The mystic of the Passion
The life and the spirituality of Alexandrina Maria da Costa the Portuguese woman who was bed-ridden for over 30 years, and for the last 13 years lived on the Eucharist alone
By Renzo Allegri
THE RECENT canonisation of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina has drawn attention to a certain type of sanctity enhanced by an abundance of mysterious and extraordinary phenomenology which is usually defined as ‘particular mystic charisms.’
There are saints whose earthly existence is carried out in absolute normality. They intensely live their union with God, heroically practising evangelical virtues, without any extraordinary spiritual events manifesting themselves. Other saints, on the other hand, receive special gifts, such as celestial visions, ecstasies, introspective faculties, prophetic intuition and the gift of healing. There are others still who have ecstatic experiences of the Passion of Christ accompanied by the stigmata which appear on their bodies with a certain frequency and in particular circumstances, such as Friday, Lent, Holy Week. Stigmata can take on many forms: they may be visible, as in the case of St. Francis and Padre Pio, or invisible as in the case of St. Catharine of Siena. They may appear in different shapes and in different places on the body. they may represent all or only some of the wounds of Christ.
Only on some occasions has the Catholic Church accepted an occurance of stigmata as authentic, but has never defined their origins or nature, thus allowing for physical, physchological, and prenatural explanations for these phenomena.
This is why the people in whom this phenomenon manifests are generally looked upon with suspicion, even by ecclesiastical authorities. Padre Pio was an obvious example of this.
Now Padre Pio has been declared a saint, therefore it is now certain that Padre Pio’s stigmata and the other inexplicable phenomenon or which manifested themselves in him, were extraordinary gifts, great mystic charisms. In fact, John Paul II recently said of him: “He was a religious who was sincerely in love with the Crucified Christ. In his lifetime, he also participated in a physical way in the mystery of the Cross.”
The recognition of the sanctity of Padre Pio and the particular charisms which characterised him, have, inevitably, reflected on other people gifted with similar experiences. There are, in fact, many ‘mystics’ like Padre Pio, who in the course of their existence, have “participated in a physical way in the mystery of the Cross.” All have been regarded suspiciously and their beatification procedures move slowly. But perhaps now, thanks to Padre Pio, they may speed up.
In the name of chastity
Among the ‘mystics’ awaiting recognition, there is a Portuguese woman who died in 1955 at the age of 51. Her name is Alexandrina Maria da Costa and she lived in Balasar, a little town not far from Fatima. From a charismatic point of view, her earthly existence was very similar to Padre Pio’s. Alexandrina didn’t have visible stigmata, but she was bed-ridden for 30 years, and her bed became a genuine cross for her. She often relived Christ’s Passion in such a dramatic way that she used to frighten those who were present. She spoke daily with Jesus who had specifically chosen her, in all her suffering, to redeem sinners.
Born in Balasar on 30 March 1904, she was the daughter of a single mother. Despite growing up in great financial difficulty, she had an open, lively and optimistic personality. She received a serious and deep religious education from her mother. She only went to school for 1 ˝ years without taking any exams. At 8 years of age she began work. When she was 12 years old she was struck by a serious illness and in danger of dying. At the age of 14, she was already a young lady and her fine and delicate manner was fascinating. A young man took a fancy to her, and together with two other friends broke into her house to rape her. However, the young girl, in order to save her purity, threw herself from her window, with serious consequences for her spinal cord. She was treated for seven years, to no avail, and ended up in bed, paralysed.
At the beginning, she did all she could to cure herself. She used to pray asking God for the restoration of her health, but when she realised that her mission was suffering with patience, she accepted the ordeal willingly, and lived it with a smile on her lips until death.
A conversation with the Postulator
Alexandrina Maria da Costa was a person of great spiritual appeal. As already mentioned, her earthly existence was interwoven with miraculous mystic phenomena. For the last thirteen years of her life, she completely abstained from food and drink, which led to anury, the absence of urine. The phenomena interested medical science, and she was obliged to undergo long and humiliating scientific tests.
I think that the most suitable person to encapsulate the human and spiritual character of this woman is Father Pasquale Liberatore, General Postulator for the Causes of Salesian Saints, who has kindly granted me an interview.
