Saints and sinners

CHRISTINA: About to be buried, arose from her coffin, and sent back to save sinners.

FIFTY years ago, a wise sceptic advised that if I had any questions about religion I should always ask an atheist. When I asked her why, Barbara Smoker, who celebrated her 96th birthday this month, replied: “Because people often arrive at non-belief after they have assiduously studied religious texts and usually come to know more about the subject than most believers.”

When I asked how much research she had done, she chuckled and said “I was born into a devout Catholic family and decided to become a nun. So obviously I did a great deal of study.”

At the age of 26 she concluded that religion was tosh, and spent the rest of her life promoting humanism. In fact, she’s just published her autobiography, ‘My Godforsaken Life: Memoir of A Maverick.’

Another of my contacts, Californian artist Shell Fisher, also knows a lot about holy scripture. But he approaches faith from another angle. He uses his amazing talent to point out religious absurdities, and his illustrations are used in a Freethinker bulletin sent out weekly to several thousand subscribers.

Knowing how well-versed Shell is in Christian mythology, I asked him whether he knew of the patron saint of lunatics. To my surprise, he’d not heard of Christina Mirabilis, known as Christina the Astonishing.

Born in the 12th century in Belgium, she suffered a massive seizure in her early 20’s. Assumed dead, she was about to be buried but she arose from her coffin and ‘levitated to the rafters.’ She claimed to have seen Hell, Heaven and the Almighty, who sent her back to save sinners.

According to legend, she would throw herself into fires and frozen rivers, allow dogs to tear at her flesh, all the while imploring God’s mercy. Though covered in blood, her skin would immediately heal. She lived in a forest, slept in rags, and sustained herself by suckling her breasts.

Now the reason I approached Shell about Christina is that I am currently writing an irreverent article for the Freethinker about some of the weirdest people who attained patron saint status, and I believed that he was the best person on the planet to illustrate the piece.

My article will document the lives of people such as St Drogo, who was afflicted by a mystery ailment that made him physically repulsive. So he’s now considered the patron saint of unattractive people.

Then there’s St Adjutor, the patron saint of swimmers; St Balthasar, the patron saint of playing card manufacturers; St Columbanus, the patron saint of motorcyclists and St Lidwina, the patron saint of ice skaters.

This Dutch woman fell while ice skating at the age of 15 and never fully recovered from her injuries. After a life of piety and pain which ended in 1433, her grave became a site of pilgrimage. She was canonised in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII.

But back to Christina the Astonishing. I discovered that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performed a song about her in 1992. The lyrics are brilliant. You can access them here: and-the-bad-seeds-christina-the-astonishing-lyrics.

Acclaimed songwriter George Gershwin said it best when, in 1935, he wrote ‘The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble/To read in de Bible/It ain’t necessarily so …

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Written by

Barry Duke