Christina’s story was saved for posterity by the 13th century monk, Thomas de Cantimpre. Writing almost a century after events, he can hardly be considered a reliable source and indeed, some of the events in question would beggar belief.
Christina was born in Belgium in 1150. Orphaned at fifteen she was sent up into the hills as a shepherd where she spent long periods alone and communing with God who, Cantimpre tells us, ‘very often visited her with heavenly secrets’.
Six years later she apparently passed away. According to Cantimpre, ‘she grew sick in body by virtue of the exercise of inward contemplation and she died’. During her requiem mass the next day her coffin lid sprang open and Christina herself flew out, ascending to the rafters of the church, remaining there until coaxed down by the priest at the end of the mass. Questioned as to what had been going on, she claimed that she had visited Purgatory, where she recognised many familiar faces, and then Heaven, where God gave her the choice of remaining there with Him or returning to earth to suffer and ‘by these sufferings to deliver all those souls on whom you had compassion in that place of purgatory’.
Taking the altruistic option she came back to earth, spending the next fifty-odd years battered and buffeted by a variety of bizarre experiences. She was particularly afflicted by what she believed to be the stench of human sin, an odour she found so disagreeable that, to escape it, she would leap into treetops or inside hot ovens from which she later emerged unscathed. In feats of endurance surpassing by far even those of David Blaine she would ‘roll around and around in fire’ or ‘linger in icy water’.
Cantimpre also describes what would appear to be grand mal attacks: ‘.... suddenly and unexpectedly she would be ravished in spirit and her body would roll and whirl around like a hoop. ..... When she had whirled around for a long time in this manner, it seemed as if she became weakened by the violence of her rolling and her limbs grew quiet .... then after a time restored to her former self she rose up like one who was drunk.’ During these fits she believed herself to descend into purgatory where she took upon herself the torture being inflicted on the souls there to give them some respite.
The ‘stench’ which Christina experienced could be another indication of pathology, unpleasant olfactory auras often being a result of simple partial seizure. Baxendale* suggests that the ‘death’ Christina experienced in her early twenties could have been a prolonged period of status epilepticus. This, along with concomitant respiratory compromise, cardiac arrhythmias and profound post-ictal coma could have precipitated the seizures which affected her for the rest of her life.
Historically individuals with similar symptomatologies were either revered as saints or hounded as being possessed by demons. Christina seems to have straddled those two categories, experiencing both divine visions and demonic torment. Contemporary opinion about her was divided and the Church, despite its penchant for masochist activities on the part of its holy men and women, has never promoted her life as an example of piety to be emulated.
Although never canonised, Christina is included in Butler’s Lives of the Saints and is regarded by some as the patron saint of mental illness.
Her story is told in this powerful and haunting song by Nick Cave.
*Baxendale, S; (2008) The intriguing case of Christina the Astonishing. NEUROLOGY , 70 (21) 2004 - 2007.