Stories of isolation before the Coronavirus: following the example of stigmatics

By Leonardo Rossi

Exceptional, surreal, unusual. These words are among some of the most frequently used expressions of the bewilderment that we are all experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only a few months ago, we considered it a worrying but distant danger, since then we have realised that we were wrong. From China to Italy, from the States to all corners of the globe, no one is immune and safe. We have discovered ourselves to be weaker, more helpless, more powerless than we assumed to be. Our habits have been subverted. Most of the offices are closed, children are home from school, transportation is extremely limited. The daily frenzy and our interpersonal relationships have suddenly changed.

Time runs differently when you are isolated and cut off from your social framework. The appointments on the agenda thin out, the superfluous disappears into the background, and only the essential things remain visible. You have more time for yourself and for thinking. In the first days of isolation, the most frequent questions I wondered about were about the exceptional nature of the moment we are passing through: how much will this influence affect our habits in the long term? Will 2020 be remembered solely for Coronavirus, or also as a turning point? When and how will we return to our ‘ordinary’ life? Every idea that flashed through my mind was characterised by the adjective ‘exceptional’: nobody has clear answers because nobody has ever experienced anything like this. As the days and weeks went by, however, what previously seemed so unusual quickly started to become ‘normal’. Life goes on, with small and big changes. Now it is no longer odd to work at home, wear a mask when we go out, queue to enter the supermarket. Smiling with the eyes has replaced the handshakes, phone calls evoke the hugs of loved ones, online meetings substitute family lunches. New habits have become a routine, and the old questions that I was unable to answer have given way to another type of reflection: Are we actually witnessing a unique event in history? Did not other generations also spend months isolated from the community? For what reasons? How did they deal with that particular moment?

Cigoli, St Francis

Ludovico Cigoli, St Francis in meditation in an isolated place (Wikimedia Commons)

In my case, the small/big change was to finish the review of my PhD not in my office in Antwerp, but in Gaeta, a municipality at the south of Rome, historically famous as ‘the port of the popes’. Here, I spent weeks of self-isolation, away from my office and family, with an internet connection that did not work brilliantly. Sifting through the pages of my manuscript and reflecting on the past, I realised that this situation is exceptional only for those who, like me, had never experienced anything like this. Looking back can somehow make us feel less alone and exceptional. Before COVID, many people experienced various forms of isolation, social exclusion, withdrawal from the world. History is full of interruptions or subversions of what was considered ‘normal’.

Experiencing a form of seclusion has influenced my point of view. My attention is drawn to situations that are similar to the current one. During the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century, the period that I analyse in my research, there have been several pandemics that have collectively forced thousands, or even millions, of people to live in isolation. At that time, waves of cholera, smallpox, and typhus raged frequently. Moreover, revolts, civil wars, international conflicts, famines and natural cataclysms spread among countries. Periods of seclusion affected the protagonists of history and those who study it: the historians. Fernand Braudel published in 1949 « La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II », but he worked on it during his captivity in Germany (1940-45). Some spiritual leaders and heads of state were also forced to live in isolation. Imprisonment was the common denominator of the pontificate of numerous popes in the nineteenth century. Pius VI fled to Siena in 1798 when he tried to escape the invasion of the Papal States by the French troops. Pius VII spent years of exile away from Rome, as a prisoner of Napoleon in Fontainebleau. Pius IX spent more than nine months here in Gaeta to escape the revolutions of the Roman Republic and the so-called “Spring of the Peoples” (1848-49).

In the sources I studied, exile and forced imprisonment did not only concern popes but also other people. In addition to reasons of force majeure that indiscriminately involved all of the population, a particular category of individuals experienced long moments of isolation in their lives, that is the stigmatics. The wounds of passion that were impressed and visible on their bodies often turned stigmatics into religious celebrities in their community and, sometimes, even on the global level. Their public fame attracted the attention of the people, but also made them suspicions in the eyes of sceptics and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and the Vatican curia (especially the Holy Office) opened investigations and not rarely condemned those who were popularly considered alteri Christi to a life of seclusion. Other stigmatics were not in search of fame and success but wished to spend their lives in solitude and meditation. The visible stigmata would have attracted unwanted attention and, for this reason, they decided to withdraw themselves from the public scene and isolate themselves in monastic cells or domestic environment, carefully keeping their graces a secret.

