Monday, April 13, 2015

Blessed Lydwina: A Saint for the Sick

We are not discouraged;
rather, although our outer self is wasting away,
our inner self is being renewed day by day.
For this momentary light affliction
is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen;
for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.
—2 Corinthians 4:16-18

For most of us, the experience of illness is a burden. Whether we face a chronic, debilitating illness, just minor allergies, or a cold, our worlds can often be reduced to our “feeling bad” or the frustration that we aren’t getting better.

Our Faith tradition has always understood that illness and physical ailments are opportunities for growing in our relationship with God. Our pain and discomfort, the patience that has to accompany illness, and our reliance on others give us an amazing opportunity to be in solidarity with those who are suffering throughout the world. In his 2015 Messagefor the World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reflected, “Even when illness, loneliness, or inability make it hard for us to reach out to others, the experience of suffering can be a privileged means of transmitting grace and a source for gaining and growing in wisdom of heart… People immersed in the mystery of suffering and pain, when they accept these in faith, can themselves become living witnesses of a faith capable of embracing suffering, even without being able to understand its full meaning.”

One of the saints who best embodied this truth is Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam.

Born in Schiedam (near Rotterdam) in the Netherlands in 1390, Lydwina was the daughter of a poor tradesman. When she was 15 years old, she suffered a serious fall in an ice-skating accident. At first, it seemed that she had only broken a rib, but complication set in and she began to suffer from extreme attacks of vomiting and a number of other painful symptoms. This marked a turn in her life and she spent the remainder of her life as an invalid.

Initially angered and depressed by her situation, she gradually accepted the advice of her local priest, Fr. John Pot, who helped her recognize that she had a special vocation. He invited her to see her own pain and suffering in the light of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus through meditating on the events of Jesus’ life. After a period of three years, she began to accept her suffering and understood that she was being called to offer her sufferings to God for the sake of sinners. A short time later, her illness took a severe turn and she became severely disfigured and she was able to use only her left arm. She also lost the sight in one of her eyes and the other was so sensitive that she could hardly stand even the light from a fire.

Her story made her an object of curiosity, devotion, and scorn. Many came to see her and their motives were mixed. Some thought of her as a sort of “sideshow freak” and others revered her as a saint. Reports began to circulate that she had miraculous powers. Many witnesses testified to her special graces, her visions, and that she lived on little more than the Eucharist for the last nineteen years of her life. During her visions, she would feel herself transported to Jerusalem and Rome and she would converse freely with Jesus, Mary, and the saints. She also had vivid visions of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
A murual in the Basilica of Schiedam showing
Blessed Lydwina's visions of the Passion and Resurrection.

Despite her popularity—or perhaps because of it—a new parish priest condemned her as a fraud and forbade her Holy Communion. He went so far as to have the local people pray for Lydwina’s release from the power of the devil. In time, however, Church and civil authorities thoroughly investigated her life and spiritual gifts and she was found innocent of the charges brought against her.

Lydwina died on April 14, 1433. In one of her final visions, she was given a rosebush by her guardian angel and told that she would die when the last of its buds opened. Because of this, she is often depicting with a flowering rosebush in sacred art. Her story was handed down by a number of biographers who had known her personally, including Thomas à Kempis, the author of the famed Imitation of Christ. Devotion to Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam was approved in 1890 and her commemoration is celebrated on April 14. Many European sources will often refer to her as "Saint Lydwina." 

Contemporary scholars, looking back on the various accounts of Lydwina’s life and illness, now believe that she might have suffered from multiple sclerosis. Whatever the true nature of her disease, her life is a powerful reminder that, regardless of our strength, health, or stamina, holiness is possible for each of us because, in Christ, each of us is whole and fully alive in the light of the Resurrection. Saint John Paul II reminds us: “Just as the Resurrection transformed Christ’s wounds into a source of healing and salvation, so for every sick person the light of the Risen Christ is a confirmation that the way of fidelity to God can triumph in the gift of self until the Cross can be transformed into a source of joy and resurrection… The sick, also sent out as laborers into the Lord’s vineyard, by their example can make an effective contribution to the evangelization of a culture that tries to remove the experience of suffering by striving to grasp its deep meaning with its intrinsic incentives to human and Christian growth. (Messagefor the World Day of the Sick for the Year 2000).

A Prayer in Honor of Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam +
O God, the exaltation of the lowly, who willed that Blessed Lydwina should excel in the beauty of charity and patience, grant, through her merits and intercession, that, carrying our cross each day, we may always persevere in love for you. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website the week of April 13, 2015.

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