ST CHRISTINA THE ASTONISHING
Today - July 24 - is a very special day indeed. It is the feast day of St Christina The Astonishing.
Way back in the mists of Truckshunter Time - in the days of The Nightshift or even earlier, before Grand Tours and German Journeys and Beaujolais - someone suggested, perhaps unkindly, that St Christina The Astonishing should be my (and therefore, by default, our) patron saint.
I suspect that it was the mere laughability of her name that made whoever it was chuckle and smirk - and get in touch with me about her.
I can’t remember who made the suggestion or why, after all these years, I was suddenly reminded of it a few weeks ago. But, having brought her back to mind, I decided to do a little amateur investigation. After all, I decided, we can’t have just anyone as our patron saint.
And to be sure, St Christina The Astonishing is very far from being just anyone.
Far a start, she actually existed - a claim that cannot be believably made about, for example, St George. Her life story was written down by someone who knew her.
She had the Astonishing misfortune to be born in Belgium, which - given the events which followed - could explain a lot.
She was orphaned as a child and in 1171, at the suggestive age of 21, she ‘had a fit’ and died.
But contrary to normal expectations, that is where her story began rather than ended.
During her own funeral, she somehow managed to come back to life. Dissatisfied with this not inconsiderable achievement, she then floated up into the timbers and beams of the church roof. The priest and mourners were understandably in a state of collective shock and agitation and begged her to come back down again.
At first, she ignored them, as you would. Eventually however, she agreed to descend from the ceiling and did so, landing gracefully on the high altar.
She told the congregation that she’d been on a kind of sacred tour of all conceivable existences - she had been, she said, to heaven, to hell and to purgatory. Whilst on her tour, she had met many people, both sacred and profane, but her main revelation took her audience into a new realm of holy knowledge.
Human beings, she said, stank.
She meant this literally. Sin, she told them, gave off an unholy and mountainously offensive stink. And, as all human beings were inherently sinful, they all smelled revolting.
Whilst the congregation were digesting this revelation, Christina walked calmly out of the church and shortly afterwards started a one-person ministry of prayer and vicarious suffering so as to redeem the sinful souls of those in purgatory who, presumably, smelled much worse than anyone else.
Indeed, to avoid the hideous stink of human sin, she took to flying high up in the air and hovering above the population, getting around by flying from treetop to treetop - which is in itself quite Astonishing, even for Belgium.
And that’s not all.
She sat in burning ovens and icy rivers and swam under mill wheels. She lived almost as a wild and bizarre animal, dressed in filthy rags and staying as far away as she could from the sinful stink of the human race. In a way, I can see her point.
Her biographer says that the Lord provided food for her on many occasions but that it did no good. Christina had become Astonishingly picky as to what she ate. She described eating ordinary, human food as being like ‘swallowing the bowels of frogs’ (which French people do to this day).
Gradually the Lord became more sympathetic to Christina's dietary requirements and worked a miracle which must rank as one of the most Astonishing on record.
He gave Christina the power to breastfeed herself. Which is nice.
Her virginal breasts also produced oil into which she dipped her bread (as most French people do to this day). She also used it to treat her sores, although no details survive of where these sores were or why she had them in the first place.
As is the way of these things, her saintly life was not an easy one. Perhaps understandably, she was chased around the country as a lunatic or demoniac. Sometimes, when she’d been caught, her own family chained her up. Astonishingly though, she always managed to escape back into the forest somehow.
When I began my research into Christina’s Astonishing story, I thought that this essay about her would be a highly-sceptical demolition of a ludicrous legend foisted on gullible Belgians (and others).
But she is no Flanders myth. She was real and, by today’s standards, must have suffered terribly from the torment of mental illness. What emerges is a sad catalogue of delusion, loneliness, alienation and, ultimately, insanity. She died in 1224 at the age of 74 and even in the 12th century, opinions were divided about whether she was holy or mad or ‘possessed’.
The Roman Catholic church wisely hedged its bets by making her the patron saint of the incurably insane. And there are, surely, much worse things to be patron saint of.
So now, she’s been revived yet again - this time as the patron saint of the Honorary (and now Astonishing) Company of Truckshunters.
So please - raise a glass of something or other to the memory of this troubled lady. We will be doing exactly that at this Thursday’s AGM (at 1100 in Saltwell Towers).
After all, she was absolutely right about sin; it does stink.
Let’s hope that she eventually found her paradise and sleeps, comforted and loved, in the arms of her Saviour.
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