Every writer has one – the novel that you live in faint hope will one day make into print although, in truth, holding your breath would probably be described as life threatening. My father, William Hardy, put pen down after a couple of utterly charming chapters of Harry, the Dog that Bit Me – the story of a man saved by a dog – when his macular degeneration meant that he could no longer see to type. He mourns it still and hopes that my brother Peter or I might finish it for him, but we are neither of us our father and would be unable to do it justice.
My poor child gone a-begging is Sabra the Astonishing, a novel I began in my late twenties and have revised every decade since then. Contrary to what you might imagine, it is not about a female Israeli Superhero. Rather, it is the story of a teenage girl who falls prey to a demonic Marian apparition. “The Astonishing” portion of the title I lifted from Christina the Astonishing, a medieval century b-list celebrity on Belgium’s holy roller circuit who made it all the way up Jacob’s ladder to the rung of Astonishing, but never quite managed to snag the brass ring of sainthood, despite … or perhaps because of how quixotic her “miracles” were.
According to The Lives of the Saints, Christina’s “Journey” began with a massive seizure at age twenty. Presumed dead, her town folk were in the midst of burying her when she suddenly revived and levitated to a point just below the rafters of the church. When she ultimately lost altitude, she explained that her sudden ascension had been triggered by the stench of sin and described an out-of-body excursion she had taken in the company of angels to Purgatory, Hell and Heaven, where she had a personal interview with The Big Man Himself and signed up for a life of continual penance. “It will be so extraordinary,” she predicted of her life, “that nothing like it has ever been seen.”
And she was right. Thenceforward, according to contemporaries, Christina “would throw herself into burning furnaces and remain there for extended times, uttering frightful cries, yet coming forth with no sign of burns upon her. In the winter she would plunge into the frozen Meuse River, remaining there for hours … days … even weeks at a time, all the while praying to God and imploring God’s mercy. She sometimes allowed herself to be carried by the currents downriver to a mill where the wheel ‘whirled her round in a manner frightful to behold,’ yet she never suffered any dislocations or broken bones. She was chased by dogs which bit and tore her flesh. She would run from them into thickets of thorns, and, though covered in blood, she would return with no wound or scar.”
Astonishing, yes. Crazy, also yes. Apparently the Church was of much the same mind, which explains why it awarded her with the moniker “Astonishing” and not the more garden variety title, “Beata” or “Santa”. In fact, I believe that Christina is the only person whom the Church has so described in its two thousand and counting years. (Readers may correct me if I am mistaken.)
A while back I was dishing out soup at a soup kitchen, when the man I was about to serve informed me, “They are flogging and flaying me. They have stuck a spear in my side. I’m suffering torments in His Name.”
Alarmed by this announcement, I said, “That sounds awful. Is there anything I can do for you?”
He shrugged and replied, “Maybe later. Right now I’d like some soup.”
The early and medieval Church abounded with all manner of “holy” people who concentrated their energies on levitating, doing without sleep, or, failing that, sleeping upright like horses, eating only communion wafers and holy water, falling into ecstasy, rising from the dead at appropriate intervals, standing in cold water up to their necks while reciting Psalms, or living on ledges like vultures or on pillars like pigeons. Most of them probably had some form of mental illness; were they living today, many of them would undoubtedly be homeless.
I am ABD – All But Dissertation for a PhD — in Ecclesiastical History. A recurring dream of mine is that I must go back to graduate school and finish my dissertation. It occurs to me that the connection between mental illness and the wackier elements of the early Christian Church might be a worthy topic.
But first I must revise Sabra the Astonishing. I’m two years into my seventh decade; it’s past time to try and breathe some life into the old girl. Again.