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The truly faithful experience probing, perceiving, touching the Incarnate Word of Life, as He Himself says in the Gospel: 'If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him.'
'He who loves me, I will reveal myself to him.' God enables such an experience and the doctrine concerning it to be fully verified. Recently, He has once again done so through one of His faithful to meet the devotional needs of His own. What follows is a very incomplete, weakened and truncated description of it.1
Thus does Fra. A., later known as Fra. Arnaldo, sound the opening note of his redaction of the Memorial, which contains the essentials of the spiritual journey of the Bl. Angela of Foligno, one of the greatest, yet too little known, mystics of the Franciscan and Christian traditions. The second part of what is referred to as her Book contains letters and instructions compiled by mostly unknown secretaries. These highlight Angela's role as spiritual mother, among others, of the turbulent Ubertino of Casale.
Born in 1248, some twenty years after the death of St. Francis, Angela married, had children and led a loose and unconscious life before her conversion which occurred when she was about thirty-seven years old. After a pivotal numinous experience which took place in Assisi, six years after she “had begun the way of penance” at the insistence of Fra. Arnaldo, her confessor, she began to dictate the thirty steps which had led her to the heights of mystical union with God. Arnaldo transcribed these steps as best he could, rapidly translating into Latin what Angela had told him in her Umbrian dialect. He repeatedly professes that he did not want to add one word which was not hers.
The material at hand, the imprints of the eternal in Angela's life, are abundant - even superabundant. Countless visions, locutions, ecstasies, moments of awesome presence and dreadful absence mediate the disclosure of the divine in her itinerary. We cannot here hope to cover the entire ground. As a consequence, we will proceed as synthetically as possible, indicating only some of the major events and channels through which God chose to manifest Himself to her, transform her and lead her to the deep abysses of His life. 2
In one of the instructions found in the second part of her book, Angela provides a helpful general framework for our presentation. Teaching on the perils of spiritual love, she enumerates three basic transformations that God operates in the soul: 1) imitation of the works of the passionate God-Man which manifest the will of God; 2) union with God accompanied by powerful feelings and consolations which, nonetheless, can find expression in words and thoughts; and 3) a most perfect union with God in which the soul feels and tastes Him in a way beyond thoughts and words.
1. Imitation of the Works of the Passionate God-Man
The first arrows of God's love which pierced Angela struck fear in her soul. When she began on the road of penance, she was around thirty-seven years old and in a state of chaos and disarray - a seething cauldron of undifferentiated emotion. In this Dantean “dark wood,” fearing that she was being damned to hell, Angela took cognisance of her sins and wept profusely.
It is significant to note that at the onset of her conversion, Angela turned to St. Francis who appeared to her in a dream and asked him to find her a good confessor to whom she could unburden herself. The Poverello was to be a central source of inspiration throughout her journey. He appears in a number of visions recorded in the Memorial and in the second part of her book and was Angela's model who informed her life with meaning and pattern along the path of Gospel perfection. Indeed, at one point he told her, “You are the only one born of me.”
Another mediator of God's grace who surfaced in the early stages was Arnaldo, Angela's Franciscan confessor, her cousin and chaplain to the Bishop of Foligno. Through her first “good confession” to him, Angela experienced something of God's mercy, the lifting of the heavy veil of shame and guilt which had fettered her to her sinful past. The role Arnaldo subsequently played, not only as the redactor of Angela's story but also as her spiritual director and as a catalyst for her growth, was inestimable.
The initial phases of Angela's development were characterised by bitter struggle and effort - a season of purification through suffering - wherein she was enabled to reorient her affectivity, 3 strip herself of her possessions, and gradually yield her heart to Christ (“go naked to the Cross”) who, through the mediation of His crucifixion, was manifesting God's love to her. It was indeed the crucified Christ who granted Angela, on the one hand, knowledge of her false and sinful self and, on the other hand, the experience of God's forgiveness and the healing of bitter memories.
