In a previous post I showed how a saint, Gemma Galgani, approached Holy Communion. Now we will see how this same saint approached her death. Born in 1878 in Italy, she lived into the twentieth century, passing to her reward in 1903 at the youthful age of only 25. Following are excerpts from her biographer and spiritual director, Fr. Germanus, taken from the final chapters of his book.
It was to be expected that a life wholly spent with Jesus Crucified would end on the Cross with Him. Gemma had participated one by one in all the sufferings of the Man God—in His agony of soul and external torturings; in His Sweat of blood, His scourging and His wounds; in the piercing of the Crowns of Thorns, the dislocation of His bones and the lacerating of His flesh by the nails. In order to perfect her likeness to Jesus there only remained to be accomplished the last agony and death in an ocean of pain, and He would not deprive her of this. As Gemma’s delicate body was certainly not capable of so much pain, He compensated for its intensity by its duration, keeping her on the Cross for several long months.
“Poor Martyr!” they wrote to me from Lucca; “poor victim of Jesus! she suffers without cessation and feels as if her bones were being disjointed; it is evident that she is tortured in every part of her body, and is being dissolved in hopeless agony. For the last twenty days she has lost her eyesight; her voice has become so weak that she can scarcely articulate, so that it is impossible to catch what she says; she is a living skeleton that seems to waste more and more, and to behold her is to be filled with pain and dismay.”
And yet all these sufferings so great in themselves were a mere nothing compared with those inflicted on the poor patient by the powers of hell. The Holy Ghost has said that in our last moments Satan will use desperate efforts in tempting us, knowing that little time is left him to effect our ruin. Imagine then his last hellish assaults on Gemma against whom during her whole life he had nurtured a hatred so deadly and waged such a relentless war. I read of other Saints who at the end of their days had to sustain fiendish assaults that were more or less lengthened and fierce, but they were intermittent. With Gemma the siege was continuous with only momentary intervals.
That which more than all agonized this angel were the violent efforts of the enemy to tarnish her purity. This spirit of uncleanness knew very well with what love and care she had guarded this treasure during her whole life and with what heroism she had always fought and defeated him in her determination to defend it. Now his aim was, if not to gain a victory which he knew was impossible, to be at least avenged against her by embittering the last days of her spotless life.
From tormenting her soul he passed to torturing her body. Who could enumerate his artifices for this purpose? Her difficulty to take food had somewhat lessened, so they began to give her a little nourishment; but in vain. No sooner was it put before her than the fiend caused it to appear covered with disgusting insects and with the most repulsive things imaginable. As a natural consequence her stomach sickened immediately so that everything had to be taken away. Horrible and fetid animals, whether real or imaginary, came into her bed, crept over her limbs and tormented her in various ways so that the dear child had no means of relief. More than once full of terror she said to the Sister in attendance that she felt a serpent winding around her from head to foot and striving to crush her.
From time to time Our loving Lord came to encourage and reassure her, and, allowing her to feel His presence He spoke Divine words to her: “Why my child instead of being intimidated by those attacks of thine enemy, do you not increase thy hope in Me? Humble thyself beneath My potent hand and let not temptation weary thee. Resist always, never yield and if the temptation lasts, continue thy resistance; and thus the battle will lead thee to victory.” On other occasions it was her Angel guardian who came to comfort her.
This saintly girl did not even bestow a thought on all that concerned the bodily pains and discomforts of her malady. She never showed that she was annoyed or weary, nor displayed the least sadness of countenance, but was always smiling and contented. She never seemed alarmed at the many varied crises in her sickness; nor did she ever allow those groans or sighs to escape her that excessive pain forces from the bravest sufferers even without their knowing it.
Recourse was had to the good nursing Sisters of St. Camillus de Lellis, and these with their usual charity took every care of the invalid and remained with her to the end. This is how one of these Sisters speaks of the extraordinary patience of the Servant of God: “During all the time that I had the consolation of assisting dear Gemma in her last illness I never heard her complain. I only heard her at first repeat occasionally this ejaculation: ‘My Jesus, it is more than I can bear.’ And when I had reminded her that with the grace of God everything is possible, she never again used those words; but when any of her visitors moved to pity happened to say: ‘Poor child, it is more than she can bear,’ she instantly replied: ‘O yes I can still bear a little more.’”
Once the Sister attendant said to her: “And if Jesus were to give you your choice what would it be; to go at once to Paradise and cease to suffer or remain here to suffer when this would give greater glory to God?” She answered with animation: “Better to suffer than to go to Heaven when the pain is for Jesus and to give Him glory.”
