Seated near a fire with a few Hermit Brothers, Giovanni Buono, the founder of the Hermits of Saint Augustin, is exhorting his companions to persevere in their faith. We are in the 1230’s, on a Winter’s evening, in an Italian convent in Botrioli. Suddenly, as if to give more power to his words, Buono rises and goes towards the tall fireplace which is heating the monastery’s big room. He steps over the grate and starts to walk with bare feet on the red embers. He smiles as he says, while stirring the embers with his hands as if they are cool water,
“God is ready to perform prodigies for his friends”.
An edifying story coming from the depths of time for the use of the little catechists of the XIXth Century?…
It is not certain, for the life of Saint Giovanni Buono is filled with similar prodigies as is indicated in the Acta sanctorum published by the Bollandists, those men of science recruted mostly among the Jesuits, and given the task of writing the lives of the saints.
In what concerns Buono, they are inspired by the minutes of the procedure for beatification begun in 1251. Under oath, his companions, notably Brother Salveti, bear witness…
Brother Giovanni remained with bare feet in the embers for exactly the time that it takes to say half of the psalm Miserere mei Deus.
Then he invites some of his Brothers, including Salveti, to join him in his cell. Salveti says:
“I was very happy to receive this invitation for it would allow me to examine Buono’s feet which I expected to be considerably damaged.”
Salveti attentively inspects the Brother’s feet and has to believe the evidence: they have escaped any burns, as has his long tunic which bears no mark from the fire…
In the XVth Century, Saint Francesco di Paola, the founder of the Order of the Minimes, is actively participating in the construction of the Paola Convent in Calabra. Toward the end of the work, a chalk oven, which has been alight for twenty-four hours, cracks in several places. As all the chalk risks being spoilt, Francesco asks the workers to go away, and patches up the cracks.
When the masons return, they find the stove repaired and the Franciscan in the process of washing his hands… It is absolutely impossible, and this figures in the procedure for beatification, to repair such an oven… without entering inside it.
Francesco di Paola shows several times that he is insensitive to fire. As he likes a good laugh, he one day plays a joke on a high-born canon.
The canon estimed that Francesco’s austerity was normal since he was of very low extraction, and therefore used to difficult living conditions… Francesco says:
“It’s very true that I’m a country bumpkin!… If I wasn’t a real country boy, I wouldn’t be able to do this for example…”
Taking up handfuls of embers from the fire, he holds out two fistfuls of burning coals to the canon. The canon finds nothing better to do than to throw himself at his feet and ask for his blessing.
Catherine of Sienna falls one day into the enormous fire of her father who was a dyer. She was in ecstasy, and it is Lysa, her sister-in-law [or step-sister – it is the same word in French] who pulls her from the flames with no damage to her body or clothes.
As they concern saints, sceptics are always tempted to explain these prodigies by a few pious exaggerations by witnesses… divine intervention, in their minds, paradoxically removing a great part of the mystery of these phenomena…
Things become complicated when it is known that a lot of human beings, never having heard of Christian mysteries, or not caring much about them, also present the same incombustibility characteristic.
In an article in Le Journal des savants in 1677, diverse exercises of a famous English side-show performer are described. In front of the most trustworthy witnesses, he swallows sulphur and flaming coals, puts a glowing coal on his tongue and gently simmers a closed oyster on it until it opens, nicely cooked.
Not at all affected by this exercise, he swallows for dessert a flaming mixture of melted glass, flax fibres, sulphur and wax, in such a way that “this composition makes as much noise in his throat as a hot iron that it dipped into water”.
If he had lived at the same epoch in France, his prowesses would doubtless have led him straight to the stake, as happened to a certain Thomas Boulle, accused of sorcery because he could walk on embers without burning himself. He is burnt alive in Rouen on 22 August 1647.
When the famous Marie Sonnet, known as the Salamander, appears less than a century later, sorcerers are no longer being burnt. Anyway, it could be asked whether the flames would have gotten the better of this young woman, the Muse of the Saint-Medard Convulsionists.
Her talents explain, for a lot of people at least, the loss of control of the Fools for God who manifest themselves around this church in the Mouffetard quarter of Paris.
Minutes of extraordinary precision, dated 12 May 1731 and counter-signed by fourteen priests, Doctors in Theology, Sorbonne licencees, Parliamentary Councillors, Treasurers of the Chambre des Comptes, etc., indicate that:
“This day, between eight and ten o’clock in the evening, Marie Sonnet, being in convulsions, her head on one stool and her feet on another, the said stools being entirely inside the two sides of a great fireplace and under the mantel of the same, so that her body was in the air above the fire which was of extreme violence, and that she remained for thirty-six minutes in this situation, in four different times, without the sheet in which she was wrapped, having no clothing, burning, although the flame sometimes passed over it, which seemed to us totally supernatural. In faith of which we have signed this day 12 May 1731. Signed: (here follow different names of people in high places in Paris). Plus, we certify that, while we were signing the present certificate, the said Sonnet put herself back on the fire for nine minutes, seeming to sleep above the brazier which was very ardent, having fifteen logs and faggots burnt during the said two and a quarter hours.”
So the Sonnet remained stretched over the fire for the length of time necessary “for roasting a piece of veal or mutton”.
To be continued.