English translation of fragments of
by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos
with gratitude to a previous translation by Joachim Smet o.carm (†)
Saint Lidwina of Schiedam (fragment)
The featherbed was replaced by a straw mattress, which was tolerated only a few years, after which Lidwina took her rest on bare boards. These reminded her most of the wood of the Lord’s cross. Each day, eating became more difficult; already in the first years of her illness she could no longer eat solid food and very soon after no other liquids than water; finally, she could no longer manage even a few drops of water. The only thing she could still swallow was the sacred host and so, for nineteen years, Jesus’ holy body became her only food.
This beneficent effect of the spiritual food of the Lord’s Holy Body on the condition of the human body into which it is received, is by no means unique in the history of the Saints of the Church. The canonical hours for the feast of Saint Catherine of Sienna on April 30 relate how this heavenly banquet sustained her temporal life. And Saint Teresa, in her beautiful works, expatiates at length on how the living God, who comes to dwell in us in so special a manner in the Holy Communion, often in the profusion of his love bestows new life on the body, and that in multiple instances on receiving the Holy Communion she is instantly freed of her ills. This was also the case with Saint Lidwina. She was one of those persons, loved by the Lord, whom He wished to keep alive at first hand by uniting himself so intimately with her that the body experienced the beneficial influence of the strengthening of the soul. How intimate that union must have been!
We too sometimes forget that, when caught up by something delicious, in the enjoyment which we spiritually taste– the food and drink– we feel, for a short time, no bodily needs. However, the pleasure must be very great indeed if it is not quickly disturbed by our need for food. After a short time, the body again claims its rights and makes itself felt. For Lidwina, all needs were satisfied by Holy Communion in such a way that she not only gave no thought to eating and drinking but was not even able to partake of them. In speaking of her, Thomas à Kempis says that the Lord’s body was her medicine and her comfort, the food that gave her strength, the rest that refreshed her.
Her great sorrow was that the clergy of the city did not understand her desire for the sacred body of the Lord and, in the opinion that her devotion was exaggerated, were seemingly not inclined to often bring her Holy Communion. Sometimes she had to go to great pains to be able to receive Holy Communion. At the start of her illness, although she really could no longer walk, she dragged herself to church. With a crutch or kneeler, she managed to get to church at Easter to fulfil at least her Easter duty. Later, there was no question of her being able to do this. She was permanently confined to her bed of suffering. Thereafter, the priest brought the body of Christ a second time and then every two months and on principal feast days. Reverend Andries, who apparently became pastor of Schiedam in 1407, was particularly hard on Lidwina in this matter. She was then twenty-seven years old and had been ill for eight years. Already the condition had developed in such a way that she could only nourish herself with the sacred host and thus needed this spiritual food more than ever. At first, Master Andries showed himself to be very unsympathetic towards the mystical invalid. He openly declared that he did not believe in it. He also told Lidwina that he had little faith in those strange things, that he did not trust her, because in any case it was impossible to remain alive without eating and drinking. He did not stop at this. He even went as far as putting Lidwina to a test which was very painful for her. It was on the feast of the Nativity of Mary, one of the feast days when Lidwina was allowed to receive communion at home. When Lidwina asked for this, he immediately agreed to hear her confession and bring Holy Communion. In order to test her, he brought her an unconsecrated host. He thought that Lidwina, thinking she was receiving Holy Communion, would swallow and digest the host as a consecrated one, but it was impossible for her to do this. At the same moment, Lidwina saw through the ruse of the priest. She spat out the host, or rather was compelled to spit it out; the smallest amount of nourishment which she received caused her to vomit. The pastor wanted to keep up the appearance that he had given her Holy Communion. He feigned indignance because Lidwina spat out the sacred host so irreverently. But Lidwina said to him, “Sir, do you think I haven’t any sense and do not know the difference between the body of the Lord and unconsecrated bread? I can digest the body of the Lord, but I cannot eat ordinary bread without having to vomit it out immediately.” The pastor still did not admit defeat. He stood up angrily and did not give her one of the sacred consecrated hosts which he had with him. Neither would he continue to bring her Holy Communion and even did not want other priests, who distributed “the Lord”, to stop off in the cottage of Lidwina.
That was a sorry trial for Lidwina. Not only was it hard that the pastor of the parish took such an attitude towards her and did not want to hear anything about the grace of which she nevertheless was so intimately conscious, but it was even harder for her that she was being deprived of what, above all else, had become her consolation: partaking of the Lord’s sacred body.
It might have taken particular forms in Lidwina’s life, but we encounter similar events in the lives of all mystics. At certain times, it is as though everything conspires to place the greatest obstacles to union with Christ. How easy it would have been for someone who was not schooled in suffering to break out in bitter lamentations, to rebel against that servant of the Church, to have reported him; in a word, to consider that one had every cause to speak of violated rights and to demand administration of the sacraments by a priest.
In physical suffering, Lidwina showed patience, heroic patience in unutterable pain, but to remain patient under the lack of comprehension by the priest, the denial of Holy Communion, the suspicion that what was taking place in her came from the devil, was something much greater and holier. She would not have become the leader and teacher in the school of patience, if she had not in this case also shown the most wonderful examples of patience.
