Saint Mariam Thresia, born on 26th April 1876 at Puthenchira, Thrissur district of Kerala state in India, and made her entry into heaven on 8th June 1926, is not only one who reached greater heights of mysticism but also is one who strode the length and breadth of active life during her time. This she did when women religious had not yet begun to step out of their cloisters and enclosures to come into the active life. This reveals her heroic approach to do God’s will in all situations breaking forth all kinds of frontiers. Such a great saintly figure, who had conceived the family as the ‘domestic Church’ some four decades before the Second Vatican, and blended her mystical experiences and message with the apostolate of the families has unfortunately remained very much hidden from the wider public for almost a century due to insufficient studies. This indeed is a great loss not only to the Indian Church but to the universal Church at large. This article proposes to study St Mariam Thresia’s unique blending of her mysticism with her active apostolate to the familiesso as to bring her out to the forefront of the Church where the ‘domestic Church’ is presently going through a great crisis.
MYSTICISM OF SAINT MARIAM THRESIA
A brief clarification regarding mysticism is in place, when we speak of the mysticism of St Mariam Thresia. There are two divergent perceptions on mysticism among Catholic theologians. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Louis Bouyer can be considered as representatives of those two different understandings of mysticism. Accordingly Balthasar considered that St. Thérèse of Lisieux had not entered the threshold of mysticism in the sense of experiencing extra-ordinary mystical phenomena while Louis Bouyer considered that the Saint indeed was one who was a mystic.Bouyer considered “that genuine mysticism does not consist so much in the experience of ecstasies or ‘visions’ … but quite simply in total self-abandonment in naked faith, through an efficacious love of the Cross that is one with the very love of the crucified God.” Karl Rahner understands mysticism in two senses: specific and generic. The specific sense of mysticism would include extraordinary phenomena of the experience of the Divine. The generic sense of mysticism which Rahner considers will go in tune with the thoughts of Louis Bouyer. Rahner interprets such mysticism as “everyday mysticism”, which he explains as “there is God and his liberating grace … There is the mysticism of everyday life, the discovery of God in all things; there is the sober intoxication of the Spirit, of which the Fathers and the liturgy speak [and] which we cannot reject or despise, because it is real.” From these theological understandings of mysticism, one can safely say that Mariam Thresia was indeed a mystic both in the generic sense as well as specific sense of the word. Besides being a person who had experienced extraordinary mystical phenomena, is also a person who was an “everyday mystic” – experiencing God in a very intimate and personal way in the concrete everyday situation. St Mariam Thresia was a personification of the “attitude of deep reverence toward God and one’s fellow human beings” which is in fact “a fundamental sign of genuine mysticism”
Apart from being an everyday mystic, St Mariam Thresia experienced many extraordinary phenomena like visions, aureole, perfumes, ecstasies, bi-location, levitations, crucifixions, transverberation, stigmata, exchange of hearts and spiritual espousals. The extra-ordinary mystical phenomena experienced in the life of St Mariam Thresia, when compared with those of St. Teresa of Avila, reveal that God had granted very privileged and unique relation with the humble soul of St Mariam Thresia, for she witnessed very rare graces from the Lord.
In his thorough scrutiny, Rev. Fr. George Nedungatt SJ has elaborately discussed the mysticism of St Mariam Thresia and stated: “It is rare to see so many mystical phenomena cumulated together in a single life”. After having meticulously analyzed the mystical dimensions of the life of Blessed Mariam Thresia, the author states thus:
‘By their fruits you will know them’ (Mt 7:16, 20). From her fruitful dynamism and apostolate of charity we know that Bl. Mariam Thresia was a genuine mystic, a truth confirmed by heaven through the numerous miraculous favours obtained by her devotees, though not all the extraordinary phenomena in her life were necessarily supernatural experiences.
The manifold mystical experiences of Mariam Thresia like visions, auditions, exchange of hearts, transverberation, stigmata, levitation, bilocation, ecstasy, aureole and fragrance have been critically analyzed and studied by Nedungatt.
The psychologist accepts the limits of his sciences and declines to pronounce on the extraordinary phenomena in the life of Mariam Thresia exclusively on the basis of psychology. However, “a healthy, balanced and mature personality” excludes the hypothesis of psychosis, or paranoic delusions or purely neurotic disorders.
The diabolic assaults on Mariam Thresia are in line with the hagiography records of St. John Maria Vianney, St. John Bosco, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Teresa of Calcutta. The diabolic assaults on the person who is yearning for perfect union with Christ the Lord indicates perhaps “a high degree of sanctity”. Mother Mariam Thresia had several experiences of exchange of hearts, a phenomenon experienced by many saints like St. Margret Mary, St. Catherine de Ricci, St. Catherine of Siena and others. “In mystical theology, exchange of hearts signifies very high degree of union whether at the level of spiritual marriage or espousals or even earlier.”
