Have you ever seen this great medieval icon of St. Margaret of Cortona?
I suspect not UNLESS you were fortunate enough to go to the excellent Diocesan Museum in downtown Cortona, Italy, OR be on the St. Margaret of Cortona Regional Executive Council nearly 20 years ago when each of us was given a nearly life-size poster of this icon to commemorate the Seventh Centenary since the death of St. Margherita (as she’s known on the poster and in Italy) of Cortona, 1297-1997. I immediately had the icon framed, and St. Margaret always attended our Council and Annual Chapter meetings.
Several years earlier, we Seculars in the Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia areas were trying to transition smoothly from Provincial to Regional governance. We had a meeting to discuss many things, including the name of our new Region. Some of the nominees were Holy Cross Region and some other Region until our Provincial Spiritual Assistant argued very persuasively that as Secular Franciscans we must name our Region after a great Secular Franciscan saint, and his candidate was St. Margaret of Cortona about whom most of us, or perhaps only me, knew very little. St. Margaret easily carried the day!
Thus, flashing forward to the giving of the gift, I really wanted to learn directly from this icon as much as I could. I really wanted to know more than the conversion outline of her life that I had obtained from many other sources..
Not so easy!
Scholars say this may be a medieval icon painted by someone who knew or had seen St. Margaret. Thus, it may be nearly as old as St. Margaret herself. I could find no scholar who could say for sure who the painter was. Obviously, the icon has not aged well, and some faces and gestures are lost forever.
But not St. Margaret. She still commands her icon and seems to say to herself and to beckon to all of us, “Penance will turn us away from sin and bring us closer to Christ!”
From Franciscan scholars, I learned that her attire would have been readily recognized by anyone from her time as the attire of a Franciscan Secular, a penitent. This attire was very important as you might discern going from top to bottom in the first three smaller paintings to your left as you look at the icon.
In the first painting at the top left, she seems to be begging admission on her knees to a Franciscan monastery as two friars converse to the left.
In the second painting, it seems the friars have accepted her as a Secular Franciscan or a Brother and Sister of Penance.
Only in the third painting does a Sister Secular Franciscan invest her with the garment that she wears in the main icon.
If you can’t really see any of that clearly, keep studying! But after many years, seven things seem so important to me:
- The Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Margaret’s time clearly had a recognizable habit, if you will.
- This habit had to be “earned” in some way. Something had to be done. There was some process of formation.
- This habit was worn all her or his life as the friar’s brown habit. It was not a punishment, but an element of identity and penance for all to see.
- To even become part of this process of penance, you needed to go with the friars. They seem to be the “admitting group.” They seem to be the formators.
- Once you had completed the formation process to acquire this habit of Penance, look at it! She and other Sisters and Brothers were walking invitations to Penance, clearly visible, clearly know to the people of their day.
- Perhaps a rosary was part of the Secular habit as well as with the friars because St. Margaret clearly holds one in her left hand. In any case, the rosary seems to St. Margaret to be a primary means of prayer and penance.
- That gesture of her right hand is not one to put one off, but rather, to me, after many years, an invitation to say, “Peace and all good. May I assist you in any way?” She seems graciously to be inviting others to Penance. Again, “Penance will turn us away from sin and bring us closer to Christ!”
The fourth painting at the bottom on the left and the first painting at the top on the right have proven a bit mysterious to most scholars of the icon, but they seem to show St. Margaret involved in acts of mercy, and we do know that she was very active in works of mercy. A large hospital is still named for her in her city of Cortona today.
In the second painting coming down on the right, through the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi visible on the right, Jesus Christ Himself reaches out and blesses St. Margaret directly, perhaps forgiving her of all her past sins, as many scholars have written.
In the third painting on the right, always in her cell where we see her receive her Secular Franciscan habit in the third painting on the left and continuing in every subsequent painting, St. Margaret seems to be receiving our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament from priests who come to her.
In the fourth and final painting coming down on the right, Jesus Himself points to her place in heaven with the Blessed Mother beside Him.
Again, so hard to see on a cursory look, but what an incredible story of salvation in eight frames!
Once I was able with a lot of help to better understand this beautiful icon and its story of salvation, how devoted I became to praying to St. Margaret.
I pray to her that every permanently professed Secular Franciscan in her Region will wear her or his habit, the Tau, as visibly and permanently as St. Margaret wore hers.
I pray that each fraternity in the Region has a serious formation process to help form and transform each of us into saints like St. Margaret.
I pray that we will never be separated from the other members of the Franciscan family.
I pray to St. Margaret to aid our Region named for her and to help all of us walk in the way of Penance as she did so well.
I pray that St. Margaret will help all of us call new Secular Franciscans to accept her invitation to Penance: “Penance will turn us away from sin and bring us closer to Christ!”
If you are not praying to her, please pray.
St. Margaret of Cortona, pray for us.
St. Margaret of Cortona, pray for us.
St. Margaret of Cortona, pray for us.
We pray in Jesus’ name.
Deacon Tom Bello, O.F.S.
History of St. Margaret of Cortona
from THE FRANCISCAN BOOK OF SAINTS
edited by Marion Habig, ofm Copyright 1959 Franciscan Herald Press
This Magdalen of the Franciscan Order came into the world in the year 1247 at Laviano near Cortona in the province of Tuscany. When she was 7 years old, she lost her pious mother. She was neglected by her careless father, who married again within a short time, and her unsympathetic stepmother dealt harshly with her, so that when Margaret was 18 years old, she left home to earn her bread among strangers.
She was possessed of rare beauty, and ere long this became a snare for her. For the space of 9 years she gave herself up to a life of sin and scandal. Then one day she waited a long time in vain for her accomplice in sin to return home to the place where she lived with him. Presently his dog came to her whining and tugging at her dress. She followed the animal into the heart of the forest, and there she suddenly stood before the blood stained corpse of the unfortunate man; his enemies had murdered him.
At the appalling sight, Margaret was stunned like one struck by lightning. Filled with terror she asked herself, “Where is his soul now?” Then and there she firmly resolved in future to be even greater in penance than she had been in sin. Like the prodigal son she returned repentant to her
native town of Laviano.
In a penitential garb, her hair cut short, a cord around her neck, she knelt at the door of the church and publicly asked all the congregation to forgive the scandal she had given. Many people were edified at this public humiliation, but her stepmother was all the more embittered at it. She, as well as Margaret’s father, forbade her to enter the parental home again. This reception severely tempted Margaret to return to the road of vice, but God’s grace sustained her.
Led by divine grace, she repaired to Cortona, made a contrite general confession to a Franciscan there, and submitted to the spiritual direction of her confessor. In a poor little hovel she now lived a secluded life, in penance, tears, and prayer, earning her scanty nourishment by hard manual labor.
Again and again she begged for the habit of the Third Order, that she might be recognized by all the world as a penitent. But not until 3 years had elapsed and she had been severely tried, was her wish granted. She received the habit in 1277. Now her fervor increased, and it is almost incredible what rigorous penances she practiced from then on. Day and night she wept over her sins, and often sobs so choked her voice that she could not speak. Satan made use of every wile and snare to cause Margaret to relapse, but prayer, mortification, and humiliation successfully put him to flight.
When finally, after uninterrupted struggling, she had triumphed over every earthly inclination, God assured her that her sins were fully pardoned and granted her special proofs of His knowledge of the innermost secrets of hearts. In many an instance, even when people came from great distances, she recalled grievous sins to their mind, while her exhortations and prayers were instrumental in bringing about conversion. Many souls were released from purgatory upon her prayers. Almighty God wrought many miracles through her even in her lifetime. Health was restored to the sick, a dead boy was raised to life, and at her approach evil spirits shuddered and left those whom they possessed.
Finally, after 23 years of rigorous penance, in the 50th year of her life, God called the great penitent to the Beatific Vision on February 22, 1297. Her body is preserved in a precious shrine in the Franciscan church at Cortona which bears her name. It is incorrupt even at the present day and frequently emits a pleasant perfume. Several popes have confirmed the public veneration accorded her. Pope Benedict XIII canonized her amid great solemnity in 1728.
ON CONTRITION FOR SINS
1. How remarkable the effects of divine grace and mercy manifested themselves in St. Margaret! From all appearances she seemed destined only to become a vessel of divine wrath, and yet she became a vessel of election. And what brought about the marvelous change? It was her sincere contrition. We must never despair of the conversion of any sinner; contrition can make a saint of him. You yourself must never despair of your own conversion. No matter how difficult it may be to lay aside certain sinful habits, with the grace of God you will succeed, and He will never deny this grace to a contrite heart. “A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps 50:19). But sincere contrition is in itself a grace. Do you ever implore the gift from God? Pray especially during the season of Lent each year for the spirit of penance.
2. Consider what constitutes true contrition. It is sorrow of the soul which detests the sins committed and has the firm resolution not to sin again. Seeing what he has done, considering the punishment he has deserved from a just God, realizing the unworthiness of offending God, who is his greatest benefactor and the greatest and most lovable of all good things, the sinner cries out with a contrite heart: “Oh, how badly I have behaved! Would that I could undo it! Not for all the world will I do it again! Oh, once more, good Jesus, have mercy on me!” If tears follow upon this grief of the soul, they help to increase your remorse and the efficacy of your sorrow; but you can have perfect contrition without tears. On the other hand, no matter how bitterly you were to weep merely on account of disgrace incurred or temporal loss suffered by your sins, it would not suffice for the remission of sins in the sacrament of penance. The thought of having offended God and deserved His punishments must be the cause of your sorrow. Indeed, you should endeavor to awaken perfect contrition, saying for example, to your dear heavenly Father: “O my God, so worthy of all my love, greatest and best of all that is good! I grieve from the bottom of my heart that I have offended Thee. Let me rather die than ever offend Thee again.” St. Margaret had such contrition; so did St. Mary Magdalen. That is why their many sins were forgiven them, “because they loved much.” Have
you endeavored to acquire perfect contrition?
3. Consider that it is a fatal error to believe that, after you have once made an act of contrition for your sins, you may be as unconcerned about them as if nothing had ever happened. “Man knows not,” says the Holy Spirit, “whether he be worthy of love or hatred” (Eccli 9:1). We should again and again make acts of contrition for past sins, and it is good also to confess them again and again subject to the direction of the priest, according to the words of the prophet: “Wash me yet more from my iniquity” (Ps 50:4). Even if, like St. Margaret, you were assured by divine revelation of the full pardon of your sins, love of God should induce you, as it did her, to keep up in your heart lively sorrow for having offended so good a God. This sorrow should move you to lead a life of penance, and for this reason the holy Fathers tell us that the life of a Christian should be an uninterrupted act of penance. — Can you say this of your life?
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
O God, who didst bring back Thy servant Margaret from the road of perdition to the way of salvation, grant in the same mercy, that we who once were not ashamed to follow her astray may now be glad to imitate her in penance. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.