We see this again in so many other lives of the saints. I shall only recall here St. Stanislaus Kostka who, when he was denied access to the table of the Lord in the house of a Protestant brother in Vienna, was privileged to receive Holy Viaticum from the hands of angels. Our Lord did not wish to be kept away from Lidwina. If the priest refused to carry Him to the invalid, then our Lord would find his own way to come to her. Brugman tells us that Lidwina was deprived of Holy Communion in this way for three months. It was a long time, but for Lidwina, who was nevertheless able to communicate spiritually and received great graces because of her receptivity, it was a time for the heroic practice of virtue, the best preparation for receiving ever greater blessings. During those three months of patience, she was interiorly made strong by God, strong enough to overcome yet more difficulties.
That is how it is in the spiritual life. There is no virtue, says the great St. Teresa, no virtue, except that which is tested by struggle. Now that Lidwina has been tried in this way, now we show respect for her spiritual life that has withstood even the heaviest trials. Now we see her grow in virtue and prepared for new gifts. What humans denied her, God himself would give her. He sent his angel to complete his work. An angel appeared at Lidwina’s bedside and announced her first known vision of the passion. She would not see Christ in the form of the sacrament; He himself would come to her in his own way.
In compensation for what she had been made to suffer by the pastor, an angel appeared to Lidwina on the Feast of Our Lady’s Expectation, which falls on December 18, to gladden her with the news that she would be allowed to see the Redeemer crucified and dead. This sight was meant to help her through all manner of suffering. Instead of feeling unfortunate, she would then long for even more suffering and vilification. At the same moment, she saw a processional cross at the foot of her bed. The Savior was affixed to this cross in the form of a child. She saw it only briefly, but it filled her with joy and gratitude. When after a while the cross lifted itself up and, gradually rising, seemed about to disappear from sight, she cried out, as St. Peter once did on the sea of Gennesaret, to be given a sign that she had not been misled by her senses: “Lord, if it is truly you, leave me a sign.“ Thereupon, the Child attached to the cross again descended but took the form of a sacred host. On this host, which was a bit larger than the ones usually given to lay persons but smaller than the one consecrated during Mass, the five wounds were discernible. From the wound in the side, blood had flowed, congealed. A few witnesses saw the sacred host just as Lidwina had. At the request of Lidwina her brother notified the pastor. Although the latter had already gone to bed (it was about nine o’clock in the evening) he got up and went to see the patient. Although he also plainly saw the host, he refused to believe in heavenly intervention and also called this the work of the devil. Nevertheless, he succumbed to Lidwina’s insistence and gave it to her to consume. Quite remarkably, this time she did not need to vomit. The pastor was still not convinced, and the following morning brought the blessed sacrament to Lidwina’s house, not only to give her Holy Communion but, at the same time, as he openly declared, to safeguard her against the deceit of the devil, of which she was a victim. He entreated the gathered crowd to pray with him for Lidwina to be rid of her deceit.
People sometimes think and write that in the Middle Ages priests and religious immediately gave credence to all sorts of miracles. The attitude of Master Andries shows us that this was not so in Lidwina’s case, and that she had to undergo severe testing. But the attitude of Pastor Andries also appeared to be very unreasonable and unfair to the people of Schiedam. They were highly offended by him and openly expressed their disapproval. The discontent ran so high that the matter was brought before the higher ecclesiastical authorities. In this way, the incident was submitted to a thorough investigation. The auxiliary bishop, Matthias of Utrecht, carried out the investigation on behalf of Bishop Frederick of Blankenheim. Father Brugman sums up the results of this investigation in the words: “The bishop praised God for the unutterable love he had shown for Lidwina by this miracle and decreed that the sheet, which the host had hovered above, should thenceforth be used only in service of the altar. After this investigation and declaration by the bishop, the pastor finally changed his attitude. Thereafter, he brought Lidwina Holy Communion every two weeks. He did this until his death in 1413. His successor also regularly brought her Holy Communion.
With this, Lidwina’s severest suffering came to an end.
Although her physical suffering increased rather than grew less, she now received her regular consolation, and with all her pains and afflictions came the anticipation of very soon being able to receive Our Lord, which for her was reason for resignation and patience, a blissful thought that repelled all sensation of pain.
She is pre-eminently the Saint of the Eucharist and, especially in our times of frequent Holy Communion, an example. She lived in a time in which, in particular for someone living in the world, there was no question of daily Holy Communion. It was already a special privilege for her to receive Holy Communion every two weeks. And what strength she drew from it. It was not only her only food, but its strength revealed itself – more emphatically than in her body, which it miraculously kept alive – in the inexhaustible patience that she showed in drawing on the power of this sacred food. There lies the secret of Lidwina’s patience. We are used to seeing her as the patient sufferer and, in her case, highlighting this virtue. We might ask ourselves whether we should not give more thought to the foundation on which she built up that patience, her life drawn from Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, of which she is such a wonderful example. We look up to her as a model of patience in suffering, we are driven to follow her in this respect, even though only from afar. Following her example, we will attain this only by uniting ourselves most intimately with God, our strength, descended in us in Holy Communion.
Translation: Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos, with gratitude to a previous translation by Joachim Smet o.carm (†).
© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019