In these early stages, visions of the Crucified increasingly quickened Angela's journey. Her inner lens became more and more focused as the ties with her newfound Love were intensified. She “gazes,” “finds refuge at the foot of the Cross,” “enters into the pain” endured therein by the Blessed Virgin and St. John, “focuses her attention” on this pain, receives a vision of Christ's heart, sees each of the wounds He suffered on the Cross, and then later places her mouth on the wound on His side as if “drinking and being purified by the blood flowing from it.”
In the seventeenth step, the quality of Angela's faith took a quantum leap. She says of it that the Blessed Virgin gave her a faith that was “completely other” than what she had before. “Until then,” she says, “my faith was as if dead in comparison.” It would seem that what had occurred was Angela's definitive entrance and passage into the mystical state. To be sure, her journey up to this point had been mystical in nature. The step-by-step illuminations she had received to enlighten her way, the powerful visions of the crucified Christ, the beginnings of divine consolation which she had begun to taste were all direct and immediate experiences of the presence of God. It was, however, only at this seventeenth step that she became conscious that she had acquired a foothold, as it were, in the transcendental realm.
This step produced the effect of altering the quality of Angela's contemplation. Lifted to a new level of perception by means of the symbol of the cross which unified and “recollected” her powers, she was now inwardly “still” enough to receive a new, hitherto inexperienced, inflow of divine life. In fact, she confessed that through visions, “beautiful dreams,” and meditations on the Scriptures, she was given “increasing sweetness within her soul from God” and “took such delight in divine favours that she not only forgot all worldly attachments but even herself.” When describing the visions which occurred in this step, Angela speaks of being “led” into them.
As a result of her momentary but very powerful absorption into God, Angela's psyche was strung to such a high point of tension that whenever she heard God being mentioned, she shrieked. Likewise, whenever she saw paintings of the Passion of Christ, she could hardly bear it and fell feverish and sick.
Angela's “first great experience of the sweetness of God” occurred in the nineteenth step. Graced with new purpose, she could no longer be content with half-measures. She desired to possess Christ totally: “I want neither gold nor silver;” she prays, “even if you gave me the whole world, I want only you.”
The response to Angela's passionate desire to find Christ far exceeded her expectations. The inner voice tells her: “Hurry, for as soon as you have finished [the distribution of your belongings], the entire Trinity will come into you.” Although she was stunned and doubted the veracity of the promise, by the end of the nineteenth step, we find her “on tiptoes” in eager expectation of its fulfillment.
The crossing of the threshold into temporary mystical union with Christ which occurred towards the end of this period dovetails into the second section of our presentation: “union with God accompanied by powerful feelings and consolations which, nonetheless, can find experience in words and thought.”
II. Union with God accompanied
by powerful feelings and consolations
which can find expression in words and thoughts
Much like the classic division of purgation, illumination, and union, the framework we have adopted for our study must not be understood as distinctive and successive stages in spiritual development but rather as dominant notes of interlapping moments which occur throughout Angela's spiritual ascension. The image of the spiral is more appropriate to describe the alternation between sunshine and shade through which Angela accelerated, switching back and forth and zig-zagging towards her goal, the oscillations - sometimes great and sometimes small - between moments of rapturous visions and those of deep contrition, doubt and desolation: girans gyrando vadit spiritus.
Thus, even if the experience of mystical union with Christ had already been initiated in the previous steps, what predominated during this period was Angela's deeper insertion into the divine reality. As she herself often repeated, her mystical experience blossomed and unfolded from “within,” that is, in identity and union with Christ.
The twentieth or the first supplementary step (Arnaldo was lost in his notes at this point and condensed the remaining ten steps into seven) marks a high point of Angela's itinerary: the fulfillment of the promise of the indwelling of the Trinity in her soul. The theophany occurred while she was on pilgrimage to Assisi to implore St. Francis that he obtain from God that she “feel Christ,” that she be faithful to the rule of the Third Order as she had recently promised, and above all that she “become and end up truly poor.”