Father Pasquale, what is the most characteristic feature of Alexandrina’s spirituality?
I am pleased that this is the first question you have asked me. It is as if you wanted to penetrate the very core of this blessed existence. The Lord allowed Alexandrina to participate physically in His suffering. This means that she physically experienced each phrase of the sufferings Christ underwent from Gethsemani to the crucifixion. On 2 October 1938, the Lord told her that “He would have her pass through all of His Passion, from the olive grove to Calvary, without reaching Consummatum est (death)” At 21 years old, she became bedridden and there she remained for 30 years, without interruption, until her death. From October 1938 to March 1942, that is, for three and a half years, she lived the Passion of Christ visibly. The phenomenon, which repeated itself every week 182 times, lasted from Thursday to Friday. Then followed the next incredible phenomenon, the mysterious fast which lasted until her death, that is, for 13 years and 7 months.
But her existence was also marked by diabolical oppression and human incomprehension. The devil disturbed her in all ways, by tempting her, assailing her body, throwing her from her bed, and physically wounding her. No less was the suffering derived from human incomprehension. By this, I don’t just mean people who acted out of prejudice, but also men of the Church who, acting with the best of intentions, increased her suffering. I refer to the surveys carried out by the diocesan Curia of Braga, the Archbishop’s letter containing a series of prohibitions, the result of doubts expressed about her on 16 June 1942 by a commission of three priests, and finally, the sending away of her confessors.
And what about the humiliation of undergoing intrusive medical tests at the hands of several doctors entrusted with the task of verifying her fast? Some obstinacy is difficult to believe.
All of this suffering certainly had a particular aim or a specific mission then?
Alexandria’s mission is implicit in her very spiritual identity. As I told you before, she experienced in her life a physical participation in Christ’s suffering. Her mission was that of stirring up the world about sin, stimulating conversion, and offering at the same time the living evidence of the suffering of Christ.
She wanted to close Hell is the title of a book by Father Pasquale Umberto, her spiritual director. This title encapsulates the seer’s mission. He himself, while present at an ecstasy heard her say: “Oh Jesus, close the doors of Hell! Place me as a barrier across the threshold so that no-one else loses him/herself! Leave me there until the end of the world, until there are no more sinners to save.”
On her tomb, Alexandrina wanted the following to be written: “Sinners, if my body’s ashes can be of use to save you, come closer, walk over them, tread on them until they disappear. But don’t sin anymore, don’t offend Our Lord anymore! Sinners, I would like to tell you many things. But to write it all, there wouldn’t be enough space in this cemetery. Convert. Don’t offend Jesus! You don’t want to lose Him for all of eternity! He is very good. Stop sinning. Love Jesus; love Him!”
A mission as a great mediatress: to take upon herself the sins of humanity and expiate them with the aim of salvation. On one occasion, no one present at her bedside was able to lift her off the ground despite the fact that her weight was only 30 kg. When asked why, she answered, “My Cross bears the weight of the world.”
Didn’t Alexandrina also have many celestial visions?
Yes, she lived a strong experience with the Lord with external manifestations such as ecstasies. In her life time, she had many visions of and conversations with Jesus. Following the orders of her spiritual directors, there are records of what she used to say during her ecstasies (her sister used to take notes). The Lord enriched this soul also with some very special gifts: she could tell who had sinned, she carried out physical healing, and above all, she was responsible for many conversions, which was what concerned her the most.
Her spiritual life thus developed along a particular ascetic path typical of mystics...
She had a special calling to a life of suffering. It all began with her tragic escape while defending her chastity. Her via crucis began then and it involved extreme detachment and total sacrifice. The Lord said to her: “Rarely will you feel comfort. Very rarely, until the end of your life; your heart will live in pain [...] but you will have a smile on your lips.” And she willingly accepted this plan, both the pain and the witnessing of joy. One of her moving pleas was: “Put a smile on my lips, dear Lord, a deceiving smile!” In fact, visitors were struck by her joy and ignorant of how much she suffered. Only a few were able to fathom the suffering she hid behind her smile. She used to celebrate the anniversaries of her illness, and in 1950 she celebrated... her silver anniversary with her bed!
