Italy Died Age 50
of St. Margaret of Cortona is an example of God's mercy to the
sinner, and is full of consolation for the penitent. In St. Margaret
we see one who had abandoned God, but was not abandoned by Him.
God watched over her, listened to her faint cries for help, treasured
up her feeble desires of a return, till at length, by a great
act of His love, He brought her out of the wilderness of sin in
which for nine years she had wandered.
Saint, who was destined by Almighty God to draw numberless souls
from an evil life to a life of grace, was born in the year 1247,
at Laviano, a hamlet distant about twelve miles from Cortona.
Laviano at the present day has little attraction except for those
who love St. Margaret. It stands on a hill which rises out of
the Val di Chiano, and is picturesquely situated in the midst
of pine woods. The little Church of SS. Vitus and Modestus, some
four or five houses, and the cottage pointed out as the birth-place
of St. Margaret, are all that now remain of the village. This
cottage is little better than a shed, for which, it would seem,
the ground floor is used. The upper room there is only one
is approached by a staircase from the outside. In this room is
a faded picture of St. Margaret, over a broken bracket, where
an altar may once have stood, and a fire-place in one corner.
stands at the foot of a little height on which Margaret, in her
happy childhood, no doubt often played with her companions. Her
eyes then looked upon the scene upon which on our visit we gazed
with admiration. To our right was the valley of the Chiano, before
us a mountain-range on the lower slope on which we could see in
the distance the white houses of Montepulciano. Above Montepulciano
rose the beautiful outline of Monte Santa Fiora, and ranging further
to the left, Monte Citone, whilst in the valley beneath were the
placid waters of the Lake of Montepulciano.
parents were simple country people, who lived by their daily labour.
Her father cultivated his little plot of ground, whilst her mother
was occupied in the care of the house and of her children. Soon
after Margaret's birth her pious parents took their little babe
to be baptized in the parish church of St. Peter at Pozzuolo,
a village on the hill which rises above Laviano. In baptism the
name of Margaret, or Pearl, was given to the child by what has
well been called a special dispensation of Providence, Who had
destined Margaret to be a precious Pearl in the corona of Saints
that surround His throne. As soon as Margaret could speak, her
pious mother taught her to pronounce the sweet names of Jesus
and Mary, and to love Jesus crucified. So fond did the little
one become of the crucifix that she would often hold it in her
infant hands and cover it with kisses.
came to this happy home, and Margaret lost her mother when she
was only seven or eight years of age. This was naturally a great
grief to Margaret, as well as a great misfortune for her, since
she was now deprived of a mother's love and that training which
a mother alone can give. Time passed on, and Margaret's father,
wishing to provide some one to look after his children and his
house, married again. But his wife, to his sorrow, took a dislike
to Margaret, treated her harshly, and made her home unbearable
to her. The high spirited girl resented this treatment. Her heart
sought for love and found it not; she shrank into herself, and
her home became miserable. Her father, who was most of the day
absent at his work, would find, on his return home, discord where
there should have been peace: and Margaret's tearful eyes showed
him how unhappy she was. So were sown the seeds of her trouble.
grew in age she grew also in beauty and grace of form. All who
knew of her unhappiness at home felt a sympathy for, and all admired,
the beautiful girl of sixteen years of age. About this time a
young nobleman from Montepulciano came to reside at the country
seat of his family, the Palazzo as it is now called, not far distant
from Laviano. He heard of Margaret, and desired to see the village
beauty. One day when riding to Laviano he caught sight of Margaret,
and he was smitten with her charms. His visits were repeated,
and at length he told her of his love. He spoke of his palace
at Montepulciano, which he asked her to share with him, and of
the rich dresses and jewels which he would give her if she would
consent to leave the path of virtue. Margaret, unhappy at home,
and desiring to exchange ill-treatment for affection, her poor
cottage for a grand house, splendid attire for her humble garb,
yielded to the persuasions of the young nobleman, and went to
live at his palace. Margaret, dazzled by the splendour of her
surroundings and flattered by the attention she received, for
a time felt a joy to which she had long been a stranger. Still
she was not truly happy; the pleasures which surrounded her, the
society into which she entered, the affection lavished upon her,
the luxurious palace, could not satisfy her heart. Margaret looked
back to the days when she was at home; she thought of her dead
mother's love and her father's care, and she sighed for release
from what she felt to be slavery the slavery of sin. Her conscience
reproached her. She would often retire from society to weep in
secret and beg for the mercy of God, which she strove to gain
by works of mercy to the poor. Still she had not as yet the courage
to break the bonds which enchained her. But God's time was at
hand. He was about to make His justice felt, and at the same time
to show His mercy.