St Mariam Thresia was given the special grace by the Lord of participating intensely in his passion. This grace she experienced many a time in her life. This grace is what we know in Christian mysticism as transverberation. Other saints like St. Padre Pio and St. Teresa of Avila also had experienced transverberation. Regarding one of the transverberations of Mariam Thresia, her spiritual director Rev. Fr. Joseph Vithayathil writes: “Soon an angel came and thrust a spear into her left side. She felt that the spear had pierced her heart and reached the right side of the chest. Consequently there was profuse bleeding and she became unconscious.” A similar experience of transverberation St. Teresa of Avila had, where she experienced a cherub piercing her heart, she would write in her Interior Castle,
I have just been wondering if my God could be described as the fire in a lighted brazier, from which some spark will fly out and touch the soul, in such a way that it will be able to feel the burning heat of the fire; but, as the fire is not hot enough to burn it up, and the experience is very delectable, the soul continues to feel that pain and the mere touch suffices to produce that effect in it. … just as the soul is about to become enkindled, the spark dies, and leaves the soul yearning once again to suffer that loving pain of which it is the cause.
Her Friday Stigmata experiences are an example of this rare and unique privilege the Lord had given her. Stigmata experience itself is very unique and rare. St. Teresa of Avila was not one who had this unique privilege. In the history of Christian mysticism, it is St. Francis of Assisi, who for the first time received this special extra ordinary privilege and grace to have stigmata in the twelfth century. After St. Francis, there has been many a saint who received this unique grace of stigmata even though all of them have not yet been recognized officially as stigmatists by the Church.
There has been clear historical evidence to prove that Blessed Mariam Thresia had this special extraordinary phenomenon of stigmata experience in her person beyond doubt. While comparing St Mariam Thresia with Maddalena de la Cruz, a Franciscan nun who had self-inflicted stigmata, Fr. Nedungatt states: “in sharp contrast stand genuine Stigmatists like St. Padre Pio and Mariam Thresia, who, far from trying to win attention, took care to hide their stigmata.”Even though stigmata or any other mystical experience is not a proof for sanctity, yet genuine stigmata can rule out the high level of the mystical union existing between the Lord and the human soul. Her mystical experiences indicate that the soul of the St Mariam Thresia, has reached an intense union with her Lord and Saviour. The fact that there are only very few stigmatists in the history of stigmata points towards the reality that stigmata is a very rare and special privilege of mystical grace given by God to a very few souls during the passage of twenty centuries. Hence, we can conclude that the union that existed between the Lord Jesus and his beloved Mariam Thresia was of a very high degree. Or else, how come that she was granted this great and rare special privilege by the Lord?
HER MINISTRY TO THE FAMILIES AND THE NEEDY
St Mariam Thresia was not a mystic who was solely shut up within the four walls of her convent, having no concern for those who are in need. When we analyze her life, we see her as a mystic readily on the move. She had as great love for her fellow human beings in need as for her Lord. Her life comprises of two dimensions of the divine love: Love of God and love of neighbor. Both these aspects of divine love are harmoniously blended together in her. Mariam Thresia stands as an epitome of the Lord’s commandment of “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27).
The life of Mariam Thresia was not only mystically united with her Lord, but was also very pragmatically concerned for every sinner who needed a conversion of heart. She would go to any extent in order to obtain the conversion of a sinner. She would win over the soul for conversion by prayer, advice or self-inflicted penance. For a woman of her parish, who hid one of her sins during her confession, “Thresia suffered in silence and prayed and did penance for her. At last the woman got the strength to overcome her shame and made a good confession.” Similarly, Thresia used to care for the penitent sinners by praying for their true and perfect repentance. “When there were many in the church to make confession, Thresia used to make it a point to go to church herself and pray for God’s grace, so that all might make a good confession.” Due to her intense concern for the conversion of sinners, she always went out of her way and made efforts to bring back sinners to God. This was her way of doing spiritual act of mercy. “It was her ardent desire that sinners should come back to God, their loving Father and be saved.”
Ministry to the dying people was another action that St Mariam Thresia undertook on herself with utmost care and responsibility. She always made it a point to visit the dying patients and prayed for them so that they receive the sacraments with true repentance and die peaceful death. “Mariam Thresia would walk miles to go to the help of the dying in their homes. In those days hospitals were rather primitive and were only in faraway bigger towns. If it was necessary to visit the homes of the dying at night, she would have her younger brother go with her.” Those years when girls and women were not expected to go out especially at night, without being bothered by criticism, she continued to visit the dying patients to assist them to die peacefully and in faith. Her outgoing ministry to the dying at a time when the society was not yet open and free, was at the same time a ground breaking social innovation as well as spiritual initiative of bringing God to those dark situations of depression, pain, agony and hopelessness.Her presence at such situations brought much hope to the families of the dying.
