Category: Catholicism

#24 Possessed Nuns and Holy Demoniacs

#24 Possessed Nuns and Holy Demoniacs

This episode finds the Devil where you’d least expect him: stories of possessed nuns and demonic attacks on the rigorously devout.. It’s a bit of a follow-up to our last episode on Ghastly Saint Stories.

We open with a clip from the 1999 film Stigmata, in which we hear it asserted that those marked by God with the stigmata are also more likely than others to be subject to attacks by Satan.  Not a great film, but these types of characters straddling the line between the holy and damned, are our subject of our episode.

Our first case is that of 19th-century South Tyrolean stigmatic Maria Theresia von Mörl. Her reputation for holiness drew tens of thousands of devout visitors, but this holy figure was also beset by by beastly manifestations, which Wilkinson details for us.

Stigmatic Maria von Mörl, subject to demonic attacks.
Stigmatic Maria von Mörl, subject to demonic attacks.

A more famous 16th-century personage bearing diabolical stigmata would be Magdalena de la Cruz, abbess of the Franciscan Convent of Santa Isabel de los Angeles outside Cordoba, Spain. We hear of her childhood, characterized by saintly (and gruesome) emulation of the Savior, her alleged miracles, and her early years as abbess, during which she instituted a particularly harsh program of mortification.  She seems to have gone a bit far with a particularly presumptious miracle that lost her followers, eventually admitting to bit of a demonic involvement.

Magdalena de la Cruz.

We’re getting to the famous possessed nuns of Loudun, France, but first I provide a little background on earlier demonic outbreaks in convents of 17th-century France, which seem to have set the pattern fr Loudun. Along the way, some documents recording curiously animalistic behavior of possessed nuns are briefly explored.

Our Loudun segment opens with a clip from a trailer for Ken Russel’s controversial 1971 film The Devils, which we learn was based on a 1960 play based on a 1952 nonfiction book on the subject by Aldous Huxley.  We also hear a snippet from the lovely 1961 Polish film by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Mother Joan of the Angels, which loosely adapts the Loudun story, picking up where Russel and Huxley’s narrative ends.  Another Pole who interpreted the story was Christoph Penderecki, who in 1961 wrote the opera The Devils of Loudun.  We hear a bit of Penderecki’s music under our account of the Loudun phenomena.

Still from Russel's "The Devils"
Still from Russel’s “The Devils”

The Loudun story primarily revolves around two characters: Jeanne des Anges, Mother Superior of the convent, who becomes obsessed with Father Grandier, a parish priest with a reputation for sexual indiscretions. Des Anges, interprets erotic dreams about the priest as diabolic visitations, a fear that quickly infests the entire convent.  Wilkinson reads for us an account of the extraordinary symptoms exhibited by the nuns who believed they’d been possessed. The story does not end well for Grandier, though des Anges, as we learn, goes on reporting more fantastic details of her struggle against Satan, eventually producing a strange but much coveted holy relic.

After our Loudun segment, you’ll hear a clip from the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and a bit later, the German film Requiem. Both are based (the former more freely) on the case of Anneliese Michel, a young Bavarian woman, who died in 1976 shortly after a series of exorcisms. We hear a bit about her psychiatric issues, which proved untreatable by conventional means, and the process of minor and later full rites of exorcism the family turned to. I’ve included Michel’s story alongside possessed nuns as Michel’s followed a similarly rigorous spiritual discipline, one which oddly became more aggressive in tandem with the growth of her “demonic” destructive and self-destructive behavior. We learn of Michel’s belief that her suffering under demonic forces served a redemptive role as penance for others and of a small, but devoted following she has drawn among Catholics who believe she was chosen by God as a “victim soul,” a concept we discussed in the last show.  We also hear a snippet of disturbing tape recordings made during the exorcism.  The show ends with a news story about the house in which these events took place and the strange rumors it engendered.

Anneliese Michel
Anneliese Michel

 

#23 Ghastly Saint Stories

#23 Ghastly Saint Stories

Our collection of ghastly stories of saints highlights notions of extreme self-mortification as a spiritual practice along with a preoccupation with the saintly body  after death.

While these aspects of Catholicism are anathema to secular outsiders and jarring to many contemporary adherents, they’ve been embraced by the Gothic.  We begin with an illustrative clip from John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s  Southern Gothic classic Wise Blood.

The case of 15th-century Florentine Maria Magdalena de’Pazzi provides an example in terms of extreme mortification from an early age. Wilkinson reads some passages noting her ingenious use of found materials in her program of suffering.  Along the way, we note some more traditional tools of self-punishment like the cilice, or hair-shirt and its varieties.

Submission to the natural process can also be a form of mortification when it comes to the carnivorous habits of insects.  We hear some stories in this regard from the hagiographies of Ita of Killedy, St. Macarius of Alexandria, as well as Rita of Cascia.

St. Rita of Cascia 18th-century, artist unknown.
St. Rita of Cascia 18th-century, artist unknown.

The story of Belgium’s holy woman Christina the Astonishing includes not only fantastical tales of self-destructiveness, but also her resurrection from death at the age of 21.  Some listeners will be familiar with Christina from the song of that name by Nick Cave, from which we hear a clip.  Christina’s ability to smell “the scent of human corruption,” we also learn, was shared by saints Joseph of Cupertino, Saint John of the Cross, and Gemma Galgani, to name a few.

Christina the Astonishing appearing in the 1630 Fasti Mariani calendar of saints
Christina the Astonishing appearing in the 1630 Fasti Mariani calendar of saints

There is a complimentary concept to the smell of sin, namely the ” Odor of Sanctity” often said to waft from the body of a saint.  In saint stories, this seems to be most often mentioned in contexts least likely to be associated with pleasant smells, that is, sickness, death, and long after death when the body should be at its most foul.  We hear a particularly odd story in this regard from the hagiography of 14th-century Dutch Saint Lidwina.

Next up is the topic of saintly incorruptibility, or the unnatural preservation of a body after death.  We learn a bit about what standards are here applied when it comes to cannonization and hear a few outstanding cases.

The capacity to occasionally move after death is also attributed to number of these mummified saints. We hear some rather unsettling stories illustrating this — St. Rita of Cascia and Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi again, as well as the blessed Pietro of Gubbio, and an earthquake story involving the animated corpse of St. Eustochia of Messina, Italy.

The remainder of the show looks at stigmatics, those said to bear marks similar to the five “Holy Wounds” received by Christ in his Passion.  We hear a creepy, old recording telling the tale of “Little Rose” Ferron, a 20th-century stigmatic from Rhode Island as well as some graphic first-hand accounts of visits with stigmatics Therese Neumann (Bavaria) and Maria Domenica Lazzari (South Tyrol). Some remarkable watercolors of Lazzari here.

We end or collection of ghastly saint stories with some particularly ghastly stories of holy people ingesting unholy things for the sake of holiness (St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Veronica Giuliani) as well as St. Catherine of Siena, who also provides a final anecdote as a sort of palette -cleanser.

Head of St. Catherine of Siena
Head of St. Catherine of Siena