having arisen respecting the boundaries of the property at the
Palazzo, where Margaret was now residing, the young nobleman went
out to endeavour to settle the disputed claim. He met those
who denied his right; a quarrel ensued and the young man was
killed. His assailants, to conceal the body, dragged it into a
thicket and covered it with leaves and brushwood.
the day of his departure, the sun was about to set, Margaret looked
anxiously from the window of the Palazzo, expecting the return
of her lover, but there was no sign of him. She retired to rest
and arose the following morning, wearied and depressed. That day
was followed by another night of distress, and another day of
alarm and almost despair, when she saw approaching the castle
the faithful dog that had accompanied his master. At length he
is coming, she thought, and ran down to welcome him home. But
no, the dog lay down at her feet, howled mournfully, and then
pulled her by the dress as if desiring her to follow him. Trembling
and fearing some ill, Margaret followed where she was led. After
they had gone some miles, the dog stopped beneath an oak-tree,
scratched away a heap of leaves with his paws, and revealed to
Margaret the body of him she had loved. A faintness came over
her, and she fell to the ground. On recovering her senses she
arose, gazed at the corpse before her, and then by God's mercy
the eyes of her soul were opened. She saw the state to which death
had reduced that countenance which had been so pleasing in her
eyes; she thought of where the soul had gone; she knew it had
passed the judgment-seat of God, and only too probably had been
condemned to that Hell which would be her portion also unless
by God's grace, penetrated into her heart. They converted her,
and she, who had fallen to the ground a sinner, arose a penitent.
returned to the Palazzo an altered woman and whilst grieving over
what she had reason to fear must be the sad state of him she had
lost, she grieved yet more over her own sins. Had she not been
the cause of the unhappy nobleman's continuance in sin? She determined
henceforth to do all in her power to blot out her sins by penances
and by prayer. "O Lord, be merciful to me a sinner," was now her
continued cry "Lord, save me, or I perish;" for she felt, from
the weakness of her nature, a return to sin even now was possible.
at the Castello were surprised to see the sad and downcast look
of Margaret, so different from her former proud and stately bearing.
They soon learned the cause of her woe, and their sympathy prompted
them to minister to her with even greater willingness and deference
than before. She begged them, for the love of God, not to show
her so much respect. "I am not worthy to receive attentions from
you," she would say; "I am Margaret the sinner, who for so long
has offended our God; I do not deserve your homage; reserve that
for those who may be worthy of it. Think of me no longer as your
mistress, but pray for me that God may forgive me my sin."
aside her rich robes, she clothed herself in the garb of a penitent,
disposed of all the wealth that had been lavished upon her, gave
to the relations of the young lord all that had belonged to him,
and then began to consider where she might find a shelter for
herself and her child.
could she go? Should she return to Montepulciano, the scene of
her sinful life? No, that would be again to place herself
in fresh occasions of sin, and that she was determined to avoid.
Should she go to Laviano? Here poverty and a hard life awaited
her, and she knew not if her father would receive her. Her step-mother
she felt would be still more harsh in her treatment of her. But
no matter; she had sinned, and now she would accept humiliations
and harsh treatment as some compensation to God for her crime.
So, like the prodigal in the Gospel, she said: "I will arise and
I will go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have
sinned against you, but you are my father still, refuse not to
receive your penitent child, forgive me the pain I have caused
you, the shame I have brought on your name father, forgive me!'"