The full meaning of what took place on this pilgrimage seemed to disclose itself to Angela's consciousness or rather, in Arnaldo's reconstruction, in successive stages. In the initial numinous experience which occurred while she was at a crossing on the road to Assisi near Spell, what predominated was an awareness of the Holy Spirit who promised her “a consolation which she has never tasted before.” What followed was an awakening of her inner senses, a moment of rapture in which she saw the created universe resplendent with God's presence and herself as if one with it. Afterwards, an intense feeling of Christ's presence accompanied her as, spellbound, she proceeded to the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It was while she knelt before a stained glass window depicting St. Francis set within Christ that the theophany was to come to a stunning climax.4 Angela heard Christ telling her:
Thus I will hold you closely; and much more so than can be imagined with the eyes of the body. For now is the hour my temple, my delight, when I will fulfill what I told you; for as to this consolation it will depart from you; but I will never depart from you; but I will never depart from you, if you love me.
It was at this point, as she later related to Arnaldo, that Angela became fully conscious that the Holy Trinity had established a dwelling place in her: first the Holy Spirit, then Christ who was crucified for her, and finally the fullness of the Triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit - “something assembled together yet most simple.” When pressed by Arnaldo to be more explicit about what she had seen, Angela said, “I saw a fullness of such immense majesty that words fail me to express it. But it seemed to me that it was the All Good.”
With this extraordinary vision Angela crossed another threshold in her mystical ascent. It was the time of betrothal, the pledge of final union. God told her:
Little wonder, then, that even if this vision withdrew itself “gracefully” and “gently,” the awestruck widow of Foligno began to shout and shriek almost inarticulately as she rolled on the pavement at the entrance to the Basilica: “Unknown love! Why, why, why?” This is the cry of the wounded lover, the wild prayer of longing before the tremendum magnum, the totally Other, who has deigned to stoop down to her and now is seemingly slipping from her grasp.
Returning to Foligno, the after-effects of this divine disclosure continued to make themselves felt. Angela was enthralled in a state of languor for eight days, hardly able to speak, move around, or “even say the Our Father.” Masazuola, her companion, was witness to the outward visibility of this new state. She testified that she had seen Angela in a state of ecstasy during which a magnificent star with rays of outstanding beauty emanated from her side, unfolding and coiling towards heaven. Angela's body, momentarily incandescent, was emitting signals of its redemption.
In the five supplementary steps we are now covering, one finds a heightening of Angela's perception of Christ's Passion, an ever deepening penetration into the density of the mystery of the Cross. It is as if, at this stage of her spiritual journey, she had acquired sufficient selfhood and had been so transformed by God's love that she no longer experienced the events of the Cross as an onlooker, but as if she were re-enacting the Passion in the inmost parts of her being, from within the events themselves.
In this vision, Angela perceived how the splendour and beauty of Christ's crucified body shone through His sufferings. She felt Christ within her who embraced her with the arm with which He was crucified. She entered within the side of Christ, “a joy impossible to describe.” She was also led to understand how Christ suffered more in His soul than in His body, more in the “mantle” of His divinity than in His humanity. One by one, the great afflictions which He suffered on the Cross are enumerated and, she says, she saw “more of the Passion than she ever heard spoken of.” For three days she was caught up in a vision of Christ and the Blessed Virgin in their glorified state. Finally, in a vision which took place on Holy Saturday in 1294, Angela was given to enter into a mysterious communion with those events which took place in Jesus during the Holy Triduum, a prelude to further such experiences. Rapt in spirit, she found herself in the sepulchre together with Christ. She saw Him,eyes closed lying there dead. ... A most wonderful and indescribable odour emanated from His mouth as she kissed it. ... She then placed her cheek against Christ's own and He in turn placed His hand against her other cheek and pressed her closely to Him.
