« Always and everywhere we carry in our body the sufferings and death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may be manifest in our body. » (2 Cor. 4, 10).
This is true of every baptised person, but even more so of those who have received the remarkable privilege of the “stigmata”, as Madame Acarie did, about the year 1593. This grace of identification with the Suffering Christ is bestowed on them so that they may “complete in their own bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his Body which is the Church.” (1 Col., 24).
Identification with Christ’s Passion
in the life of Madame Acarie,
the first recognised French stigmatic
by Frère Ephrem Yon, Prior of La Croix sur Ourcq.
I have some connection with Madame Acarie.
It happens that I live in a priory in the department of Aisne and two kilometres from where I live there was, before the French Revolution, an abbey of Benedictine nuns, the Abbey of Charmes. Madame Acarie stayed there many times and helped and encouraged the Mother Abbess to undertake a reform of her monastery. This reform took effect thanks to Madame Acarie’s intervention. We ourselves follow the Rule of St. Benedict. I therefore ask Madame Acarie, who was my neighbour from time to time if she would kindly help me to bring the task I have begun to a successful conclusion. Since I am familiar with her charism as a foundress, I am sure that her help will be effective.
About 1583, well before she entered religious life, Madame Acarie received the Lord’s stigmata, in an invisible manner. This is incontestably affirmed by numerous testimonies which are perfectly in agreement with each other. On fast days, Fridays, Saturdays and the days of Lent, she experienced intense pain in her feet, her hands, her side and her head and she was overwhelmed by a deep and ecstatic communion with the Person of Jesus, which left her as it were absorbed in God, for several hours at a stretch. She confided in Père Coton, the Jesuit, and Cardinal de Berulle about this matter. The pains were of a spiritual nature; they ceased in the same way that they began, and once they ceased, she felt nothing more.
One day in 1615, at Amiens Carmel, when her Prioress, Mother Isabel of Jesus saw that she was in great pain and hoped to give her some relief, Sister Mary of the Incarnation declared that she did not seek to be delivered from these pains but that she desired that her suffering should be increased. She said the same on several occasions. People who are not well-informed about these matters, especially in an age like our own which is “anti-suffering”, will protest that this is a morbid attitude. Only those who have been completely captivated by the love of the Lord are capable of understanding. They know that by participating in His sufferings, they are in communion with the very life of the Beloved and with His desire for the world. Their fervent desire is to be one with their Spouse.
Suffering of this kind is, of course, not deliberately sought. It is a gift. United with Christ, the soul does not experience this suffering as an obstacle to the fullness of life but as a springboard, allowing more complete conformity to the Person of Jesus and His desire for the salvation of the world: it experiences suffering as a union with the very life of Christ.
The Mother Prioress wished to give Sister Mary of the Incarnation some relief because it distressed her to see her suffering. Perhaps she had not fully realised how suffering of this kind ought to be undergone without any reserve, because it is a gift from the Lord. One cannot treat a gift of Almighty God with disdain, or seek to avoid it. Nevertheless, the Mother Prioress ordered Sister Mary of the Incarnation under obedience to behave in such a way that the suffering would disappear. It did so, immediately, so it is said. She fell asleep straight away and slept soundly.
This proves the great value of obedience. God Himself complied to the extent that the Sister herself had also been completely willing to obey. It is a proof that her sufferings really were of a spiritual nature; they were a gift of the Holy Spirit, firstly to Madame Acarie then to Sister Mary of the Incarnation after she had become totally united in a mystical way with the Person of Jesus.
In “La femme pauvre” (p 284) Leon Bloy writes: “We have learned from St. Paul that there is always something lacking in the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and that this ’something’ must be made good in the living members of His Body”.
According to the theology of St. Paul, we are the living members of the Body of Christ, so we are called to relive in our own bodies that which is destined for the whole body of the human race which is the body of Christ. This solidarity of membership is rightly called the Mystical Body of Christ. We are called to be a part of the Mystical Body of Christ through identification with His Passion and with the Spirit of His risen life. And this identification, in virtue of everyone’s solidarity in the body of the human race in Jesus, is diffused throughout humanity. Those who experience this participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus in a conscious and mystical way do much to lead humanity to “become the perfect Man (with a capital ’M’), fully mature, with the fullness of Christ Himself”. (Eph. 4 v 13). They lead the body of the human race to become fully the body of Christ, at the same time experiencing in their own bodies the sufferings of Jesus Christ Himself.