With words such as these she threw herself at his feet, and obtained
his forgiveness, sealed by his fatherly embrace. Not so with her
step-mother; she could not bear the presence of Margaret in the
house, and gave her husband no peace till she forced him to send
away his repentant child now a woman of twenty-five to seek
for some other dwelling. When Margaret was turned away from home,
she went into the garden not far from the cottage, and there,
kneeling beneath a fig tree, she wept bitterly. Some shoots from
the tree are still to be seen. God never forsakes the soul that
returns to Him, and Margaret was a true penitent. Not all the
suggestions and temptations of Satan, with which he now troubled
her, could shake her resolve of giving herself wholly to God.
A voice bade her go to Cortona and there place herself under the
direction of the Friars Minor of St. Francis, and become a Tertiary
of the Order. Margaret obeyed the call, weak as she was, and ill
able to take so long a journey on foot. She arose and set out,
leading her child by the hand. On quitting Laviano, the home of
her early days, where she left behind her a loving and much-loved
father, Margaret ascended the hill to the crest of the ridge,
to take one look at the church tower of Pozzuolo, in which she
had been baptized, and then she set out on her way to Cortona.
reached the place where she had found the dead body, and where
God's grace had touched her heart, she remained awhile to rest
and pray. How she thanked God for the mercy He had shown her!
Offering once more all her sufferings to Him as a penance for
her sins, she fervently renewed the oblation of herself to His
service, and earnestly implored grace and courage to keep her
now marks this spot. It is called the chapel of repentance. Over
the door is a representation of St. Margaret as she knelt there
with her child on the ground beside her. By the road side is an
old oak, partly decayed, but yet retaining some vigorous branches.
The tree may be taken as a symbol of St. Margaret, who, though
once dead in sin was now living again by the grace of God, putting
forth the fresh green leaves of repentance.
pressed onwards. Turning her glance away from the Palazzo, near
which she passed, she looked to her right and saw the beautiful
lake of Thrasimene; but her eyes scarcely noted its beauty. They
were directed to Cortona, which, after weary hours of walking,
she, a total stranger, to go? Who would take pity on her and her
child? God's mercy watched over her. He Who had not forsaken her
in her sinful days was now at her side. As she was climbing the
steep hill which leads from the gate, she saw two ladies, the
Countess Ranieri and the Lady Maineria. They saw and pitied the
poor forlorn and weary woman who stood before them, and, perceiving
that she was in need of help, offered her assistance. Margaret,
encouraged by this kindness, told them briefly the sad story of
her life. They were so touched by her confession, that, seeing
she was determined to lead a good life, they offered her hospitality
in their own house.
The one desire
which Margaret had after her conversion was to do the will of
God as perfectly as she could. It was therefore in obedience to
the Divine Inspiration which she received at Laviano, that after
she arrived in Cortona she placed herself under the direction
of the Friars Minor.
was the Father appointed to be her confessor, and it was under
his guidance that she reached the height of sanctity at which
she afterwards arrived. Margaret's first act was to purify her
soul from sin by confession. In making it, she was so overcome
by her emotion and her grief for her sins that it took her eight
days to complete her avowal of them.
Margaret had received absolution, she feared that she was unworthy
of it, and that such grievous sins as hers should be so speedily
forgiven seemed to her hardly credible.
she always made her own those words of the Psalm of the penitent
David, and with him she cried out: "Have mercy on me, O God, according
to Thy great mercy. Wash me yet more from mine iniquity and cleanse
me from my sin. Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a
right spirit within me."
of her offences was always present to her mind. She felt what
a share her sins had had in the sufferings of her Saviour. When
she looked at her crucifix which she had so much loved as a child
and which was now still more dear to her, she saw in the wounded
Hands the work of her own hands. In gazing at the Sacred Feet
she knew they had been pierced with nails because of the wanderings
of her own feet in the ways of sin. In beholding the wound of
the Side of Jesus she felt that it was her crimes which had plunged
the lance into His adorable Heart. In the Crown of Thorns and
in the mangled Body she saw the expiation of her guilty pleasures:
and so out of love for Jesus Crucified she made His Passion and
Death the subject of her constant meditations, and endeavoured
day by day to blot out the ill-spent past, and cleanse her heart
from all which might prevent her from that close union with God
which she so earnestly desired.
wrought so great a change in the heart of Margaret that while
the world considered her to be a Saint she was in her own eyes
but a sinner. That heart which before had been inordinately bent
on worldly pleasure now aspired to nothing but the joys of heaven.