Do you think that such a mission is also valid in our time? Are people interested in an experience like this one these days?
When saintliness is authentic and not just apparent, the message it sends forth goes beyond time, it is always contemporary. Saints are always contemporary because they utter words which, even if they sometimes need to be translated, touch the heart which always remains the same, in every era. The same thing happens to geniuses.
Alexandrina rouses the people of today with her prophetic charge. She calls for an analogy with Padre Pio, another living expression of the Cross. His recent canonisation interested millions of people. Who would say that lives of this kind (they were contemporaries) haven’t captured the interest of modern day folk?
How far-reaching is her saintly reputation?
Without a doubt, it is very widespread. People write to me from all over the world; at times, even doctors and academics who wish to study thoroughly specific aspects of her experience, such as her mysterious fast. There is a constant demand for holy pictures and relics, not to mention the many graces obtained thanks to her intercession. Her tomb (found in the parish church of Balasar in Portugal) is the destination for continuous pilgrimages. I have been told that about 30,000 pilgrims visit every month.
At what stage is the Cause for her beatification?
The diocesan inquiry into her virtue began in 1967, 12 years after her death, and was concluded in 1973. Alexandrina was declared Venerable by the Church in 1995. An alleged miracle which occurred in France in 1983 is now being investigated by experts. It involves a sick person, struck by Parkinson’s disease, who was inexplicably cured. The medical-scientific investigation is underway and should shortly be concluded. The judgement given by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is being awaited in order to find out if and when Alexandrina’s case can be presented to the Pope for her beatification.
A case for sainthood
THE 13 OCTOBER marks 47 years since the death of Alexandrina Maria da Costa, the Portuguese mystic whose spiritual profile we traced last month through an interview with Father Pasquale Liberatore, the Salesian priest who is the Postulator for the cause of Alexandrina’s beatification.
On Thursday 13 October 1955, Alexandrina was 51 years and seven months old. For some time, Jesus had revealed the date of her death to her in their mystic conversations, and Alexandrina often repeated this revelation to the people who visited her. “I’ll be in heaven soon”, she used to say, informing her visitors of the date, her face lit up by a radiant smile because she was happy to die on 13 October, the anniversary of the last apparition of Our Lady in Fatima. What is more, 13 October fell on a Thursday that year, and Thursday was Alexandrina’s favourite day because it reminded her of Holy Thursday, the feast which solemnly commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and is the oldest of the observances peculiar to Holy Week.
As the date approached, Alexandrina’s joy increased. A touch of anxiety was also evident in her, just like in those who are preparing for a very important trip. On 12 October, the day before her death, she asked her sister Diolinda, who looked after her day and night, to make three phone calls: one to her mother, who had gone to the seaside for a cure, to return home immediately; one to her confessor, Fr. Gomez, to thank him for everything he had done for her; and a third phone call to her dear friend Anna Pimenta, who had expressed her desire several times to be present at the moment of her death.
At 8 a.m. on 13 October, Alexandrina took Communion as always. At about 9 a.m., a group of people who had travelled from afar to greet her were shown to her room. At 11 a.m., Dr. Emanuele Augusto Diaz de Azevedo, her doctor, arrived, and Alexandrina said to him straight away: “I am happy because I’ll be in heaven soon.” The afternoon passed and she continued to repeat the same phrase. As evening approached, her sister Diolinda was convinced that Alexandrina wasn’t going to die, and so when she heard “I’ll be in heaven soon” for the enth time, she replied, “Yes, you will, but not now.” Alexandrina replied smiling, “Yes, now” and her head fell back as she took her last breath. The time was 8.29 p.m.
The news of her death spread immediately and that very night people began to arrive to see her body and pray. The flow of the devoted increased the next day, and to everyone’s surprise, there was an influx of people not just from Balasar and nearby towns, but also from other Portuguese cities, Braga, Pôrto, showing how widespread her sanctity was. The funeral celebrations took place on 15 October, at 10 a.m.. The parish church was full of the faithful and forty priests were present at the ceremony.
Her tomb immediately became a destination for the faithful, in particular for the ill who visited to ask for grace. People trusted her and miraculous healings shortly materialised. Two years after her death, the devoted started to build a chapel in the cemetery where her mortal remains were laid to rest. In 1978, as her reputation for saintliness spread even more, her remains were transferred to the parish church and placed next to the main altar where they remain to this day.
