The Chaotic Life of Saint Christina the Astonishing: Levitator, Tomb Dweller, Icon
|Born||1150, modern day Belgium|
|Died||24 July 1224, modern day Belgium|
|Patronage||Mental health workers, people with mental health disorders|
|Veneration||Not officially approved by the Catholic Church|
Anyone that thinks Christian history is boring has never looked into the lives of the Saints. The Roman Catholic Church recognises over 10,000 of them and it doesn’t take much digging to find some pretty wild stories. While some saints met incredibly gruesome ends (St. Bartholomew was flayed alive) and others lead fascinating lives (Joan of Arc was a military leader at the age sixteen), Christina the Astonishing lived her life in what appeared to be constant, unapologetic chaos. Was she chosen by God? Clinically insane? Deeply eccentric? Possessed by a demon? No one knew what to make of her 900 years ago, and there’s certainly no point trying to make sense of her today. Because as her story shows, she wasn’t called Christina the Astonishing for nothing.
It all began when twenty-one year old Christina had a seizure so severe that it left her — as far as everyone was aware — absolutely 100% dead. So you can imagine their shock when the young woman not only woke up during her funeral Mass, but proceeded to levitate up to the ceiling of the church. After landing gracefully on the alter at the request of an alarmed priest, she proclaimed to the astonished crowd that her soul had just been on a pretty crazy journey. Angels gave her, Christian claimed, a tour of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory à la the Devine Comedy (written about 150 years later). The highlight of her expedition was the eternal torment and suffering of souls trapped in Purgatory. Her angel guides then offered her a deal: either she goes straight to Heaven or she returns to Earth to save the souls of sinners so they too can reach Heaven. Christina chose the latter.
When she awoke, Christina was staring down at her funeral attendees covered in severe burn marks (because Hell is hot), but the burns healed quickly without scarring. Because she exhibited signs of what some may call possession, Christina was initially thrown in jail. After her release she devoted her life to the practice of extreme penance. But according to those who knew her, Christina was really, really weird. Cardinal Jacques de Vitny, a chronicler of the Crusades, knew Christina personally and had some fairly wild things to say about her. As did Dominican scholar Thomas of Cantimpre who wrote The Life of Christina of St Trond eight years after her (actual) death. Among her peculiar qualities included:
- Levitating away from people she didn’t want to be near (she claimed sinners had a rancid smell)
- Living in a tree in the woods because the smell of sinners was unbearable, surviving by drinking her own breast milk, and hanging upside down from the tree like a bat when she prayed
- Hanging out in tombs for extended periods of time
- Exposing herself to extreme temperatures via fire and freezing water without any visible harm, as well as occasionally hiding in ovens, jumping in boiling cauldrons, etc
- Being intentionally dragged under a watermill wheel without drowning
- Constant fasting to be as light as possible as part of her penance (but probably also for easier levitating)
While performing her more physically brutal feats, Christina would shriek and cry in extreme, unfiltered pain. But she always emerged without a single mark on her body or any continued sign of distress. And these are only the things other people saw her doing… who knows what else she got up to when she was by herself.
It’s said that Christina purposely put herself through physically painful trials as a way to emulate the suffering of the souls she had seen in Purgatory. It’s also possible (and more likely) that Christina was completely insane. Either way, despite her erratic behaviour no one had anything bad to say about her. According to the prioress of Saint Catherine’s convent, Christina was very well behaved and never acted out of turn when she lived at the Benedictine convent during the second half of her life. She also received praises from Blessed Marie of Oignies (patron of women in labour) as well as Saint Lutgardis (patron of childbirth) and her friend Louis, Count of Looz. While she was an odd duck, Christina was a good enough person that her strange behaviour didn’t stop her from being admired for her extreme penance. But bringing up that one time she lived in a tree and drank her own breast milk was probably an easy way for her to get out of an unwanted conversation.
Despite her close encounter with death, Christina lived to the relatively old age of 74. And while she hasn’t been officially venerated by the Catholic Church, Christina maintains a dedicated population of devotees in her native Belgium. While her patronage of mental health makes sense in hindsight, she would also be a great candidate for the patron saint of introversion — if I had the option of levitating away when my social battery was running low, I would do it in a heartbeat.
Sources and Additional Reading
CatholicSaints.Info – Saint Christina the Astonishing
ChurchPop – The True Story of St. Christina the Astonishing, the Indestructible Miracle-Woman (2016)
Weird Catholic – The Astonishing Christina (2020)
Wikipedia – Christina the Astonishing