If Margaret had been like Magdalene in her sin, she now imitated
her as her model in her conversion, hoping like her to regain
innocence by penance, and so share in its reward.
had with deep contrition confessed her sins, she did not feel
that she had thereby done enough; she realized that satisfaction
was due for them, and so resolved on making the remainder of her
life one of penance and of prayer, for she knew well that her
satisfaction must bear some proportion to the gravity of her sin.
life was changed. Instead of the enjoyment of wealth, she was
now content with poverty. Mortification of her desires took the
place of self-indulgence, and instead of days which she had devoted
to worldly pleasure, she now passed her hours in weeping over
her sins, and in retirement from the world. Within her heart the
love of the Creator now took the place which had been filled by
the love of the creature. In the poorly clad woman with her hair
close cut, and concealed by a coarse linen cap, those who had
seen her in all the splendour of her worldly attire could scarcely
believe that they beheld the same person. She went daily to confession
and to Holy Communion, and in order to pray undisturbed, she chose
a chapel where she would be little noticed, which adjoins the
Church of St. Francis. This chapel is now used as the sacristy.
the word of God, she chose a spot beneath the pulpit where she
could neither see nor be seen. Then when her hours of prayer were
ended, she would return to her cell, and at Vesper time would
again return to the church, in order that she might end the day
in the immediate presence of God.
was spent in prayer and mortifications, and in work which was
necessary in order to provide that subsistence she required for
herself and her child; but even in her work, prayer was not neglected.
Intercourse with the world was now however forced upon her, and
with an exceeding charity she would assist such poor persons as
needed her services, such, for instance, as women in child-birth.
But even in these offices of humble duty, she yet maintained great
reserve and recollection of mind. She used to retire to pray in
some corner of the room when for a time her services were not
required. Her food was of the simplest, and when away from home
on her errands of mercy, nothing could induce her to break the
rule of abstinence that she had imposed upon herself.
of her sins had in no way diminished the abhorrence she felt for
them. So deeply did she even now feel her offence that she would
tell those she met, as she passed along the street, of her guilt,
and ask them to pray for its perfect remission, expressing to
them her desire to know if God had in reality forgiven her, and
moving to tears all whom she addressed. And these sins which she
made known in public she did penance for in the solitude of her
cell. Days of prayer in the church were succeeded by nights of
prayer contrite and broken only by her sobs, "the sacrifice of
a contrite and humbled heart."
hours which she allowed for sleep she took lying on boards with
a stone for a pillow. What a contrast to the slight penances by
which we punish our sins!
thought not of herself alone, she felt that by her example she
had been the occasion of sins to others, and so her desire now
was to repair the scandal she had given that she might at the
same time show her love for God and her neighbours. As Montepulciano
had been the chief scene of Margaret's sin, so did she now desire
that it should be witness of her repentance. She wished to make
such reparation as lay in her power to its inhabitants for the
bad example she had given them. She designed to go to that town,
clothed in sackcloth, with a rope round her neck, as some atonement
for her luxury in dress and for the rich necklace of jewels she
had formerly displayed. She even intended that the town-crier
should proclaim aloud "Here comes Margaret the sinner!" so earnestly
did she wish that in the place where she had been treated with
such deference and respect, she should now be overwhelmed by the
reproaches which she felt were her due. Her confessor, however,
forbade this, and in obedience to him she gave up her design.
