Friday, May 22, 2009
The Bristol Palin dilemma
The annals of hagiography are full of young women (viz. Dymphna, Winifred, Bega, Oringa, Regina, Grimonia and countless others) who defy the parental diktat to marry and instead consecrate themselves to a life of virginity. This defiance often leads to torture, death or a life spent in drag.
But Rita of Cascia, as pious as any virgin, submitted to her father’s decree and married the vile, brutal and philandering man chosen for her. And to make it worse, the two sons she bore followed in their father’s footsteps. When the horrid husband was killed by an enemy, the sons swore to avenge his death. Rita was so appalled by this longing for vengeance that she prayed they would die rather than commit a murder.
Her prayer was answered. Her sons contracted a deadly illness; their mother’s gentle nursing brought them round to a state of contrition so they were able to die forgiven.
Saint Rita’s story begs the question: which is the surer path to sainthood: a miserable enforced marriage or sacrificial virginity?
You could certainly argue that it was her marriage that led directly to Rita praying for the death of her own sons.
There are few circumstances in which I might argue for the merits of abstinence over safe sex, but Rita’s might be one.
Oddly enough, Rita is not a patron saint of bees, though surely her claim is as good as Ambrose’s or Bernard’s, and maybe better. The story goes that a swarm of white bees flew around her sweet milk-spattered face as the infant Rita slept in her crib, that they flew in and out of her mouth and never stung her.
This would not be a very remarkable feat for honeybees who generally do not sting unless they are bothered or feeling threatened. But were these honeybees? I have never heard of or seen white honeybees.
There is more. After the death of her husband and sons, Rita finally got her wish and entered the convent. I will spare you a litany of her holiness, her suffering and the suppurating wound that inhabited her forehead. She died in the convent, on this day, in 1457 and not only is her body still incorrupt but the descendants of those bees live in the wall of the cell she died in, and each year at this time they swarm.
St Rita's body in the chapel of Cascia, Italy