Gemma Galgani. An introduction

English translation of ‘Gemma Galgani’

by Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

 


Gemma Galgani. An introduction to her Letters and Ecstasies

[1]


Per speculum in aenigmate.[2]

In reflections and in riddles.

Even a saint lives here on earth, also when in union with God, not in Heaven or sees the Lord and the divine Will in its essence and in complete clarity.

Many do, fortunately, live in a heavenly realm; God has indeed come closer to them, because they have opened up their heart to Him and He loves to, now and then, break through the clouds with his light and to set a heart aglow; but they remain reflections, in which the divine Being reveals Himself; riddles, the solution to which is approached closely, ever more closely, however without being laid out before us in complete clarity.

God is so close to us.

And yet He is often so far.

God lives in us as the Creator and Sustainer of our self-insufficient being. His continuous act of creation, infinite for Him, for us in time, makes Him present within us with his activity, and therefore with his being.

How little do we think - much too little - about that divine element in our existence.

And God, who lives in us, is the same who became Man for us, so that with and through Him the radiance of divinity would once again shine over our being, and the divine within, through conformity with Him, would light up, and the union with Him would once again [IV] more clearly shine out in us. However, even the soaring mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son does not yet fill us with our heavenly vocation, with God’s call for our conformity to God.

God knows.

And in the warmth of his goodness and the light of his wisdom, the divine Son from time to time blows the mists apart or arrays them in a glow of light, so that one can see them woven throughout with the light of the sun, and even the image of the sun is etched out in their glow. The clouds have not yet been rent asunder. Everything does not yet shine in a golden glow, though already the chalices of the flowers raise themselves up towards the warming light; already eyes turn upwards to admire the play of the light in the playing of the clouds. The full sun would even be too strong.

Still in reflections and in riddles, yet so close to the solution, yet covered in light and warmth, yet conscious of God’s nearness, though in the mists, however the illuminating mists of human nature which is uplifted towards God.

This is the image of mystical contemplation.

Many only desire that image in its complete clarity; many tend to recognise mystical activity only where the mist has as good as been completely broken through. All too much they forget that in mysticism, besides the divine element, one always has to deal with an element of humanity, with one’s own mystical personality.

Mystical life may be described as being the union of God with our frail human nature to such an extent that the divine is no longer shrouded behind the human, but radiates outwards in a glorious glow. However, this does not at all mean that in [V] the mystical life the divine reduces and nullifies human nature, that not very much human remains present in the mystical life. It makes us feel the presence of God more strongly; we see the clouds drinking in the brilliant glowing of the sun, however without the mist being completely lifted from before the sunlight, without the sun standing in full clarity in the heavens.

God unites himself with human nature, but human nature also unites itself with God.

In mysticism, discounting the personality of those graced with mystical experiences is the concealment of their most ravishing glory.

One should not stress respect for mysticism to such an extent that one diminishes its human character; just as one should not view it as purely human without an essential revelation of the divine.

If, for rationalistic philosophy, the school of the ‘Aufklärung’, and for the schools which continued to build upon its exalted idea regarding the perfection of human nature or its capacity to be perfected, mysticism is the highest grade of its own human culture, an elevated state of spiritual development, in which the divine is a product, but not a cause, then for them who recognise, above and beyond the spirit, the existence and necessary activity of God in us, mysticism is a state in which the divine cooperation is no longer only recognised through the faculty of reason, accepted through faith, but becomes visible, if only shrouded in mist, and is able to be felt, if only via the always somewhat vague forms of self-perception.

For the divine remains for a large, for a very large part, hidden behind the human, [VI] while after the Incarnation of God the Son, the ideal of conformity to God is less distant from human nature than the ideal of the cessation of so many human faculties that bring God closer to us, which is posited by the all too abstract mystical schools.

In view of this, the delineation between the divine and the human is often difficult to draw.

However, one should not deny the areas that cannot be delineated sharply, because of the difficulty of determining their boundaries.

Even though the sun is not shining completely through the clouds, the sun can still bring us a beautiful day; even considering that it is standing in the still cloudy, though only slightly, heavens. The clouds are as if they have been transfigured. The heavens are full of silver, shot through with golden beams.


---XX---


Such heavens of silver with flashes of gold, are the life, the letters and the ecstasies of someone like Gemma Galgani.

A servant of God. We even trust that one day she will be raised to the altars, though we do not wish to anticipate this beatification or canonisation, which are themselves again something completely different to the recognition of her mystical graces.

It seems to me that this is not the place to widely research as to what extent that which is proclaimed in the servant of God’s ecstasies may be held as being of divine origin.

Her life as well as her writings [3] are being researched by competent people, appointed by the highest ecclesial authorities to do so. As long as this highest [VII] authority has not yet pronounced judgement, we do not wish to see these ecstasies overvalued, but this does not in the least mean that very beautiful pages have not been included in this edition, pages that speak of a love for God in a way that they touch and move and induce our heart to loving-together-with, which here means nothing else than suffering-together-with the Beloved, who died for us on the cross and bore it for us in pain.

Without wanting to see God’s image in every vision, wanting to hear God’s voice in every word spoken in them, God’s love does all the same radiate towards us in them, and does not cease to call our attention to what He suffered for us, desiring piety for it, and to beg comforters for reparation for all the scorn He bears.

In these amorous utterings by a lover of the Cross we can, for a moment, gaze beyond the person herself - the visionary of Lucca - and hear only the echo of the Gospel’s song of suffering. Meditation upon the Suffering of the Lord has found resonance here in words, which not only vividly call to mind the passion scene in Jerusalem, but also call us to reciprocal love, to piety towards that Holy Suffering.

