St. Aldobrandesca was a mystic in thirteenth-century Siena, Italy. She was a popular curiosity in the town because of her many visions, ecstasies, and miracles. Once, for example, a hospital maid came upon Aldobrandesca when she was in a trance. The saint appeared to be cataleptic—muscles rigid, unconscious, and without feeling. Aldobrandesca’s biographer says the woman screamed in fear, summoning everyone to see her whom she thought was dead. Some were amazed, others amused. They began to punch and pinch her, to prick her with pins and to burn her fingers with candle flames. When she returned to her senses and felt her entire body in excruciating pain, she simply said: “May God forgive you.”
That act of forgiveness tells us more about Aldobrandesca than all of her paranormal experiences. Visions and ecstasies may be evidence of a supernatural touch, but mercy expressed to others is a sure sign of divine love. We honor Aldobrandesca as a saint for her charity, not for her trances.
As a young woman Aldobrandesca had reluctantly acquiesced to the marriage her parents arranged, but she seems to have grown to love her husband. However, he died young, leaving her a childless widow. Aldobrandesca decided to remain celibate and dedicate herself to a life of prayer. She associated herself with the Humiliati, an order of penitents who served the poor and the sick.
Aldobrandesca’s biographer says she had to fight persistent sexual temptations. Erotic memories of relations with her husband bothered her, and she tried to fight them off by wearing a hair shirt. Aldobrandesca’s biographer assures us that it worked, but her ever more extreme bodily penances suggest that the temptation never faded. Gradually, Aldobrandesca simplified her life, giving away her money and belongings. In her old age she moved to a hospital, where she could care for the sick and the poor. Aldobrandesca also made good use of her spiritual gifts:
A certain boy who suffered great pains throughout his body was cured as soon as Aldobrandesca made the sign of the cross over him. No other remedy than the saint’s sign of the cross was needed for a girl whose face was so puffed up that one eye was entirely closed. Nor was any other remedy needed for a woman who was gravely ill with breast cancer. The doctor had recommended surgery to another woman with breast cancer, but Aldobrandesca reached the poor woman first. When the saint anointed the woman with blessed oil and made the sign of the cross over her, the tumor disappeared.
Aldobrandesca performed her charitable works daily right up to her death on April 26, 1310.