however, permitted Margaret partially to carry out her wish at
Laviano, where she had first fallen into sin. It was on a Sunday,
when all were assembled for Mass, that Margaret entered the church
of that village with her hair close cut and her feet bare, clothed
in sackcloth and with a rope round her neck. She knelt where she
would be least perceived. No one recognised in the pale and emaciated
face of the mysterious pilgrim that Margaret they had formerly
known so well. When Mass was concluded, Margaret arose and, throwing
herself at the feet of the Lady Manentessa - scarcely able to
speak from the sobs which choked her - with sighs and tears of
contrition, begged pardon of all the astonished bystanders, imploring
them to forget the scandal she had given them, and beseeching
them to learn the lesson from her example that the greatest evil
in life is sin.
desire Margaret had to free herself from all that had ever been
an occasion of sin to her, and her fear that her beauty which
still remained might yet be an incentive to it, she sought to
destroy her comeliness by striking her face with a stone, in order
that the livid bruises might disfigure it, and at other times
she would cover it with soot, that the fairness of her skin might
not be seen.
So far was
Margaret from lessening her austerities and mortifications as
the years went by, that she increased them both in number and
severity up to the very day of her death.
By the kindness
of friends, Margaret's child had been sent to be educated at Arezzo,
and she was now left free from the necessity of providing for
him, and able to devote herself completely to the service of God,
and to that life of retirement which she so much desired. It was
Margaret's wish, in order to lead a more perfect life, to enter
the Third Order of St. Francis, the confraternity of penance,
that branch of the great Franciscan family which has produced
so many saints in the world. Later on, her son also was to join
the Seraphic Order in which he became a priest and a noted preacher.
Minor did not at first accede to Margaret's wish. It was considered
more prudent that a long trial should be given her in order to
test the sincerity of her resolve to lead a new life, and it was
not till after three years waiting years borne by Margaret with
patience and resignation that she was at length admitted, in
the year 1275, to the privilege of becoming a child of St. Francis.
Margaret, once she had been received, wished not only to be a
member of it by name and by wearing the habit, but closely to
imitate her Seraphic Father. Thus by following his life, by the
rigour of her penance and by the fervour of her prayers, she raised
herself to so high a degree of contemplation as to become a perfect
imitator of the poor man of Assisi. Margaret had a great love
and desire for solitude, and in fact cherished it so deeply that
she never left her poor dwelling except to seek God in His Church,
or to assist the poor whom He had confided to her care. Up to
this time Margaret had lived in the Palazzo Moscari, the palace
of the ladies who had given her hospitality on her first arrival
in Cortona. Though in this house she had but a little cell separated
from the other part of the house and its occupants, yet a palace
and its neighbourhood to the world did not seem to be a fitting
dwelling for one who had become a Tertiary. Margaret therefore
sought and obtained from the charity of her benefactresses a poor
dwelling in the street beyond the Porta Berarda, where she might
live in silence and alone. In order that our Saint might unite
herself more closely to God, she wished to free herself from everything
that could attach her to the earth; she accordingly discontinued
the services which she had been used to render to women in childbirth;
she ceased also to be present at baptisms, to which mothers would
invite her, in the belief that her presence would bring a blessing
on their offspring.
In a short
time nothing would be left to Margaret but her solitary cell,
in which she might weep for her sins, and the Church of St. Francis,
which she frequented to be nearer to God, and to fortify her soul
with His word which was preached in it by the Franciscan Fathers.
But to reach the church, Margaret had to go out into the street,
and she feared even for this short distance to set her foot in
the world which had been the cause of her sin. Earnestly did she
wish to fly to some solitude to be alone, that she might prepare
for the time when God would call her to Himself.
had destined Margaret to be a means of withdrawing sinners from
their sin, and at the same time of purifying herself yet more
from her own, did not for some time permit the accomplishment
of her desire. As Margaret was prevented from retiring into actual
solitude, she endeavoured to form a hermitage in her own heart.