The stunning identification with Christ crucified which expanded Angela's capacity to love marks these five supplementary steps of Angela's journey. To be sure, this expansion of love was accompanied by periods of doubt, temptation, persecution and despair. The alternation of God's presence and absence - “the game of love which God plays with the soul” - caused Angela moments of great suffering and further purification. During this time, “Christ's faithful one” (as Arnaldo now calls her) was given to understand that these dark moments were of value and meaning as vehicles for her growth and development. If she suffered and wanted to suffer - even to die a martyr's death - she realised that such suffering had value not for its own sake but because of her love of the suffering Christ. Suffering thus quickened Angela's desire and became a means of expression and expansion. The more deeply she shared in its reality the more certain she became that the divine life was present within her and that suffering is a necessary companion of love. It was the thread with which her joys were woven.
In the third supplementary step, Angela provides a startling example of the reality of suffering and Christ's power to transform it into joy. She and her companion had gone “to meet Christ” among the lepers in the hospital in Foligno. After drinking of the water which she used to wash the sores of one of the lepers, she reported that it was “so extremely sweet that it was as if I had received communion.” This is surely a thoroughly Franciscan example: Christ and the leper mutually inform one another as icons of divine disclosure.5
These five supplementary steps also record a number of visions connected with the Eucharist, the great sacrament of mystical experience for Angela as well as for so many other mystics. She saw, for instance, the Host resplendent with such beauty that “it surpasses the splendour of the sun.” “Two most splendid eyes” gazed at her, extending beyond the edges of the Host. And in still another Eucharistic vision, The Christ child was seated on a throne magnificently adorned. One such vision merits special attention. Once after receiving Communion, God spoke to her as follows: “I want to show you something of my power.” And immediately the eyes of the soul were opened and in a vision I beheld the fullness of God's presence encompassing the whole of creation, that is, what is on this side and what is beyond the sea, the abyss, the sea itself and everything else. And in everything that I saw, I could perceive nothing except the presence of the power of God, and in a manner totally indescribable. And my soul in excess of wonder cried out, “This world is pregnant with the presence of God” (pregnans di Deo).
The close association that Angela saw between her visions of the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ must be noted. Both are supreme examples of divine self-giving, power manifesting itself in weakness (kenosis) and elevating the soul to a higher level of intimacy with Christ. This is a central characteristic of Angela's spirituality.
Impressive and central as are these visions and colloquies with Christ crucified and those surrounding the Eucharist which mark these five steps, the formless visions which occurred during this period are even more striking and indicative of the mystical heights to which Angela had attained. Here Angela saw God in the attributes of some of His divine perfections, namely Beauty, Wisdom, Power, Humility, Love, Will, Justice, and All Good. These experiences, if not as graphically depicted as were the preceding ones, far exceed them in their suggestive and enticing power. The ineffable bursts alive in her, combining the transcendental and the personal, a state at once sublime and totally inexpressible.6
What Angela discovered through the transformations wrought through these five steps was the increasing assurance of God's tender and special love for her: “I love you more than any woman in the valley.” More intimately and securely she knows that “God is the love of the soul.” In fact, “there is nothing in Him but love and He requires nothing more of the soul that it love Him in return.” More deeply united and identified with the love and will of Christ, at this point Angela was so certain of God's presence (the seven signs of certitude dictated to Arnaldo), that she spoke of having attained, on the one hand, a true knowledge of self - of her poverty and nothingness - and, on the other hand, a true knowledge of the overwhelming kindness of God.
A dark night, however, loomed ahead and her spiritual edifice had to collapse before the third transformation could occur: a most perfect union with God in which the soul feels and tastes Him in a way beyond words and thoughts.
