Unsung Heroines: Self-Worth takes Time: The Transformation of Angela di Foligno by Elisabeth Schilling

Angela di Foligno was a 13th century Umbrian Franciscan mystic who began her initiation on the spiritual path when she was almost 40. She was officially declared as saint in October of 2013. Her works were dictated to a relative who was scribe and a Franciscan brother in the church, and so we unfortunately do not have access to the complete depth and intimacies of her ecstatic visions and commentary (both she and her scribe discuss how he was writing in such haste and fear from admonishment from his religious brothers that it is a “short and defective version” of her experience). Nevertheless, as readers, there is still so much for us to gain in terms of inspiration and commiseration.

In “The First Twenty Steps of the Blessed Angela in the Way of Penance and Spiritual Perfection,” the Franciscan saint details the arduous journey of mastering both fear and love, a requirement to evolving in our human consciousness to realize our divine spark and transform shame. I want to discuss three aspects of this journey that relate specifically, as I see it, to the challenges set forth by many women: love for the body, love for one’s relational boundaries, and love for one’s time and space. Most cultures fail to honor women in all of their desires and powers, and so we must learn to honor ourselves and each other. Angela, as we shall see, was fiercely willing to honor herself.

The Body

Shame is mentioned by Angela throughout the Twenty Steps and is prevalent in religious Christian spiritual writings, most obviously with a general reference to sin. Shame is a visceral emotion, one that destroys self-worth. According to the OED, shame is “the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances” (“shame, n.” 1.a.). Etymological connections can be made to the Germanic word hame, which indicates a covering, such as that which a serpent discards. Shame is a feeling that something about our selves is wrong, that our spirit or soul is a stain, and can prompts us to hide our truths, repress our reality, and doubt ourselves. In my experience, many women are still not conditioned throughout a young age to develop brazen confidence and love of self as young men often are. Many cultures fail to love and honor women’s desires, sensuality, and bodies, and it takes time and energy to unlearn such lessons, even in private communication with the self. In the 8th step, Angela is in the midst of an ecstatic meditation on the divine, and in her passion and gratitude, she was “set [. . .] so afire” and says, “I stripped myself of all my clothing and offered my whole self to [Christ].” According to the footnote of the text I am using, St. Francis once stripped down in the public town square of Assisi as a sign of his own spiritual commitment. But Angela, perhaps cognizant of attitudes about female bodies, immediately promises that she will not “offend him again with any of [her] bodily members, accusing them one by one.” To acknowledge our divine spark, to be led by love, is to understand our shame for what it is: something that belongs to society, parenting, religion, and not to us. How might humanity be healed if women were encouraged to celebrate all parts of their bodies, finding them sacred and worthy of being respected, loved, and seen? 

Relational Boundaries

Within the discussion of the 9th step, Angela discusses how she remained a daughter, wife and mother. She dictates, “it came to pass, God so willing, that at that time my mother, who had been a great obstacle to me, died. In like manner my husband died, as did all my sons in a short space of time. Because I had already entered the aforesaid way, and had prayed to God for their death, I felt a great consolation when it happened” and refers to their passing as a favor from God. This passage indicates for me that Angela felt challenged by the family ties and her role and relationship with family. She felt the difficulty of removing one’s self from ties that no longer serve. Angela perhaps could not imagine her liberation from these roles outside of the extreme situation of death. Not many of us would go to such extremes in our thinking, but it does point to the potential entrapment of women in relationships and roles they wish to move on from or evolve. Sometimes, due to the deep desire not to hurt feelings and also to the absence of cultural practices of ending even friendships that do not serve or of going no-contact with family members who do not respect boundaries, or even just due to the difficulty some women feel of ending romantic relationships with certain people for various reasons such as safety or guilt, many women stay in relationships longer than they actually wish to.

Time and Space

Essential to Angela’s spiritual journey were times of intense and ecstatic meditation and visualizations that helped Angela experience feelings of gratitude and love, allowing her to release repressed emotions by weeping, feeling her body physically overcome by the energies and frequencies that she was generating in such states. It was her desire to spend long hours alone in a private space to reach these states, and it is clear that, as Angela dedicated more and more time to encountering divinity, she spoke less of fear, shame, and a lack of feeling love. She gained the ability and habit of focusing more on divine acceptance, which indicates she was increasing her confidence and feelings of self-worth. But it takes effort to carve out time and space for meditation and the spiritual and intellectual activity we might feel is necessary for our own progress, and sometimes we might feel we have the burden of assuring others that we are choosing to engage our bodies and selves in this way, that we are not sick or possessed, as Angela describes. In detailing her 19th step, Angela says that one time, during a particular meditation and contemplation, “it was so great that for most of that day I remained standing in my cell where I was praying, strictly confined and alone. My heart was so overwhelmed with delight that I fell to the ground [. . .]. My companion then came to me and thought that I was on the verge of death or already dead. I was annoyed because she had disturbed me in that very great consolation.” Often men have chosen solitary lives in order to focus on the work they desire to do, or are able to carve out time while other people in their lives take care of domestic or secretarial duties. So often does my heart ache when it is clear that a celebrated and well-known text was significantly edited and contributed to by ideas in conversations, perhaps even completely written from paltry notes or outlines, by wives, lovers, female partners and students whose names get recognition in passing on an Acknowledgements page instead of what should sometimes be a place of co- or sole author. It should be no surprise that women throughout history have also strived to find ways, and continue to do so, to carve out time and space to do the work we feel destined to do.

In conclusion, I appreciate that Angela included, among various other topics, the importance of dealing with shame, her struggle with relationships, and her fight for time and space, in so giving us a commentary on the particular predicament of women, our bodies, the roles we might be compelled to play in relationships, and what we have to do to achieve or a life where we have time and space for ourselves in our intellectual and spiritual evolution. To take all these things for ourselves and love our bodies, souls, and minds requires self-worth, and it seems Angela of Foligno suggests that for some of us, we can find this in meditation and spiritual persistence.

BIO: Elisabeth Schilling is a professor of philosophy, literature, and creative writing in Colorado. She was awarded her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 2014. Formerly known as Lache S.



Categories: Feminism and Religion, Feminism and Spirituality, General, Unsung Heroines

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4 replies

  1. Wonderful essay… I want to point out that shame not only destroys sense of self but can be passed on intergenerationally by those who refuse to own their own shame. I was born with it – only as an adult did I finally begin to throw off the chains – no easy task.

    To pray for the death of a tormenter is a frightening prospect but intolerable torment will create this situation… I went through a period of 4 months wishing my mother was dead BUT refused to give into it…I think this refusal is probably a good thing but I would never pass judgement on anyone.

    Being alone can also engender great joy which is a form of spiritual sustenance. Yesterday it sleeted. I did nothing but write and watch birds and my dogs – utter peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this article. I am getting more and more convinced that our global turmoil has it’s basis in the difference between male and female energies, that over centuries the aggressive nature men has overpowered that of the female. As a result differences now are not reconciled but fought over. Both men and women share basic attributes of the need to be nurturing, protective, to be aggressive when necessary and to be compassionate and empathetic when possible. The problem is that the male energy has overpowered that of the female. Until women take back their power to be heard and listened to we are at risk of destroying not only our planet but ourselves as well.

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