I’m delighted to introduce a new book for the contemplative community! Yesterday, author Christiana Peterson released her new book, Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics. This beautiful book offers stories and wisdom from history’s mystics to helps us reclaim a healthy engagement with our mortality. You will find a lot of hope in this book; it’s one that our death-averse culture desperately needs.
I also love the way that Christiana tells us her own stories and fears. In the excerpt below, she begins with a childhood story and shows us how love leads us to care for others’ wounds. This in turn can help us face our own wounds and our mortality.
When I was a child, I developed a Band-Aid phobia. According to my mom, this fear reached its pinnacle when I stubbornly refused to keep the Band-Aids on that she’d applied to the oozing blisters on my feet, caused by those plastic jelly shoes from the 1980s. She didn’t understand why I would rather keep the shoes on and let my blisters continue to break open and pustulate than wear a Band-Aid.
Even now, the thought of used Band-Aids mashed into the dirt of the playground, the ones that flapped off a child’s ankle during play, or soiled bandages in the dusty corners of the public restroom makes me want to gag.
Maybe Band-Aids remind me of wounds. Wounds can be shocking to see and smell, visceral reminders that all those bloody, sinewy, bony parts peeking out underneath the skin are indeed mortal. I remember studying the Black Death in school; the descriptions of the wounds that accompanied such a horrible sickness dug their way into my psyche. Bursting boils or buboes the size of oranges on the groin or lymph nodes, symptoms that tortured the lungs or the blood, aches and pains across the eyes and the head.
The people of the Middle Ages were well acquainted with wounds. They didn’t have the luxury of advanced medicine or science; doctors only had cursory knowledge, and their treatments often did more harm than good. Though they didn’t always understand the science behind what caused bodies to die so violently with the Black Death or other illnesses, they saw what the skin of their failing children and parents and spouses looked like when boils bubbled and burst. They heard the sound of their cries and the agony of the silences when the cries stopped. Their acquaintance with disease and death was unavoidable; pain management a fiction.
For Saint Francis and Saint Catherine, an acquaintance with wounds and decay helped them approach the suffering of others. Saint Francis famously made peace with others’ wounds. Growing up in a wealthy family, he was revolted (as many people were) by the lepers who were forced to remain on the edges of society. Wealth did for Francis what it has always done for those with power and resources: it allowed him to remain aloof from the suffering of others. As much as it was possible for a person in thirteenth-century Europe to avoid suffering, Francis did in his youth.
But his treatment of lepers became a marker of the blossoming of his relationship with God. And eventually, the leprosy that had formerly disgusted him became the evidence of his transformation.
One spring afternoon, Francis slid off his horse, reached out to a leper on the road, and kissed him. Only months later, he heard the voice of Jesus in the church at San Damiano, and he moved toward a life of poverty, giving away all of his possessions and living with lepers.
Saint Catherine of Siena had a vision of Jesus in which she kissed and licked his wounds. This graphic image takes us from our tendency to spiritualize the passage in 1 Peter that says of Jesus, “by his wounds you have been healed.” Catherine seemed, like many mystics, to believe not only in the spiritual but physical power of Christ’s wounds.
There is also a story of a prisoner named Niccolo who was doomed for execution. By the time Catherine visited him in prison, he had already refused a priest and prayer. But Niccolo couldn’t resist Catherine’s charisma and contagious passion for God. When she finally got through to him, he begged her to become his confessor.
As Niccolo’s beheading approached, he pleaded with her not to leave him. Catherine followed him up the long walk to the execution platform, heard his prayers, and knelt to catch his head as it was severed from his body.
As grotesque as these images might seem to us—of Catherine of Siena with her mouth to a wound and catching a decapitated head—she was offering her presence in death and decay.
Though I’ve never licked a wound—gross—I have tended to my children’s wounds, hurts, and bodily fluids more times than I can count. I have cleaned up their vomit and feces, held bloody cuts closed with my hands. And while their wounds concerned me when they were severe, I can’t imagine being disgusted by them. Band-Aids don’t bother me when they have been on the cuts or wounds of my children.
Because I desperately love my children, even the unlovely parts of them are dear to me.
Even so, loving them can be challenging. But it is harder still to love others, especially those who might, at first glance, seem unlovable. Love has to be learned, tended, and nurtured if it is to be deep and lasting. Love expects us to care for the wounds of another, not just spiritually and emotionally but physically.
Saint Francis loved the wounds of others, but first he had to come to terms with his own wounds. Like all of us, he had to acknowledge that there were unlovely things about him too. He mourned his own weakness, and his love for others became so deep that he literally took on their wounds. Some say that the stigmata on his hands, feet, and side that oozed and never fully healed were actually leprous.
Becoming attuned to the things that disgust us and to the things that we fear is not just a good intellectual exercise. The ways we approach the things that horrify and disgust us might show the ways we look at death. The difficult and painful work of facing death can actually be an act of love.
*Excerpt from Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics by Christiana Peterson copyright © 2020 Christiana Peterson admin. Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.
Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing on the mystics, community, the spiritual disciplines of motherhood, and death has been featured in Christianity Today, Art House America, The Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She’s a regular contributor to Good Letters, an Image Journal blog. She lives in Ohio with her husband and their four children.