III A most perfect union with God which no words or thoughts can express
So total was Angela's integration at the conclusion of supplementary step five that one is taken aback by the complete breakdown in the sixth one and, in the seventh, the almost simultaneous propulsion to the summit of her mystical journey - the great visions of God in, with, and beyond the darkness. The redactional problem is complex. The sequence of events is not clear. These two final steps seem to form part of an immense tableau in which the most sublime visions are interlaced with experiences of the greatest suffering and despair - the latter fading after a while but not totally. 7
Since it is impossible to determine precisely how these two opposite experiences were mingled or to what extent they succeeded one another, we must, of necessity, follow Arnaldo's procedure and comment upon them separately.
Nothing prepares us for the unexpected swing back and plunge into the swirling whirlpool of darkness with which the sixth supplementary step begins. We can only surmise that it was an inner event, the dark night so common among great mystics and of which John of the Cross was later to give the most complete and penetrating description.
The storm, “the horrible darkness,” bearing down on Angela had devastating effects on both her body and soul. The only comparison that came to her mind to describe her state of desolation was that of “a man hanged by the neck who, with His hands tied behind him and His eyes blindfolded, remains dangling from the gallows and yet lives, with no help, no support, no remedy.”8
In this encounter with total despair, one in which body and soul tremble in uncontrollable agony from the lowest depths, there rose to Angela's consciousness the cry of final abandonment. Only the words of Christ on the cross as the Holy One were fitting to articulate her groans of anguish.9 She wailed and cried out repeatedly “My Son, my Son, do not abandon me, my Son!”
By the power and the very dialectic of Christ's burning love for her, Angela was given to enter the horror of His final agony and abandonment on the Cross. It is this deep identification with Christ crucified, the participation in the test of the final hour that provides meaning and illustrates most powerfully Angela's experience of profound abyss and abandonment. To be sure, it is a partial identification and participation. As Von Balthasar points out, “the mystical dark nights, at the most, are distant approximations of the inaccessible mystery of the Cross; for if the Son of God is unique, likewise His abandonment by the Father is unique.” 10 Angela could do no more than share something of what happened on the Cross, participate in some of its inner drama and torment - even if, in transposing Christ's last words as she did, she articulated it in terms of identification unique in the history of mystical literature.
Angela needed to live through the crumbling of her most secure foundation in the transcendental life and dwell in a “horrible darkness” - a point of no return - in order to find herself, correlatively, solidly entrenched in the depths of God's life in the next and final step. The Cross of Christ is at the centre of this mysterious transformation and reconciliation of opposites. By entering into the mysterious inner world of the Passion, sharing even Christ's abandonment on the Cross, she experienced a darkness which, paradoxically, was not eliminated but was integrated and inverted and which disclosed the super-abundant light of the Triune God. Thus, instead of a symbol of inexplicable absence, darkness in the next step will become a symbol of an ineffable presence.
A major part of the seventh and final supplementary step of the Memorial clearly belongs to the apophatic tradition of divine darkness which mediaeval and later mystics had inherited from the Pseudo-Dionysius. Having felt the power of negation in her very being and shaken to her foundations by it (indeed, overturned) and now experiencing its antithesis - the total and awesome ineffability of God - Angela's intuition was that God's discourse must follow suit and find its terminology in the language of negative theology whose dominant symbol is that of darkness. Using characteristic apophatic language, what she saw henceforth “in and with darkness” in this step was beyond the capacities of ordinary discursive thought, “for it is far too great to be conceived or understood.”
Thus in the initial vision of this final step, the “light,” the “beauty,” and the “fullness” of God that Angela saw was so dazzling that it blinded her ordinary capacities of awareness and introduced her into a totally new modality of experiencing God. This perception of God's transcendence was not only beyond conceptualisation but also beyond her ability to understand His love and to respond to it in the same terms as in previous steps. Having lost all claims to love in the purifying darkness and aware of its parody and its untruth, the only appropriate way to describe her deeper introduction into its other dimension - “the most efficacious Good which is seen in the darkness” - was to couch the experience in negative terms: “I did not see love therein; I then lost the love which was mine and was made non-love.” In this experience Angela's love was being transformed and transferred, being vested, so to speak, with God's own ineffable mode of loving - which she would later refer to as an “uncreated love.”11 As a result, it was in this vision of the uncreated “in the darkness,” that she found her most solid and secure foothold for further ascent.
