The Wounds of Love: St. Birgitta of Sweden

Galatians 2:19-20; John 15:1-8

I once instructed a woman in the RCIA program who excelled in her studies of the faith. After receiving the sacraments she moved away and I lost track of her. Years later, I learned that she had stopped practicing the faith. She was now “spiritual but not religious.” I think that means she believes that while there is a spiritual dimension to the world, it isn’t what we understand as the faith most fully revealed to us in Christ.

The sticking point for her, as for many, may well have been the passion and death of our Lord. Indeed, the crucifixion was called by St. Paul a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). But to one of the saints, St. Birgitta of Sweden, the crucifixion held a special place; it was the nexus of the physical and spiritual worlds.

Birgitta lived a life full of the joys and sorrows of family. Born in Sweden around the year 1303, the daughter of a governor, by age 42 she had already been a wife for 28 years and a widow for one. She had a wide and deep experience of motherhood; as mother of 4 boys and 4 girls, she saw one daughter run off to marry a troublemaker, one son die as a boy, one as a man, and another daughter grow up to become St. Catherine of Sweden.

She also knew the life of the working world. While raising her own children she served as lady-in-waiting to the queen of Sweden. Her kind, motherly way drew her into the confidence of the king and queen, both of whom tended to enjoy worldly life too much for their own good. Birgitta worked as hard as she could to keep their religious concerns before them; this became a frustrating and unfortunately futile struggle.

Finally, Birgitta knew the religious life as well. After becoming a widow and devoting herself to care of the poor, who greatly loved her, she dedicated buildings and land on family property to a new contemplative order. She wrote the rule for her order which became known as the Order of the Most Holy Savior.

At the same time, Birgitta lived a full life in the spiritual world. She was a mystic. At age seven, she had a vision of being crowned by the Blessed Mother. Three years later came her most profound mystical experience: The crucified Christ appeared to her and bid her gaze upon him. When she asked who had so cruelly treated him, he replied, “Those who despise me and spurn my love for them.” This was her own Damascus road moment; although she had many visions, dreams, and locutions afterwards, she devoted the rest of her life to the contemplation of Christ’s suffering.

After wisely consulting her spiritual advisor and obtaining his approval, Birgitta began to share her visions with the world. She met with Magnus, the king of Sweden, and advised him that Christ would visit a plague on the land if he and the queen did not change their ways. As usual, he laughed off her vision. The Black Death came two years later, wiping out half the population. Needless to say, the king stopped laughing.

Birgitta next focused her attention on the popes, who had long since deserted Rome in fear for their lives. Leaving Sweden with her daughter Catherine, she moved to Rome. In the midst of its crumbling churches and society, Birgitta ministered to the sick, fed the poor, housed pilgrims, and called on the pope to return. Her call took on a special intensity due to her dislike of pope Clement VI, who she called “a murderer of souls, more unjust than Pilate and more cruel than Judas.” During a thunderstorm on the night of December 3rd 1350, lightning struck the bells of St. Peter’s, melting them. Birgitta prophesied this as a sign that Clement’s life was coming to an end. He died a few days later. When the next pope fled to get away from her Birgitta literally chased him down, begged him to approve her order, which he did, and to return to Rome, which he did not do. After her death in 1373, her call for the popes to return was taken up by St. Catherine of Siena. Not long after, the papacy returned to Rome to stay. Birgitta was vindicated.

In the first reading, St. Paul wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Galatians 2:19-20).

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Birgitta’s life is a testament to the triumph of St. Paul’s words. From the moment of that first overwhelming spiritual encounter with the suffering, crucified Christ when she was 10 years old, she began to internalize them; to sense as we all must, not only the pain of Christ’s passion but the passion behind his pain. The ultimate reality of the cross is love, a love so great it unites heaven and earth, the physical and spiritual. What else could it be but love that would cause God himself to take on our humanity, our sinfulness, and in the face of humanity’s rejection, nail it to the cross? Birgitta spent her life contemplating not the pain of futility but the pain which Oscar Wilde called the wounds of love. In her own way, St. Birgitta spent her life showing her family, her king, her people, and her pope that this is not only a love worth dying for; it is a love worth living for – eternally.

St. Birgitta, pray for us.

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