On her way through the streets to church, Margaret kept her eyes
fixed on the ground, so that she might avoid seeing anyone or
anything. She guarded her ears likewise from useless talk, and
put a restraint on her tongue, only speaking when the honour of
God or the good of her neighbour required her to do so. Margaret
seldom opened her door to anyone, and then but for a short time,
and for no other purpose than to speak of God. With these rare
exceptions, the silence of her cell was unbroken nothing was
heard in it, save during the hours of the night, when it resounded
with her lamentations and the strokes of the scourge.
was tranquillity in Margaret's cell, still she did not find within
it that perfect peace for which she sought. A storm was raging
within her soul, owing to the intense desire she had to feel assured
of the forgiveness of her sins. It was Satan who brought back
her former sins to her remembrance and endeavoured to make her
despair. He would tempt her with the thought that after all she
was still in her sins, that the peace of mind which she had enjoyed
was but a woman's fancy. In this anguish of soul a cold sweat
would break out on her, and her despairing cries reveal the fear
that overwhelmed her. Though she made her fasts yet more strict,
her disciplines more frequent, her prayers more prolonged, the
disturbed state of her soul often prevented her from approaching
Holy Communion, or if she did approach, it was with fear and trembling
as if she who had sinned so deeply was unworthy of a love which
was the privilege of more faithful souls.
trials developed in Margaret new characteristics, for her doubts
and fears led her to the feet of her confessor and, purified by
the furnace of interior trials, the last remnants of earthly miseries
were burnt out, and the contrite penitent became the future saint.
like other servants of God, was raised to a height of sanctity
to be an example to us. We see in her a singular love of the poor
whom she tended in their needs, often saving for them what was
necessary for her own sustenance. Nor did she relieve their bodily
wants only, but she took the deepest interest in their sorrows
and in the welfare of their souls.
teaches us in this our day that there is no other way to solve
our social difficulties than to take a Christian's view of poverty
and of wealth. If there were more who, like Margaret, would make
themselves instruments in God's hands to teach the poor to be
contented with their lot, and the rich that this world is not
our Heaven, then mutual misunderstanding would cease, and the
two classes who now look coldly on one another would be united
by that love which is bred by charity.
She had known
what it was to be in affliction; the heart of Margaret was able
to be a help to others. As she had been a sinner, so she was able
to lead back those who had wandered from the right path; she became
a true comforter of the afflicted.
of St. Margaret was not only one of edification for all those
who lived in Cortona, but for all who read of it in the "Leggenda",
written by her confessor, Fra Giunta, how God drew her more and
more to Himself, and how our Saint in turn corresponded with the
graces which He conferred upon her. In this biography are to be
read God's dealings with the soul of Margaret, favours she would
willingly have concealed, had she not been enjoined by her confessor
to make them known. They give us courage to follow the footsteps
of her who blotted out her sin by the fervour of her penance.
They show, too, how great was Margaret's charity towards her neighbour,
whose spiritual maladies she was instrumental in healing. Still,
amidst all the gratitude and praise for the good she effected,
she kept the humility of a penitent, considering herself to be
still a sinner.
a necessity to our Saint, and in her prayer she embraced the Church
triumphant, militant, and suffering, so that her charity was as
universal as her faith. She not only prayed to the Saints; she
always endeavoured to imitate their virtues. The holy souls suffering
in purgatory, were objects of Margaret's special zeal and love,
and at her last hour those holy souls that she had been instrumental
in freeing from Purgatory, came to lead her soul to heaven. Amongst
the living, too, all who needed help, shared in the benefit of
her Prayers, and many experienced the effect of her powerful intercession.
To God alone is known the result of such never failing charity.
a frail woman, Margaret had an influence on her age. Her virtues
were an edification to all. To the turbulence of the time Margaret
opposed her gentleness. To the licentiousness of the age, she
gave an example of austerity of life. To the troubled in body
and mind she gave consolation, and, like our Lord Himself, she
went about doing good. As a penitent, few were like her, and she
sanctified herself in a period which appeared so unfavourable
to sanctity. She taught all how much, with the help of Divine
Grace, a strong will and a firm purpose can accomplish.
humble as Margaret's life was, she yet left to posterity two valuable
works, the first a form of community life in the Third Order for
those who wished to live retired from the world. They took the
name of 'Poverelle' Poor Little Ones from the name by which
our Lord had called Margaret when speaking to her in the Church
of St. Francis; and this institute existed almost till our own
day. The other work that Cortona owes to Margaret was a hospital
which still goes by the name she gave it, of Our Lady of Mercy
Sta. Maria della Misericordia.