As St. Paul says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (Ch. 4 v 10) : “Always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may always be seen in our body”.
We understand what stigmatus are; it is in order that the life of Jesus may be seen in the body that the sufferings of the Passion are bestowed. It is clear that sufferings which inspire fear and are signs of death cannot be compared with the suffering of the wounds of Jesus, which are life-giving and intended to give the life of the Spirit, first of all to the soul and body of the stigmatic and then to those who will receive their spiritual effects as they are diffused throughout the Mystical Body of Christ, that is, the whole body of the human race. It is a question of a charism which, like every charism, serves for the building up of the whole body of Christ in the world.
The way that this mystical union with Jesus Christ is realised in the body of an individual is very instructive.
St. Teresa if Avila, like all the great mystics, puts us on our guard against spiritual illusions. For the person who wants to grow spiritually, it is moreover an area demanding constant vigilance.
The bet way of avoiding illusions is, according to her, to maintain ones devotion to the bodily humanity of Jesus.
In identifying in one’s own body with the corporal Passion of Christ, one can be certain that the experience is genuine and not imaginary because the whole person is involved including the body, through which one is rooted in reality. St Teresa was wary of those counterfeit spiritual experiences which part company with reality; she insists time and again on the necessity of never abandoning the humanity of Christ; it is here that we find humility and avoid those wanderings of the imagination which nourish our pride.
Commenting on St. Teresa, a Jesuit psychoanalyst, Denis Vasse, writes (“L’autre du desir et le Dieu de La foi: lire aujourd’hui Thérèse d’Avila”, p 32) : “This human encounter with the flesh of Jesus makes us real, leaving behind the pretentious projection of our own personality. It allows us to dwell within the unknown Body of the Word, a body whose life is to will …"
Because in the body, and to an even greater extent in a body which has received the stigmata, we cannot control what happens to us; we are asked to welcome and accept an experience which is beyond us, which comes from God (the Other) and over which we have no hold. The danger lying in wait for the human spirit is that of wanting to manufacture one’s own images and of thinking that they come from God. In a body which has the marks of the Passion, such a risk is avoided; the soul is grounded in humility, because the body is brought low through the individual’s consent, out of love for the Lord of course, not out of a kind of stoic resignation, or what is worse, a hysterical attempt to imitate an external model.
Denis VASSE continues : “There is only one place in the world where this has meaning: the human body. In the body, Likeness is opened up to the dimensions of the Other, and to the encounter with the One through whose desire the history of the world is written.”
In Chapter 12 of her autobiography, Teresa is continually putting us on our guard against grandiose ideas and “forcing” anything in the spiritual life. The practise of giving oneself “in imagination” through flights of fancy, something which has not been granted to one in reality through self-abasement, conceals within its disordered effects a lack of humility and discernment. The desire to force our approach to God masks a refusal of His humble approach to the beloved individual, who is stripped of his or her selfhood, forced to surrender totally to the touch of grace and to recognise that nothing comes from the self and everything is from Him. The individual is completely taken over, as Denis Vasse says, by the desire to encounter God and to be set interiorly ablaze in mystic union.
Madame Acarie was at pains to conceal all this. She got herself a medicated plaster which she applied sometimes to one foot, sometimes to the other, alternating it so that no-one would suspect anything extraordinary.
She made this known to her confessor, Père Coton, who was sworn to secrecy. She asked him not to make it known under any circumstances until after her death. In a letter to Cardinal de Berulle, dated 1615.
Blessed Mary described what she had experienced during one of her encounters with the Lord. She was then, as was said earlier, a religious in the Carmel of Amiens. It was during the week preceding her profession. This particularly intense encounter with the Lord was a preparation for her act of oblation.
