Soon, the nuns’ confessions begin to show some of the sisters’ true state of sin. Penances are measured to the exact gravity of the faults. Does Abbess Magdalena always distinguish what is real from what is imaginary?
No matter! For the moment, it is necessary to totally expiate sins, and to succeed, the cord whips are replaced with iron ones, garnished with nails or spur rowels.
As for the manner in which the whip should be applied, the Abbess modernises it… Before, when the Miserere liberated the whips, the candles were extinguished. From now on, the nuns are given all the necessary time to raise their habits in full light… in Magdalena’s mind, the spectacle of suffering reciprocally inflicted should be an encouragement for each to make her partner suffer more.
Away with little penances consisting of begging food from each table; a soul with little pride can submit to that easily. It is with exacerbated physical pain that the Abbess finds the salt of true penitence. The sisters now remain on their knees on clamps garnished with iron spikes, they sleep with belts of the same kind or remain stretched out in a doorway so that the others can walk on them.
They also imitate Christ’s Passion. Veils fall from heads and crowns of thorns are rammed onto them instead… A rope around their necks, the nuns walk in lugubrious and plaintive processions and, in a corridor, blows rain down on their faces from canes. These severities in no way harm the love given by the community to their Abbess. She is twice resoundingly re-elected.
Is it the admiration she receives from the greats of her time – Queen Isabella sends her her portrait and the Archbishop of Seville calls her in the letters that he writes to her “the happiest creature in the world” – that incites her to relax many points of the Order of the Clarissas’ Rule?
Because of her saintliness, Saint Francis, who appears to her one night, dispenses her from future Confessions. To be able to support even greater mortifications, she authorises the sisters not to fast on Fridays, and explains that it is an insult to them to be separated from their confessor by a grille. Many then think that the great reform of the Order that she is planning will bring new prosperity to the convent.
She says that, one night, a dead woman had come to confess to her. She immediately wants the young nuns and novices to confess to her at night in her cell. This innovation of course causes murmurs. Particularly from Isabella of the Holy Trinity who still hasn’t forgotten being beaten by Magdalena in the 1533 elections, and on whom the Abbess has inflicted the severest humiliations ever since…
The sisters are gradually getting used to living with the almost daily prodigies performed by Magdalena. Through dreams, apparitions and macerations endured with heroism… One morning she says:
“The Holy Virgin has appeared to me and led me about the corridors last night. She smiled at you, Sister, but she only gave a long look of scorn to you.”
These revelations strongly displease those who are the victims. Their protestations join those of the families who, outside, see their daughters refused entrance to the convent, because their ancestors were perhaps Jewish. Magdalena of course receives her information from the Holy Virgin, herself, but in the families, indignation and anger rumble… The 1542 elections bring a surprising result.
Magdalena receives only a handful of votes and Isabella of the Holy Trinity is elected. In rightful retaliation for her own humiliations, that same evening, she obliges Magdalena to make as many signs of the cross on the floor with her tongue as there are tiles in the refectory…
In the middle of this, the former Abbess falls into ecstasy. When this happened before, the sisters carried her to her cell. Now, she is left to macerate where she is for part of the night. With no strength left, she finally reintegrates her cell on her own.
Closely watched, Magdalena is again suspected of receiving food clandestinely. She is still supposed to be fasting most of the time. For more than thirty years, now.
One day, a little iron box containing Communion wafers is brought to the Abbess. This box, found under Magdalena’s bed, seems to prove that the miracle of spontaneous Communion, repeated many times since, has been just a trick.
In 1543, she falls gravely ill. This seems a good occasion for the Abbess to oblige her to confess. But when Magdalena sees her confessor, she goes into convulsions. A doctor, who is also a wise demonologist, is sent for. He notices that during one of her ecstasies, Magdalena’s eyes do not have all the fixity which is the distinctive mark of real ecstasies. He stabs her with a needle and obtains no reaction. But when he dips the needle in Holy Water, the nun exhales a low moan.
The nun’s illness seems to get worse. Unlike what used to happen, she is worried and often asks the doctor to keep her informed on the evolution of her illness. One December day, she hears:
“You are dying. You will not see another Christmas.”
Greatly anguished, Magdalena twists on her bed and lets out mysterious words:
“1544!… The forty years announced; cursed dog! Take me to Hell?”
Then she falls back and proffers revolting blasphemies before being ripped from her bed and held in the air. She then falls heavily several times, but apparently without hurting herself.
The Abbess has the Church Doyen, Don Juan of Cordua, called, and asks him to exorcise the Clarissa immediately. The old man orders:
“Leave this poor woman and dare to say your name!”
The demon first lets out a terrible cry in which it is thought that the name “Balban” is recognised. The laughing amplifies and becomes incomprehensible. The demon glories in all the disorder that he has been able to cause over so many years in the convent, and swears that he will return…
To be continued.