These letters and ecstasies offer good reading in these weakly times, in which so many, in a quietist whim, would rather dream of a mysticism full of sweetness and blissful rest, than contemplating upon the fact that God, who sought union with us, did this via the way of suffering, contempt and death.

True mysticism leads towards Calvary, and, by embracing the cross and first dying, to rest at the bleeding[4] Heart of Jesus.

Without passing judgement on Gemma Galgani,[VIII] we may say that in her voice an echo of the story of the Passion of the Lord, written down under God’s guidance, may be heard. We can never let this resonate sufficiently in our ears, and we may thank God that He let this love-ballad once again be sung for us, in another way, by one of his most beloved brides.

We can, for a moment, be indifferent as to whether her nature, in a more than usual way, reinforced the impression which the contemplation of Jesus’ Suffering made upon her; it is quite certain that she meditated upon it again and again and that this did not fail to leave such an impression upon her, that the image of the Passion dominated her entire life.

It is this that we can learn from Gemma, especially from her letters and ecstasies. God’s voice may not sound as loudly in us as Gemma herself believed to hear it, however Jesus also speaks to us about his Passion and Death and the perusal of what Gemma penned down as the voice of God, which called her to contemplate his Passion, also urges us to give more attention to this elevated proof of God’s love for us and may induce us to piety for that Holy Passion.

It is not without great, without very great significance, that God, by numerous means, if not in miraculous, then indeed in very special ways, is now calling attention to his Passion and Crucifixion, and revivifying piety for this Holy Suffering.

The Order of the Passionists[5], who endeavour to spread this piety in a very special way, has been entrusted with a special mission in these times. The canonisation of someone like St. Paul of the Cross, its glorious founder - although in [IX] these times perhaps even more so, the beatification and canonisation of Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows - have given the Order and the piety, which it preaches, a new lustre and appeal.

Now there appears before our eyes the fragile image of the visionary and sufferer of Lucca, so that new admirers and, especially, devotees be awakened regarding this piety.

However much she initially desired to do so, she herself did not enter into the Order of Holy Suffering. But although she does not belong to the Body of the Order, she belongs to its soul and therefore teaches in the most eloquent manner that one can, although not called to the Order of the Passionists, take part in its unceasing contemplation on the Passion of the Lord as a guideline in life, and can imitate and nourish her piety to the Passion, following the example of people like Saint Paul of the Cross and Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows.

It is a special characteristic of Netherlandish mysticism that, due to its sense for reality, it has always given special attention to the Imitation of Christ; that it does not ignore the Humanity of Christ in the contemplation of God; and yes, that it indeed attaches a more than average value to the contemplation of the Holy Passion. This sense for reality has already made many in the Netherlands pay attention to the life as well as to the writings of Gemma Galgani, even though here and there they contain something that some find unreal. The most profound fundament of these letters and ecstasies is so firm and so fixed that we feel we are on the right path if we follow the poor virgin in her sighs for Suffering and Cross; if we try to acquire her piety for the actual co-suffering with [X] Jesus; if we try to place our footsteps, in her company, along the Way of the Cross in order to follow Jesus - also whither the world follows Him with such difficulty; but someone with the reliability and seriousness of the Dutch understands he must follow Jesus if he desires to one day enter into the glory of Heaven together with Jesus.

This introduction does not call every word of Gemma’s visions divine; the virgin set aflame by love will have put much of what went on inside her into her own words; it goes without doubt that every mystical soul does this in her own manner, but this is why her story is so human and striking. It is as if she continuously wrestles with the Lord for the most correct image of his Suffering. He helps her and informs her, but her imagination is not left unused in the process. May her imagination and impression assist our own imagination in making a vivid image of the Passion of the Lord into the guideline of our life. We are all simply people of flesh and blood with sensory knowledge at the basis of our intellectual considerations; the Holy Gospel only describes in short words what Jesus suffered. May we expand upon this in our imagination; may we feel in our body, and feel with what the God-Man wanted to suffer for us. We may then perhaps not deserve that this feeling is, as it were, confirmed and continued by wounds in our body, visible or invisible; but then we shall nevertheless, to the extent of God’s goodness, take up the image of the suffering Jesus into our body, to then express it in our deeds. In the end, compared to that interior image, the exterior image of wounds and welts is something second grade; of value only as a confirmation and deepening of the in- [XI] terior image, but all the same subordinated to it. Let us not stare blindly at the letter, but let us penetrate into the spirit of these ecstasies and learn from them what authentic love for God asked of this simple virgin from Lucca as exterior proof of that love, and what also our love – for we too love God – desires of us: participation in Jesus’ Suffering.

TITUS BRANDSMA, O. Carm.

NIJMEGEN, Portiuncula-day 1927[6]



  1. Translation of Titus Brandsma's article 'Gemma Galgani. Ter inleiding bij haar Brieven en Extasen', published in: Brieven en extasen der dienaresse Gods Gemma Galgani. Een boek van liefde en lijden in ’t Nederlandsch bewerkt door P. Bonifacius C.P. W. van Eupen, Eindhoven 1927, III-XI.
  2. See: 1 Cor 13:12.
  3. [TB] As far as the writings are concerned, see pg. XIX.
  4. The original Dutch reads ‘uitgebloede Hart’, which literally means ‘bled out Heart’.
  5. ‘Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ’ (Congregatio Passionis Iesu Christi).
  6. August 2nd.

Translation: Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020