“On Holy Saturday, I reproached myself because during the preceding days I had had so little consciousness of the pains and torments which Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for my sins and for the sins of all mankind. My ingratitude and want of feeling caused me great sorrow. Some time later, as I happened to glance (with my bodily eyes) at a crucifix, my heart was touched so suddenly and vividly that I could no longer see it exteriorly but only interiorly. I was astonished to see the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity placed in this position for my sins and for the sins of mankind. It would be quite impossible for me to explain what I felt interiorly, and to describe the excellence and dignity of that Second Person. The sight of this was so clear and had such an effect on me that I could not admit, let alone understand, how, with so many other ways of redeeming the world at His disposal; He had willed to demean something that was so worthy and so precious; then at length it pleased this same Lord to relieve my anguish (and I believe that if it had continued, I would have been unable to bear it), instructing me so specifically and effectively, and above all with so much clarity, that I could in no way doubt that it was He who bestowed light on my darkness and taught me, as a good father would teach his child, or a good master his disciple what I felt interiorly cannot be described, and even less put into words. I recall that my soul was in wonder at His wisdom, His goodness, and above all, the excess of His love for mankind. Joy and suffering combined to produce divers effects and to bring a wealth of considerations to mind. What words I spoke to the Lord, who was so vividly present! Were my needs, my hopes and desires forgotten? What acts of thanksgiving I made, involving the whole of Heaven and especially the Most Holy Trinity? Oh, how I begged that what He had done for my salvation and for the salvation of all mankind should be effective! The pains in my hands and my feetMarie de l’Incarnation, par humilité, parle d’elle-même à la troisième personne du singulier ; elle emploie également le nous et le je., of which I had complained for so many years, became sweet and agreeable to me, although still painful; I thanked my Saviour for this. I was now without fear and no longer in darkness. In a word, I cannot say how I felt; this lasted for the space of Morning Prayer, at least four or five hours. Since that time, I have had greater assistance and ease in mental prayer than before; I find in it nourishment which is solid, fruitful and full of sweetness, especially after Holy Communion, when I am so conscious of its effects that faith is no longer necessary to believe that this Reality is in my soul, where all the other senses are collected to adore It. I would give the lie to everything else in order to uphold this truth, which produces such effects in my soul that it feels that it is completely consumed, and is often unable to bear the effects of this presence. There is such a peace and serenity in my soul that I cannot describe what I feel. There are so many things taking place within me, that I am unable to write about; and I have great need of assistance with regard to them. If God had allowed you to make the journey you had planned, it would have been a great relief to my soul. If your holy occupations would allow you a few days’ absence, I humbly beg You to take them submitting in everything to what the Lord will ordain. Since I have been in this place, I have been much afflicted by this interior pain, to such an extent that I cannot understand how I remain alive; I have been better recently and can sleep at night. The interior fire which I experience, which I thought would diminish with age, is increasing to such an extent that sometimes I almost die of it; I have great need of advice in this matter, to explain what it is that is increasing. I do not think this advice can be given in a letter. As for the pains in my hands and my feet, I am very afraid because of what they lead me to suspect, remembering what Reverend Father Benet, the Capuchin, told me about them seventeen or eighteen years agoLe père Benoît de Canfeld, capucin, rencontra madame Acarie en 1592 et lui certifia « tout ce qui se passe en vous est effet de la grâce ». Assurément, tout ce que vécut madame Acarie fut effet de la grâce.“.
In fact, Sister Mary of the Incarnation seemed close to death when this encounter with the Lord took place.
What is remarkable in this letter is its tone of humility. She is afraid of being mistaken and of going astray. She is conscious of her wretchedness.
She does not experience suffering pure and simple, turned in on herself, but suffering which unites her with the suffering of the Lord for the sins of the world and for her own sins. She shares in the Lord’s desire to bring salvation; His will to save sinners and His self-offering to the Father for this purpose.
She is filled with an indescribable peace and sweetness, all her faculties being gathered up in Love and adoration. She is the recipient of an interior fire which continues to increase to the point when she feels that she is dying; this is none other than the fire of the Holy Spirit consuming the heart as it is offered up to the Holy Trinity.
