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Magdalena of the Cross

Spain, 1487–1560

A devout child, at the age of five she was praying in her church in Córdoba when she heard beautiful, ethereal music and a handsome young man with long black hair appeared before her. He was assumed to be Jesus himself, and word spread through the city.

She had visions; she fell into ecstasy. She made a lame man walk and a deaf man hear. Someone looked in her eyes when she was in a trance and saw the heavens and the Holy Trinity and the Communion of Saints. Terrified by her notoriety, she ran away from home to live in a cave and her guardian angel carried her back to her bed. Jesus appeared again to tell her that she was destined for great things, but that she should modify her severe penance and take care of her health. Ignoring him, at age ten she tried to crucify herself on a wall. Dying from the infected wounds, on Easter Sunday she tore off her bandages and said that Jesus had cured her. She stopped eating, but seemed healthy. She whipped herself bloody, but the wounds healed overnight. Strangely, two of her fingers had not grown; they remained the size of a small child’s. Some believed those were the fingers Jesus had touched in her first vision.

At seventeen she joined a Franciscan convent. She carried a heavy cross around the convent, kissed her companions’ feet, ate only the daily communion wafer. Her fame spread. On the day she took her vows and became Magdalena of the Cross, the archbishop himself came to the ceremony, and rather than exhorting her to Christian piety, as is usual, he asked her for her prayers. A dove descended from the ceiling of the cathedral, landed on her shoulder, and seemed to speak into her ear. Then it flew outside and rose straight up into the sky. The news traveled, people all over Spain wrote for help from her prayers, donations poured into the convent. She predicted various events that all came true.

Strangely, two of her fingers had not grown.

Then, on the day of the Feast of the Annunciation in 1518, she told her abbess that she was pregnant. She had never left the convent; the only man she saw was her confessor. Rumors circulated; her stomach grew; she increased her mortifications, whipping herself and walking on broken glass. The arch-bishop sent three midwives to examine her; her virginity was intact. Ignatius Loyola and a few others were skeptical, but it was decided that God works in mysterious ways and that this might well be the first Virgin Birth since Mary.

On Christmas Eve she announced that she was about to give birth, but that her guardian angel had told her she must do this completely alone to increase her suffering. She was locked in a little house; the whole convent prayed.

She later told them that at midnight she had given birth to a magnificent child who radiated blinding light; the cold air of her chamber had become warm. Her hair suddenly grew very fast so she could swaddle the child in it, and it miraculously turned from black to blonde and then to black again. (She still had a few of the blonde curls she had cut off, which she gave to the nuns as relics.) But on Christmas morning, she found herself alone, the baby gone, her breasts chapped from suckling. The midwives were called in again, and confirmed that she indeed had the marks of childbirth.

Thanks to this miracle, her convent became the richest in Spain. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, and Queen Isabella asked for a piece of her habit to wrap around their own expected baby, the future Prince Philip II, in order to give the royal child the “assistance of a living saint from birth, to envelop him in Divine grace.” The archbishop consulted Magdalena on the construction of a new cathedral and largely used the convent’s overflowing treasury to build it.

She was made the abbess of the convent and imposed severe mortifications and penances. The nuns were to crawl on their knees and make the sign of the cross with their tongues on each other’s shoes; cord whips were replaced with iron-tipped ones. Contrary to the tradition that self-mortification should be done in darkness and solitude, Mother Magdalena ordered that the nuns perform it with candles lit and in front of the others. They were encouraged to wear crowns of thorns and belts with spikes pointing inward, to kneel on nail-studded boards, to stretch out on the floor and have the other nuns walk over them. They were ordered to confess to graver sins than they had ever admitted, but as for Magdalena herself, St. Francis had appeared before her and told her she no longer needed to confess at all.

She was far more famous than her contemporary, Teresa of Ávila. The queen sent Magdalena her portrait; the king asked her to bless his banner before he set off on a military expedition; cardinals came to visit her; the pope asked for her prayers. But she became increasingly unpopular inside the convent, instituting rules—personally mandated to her by the Virgin Mary—that no one liked, refusing admission to girls from prominent families on the grounds that they had Jewish ancestors, indulging her favorites and punishing the others.

In 1543, she fell seriously ill and was near death, normally the moment for a confession of one’s entire life. But as soon as her confessor put on his stole, she went into convulsions. It was suspected that she might be possessed by demons. An exorcist was called. He noticed that in her ecstasies her eyes were not fixed, one of the hallmarks of true rapture. He stabbed her with a needle and she had no reaction. Then he dipped the needle in holy water and stabbed her again. She moaned, a sure sign of possession.

She was told she would not live to see the next Christmas. She suddenly sat up in bed and cried out: “1544! The forty years as announced! I am a cursed dog! Take me to Hell!” She screamed “revolting blasphemies,” rose into the air and was suspended there.

Another exorcist was called. Horrible words and demonic laughter issued from her mouth. The cardinal ordered an inquisitor to investigate, and gradually the story was revealed:

The beautiful young man she had seen as a child was not Jesus, but a devil named Balban, who turned into a shimmering mist and then into a monster with a toothless mouth, a wide, flat nose, and twisted horns, and then back into a beautiful young man again. He promised her fame for forty years if she consented always to obey him; he left the mark of the devil on the two fingers that never grew.

The nuns were to crawl on their knees and make the sign of the cross with their tongues on each other’s shoes; cord whips were replaced with iron-tipped ones.

The Inquisitor made the sign of the cross over her and she rolled on the floor, “striking indecent poses and mimicking the vile copulations that she had performed with Balban for nearly forty years.” The cries of ecstasy that the nuns had so often heard coming from her cell were the sounds of this satanic lovemaking.

It was Balban who secretly fed her all the years when she claimed to eat nothing but a communion wafer. Her pregnancy was a cruel joke they had played on the nuns and the clergy. She was impregnated with a monstrous caterpillar, which “escaped from her body with a loud wind that famous Christmas night, before changing into Balban, and re-possessing her with unprecedented vigor.”

Exorcised and repentant, Magdalena was sent to prison. She begged the Inquisition to consign her to the flames, but it was decided—perhaps to save face among the many influential people she had deceived—that the fault was the demon’s, influencing a young child, and that this pact with the devil had finally ended after forty years.

She was sent to another convent, where she lived for many more years in blameless expiation for her sins. In the end, “the great and small of her time were all later sure that her final deep humility and repentance had made her quite worthy of Paradise.”