Before losing her sight she used to read occasionally. Once her Aunt seeing a book in her hand asked: “What are you reading, Gemma?” “I am reading, Aunt, the Preparation for Death. O Aunt, why don’t you also read it, for you are old? At all events I am preparing for death!” “But tell me, Gemma,” continued her Aunt, “do you regret to die?” “Oh no,” she answered, “I have no longer any attachment to anything in this world.” [The book Gemma was reading, Preparation for Death, almost certainly refers to the famous work of that title by St. Alphonsus Liquori.]
We have come to Wednesday in Holy Week. Gemma seems in ecstasy, she raises her eyes from time to time and fixing her gaze on Heaven, cries with an expression of intense yearning: “Jesus! Jesus!” Then at a given hour she is rapt in ecstasy just as happened so often during her life; but only for a short time.
Towards ten o’clock in the morning of Holy Thursday, the lady friend who was with her, feeling that she herself was growing faint from fatigue and loss of sleep, resolved to go to her house close by to rest a little, but Gemma said to her: “Don’t leave me until I am nailed to the Cross, I have to be crucified with Jesus. He has said to me that His children have to be crucified.” She remained, and behold soon after the suffering child entered into full ecstasy, opened her arms by degrees and remained thus until nearly half past one. Her appearance was a mixture of grief, love, desolation, and tranquility. She never spoke, but yet her silence was most eloquent. She was in agony with Jesus Crucified.
She continued to suffer the agony of death during the whole of that day, and on Good Friday, and then Saturday morning. It seemed as if she would expire from moment to moment, submerged in an ocean of excruciating torments in her body, and much more so in her soul. About eight o’clock on Holy Saturday morning she received Extreme Unction in the full exercise of all her faculties, following all the prayers of the sacred rite with singular devotion, and striving her best, though with weak voice, to repeat the answers.
The greatest suffering of Our Lord in His Agony on the Cross was, according to the Saints, His apparent abandonment by His Eternal Father; add that abandonment, too truly real, by men. Of all this He Himself complained from the Cross, and Gemma in this also had to be like Him. It would naturally be asked with some surprise, why our dying Saint in her moments of greatest need was abandoned by her confessors and directors, and spiritual guides, and that only a few pious women stood by her moved rather by charitable sympathy at the sight of so much suffering than by the desire to be of assistance to her. But it was so; because God so willed in order to put a climax to the martyrdom and merits of His faithful Servant.
As soon as her last sickness had taken a violent form she asked to have me called by telegram; but on its being made known to her in spirit that God asked this additional sacrifice at her hands, she said no more about it. And when others reminded her of me, having shown by a modest smile that she bore me in her mind, she replied: “I seek for nothing more; I have made the sacrifice of everything and of everyone to God; now I prepare to die.”
God in His turn withdrew, and allowed not a ray of light to enter His Martyr’s mind nor a spark of consolation to move her heart. In fine wasted by the violence of her disease; crushed under the weight of immense desolation; tormented in all her faculties of soul and body by the ministers of hell; without comfort from Heaven or earth, this innocent soul raised her feeble voice and said: “Now it is indeed true that nothing more remains to me, Jesus, I recommend my poor soul to Thee . . . Jesus!”
It was the Consummatum est and the In manus tuas of Our Savior dying on the Cross. These were Gemma’s last words. The victim was offered, and nothing now remained but to breathe her last breath in completion of her sacrifice. Gemma seems absorbed in peaceful thought. Then quite suddenly, while all eyes are fixed on her angelic face still beautiful despite the ravages of such a sickness, she smiled a heavenly smile, and letting her head drop on one side ceased to live—just as the Gospel tells of Our Redeemer on the Cross. No one perceived that she was really dead; for besides having no specific agony, she underwent no muscular strain in breathing her last. There was no sigh of oppression or suffocation; her last movement was like a smile of salutation and nothing more, a bidding farewell to her innocent body. In a word, her death was truly the “sleep of the just” her birth to eternal life.
This blessed death happened an hour after midday on Holy Saturday, the 11th of April, 1903. Gemma had once said to her Aunt: “I have asked Jesus to let me die on a great solemnity: what a delightful thing to die on a great Feast!”
From The Life of Gemma Galgani, by Fr. Germanus of St. Stanislaus, Passionist, pp. 288-290, available from the Spirit Daily book store.
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