Margaret of Cortona is remembered for her spirit of repentance and supplication. As the saying goes in Cortona, di neve o di fiori Margherita vuol essere vestita: Saint Margaret wants to be dressed in flowers or snow. The weather on her February feast day might bring either extreme, but don’t expect something in between.
It is tempting to read Margaret’s story in extremes as well; most of the accounts one finds of her life emphasize her youthful indiscretion before a tragedy sends her in a spiritual about-face. Lost, then found. Sinner or saint. Either flowers or snow.
In Gaspare Traversi’s 18th century depiction of Margaret, it is Satan who makes the about-face, leaving the scene with head in hands while Margaret gazes instead at the angel by her side.
With her feast day coinciding this year with Ash Wednesday, one of the great fasts of the church calendar, we have another pair of poles. Why don’t we let those hearty opposites hold the edges for us while we see what gifts lie in between?
Margaret was born in Laviano, Italy, where her parents farmed. She was only seven when her mother died. Though her father remarried, Margaret’s stepmother was not able to love her well, making life at home unsettled. As a teenager, Margaret found affection in a wealthy young man, and wound up living as his mistress for nine years—the marriage he purportedly promised her never came to be, despite their having a son together.
One day her lover’s favorite dog came home without him. She followed the creature into the woods, where she discovered the body of her beloved, who had been murdered. The death was a shock, and brought to her mind a question about the soul. As the story goes, she felt great remorse about her estrangement from God and family, and went home to Laviano to seek reconciliation, first returning to her lover’s family all the possessions he had given her. Her father and stepmother would not take her in.
Margaret found refuge in Cortona, first among some kind women who cared for her and her son, and eventually with Franciscan friars. She zealously sought to express remorse for the actions in her life that troubled her, guided toward gentleness by the Franciscan spiritual director who served as her confessor. Margaret found purpose and devotion in serving the poor, living on alms and in time becoming a member of the Third Order of Franciscans. Her son also eventually became a Franciscan. She established a hospital for the poor, and founded an order of sisters who served there. Margaret became renowned for her advice to penitents, and for her great devotion to the Eucharist and the passion of Jesus.
Some people find in their own story a clear before and after when it comes to their spiritual life—a wake-up call, a turning, a finding and feeling found by God. Perhaps this is so for you. Do you mark that shift in your life in some way? How do you honor the circumstances that gave you a sense of deeper, truer belonging to God? I think of the observation of Julian of Norwich, writing a century after Margaret: First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.
Others may find their spiritual life better described as an accumulation of smaller awakenings, moments or seasons in which God’s profound goodness comes into focus. When you see afresh in the clear light of grace, can you savor that gift as it returns to your awareness?
Some of Margaret’s own confessions show that her compassion for the poor and attraction to the love of God were present in the years she lived with her lover—strengthened and given life after her repentance. She was given gifts, a cherished child, even in the “before.” That feels like encouragement to be gentle with ourselves when we regard our own “before” or our ever-imperfect present. God is present here too.
This year, Saint. Margaret meets us on Ash Wednesday and leads us into Lent. In this season of repentance, recall that the purpose is the deep joy we come to know in Christ. As the preface to our eucharistic prayer reminds us, our Lenten penance and prayer are meant to renew us that we may come to the “fullness of grace” that God has prepared for us.
We might find ourselves grateful for the twists and turns that led us here, giving thanks for what fell away and allowed us to see with the eyes of mercy. We might thank Margaret, whose story reveals God’s faithful presence before and after. God’s grace will find us in flowers or in snow, and everywhere in between.
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