this active life spent for the good of others, Margaret never
allowed herself to relax the severity of her penances or the austerity
of her life, and these years of penitential exercises wonderfully
endeared her to our Lord.
our Saint, who had long desired greater solitude that she might
give herself more completely to God, retired to a desert place
on the hill above Cortona. Here the last nine years of her life
continued to be spent in penance and in prayer.
earthly career drew to its close, she sighed more than ever after
that Heaven where she longed to be, nor was our Lord, on His part,
less desirous to receive His faithful penitent and loving child
into His eternal embrace, to place her, as He had said, in the
choir of virgins, to sing for ever the praises of Him, Who had
drawn her from the depths of sin to make her a signal example
of His never-failing mercy to the penitent sinner.
who had been told by God that the appointed hour for her departure
from the world would not be long delayed, received with a great
joy the welcome tidings that now at length the day was at hand.
During the last days of her life, Margaret's only food was the
At the announcement
that Margaret's end was approaching, all Cortona was filled with
grief. Many went up to the little Church of St. Basil, close to
which was her poor dwelling, to see the dying Saint, and to gather
from her lips some words of edification.
received with joy those whom she had loved so well and served
so tenderly, but her thoughts were absorbed with God, and she
sought not to prolong farewells which would prevent the intercourse
of her soul with her Creator.
of the 22nd of February dawned, and the soul of Margaret passed
into the unveiled Presence of God to receive the reward which
she had so earnestly striven by her life of penance to gain.
In the days
of her vanity, when one of her companions reproached her for her
conduct, Margaret had replied, "Never fear, the day will come
when I shall be called a saint; yes, I shall be a saint, and pilgrims
will come to my shrine." This, which we may call a prophecy, is
now literally fulfilled.
and the neighbouring villages, crowds come to venerate "Santa
Margherita" on the day of her feast, the 22nd February, as also
on that of the translation of her relics, the Sunday within the
Octave of the Ascension. Before ascending the hill to the church
in which the body of St. Margaret lies, the pilgrim, if he be
a stranger to Cortona, will stay a moment in the Piazza at the
foot of the hill, to gaze on the beautiful vale of the Chiano
which stretches out before him. On the lower slopes of a mountain
range which bounds the view, he will see the towers and domes
of Montepulciano, where part of St. Margaret's life was spent.
Under the peak of Monte Citone, but at some distance from it,
one acquainted with this country can distinguish the little hill
on which Laviano, St. Margaret's birth-place, stands. As she went
on her errands of mercy in Cortona, our Saint would have had these
two spots frequently in view, and so might say with David, "My
sin is always before me."
To the left
are the blue waters of the beautiful Lake of Thrasimene. Turning
his back reluctantly on such a scene of beauty, the pilgrim ascends
the hill to the church of Santa Margherita. As he stands on the
level ground in front of the church, he reads the words: "Penitenti
enters and takes a hasty glance around, for he is impatient to
approach the High Altar to venerate the Saint whose body rests
above it. It is a modern church, devotional in character. St.
Francis and other Saints look down from their brackets between
the arches. In the right hand transept is the statue of St. Margaret,
and over the altar in the same transept is a wooden crucifix,
somewhat rude in execution, but of the greatest interest, for
this is the crucifix that in the church of San Francesco spoke
to St. Margaret. Pausing for a moment before the High Altar, the
pilgrim sees a sarcophagus which rests against the wall of the
chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. It is the work of the great sculptor,
Giovanni Pisano. In this sarcophagus the venerated body of St.
Margaret once lay. A marble tablet on a pillar near the chapel
tells the pilgrim that on this spot was the humble room where
Margaret spent nine years in penance and in prayer, and that here
on the 22nd February, in the year 1297, as a victim of penance,
she died and went to enjoy the Beatific Vision, having by common
accord been given the title of Saint. The pilgrim now kneels before
the High Altar, and there he sees in the rich metal shrine the
incorrupt body of St. Margaret, the object of his pilgrimage.
father, to a pilgrim like himself, remarks that the body of St.