In 1995, Alexandrina was declared Venerable. The confirmation of a miracle which is currently under examination is all that is needed for the completion of the beatification stage of the process of canonisation.
As the General Postulator for the Causes of Salesian Saints, Fr. Pasquale Liberatore mentioned in last month’s article, Alexandrina was a mystic who participated physically in Christ’s suffering on the cross. Fr. Liberatore confirms “At 21 years old she became bedridden through illness and there she remained for 30 years until her death. She was incapable of making any movement, as if she were nailed to the cross.”
As a young girl, she had a cheerful and independent character. She loved to laugh and joke. She had a strong and healthy body. On Holy Saturday in 1918, when she was just 14 years old, she threw herself from the window of her house to escape a rapist and injured her spinal cord. She tied all cures possible to heal herself as she loved life, but to no avail. On the contrary, her condition worsened and in 1925, she became completely paralysed and was forced to remain bedridden. She was 21 years old. It wasn’t easy to resign herself to her fate.
As medicine was unable to help her, she tried to be healed through a miracle. She prayed and she requested prayers. She even participated in pilgrimages but without any success. Little by little she began to understand that the Lord was calling her to an extraordinary and difficult mission that she generously accepted.
She thus began to be part of the impenetrable mystery of ‘suffering which redeems’, of the mystery of the passion and death of Christ as the way to Salvation and to the Resurrection. From then on, her will was to live in union with the suffering of Christ for the salvation of the world.
It was Christ who moulded and guided her on the road to ascetic and mystical theology. Thus began interior dialogues, spiritual intuition, conversations with invisible entities and visions. Contact with the supernatural became stronger and more frequent. She even began to visibly manifest signs of Christ’s Passion which never failed to bewilder both believers and unbelievers, and yet which are common during the earthly existence of many saints, especially those known as ‘mystics’.
As written in her ‘Diaries’ at the beginning of September 1934, Alexandrina began to feel that Jesus was asking her to let herself be crucified in a concrete manner. She consented and demonic persecution thus began. The Evil Spirit tormented her in every way possible, even using physical violence. He used to hit her and throw her from her bed. Her sister Diolinda, who slept in the bed next to her, used to put her back in her bed, and Satan used to make her fly over her sister’s bed and back onto the floor again. At the end of these battles, Alexandrina’s body was covered in bruises and bites.
Living Christ’s Passion
From 1936 to 1937, the physical and moral sufferings of Alexandrina increased. In 1938, she began to ‘live’ Christ’s Passion in a real and physical way. The phenomenon manifested itself for the first time on 3 October 1938 and repeated itself every Friday from 12 o’clock until 3 p.m. Alexandrina used to enter in a state of ecstasy, a sort of trance, and in these conditions, she ‘relived’ the various stages of Christ’s Passion, as recounted in the Gospel. Her physical suffering began to increase the day before, on the Thursday, and further increased during the night and the next morning, reaching a peak on the Friday from 12 until 3 p.m.
There are several accounts written by witnesses who attended this event. There is evidence on film and several photographs. At midday, Alexandrina used to get out of bed. Nobody knew how she managed as she had been an invalid since 1925. Yet in the period when she ‘re-lived’ the passion, she moved as if her disability didn’t exist.
As she got out of bed, she lay flat on the floor with her arms by her sides and she remained in that position absorbed in prayer, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. At a certain point, she assumed a kneeling position. Raising her eyes to heaven, she opened her hands as a sign of acceptance. She then lay down once again on the floor and returned to her knees, repeating the same movements. She did this three times. The agony in the Garden was long and painful. Alexandrina used to emit deep groans and she could be heard sobbing.
Then followed a kind of performance of all the other phases of Christ’s Passion: the arrest by the Roman soldiers, the trial before Pilate, the whipping, the crown of thorns, the journey to Calvary and the crucifixion.
Alexandrina actually suffered very cruelly. Those present, priests, laypeople and doctors watched worriedly as she was pale in the face, sweaty with her hair stuck to her head. At the end of the phenomenon, her body was covered in bruises.