Therefore, it was not a disease that kept stigmatics away from society, but rather a personal choice or an obligation imposed from above. Some examples can help us to understand their experience better. Solitary and contemplative life has always been part of the Christian tradition. Already in the third century, anchorites and hermits left the community to live in the desert or in isolated places in northern Africa. In the West, the monks did the same by building their abbeys and monasteries in inaccessible areas far from inhabited centres. The desire for a  withdrawn life motivated several stigmatics to aspire to live as religious women. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), Teresa Palminota (1896-1934), and Maria Concetta Pantusa (1936, 1894-1957) tried to enter the convent and become nuns. All three had a deep mystical life and were endowed with special charisms, such as stigmata, ecstasies and visions. They tried to hide their graces from the world and preferred seclusion to the limelights. Even the renowned Tyrolean stigmatics, Maria Von Mörl (1812-1868) and Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815-1848), had problems with accepting and enduring their unwanted popularity. Despite their wishes, both had become famous religious figures. Hundreds of articles that were dedicated to them appeared in the main newspapers of the time, and thousands of faithful and curious visited them in their houses. Von Mörl refused in most cases to speak and interact with the spectators. Lazzeri confessed to her spiritual father that she desired not to be disturbed by pilgrims, especially by sceptics and unbelievers who made fun of her. The Roman stigmatics, wives and mothers, Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1824) and Anna Maria Taigi (1869-1837) did not aspire to enter a cloister, but lived a ‘mixed life’, that is a combination between secular and religious spirituality. During the day they took care of their daily chores, and when their families went to sleep in the evening, they spent their nights in meditation and prayer.

St Catherine

St Catherine of Siena portrayed in prayer in her room (Ruusbroec Library)

The search for peace and isolation could, therefore, be both physical (locking oneself in a monastic cell) and spiritual (hiding graces from the world). This solution was not always an option. Elena Aiello (1895-1961), for example, entered the convent at fifteen years old hoping to spend her life there but, due to an accident, she had to leave. For some stigmatics, seclusion was not a free choice, but rather the punishment issued by a religious authority, such as the diocesan bishops or the cardinals of the Holy Office. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Sardinian abbess Maria Rosa Serra (1766-post 1806), confessed after years of notoriety to the bishop that she had lied about her divine charisms. The Monsignor removed Serra from her position as abbess and condemned her to perpetual isolation in a monastic cell. The same fate fell upon Maria Agnese Firrao (late nineteenth century-1855) and Ester Moriconi (1875-1937). In their case, the Holy Office condemned the stigmatics as false saints. Firrao was transferred to another city where she died 30 years later (the penalties could be very severe and last long) and Moriconi was interned in a psychiatric clinic in Milan, far from her religious community and the faithful. The ecclesiastical authorities regarded isolation as the best solution to block these women’s reputation for holiness among the people. In the files of the processes instigated against them, we read how the clergymen only isolated the ‘offenders’ when they were able to. They did not want to transform stigmatics into popular ‘martyrs’ of the faith, unjustly condemned to a life of isolation. They tried to prove their fraud and to destroy the credibility and authority these women held in their community.

Numerous stigmatists experienced social exclusion for different reasons. Some for a few months or years (as Palma Matarrelli and Padre Pio), others for a lifetime (as Firrao and Moriconi). Some of them had led a very active and busy life, received visitors and pilgrims, and had gained significant public influence. After the conviction or voluntary isolation, everything changed. Elisabetta Canori Mora, for example, belonged to the upper Roman bourgeoisie and led a worldly life before she embraced the mystical path. When she chose to dedicate herself to the Lord, she abandoned all privileges. Her new routine no longer included gala dinners, theatre and elegant clothes, but occasional meals, continuous penances and a humble basement where she could pray isolated from the world. We can read about the daily routines in her spiritual diary. Elisabetta used to cook fish for her daughters on Friday, since, in line with Catholic tradition, this is the day of the week in which the Passion of Christ is remembered, and meat is prohibited. Furthermore, in moments of spiritual despair, she ate a small piece of dark chocolate in order to alleviate her suffering. Other stigmatics also adapted themselves to their changed lives. Maria Agnese Firrao, in her prison-cell in Perugia, received letters from her faithful, replied to them, and even continued to direct the Roman monastery she had led before her condemnation thanks to her network of alliances. Imprisoned in an asylum, Palma Matarrelli received visits from her supporters. For many stigmatics, meditation and introspection were ways to abandon society and its problems to get in touch with the Lord. However, even in isolation, they created new routines and means to deal with the new situation productively. Nevertheless unique and exceptional our situation may seem, before us many people have experimented with forms of isolation and seclusion, and their example can teach us how to turn limitations into opportunities.

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