Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Gemma Galgani

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Whinge, whinge, whinge. Gemma Galgani never seemed to stop.

Born to a well-to-do pharmacist in the Tuscan town of Capannori in 1878, Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani had a capable intellect, very pretty eyes and an astounding talent for attracting misfortune.

By the time she finished school, she had lost three of her seven siblings to illness. Her mother, Aurelia died after a long bout of tuberculosis when Gemma was only seven. Gemma herself suffered several illnesses and a severely infected foot during childhood. Her father died when she was 18, leaving his daughter to look after her remaining siblings. For the majority of her formative years, Galgani could be found suffering. Suffering and whingeing.

But nothing made the young Italian happier. Because Gemma, you see, was whingeing for Jesus.

Brought up a devout Catholic, Gemma took to religion like a duck to water. While other kids were running wild through the cobbled streets on their chubby little legs, playing and shouting and being urchins, Miss Galgani was sitting by her mother’s deathbed, chatting with angels about heaven and how awesome it probably is.

While attending a school run by the Sisters of St. Zita in Lucca, Gemma became increasingly interested in the Passion of Christ, otherwise known to less goddy people as ‘the bit in the Bible just before Jesus gets crucified’. In the evenings after school, she turned into a total God Nerd, shutting herself in her room to recite the rosary, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night for an extra prayer or two. No doubt her homework suffered, but who needs good marks down here on Earth when you’re swotting for the Rapture?

Gemma was well known around town for her generosity towards the poor. She would give them what little money she had, and when she had no money she would give them bread, flour, clothing or whatever she could get her hands on. She gave so much stuff away that her confessor, Monsignor Volpi, asked her to stop.

Gemma didn’t just pray. She saw and spoke with her guardian angel regularly, talking about Jesus and love and Heaven and Hell and favourite hairstyles and stuff.

Throughout all this, Gemma suffered. She suffered a lot. According to her autobiography, it appears she thought about sin and penance constantly, beating herself up for the slightest wayward thought and yearning for more suffering in order to atone for the sins of others. Sin made her ache. Sin made her cry. And she loved every minute of it. She recalled:

“Every time a fever came upon me and I felt ill I experienced a great consolation. But this changed to sorrow when, after some illness, I would feel my strength return.”

Galgani was the quintessential victim soul – chosen by God to endure pain and misery with joyous gratitude, to make up for those selfish, hell-bound bastards who wanted to be happy and sane all the time.

In 1898, Gemma won the martyr jackpot – she contracted meningitis. She spent months bedridden with the infection, crippled by pain, fever and weakness. Her family and townsfolk prayed for her, and although she came close to death (and, according to her, was visited by the Devil a few times to tempt her into not liking it), she survived the illness. Her recovery was largely due to the miraculous intervention of dead Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows and the even more dead Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. Presumably there were also a few doctors and other living people milling around trying to help, but I’m sure they only got in the way.

It was around this time that Galgani began to have some really top-notch visions of Christ and his associated hangers-on. One particular afternoon around Easter time, Jesus came to her in her room, and she asked Him why he loved her, to which He replied:

“I am burning with desire to unite myself with you. Hasten to receive me every morning. But remember that I am a father and a zealous spouse. Will you be my daughter and my faithful spouse?”

Thanks Jesus. Excellent response. Not creepy at all.

This excited Gemma beyond measure, but it was only the start. In June of 1898, she had a vision of her guardian angel and Mary, who gave her a bit of a cuddle and forgave all her sins before Jesus came to her again, with his crucifixion wounds shooting out fire, like some kick-ass tattoo design. Gemma felt pain in her hands, feet and heart, and when the vision subsided she found she was bleeding from wounds in those places. She had received the stigmata from Jesus! And even better – it hurt heaps! YAY!

For months afterwards, this amazing experience was repeated every Thursday night – a bit like The Footy Show, but slightly less painful. Galgani was completely stoked that she had been chosen for such holy and specific suffering.

But not everyone was convinced. Monsignor Volpi, Gemma’s spiritual teacher, planned to visit her during one of her sessions, accompanied by a doctor to bear witness. Upon hearing of the impending visit, Jesus spoke to Galgani again and said, “Tell your confessor that in the presence of the doctor I will do none of the things that he desires.” And He was right. When Volpi and the doctor were around, no stigmata appeared. That Jesus guy spoils everything.

Gemma Galgani finally got her ticket to Heaven on April 11, 1903, when she died of tuberculosis. In the years that followed, enough people in the Church were convinced of her supreme devotion and miraculous experiences to make her a saint. She was canonised in 1940 and is recognised as the patron saint of students, pharmacists, and spinal injury. To other, much less respectful people, she is recognised as a pretty lady who saw a lot of spooky stuff after her brain got infected.

Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity