Catholic saints have long been revered for their famous acts of devotion and humility. In some cases, those acts would be considered extreme these days. In fact, the stories of some ancient and Medieval saints are frankly pretty gross by modern standards.
10Saint Lidwina Kept Her Rotting Flesh In A Vase
Saint Lidwina was born around 1380 in Schiedam, Holland. When she was 16, she fell while ice skating and developed a mysterious condition that left her in chronic pain, sensitive to light, and partially paralyzed. She spent much of her life in bed, only able to move her left arm.
According to a document written by the town elders of Schiedam, Lidwina also developed sores all over her body. Eventually, her flesh began to fall off. Even parts of her intestines rotted and fell away. These chunks of flesh smelled miraculously sweet and her parents kept them in a vase in their house.
Lidwina considered her suffering a gift from God and eventually a following grew around her decaying body. One man had the water she washed her hands in brought all the way to England, where it cured his leg problem. On another occasion, a local named Catherine had a vision that Lidwina’s breasts would fill with heavenly milk. Sure enough, “Lidwina rubbed her own breast and the milk came out; and Catherine drank three times and was satisfied.”
Some historians suspect Lidwina suffered from multiple sclerosis and severe pressure sores from lying paralyzed in bed. She is the patron saint of ice skating.
9Angela Of Foligno Ate A Scab
Saint Angela of Foligno lived in 13th century Italy, where she became well known for her acts of charity and devotion. Before she died, she dictated her memoirs, which describe how she once washed a leper’s feet and then drank the dirty water:
“We drank from the water that we used for washing. And the sweetness we felt was so great that it lasted all the way home…and when a scab from the leper’s sores became lodged in my throat, I tried to swallow it; and my conscience kept me from spitting it out—just as if I had received Holy Communion; and so I did dislodge it—not in order to spit it out, but so that it could go down my throat.”
8Catherine Of Siena Vomited Blood And Drank Pus
Catherine of Siena is one of the most famous medieval saints, famed for her charity and wisdom. She was also known for fasting from a young age. By the time she was 25 it was said that she could no longer bear food all and practically survived on the Eucharist.
Her confessor, Raymond of Capua, ordered her to eat, but she insisted that even the slightest morsel caused her intense pain. Her friends recorded that she often tried to set them at ease by eating a piece of cheese or some herbs, forced down with large gulps of water. But she would immediately find herself in terrible pain and rush from the room to stick a feather or twig down her throat until she vomited. She would sometimes keep purging until blood poured from her mouth.
However, there were exceptions to Catherine’s food intolerance. She told Raymond of Capua that she had eaten pus oozing from the body of a dying woman she was nursing, declaring that “never in my life have I tasted any food and drink sweeter or more exquisite.”
7Saint Mary Magdalene De’Pazzi Licked Sores
Saint Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi was born in Florence around 1566 and joined the Carmelote nuns as a teenager. She soon became known for mortifying her flesh by whipping herself, dripping hot wax on her body, and jumping naked into thorn bushes.
But de’Pazzi excelled herself as a miraculous healer. She was known for licking the open sores of those with leprosy and skin diseases. At other times, she would suck maggots out of infected wounds with her mouth. Her gums later became infected and her teeth fell out before she passed away at age 37.
6Catherine Of Genoa Ate Scabies And Lice
A noblewoman in 15th century Italy, Catherine of Genoa decided to dedicate herself to good works after a bloody vision of Christ’s crucifixion. She was soon beloved by all for tirelessly tending to the sick and destitute.
However, Catherine apparently found the sight of plague victims hard to bear. To strengthen herself mentally, she began to drink the pus from their wounds. She also ate the lice and scabies that infested her patients. Such fearless acts won her quite a following, and she was made a saint in 1737.
5Francesca Romana Burned Her Genitals With Hot Fat
From a young age, Francesca Romana longed to become a nun, but her father forced her to get married to a wealthy man at age 13. This triggered a breakdown, but she recovered after a vision of Saint Alexis and became a dutiful wife, even nursing her husband back to health after he was stabbed by Neapolitans.
In private, however, Francesca was determined to remain spiritually chaste. Before having sex with her husband, she would heat pork fat and burn her vulva with it, ensuring she would remain in extreme pain throughout the sexual act. She was also known for whipping herself bloody and wearing an iron band that dug into her thigh.
Francesca was also known for her visions and often saw naked demons committing sodomy. Other demons horrified her with images of death and decay, but Francesca trained herself to withstand such visions by using a human skull as a drinking cup. On another occasion, she cut off all her hair after a demon used it to dangle her over a balcony.
Francesca died in 1440 and the Church began collecting accounts of her life that same year. She was officially made a saint in 1608.
4Simeon Stylites Pushed Maggots Into His Leg
Simeon Stylites was a 6th century Syrian saint who became known for his ascetic lifestyle. His most famous act was living on top of a pillar for 30 years. To keep from falling, he tied a rope around his leg, which gradually sank into the flesh. The sore stank and teemed with pus and worms, but Simeon refused to remove the rope. Instead, he would pick up the maggots that fell out and push them back into the wound, saying “Eat what God has given you.”
Simeon became a famous sight in Syria and people came from miles around to hear him preach from atop his pillar. Once a day, his disciples would climb up a ladder to deliver food and remove his waste bucket and living on a pillar actually became quite a trend among Christian holy men, although the Church never fully approved of such behavior.
3Ite And The Stag Beetle
Ite (or Ita) was the abbess of Killeedy in Ireland during the fifth century. She became known for her lengthy fasts and ascetic lifestyle. It was said that she kept a large stag beetle, which she let eat away at the flesh of her side with its huge mandibles.
One day, the beetle escaped, terrifying the other nuns, who quickly squished it. This outraged Ite, who lamented that her “fosterling” didn’t deserve such a fate.
Like many early saints, Ite was unofficially canonized by a local bishop. However, Pope Pius IX gave permission for a feast day to be celebrated in her honor and she still considered a patron saint of Limerick to this day.
2Saint Macarius Mutilated Himself With Mosquitos
Saint Macarius the Younger lived in a community of Egyptian hermit-monks where self-sacrifice was all the rage. It’s said that an admirer once gave Macarius some grapes, but Macarius insisted on sending them to a monk who needed them more. This monk did the same and the grapes were passed around between monks until someone gave them back to Macarius.
Macarius’s most famous deed came after he instinctively killed a gnat that bit him. At once, he was filled with regret for killing a creature and avoiding suffering. To atone, he journeyed to a swamp which was infested with flies and mosquitos. He lived there naked for six months, allowing the insects to bite him constantly. By the time he returned, his whole body was a mass of bites and sores and he was only recognized by his voice.
1Veronica Giuliani Ate Spiders
In the 17th century, Saint Veronica Giuliani was renowned for her acts of humility. For example, she kept a rotting fish in her cell and frequently smelled it and tasted it. As a result, she came to appreciate the taste of fresh fish even more.
When Veronica developed stigmata, the Church became suspicious and a Jesuit named Father Crivelli was sent to investigate whether she was merely an attention-seeker. Crivelli accused her of being a hypocrite or even a witch, but “found her so humble…that, to tell the truth, I wondered exceedingly.”
To test her humility, Crivelli ordered Veronica to leave her cell and live in a disused closet, which was full of spiders and insects. Instead of sweeping the closet, he told her to clean the floor with her tongue. To his surprise, Veronica not only licked the floor clean, but stood on a stool and licked the walls clean as well, “swallowing both spiders and cobwebs.”
The Jesuit went away convinced and Veronica was canonized in 1839.
For two thousand years the lives of the saints have enthralled and inspired. Here are a few of our own meagre contributions to the immense oeuvre of hagiographers.