We know, in addition, that she hesitated to make her final profession, feeling that she was unworthy of such a great honour and of the necessity for purity, which it entailed. “A religious should have within her a spirit which is humble, self-effacing, submissive to everyone, not standing on its rights, not putting itself forward, and obedient to everyone. Seeing myself so far from this condition, I cannot make up my mind to be finally professed.”
During this illness, shortly after Easter, she made her final profession.
The transforming experience which she had undergone made her appear transfigured, to all who saw her. “After her profession something was apparent in her which was quite extraordinary. One could see a certain innocent grace and beauty shining in her face, so that we never wearied of looking at her … The astonishing thing was to see her childlike innocence allied to such God-given prudence and wisdom ;” Valence de Marillac testified at the Informative Process.
Inflamed and animated with ardent fervour, she would say again and again, “Trop est avare à qui Dieu ne suffit”.
Her life was one of humility and flexibility. "When she saw that our hearts were too set on anything, even if it was for our own spiritual advancement, she would say to us, “Trop est avare à qui Dieu ne suffit; let us be quietly content; one step at a time; we must be humble with regard to our desires”, added Valence de Maarillac.
I must stress this point, to show that the stigmata, accompanied by an overflow of intense spiritual joy, did not issue from a desire for the extraordinary, or for her own advantage. She had a discernment of the things of God which prevented her from doing anything whatsoever to anticipate the workings of grace or giving preference to any personal desire. She was insistent that no self-will should be allowed to interfere with the work which God was doing in her.
“There is no greater proof of Love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. In the stignmatics, God proves that He loves in a privileged way those who give themselves to Him without reserve. As Père André Duval said during the Apostolic Process of 1630, the stigmata were “the marks of tenderness by which, in payment for acts of Love, God showed that He in His turn loved His servant”. The stigmata of the Passion are a sign in human flesh that God acknowledges the self-offering of His servant, making her a participant in that which is closest to His heart, the salvation of the world through the Cross. But it would be impossible to understand anything about these sufferings if one did not comprehend that they are suffused with all the effects of grace: superabundant joy, compassionate tenderness, integration of one’s whole being in peace and the gift of oneself, an ecstasy of Love in the Fire of the Holy Spirit. These effects of grace are signs of the undoubted authenticity of Sister Mary of the Incarnation’s stigmata.
It is clearly important to verify that this phenomenon of the stigmata is authentic.
The criteria of verification are those which concern the spiritual character of the stigmatic.
I have deliberately emphasised the foremost of these, which is humility.
Everything which is spiritually false allows us glimpses of the roots of pride. I have personally had dealings with someone who claimed to receive prophecies from the Lord. The prophecies were fine, but the person concerned reacted with extreme pride, refusing an apology because it had been given without sufficient respect. I immediately broke off relations with the person. The pseudo-prophecies were a set-up. The criterion is absolute.
Second criterion : charity. This is “permanent and incontestable feature of the life of Madame Acarie. Hers was an active, overflowing charity, as Monsieur Picard said. It was attentive and tactful as attested by her Sisters in Carmel amongst others. She practised upright conduct and truthfulness. “The best way to succeed in anything is to be upright. Upright conduct alone does good and leads to peace.”
Third criterion : The charisms of the Holy Spirit
If the stigmata were not accompanied by any charism, one would assuredly be dealing with a counterfeit, because union with the Lord allows one, according to St. John, to do what the Lord has done. “You will do the same works that I do, and even greater works, because I am going to the Father.” She had the gift of healing, proved by, amongst other cases, the instantaneous cure of an abnormally swollen shoulder as a result of Sister Mary of the Incarnation’s prayers when she was a novice at Amiens (Deposition of Henry of Orleans, Duc de Longueville)
She had the gift of prophecy, of predicting certain events in the future, of reading hearts and of discerning spirits.
This abundance of gifts demonstrates that Sister Mary of the Incarnation was completely under the influence of the Spirit of God.
A witness was able to say :
“I have never known her guilty of any imperfection. I thought, seeing how holy and perfect she was, that if all the monasteries were filled with Sisters of a similar kind, there would be hardly any difference between Heaven and earth”. (Quoted by Bruno of Jesus and Mary in “La belle Acarie”, p 613, note 4)