In the second vision of the divine darkness, “Christ's faithful one” reported that in this state “the soul delights and places its hope in a secret Good, one most certain and hidden that she now understands with such darkness.” Her consciousness was being widened so that it merged into God's own being and gaze. In the mysterious darkness she attained a state of pre-existence in Him, a sharing in all that is at its source in the hidden secret depths of God. Inserted into the divine life, she discovered “everything she wanted to know” and “possesses all she wanted to possess.” From this vantage point - one “filled with delights” - the language of paradox is the only one fit to translate what she saw: “nothing and everything at once.” The immensity of God's inner universe was simultaneously revealed and hidden. In the darkness, nothing is discernible and yet the all is intimately present. The joy that she derived there from was “beyond words, beyond heart's imagining, beyond all telling.”
At Arnaldo's insistence, Angela proceeded to explain further what she meant concerning this darkness and its effects. All that she had perceived and related in previous steps - the divine power, will, the omnipresence of God in all of creation, all the words and signs of God's friendship - “all this is inferior to the most secret Good which is seen with darkness.”
Briefly synthesised here is the main argument of negative theology and Angela's incorporation of it. The Dionysian schema is clearly in the background. Now that Angela had passed the watershed of the via affirmativa - her references to the visions of the attributes of God which were related in previous steps - the via negativa, of which the image of darkness is a vehicle, takes over. It is because the new reality transcended all that had transpired previously that it was seen “in and with darkness.” The greater the darkness the more secret it is, the more it imparts an intuition of the fathomless depths of God and the soul's inadequacy before them. In comparison to the totality of this vision, all else is inferior. Only “parts of it,” in fact, were considered as “darkness,” a darkness understood now in its initial meaning of obscurity and deprivation. The twofold meaning of darkness in this passage - one signifying a superabundance of light and the other its absence - illustrates again the ambivalence of this symbol, how one meaning is contiguous to the other. Wholly absorbed in this sublime vision, Angela was “totally recollected.” Her centre of gravity was no longer in herself but in God. It was this gravitational pull from the depths of the divine life which drew her with Himself (cum se), snatching her from the clutches of “the world and the devil” who continued to assail and persecute.
Angela's description of what she saw with “such great darkness” enables us to understand the direction and fumbling expression of the entire lexicon of divine darkness. It is the source and goal of Angela's entire mystical search. If, at the beginning of her journey in the Assisi vision, the Trinity was finding a place to rest in her, here at the summit, “in and with darkness,” she claimed that she found herself “standing or lying in the midst of the Trinity.”
“When I am in this state,” Angela continued, “I can recall nothing human, the God-Man nor anything which has a form. Nonetheless, I see all and I see nothing.” Little wonder that the body breaks: “I felt very sick when you [Arnaldo] asked those questions and I tried to answer them.” Words crumble and fall, “blaspheme” in their attempt to depict this vision of the God who is beyond words, beyond thought, beyond love, beyond the All Good and even beyond the God-Man - without form or modality. The blinding darkness has drawn her out of herself and transported her into the transcendent vitality and eminent mystery of God's inner life where everything which has accompanied and upraised her journey until now is momentarily relinquished and defaults before what is totally inexpressible and incomparable to any human reality - a state of naked (or pure) consciousness and yet one supremely filled and unified. In the most secret place and unfathomable abyss, shrouded with great darkness: the Triune God.
Angela specified that she was elevated to this “most high and ineffable mode of seeing God with such darkness” three times, while the lesser mode of seeing the All Good simply “with darkness” had occurred countless times. The degree of absorption corresponds to the degree of ineffability.