Doctors made the most of the situation to carry out some experiments. They stuck pins under her nails and near her eyes, and she never felt anything. In the ‘performance’ of the journey to Golgotha with the crucifix on her shoulders, she experienced the three falls written about in the Gospel, remaining fixed to the floor, as if crushed to the ground by the weight of the cross. Once, a doctor tried to lift her up and realised that she had become very heavy. He asked another doctor for help, but even the two of them were unable to lift her even a millimetre. Alexandrina appeared to be stuck to the floor. Once the ecstasy was over, she was light once again: in this period she weighed just 75 pounds.
During this phase of the crucifixion, she behaved in a way which surprised the doctors and those present during the phenomenon. Alexandrina continued to lie flat on the floor, with her arms open and feet together. She placed her right hand on the ground and then her left as if to offer them to the crucifiers. A violent curling of the fingers was noticed, and when she was asked for an explanation about it later, she used to reply that it was because she had been nailed at the wrists.
Alexandrina then used to carry a completely inexplicable movement: she raised herself from the ground with her arms outstretched, without bending her body or her legs, remaining rigid, as if she were being held up by something, her heels acting as a hinge. Clearly, she was unable to carry out this movement using her own strength, so there was evidently another force which raised her weight off the ground. She then shook all over as if the cross had received a blow from below: giving the impression that the entire cross once erect carrying the crucified body, was being lowered into a hole in the ground, in order to be secured. She remained immobile in this position for a few minutes. She then fell to the ground and the agony finished flat out on the ground. Her breathing became more and more laboured; she raised her eyes upwards and shouted out cries of pain; her chest deflated as if her breathing mechanism had been paralysed. She uttered several phrases, some barely perceptible, the last of which was, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.” Her head fell to the left and for a few seconds she gave no signs of life. She tried to raise her head a few times but without success.
The phenomenon of ‘re-living’ Christ’s Passion lasted from 3 October 1938 until 27 March 1942. It thus repeated itself 182 times. The ‘passion’ of Alexandrina was then no longer visible, but continued invisibly. She then experienced another miraculous event: total fasting accompanied by anury, the absence of urine, which continued until her death. She ate and drank nothing for 13 years and 7 months. She nourished herself from the Eucharist alone which was brought to her every morning by the parish priest. Jesus had said to her: “You will no longer feed yourself on earth. Your food will be my flesh: your blood, my blood.”
Alexandrina suffered a lot from her thirst and hunger pangs, but if she drank even a drop of water, she immediately convulsed in a sudden spasm of vomiting.
This phenomenon roused the curiosity of medical science. No doctor believed that such behaviour could exist and many professors thus visited Alexandrina. While the faithful believed it to be a miracle, the doctors, many of whom were atheists, wished to prove that this was all a hoax, and they managed to convince Alexandrina to undergo scientific tests in a hospital environment. She agreed, but on one condition: only if she could take Communion every morning.
In June 1943, Alexandrina was taken to hospital, near Pôrto, and entrusted in the care of Professor Gomes de Araujo, of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid, a specialist in diseases of the nervous system and arthritic pains. Alexandrina remained there for 40 days, isolated from everyone, under the strict control of the famous doctor’s assistants, who watched her night and day. The doctors wanted, at all costs, to force her to eat, they bullied her and made her submit to humiliating physical examinations, but were unable to explain anything. They were forced to conclude that they were faced with an inexplicable case. Professor Araujo, once the 40 days had passed, bid farewell to Alexandrina saying “I will come and visit you in Balasar, not as a medical spy, but as a friend who admires you.” And from then on, he was no longer an atheist.
This long and miraculous fast which has been scientifically proved, is one of the mysterious ‘signs’ of the presence of the supernatural in the earthly life of Alexandrina. Her body nourished itself for 13 years on the Eucharist alone. Doctors noticed that the Host remained intact in her stomach for 24 hours, that is to say, until the moment arrived to receive the Eucharist again. Her body, in that time, was thus a living tabernacle.
Re-living Christ’s Passion, the long and complete fast and many other signs have characterised the earthly existence of Alexandrina Maria da Costa, a young Portuguese woman whose beatification is soon expected.