replied:
“This sign that thou seekest is one that would only give thee great joy when thou didst behold or touch it, but it would not free thee from doubt, and thou mightest be deceived by that sign. Therefore will I give thee another sign, better than the one thou seekest, and which will be for ever with thee, and in thy soul thou shalt always feel it. The sign shall be this: thou shalt be ever fervent in love, and the love and the enlightened knowledge of God shall be ever with thee and in thee. This shall be a certain sign unto thee that I am He, because none save I can do this. And this is a sign which I will leave in thy soul, the which is better for thee than that which thou didst ask of Me. My love do I leave in thee, so that for love of Me thou wilt endure tribulations, and if any person speak or do evil unto thee thou wilt be grateful, declaring thyself unworthy of so much mercy. Such is the love which I bare unto you all, for whose sake I patiently and humbly endured all things. Thus thou shalt know whether or not I am in thee if, when any person shall speak or do evil unto thee, thou art not only patient, but even desirous that they should hurt thee and be grateful unto them. And this is a certain sign of the grace of God. And behold, I do now anoint thee with an ointment wherewith a saint called Siricus and many other saints were anointed.”
Then did I immediately feel that ointment, and so sweet was it that I longed for death, and that I might die with all manner of bodily torments. The torments suffered by the martyrs who had died for Christ did I esteem as naught, and I desired that for love of Him my torments should be more terrible than theirs, and that the world should cry out upon me with insults and revilings.
Moreover, I rejoiced greatly in praying for those who might work me these evils, and I marveled not at the saints who prayed for their murderers and prosecutors; for not only ought we to pray unto God for them, but we should beseech Him to grant them especial grace. Therefore was I ready to pray for those who did me evil, to love them with a great love, and to take compassion upon them. In that anointing I did feel such sweetness both within and without that I never felt the like before, and I have no words wherewith I can show forth the least part of it.
This consolation was different, and of a nature unlike the others. For in the others I had desired immediately to quit this world, but in this my desire was that my death should be grievous and prolonged, with all manner of torments, and that my members should suffer all the tortures of the world. Yet all this seemed but a small thing unto me, for my soul knew well that every torment was but a small thing in comparison with the blessings promised in the life eternal. My soul knew of a certainty that it was thus, and if all the wise men of the world had told me the contrary, I should not have believed them. And if I should swear that all who walked upon the aforesaid way would be saved, I should believe that I spake the truth.
This sign did God leave so firmly implanted in my soul, with so bright and clear a light, that me thinketh I could endure any martyrdom. This sign, moreover, leadeth continually upon the straight way of salvation, that is to say, it leadeth unto love and the desire to suffer for love of God.