The most ineffable darkness, symbol of the mysterious depths of the Trinity, then, is one which shades off into one of lesser intensity, the vision of the God-Man. In this vision, Angela was drawn into and shared the very movement of Christ's revelation of the boundless life of the Father. What she saw “with such delight proceeding from Christ's eyes and face, so gracious and so filled with affection towards her as he embraces her” was precisely what issued from the greater darkness in the abyss of the Trinity. It came, she says, from “within” and was so awesome that “nothing can be said about it.”
This irresistible power of attraction from the inmost recesses of God's life also solidified Angela's relationship with the God-Man. It inaugurated the moment of mystical marriage so celebrated by the mystics, the full entrance into the unitive life: “You are I and I am you.” So complete is the union and identity with Christ that the distinction between object and subject seems lost - “there was no intermediary.” Angela has become as if one with the other side.
Angela was so filled with exhilarating joy by this wedding feast in the night and the gentle embrace of so gracious a Spouse that she burst into song and celebrated it with a laud:I praise you God my beloved.
I have made your Cross my bed
For a pillow or cushion, I have found poverty.
and for other parts of the bed,
pain and contempt to rest on.
Thus does Angela celebrate the triumph of the Cross. Enlightened by the visions of the great darkness, she understood the heights, the width and the depth of its saving dimension. The innermost secret of its source within the Trinity has been disclosed. Consonant with the Franciscan thesis of the primacy of Christ, Angela pointed out that even before man sinned, God the Father loved this bed and its company (“poverty, suffering, and contempt”) so much that He granted it to His Son. 12 In the self-emptying of the Son, in obedience to the Father, lies the full realisation of the divine plan. His entire life lived on the bed of the Cross in “poverty, suffering and contempt” was the specific aspect in which the abasement of the Son manifested itself to Angela. In her dark visions what she glimpsed was this excessive and superabundant love of the Father and the Son. Deeply identified now with the Son, the Cross became the nuptial couch, the “bed” where Angela celebrated the wedding feast in joyful praise and sound: “What I feel there are no words for. What I see I never want to depart from, Because for me to live is to die. Oh draw me then to yourself.”13
During this period of grace and plenitude, Angela was blessed with visions that multiplied in kaleidoscopic fashion, ever changing and ever new, often blending into one another. She says that she “swims”14 in the boundless inner universe of the Trinity. In the delight that God grants to all “spirit and love with measure,”15 she perceived more deeply than ever the essential rightness of all that is, the justice of God's judgments and she understood from within her experience the meaning of the harsh and difficult sayings of the Scriptures. In a series of Eucharistic revelations she also comprehended how Christ is present at once in the Host and everywhere. She witnessed Christ passing from His humanity to His divinity and saw St. Francis speaking to her and confirming her in her mission to be guardian of poverty.
These dark visions which transmit a heightened awareness of God's transcendence were not, however, Angela's final revelations. An “abysmal attraction” drew her ever more deeply into the depths of the Godhead. Now her soul “was given a new capacity” which was “greater than the one in which she had seen God in the darkness” - a state, so to speak, above or beyond the darkness.
In this fathomless abyss, all previous supports - the life and humanity of Christ, the Cross, and everything which can be named - fade into the background and are “gently put to sleep.” The ladder is no longer necessary when one has reached the top. New hitherto inexperienced ineffable operations were now at work and in their spiraling movement Angela was elevated within the great light of the Trinity, the origin and principle of all that is. It was her attempt to find words for this totally inexpressible divine abyss that caused Angela to stammer, for she was painfully aware that words betray more than they reveal:my words blaspheme and make hash of what they should express.