Aloysius, whose life was spotless, has followed the ordinary course
of nature, whilst the body of Margaret, once a sinner, has nevertheless
been preserved. And does not this, he went on to say, show God's
love for the penitent and for that innocence which has been regained
lies with the head to the left, a white cap or veil covers the
head, a dress of flannel, marked with squares formed by dark lines,
covers the body. The hands, which are small, are crossed on the
breast, and the feet are bare. The nails of the hands are perfect,
but of the colour of an acorn that has fallen ripe from the tree
in autumn time. The skin, of a greyish colour like the parchment
covering of a book, is tightly drawn over the bones of the face.
The sockets of the eyes are deeply sunk the eyelashes wanting,
the lips compressed. The whole aspect is that of peace, and the
pilgrim feels as if he could gaze for long hours on this countenance
which so rivets his attention. It has been said that an odour
of sweetness comes from the venerated body, and that the mark
of the stone with which Margaret struck her face to disfigure
its beauty is yet to be seen upon it.
On the eve
of the Feast, the canons from the Cathedral of Cortona walk in
procession from the Cathedral, clad in copes, preceded by a crossbearer,
with ecclesiastics in surplices, to venerate the body. They kneel
around the altar and sing a hymn to St. Margaret with its versicle,
response and prayer, "O Margarita pnitens," &c., and the
prayer ended, they return back as they came to the town.
goes down to the town and, as he does so, visits the Church of
St. Francis, where St. Margaret was wont to pray before an altar,
when the crucifix, now transferred to her own church, spoke to
her, addressing her as "Poverella," and asking her what she wished
for. In passing through the streets he sees how the people of
Cortona venerate "Santa Margherita." There is her statue on the
Piazza of the Cathedral, and at no great distance a picture of
the Saint before which several lamps are lighted to honour the
saint whom they so deeply love.
On the feast
itself, the pilgrims from Laviano, the birthplace of St. Margaret,
ascend the hill to the church to venerate the body of their countrywoman,
and as they come near, they sing a penitential hymn. They have
started in the early morning and walked the miles that separate
Laviano from Cortona, and arrive in time for the High Mass. After
the procession has entered the church, which already full, is
now packed with a dense crowd, the pilgrims come up to the altar.
They are headed by a picture of the Saint borne by a woman from
the village. Then comes the crucifix with lamps on either side,
and the processional cross, and after it the villagers and girls
complete the procession which passes several times round the High
Altar, above which is exposed the body of the Saint, and as they
do so, they sing hymns in plaintive notes. So crowded is the church
now, that even the choir of the Friars, which is behind the altar,
is filled with people, who, eager to see their Saint, find it
difficult or impossible to find room elsewhere. Those in the church
crowd up, clustering like a swarm of bees round the altar.
has come, and the officers of the municipality arrive to close
in the shrine; for the body of St. Margaret is under their custody.
First, however, the Father Guardian enters the church, vested
in a cope. He kneels with his attendants before the Altar, over
which hangs St. Margaret's crucifix, the very one that had spoken
to the Saint. After a few prayers have been said, and a curtain
drawn before the crucifix, he passes on to the High Altar, where
a hymn is sung and some prayers recited. When these are ended,
the Guardian rises, turns to the people and says, "Let us devoutly
recite a Pater, Ave, and Gloria in honour of St. Margaret, that
she may obtain for us a good and holy death." The prayer over,
the Guardian has mounted the Altar, and wipes with a cloth the
glass which closes in the shrine. He then draws a curtain before
it, and St. Margaret's body is lost to sight, but not to the love
and veneration of the pilgrim.
Father and his assistants have retired, the members of the municipality
now come forward. Two, with lighted candles, kneel at the side
of the altar, whilst other two close the shrine with a massive
iron bound board, which they lock in three places. They then place
before it an antependium, on which is a representation of the
Saint's body as it lies in the tomb. This too is locked, the candles
are extinguished, and the feast is over for that year.
May the love
of St. Margaret of Cortona be to us and to all poor sinners, a
pledge of God's goodness and infinite pity!