Accustomed now to the blinding light of the supra-luminous darkness, from within the Trinity in which she was absorbed Angela perceived the “complete truth” of all that is, including the place of evil. She saw how God is present not only in her but also “in a devil and a good angel, in heaven or hell, in good deeds as in adultery or homicide, in beauty as in ugliness, in all things finally which have being.” Thus totally freed, “in this state I cannot sin.” Perfectly consoled and joy-filled, seeing at a glance all that is created, she shared in the divine serenity, dominating and embracing the whole world and was unable to see things except as illumined by the divine light. She also became aware of the profound connaturality of God and the soul: the deepest immanence of being with herself - the “chamber” in her soul where the All Good resides - became the highest transcendence of being with God. 16
In the final stages of the Memorial, Angela soared from peak to peak, alone, completely stilled, in the highest reaches of the human spirit. Her claims concerning the sublime unctions and countless visions which she received are rarely to be matched in the history of Christian mystical literature. She perceived the divine essence, “the One who is,” heard “most high words” which she did not want to be written, and experienced not only the embrace by the Trinity but also her embrace of it in profound communion and intimacy: “You hold Me and I hold you.” For this “totally unspeakable Good” - the term which seems to condense her entire experience - the only comparison which comes to her mind is that this experience was a partial attainment of the joy of the beatific state, 17 the final stage, the “complete truth” of the soul created in the image of the Trinity.
Angela's story is a drama of love - of love unhappy, doubting, despairing, liberated, and superabundantly blessed. What she described with such lucidity and precision in the Memorial was the experience of her torrid love affair with the crucified Christ, the passionate God-Man and how, step by step, she was led into deep union with Him. Transformed by this love, a two-fold abyss was progressively revealed to her, her own poverty and nothingness and the fathomless depths of the Trinity. To describe the total ineffability of this experience, increasingly her language had to acknowledge its limits, that it lies, blasphemes. God, as she was ultimately to proclaim, “can be explained by nothing.”
The visions beyond the divine darkness mark the highest levels of Angela's mystical ascent as recorded in Arnaldo's Memorial. Angela lived for thirteen years (1296-1309) after its compilation. During this period, covered by the second part of the Book, Angela's role as spiritual mother comes to the forefront. It was only on rare occasions that she acquiesced to reveal her inner life. “My secrets are mine! My secrets are mine!” she told a friar who tried to extricate further revelations from her. Nonetheless, from occasional glimpses which can be gleaned from her letters and exhortations under the heading, 36 Instructions, one can assume that Angela continued to be deeply immersed in God, firmly inserted within the transforming power of the cross of Christ, in an ongoing state of intermittent joy and suffering. Although the language of darkness is never used after the sixth and seventh supplementary steps, the extreme states which we have noted occurred almost simultaneously in these steps also seem to persist, even if not as sharply delineated. For instance, on the second Sunday of Lent of some undated year, she confesses to having fallen into a state of deep anguish in which she “totally despaired of God and His gifts.” As counterpoint, a number of powerful visions, most of them equally undated but many connected with a liturgical feast, illumined the rest of her journey, for instance, the Feast of the Holy Angels and that of the Purification of Mary. St. Francis also appeared to her on a number of occasions.
Finally, assembled in one discourse are fragments of what Angela had told her disciples during her final sickness, from a few days before Christmas 1308 until January 3, 1309, the vigil of her death. These last words of Angela constitute a sort of spiritual testament, a brief synthesis of her spiritual teachings. At one moment she utters a significant and heart-rending cry:O unknown nothingness! O unknown nothingness! A soul cannot have a better awareness in this world than to perceive its own nothingness and to stay in its own cell.
Angela had found that in her own nothingness, her poverty, lay her most secure foundation. For in it had been revealed the abyss of the Divinity: “All that is Mine is yours and what is yours is Mine,” she heard God tell her.
Angela's faithfulness continued to the final hour. “Washed and purified and immersed in the blood of the crucified Christ”, “jubilant” as if already tasting the promised joy and clothed “in royal garments”, “Christ's faithful one” was ready for the full embrace of her beloved Spouse and, accompanied by all the saints, was ready to be “presented” by Him to the Father.
God's love for Angela had not been “in jest”.