Similarly, her ministry of nursing the sick is a very sacred and precious moment when the divine was freely mixing up with the human. The divine and the human were getting perfectly blended in her service of the sick. The sick experienced the divine through the loving care Thresia gave to them. Thresia experienced the pain of the human suffering while nursing the sick people who needed her. “The sick obtained solace and strength from her. Without looking for any reward of remuneration she went to those who were suffering from physical and mental ailments.” Besides nursing the sick, her compassion also flowed out to the poor, the orphans and the needy. “Whenever she saw that the children were rejected or not cared for by their parents she would bring them to her convent… Mariam Thresia took care of the orphans like her own children. … She had a truly maternal love and concern for the poor and the orphans.” Such an active socio-pastoral involvement of a mystic is rather very rare in the Catholic spiritual tradition.
Neither her living in solitude nor the formation of a religious congregation actually changed the life style of socio-pastoral involvement of Mariam Thresia. Like the Good Shepherd who always searched for the lost, the least and the sick sheep, Mariam Thresia dedicated herself to the service of the poor. “Her apostolic style of life continued as before after she moved into the House of Solitude. And she reached out to help the families in need”. Numerous are the instances of her pastoral involvement and interventions for the poor, the needy, the orphans, the sick, the dying and the struggling families. These involvements of her in the lives of the needy and specially the families in need reveal her extra-ordinary sensitivity to the poor. Such a socio-pastoral involvement by one who was experiencing very special favours connected with mysticism like visions, auditions, exchange of hearts, transverberation, stigmata, levitation, bilocation, ecstasy, aureole and fragrance from the Lord is a very unique instance in the history of spirituality. It is something like the Blessed Virgin Mary, who immediately after receiving the glad tidings of the special favour of becoming the mother of the Saviour, from angel Gabriel, rushes out in urgency to visit and care for her cousin Elizabeth when she learns about her pregnancy.
Mariam Thresia is a true contemplative in action or rather better to state a true mystic who cannot remain silent and selfishly satisfied when God’s children are in suffering. She is right there where God wants to manifest His love to His people in agony. She becomes a true agent of His love wherever His love is required. Her service to the needy was not caused by her desire for name, fame or self-advancement. She moved on because she felt urged, “Caritas Christi urgetnos” [love of Christ urges us] (2 Cor 5:14). Her sole aim was to share the love of the Lord with anyone who was in need of it. She became a mere conduit to bring this divine love to all those were longing and thirsting for it. She was just appropriating the golden commandment of Jesus in the Gospel: “love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12). She thus proved herself to be the perfect blend of the height of mysticism and the breadth of active life for our time. She is a model who teaches the future generations even after being the recipient of special favours and mystical experiences as to how to serve the poor actively and passionately. She is also a challenge to the Christian social workers of today to become deeply rooted in the love of Jesus the Lord. She teaches us that we can plunge ourselves into social action only from the launching pad of profound experience of the Divine.
These active socio-pastoral involvements of St Mariam Thresia beyond her extra ordinary mystical experiences and phenomena reveal further the genuineness of her mystical experiences. As St. Teresa of Avila would state, “The will certainly seems to me to be united in some way with the will of God; but it is by the effects of this prayer and the actions which follow it that the genuineness of the experience must be tested and there is no better crucible for doing so than this.” More than the extra ordinary phenomena she experienced, her life of being with and serving the poor, the suffering, the sick and the struggling families manifest her sanctity. These external manifestations of her socio-pastoral involvement in fact bring out her as a genuine Christian mystic in greater relief, because her mystical experiences of the Divine urge her to pastoral action and vice versa her pastoral involvement takes her back to the Divine on her knees interceding on behalf of the suffering humanity.
St Mariam Thresia is a perfect Christian example of true mysticism and compassionate action. She is an ideal blend of the height of mysticism and the breadth of active life. She can truly be a model and example for Christian social workers, ministers of family apostolate and Christian mystics. She teaches Christian ministers how to transform today’s secularized families into “true domestic Churches”. She was a prophet who pointed out like a great visionary as to why social action should always be emerging from genuine Divine Love. In the final analysis it is only the Divine Love that can transform human beings and their relations. St Mariam Thresia manifested this Divine Love concretely and passionately among the needy human beings transforming them and elevating them to the Divine realm.
Fr. John Ponnore
Director, Pastoral Center
Archdiocese of Raipur
 Cf. James A. Wiseman, OSB, “Mysticism” in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Michael Downey (Bangalore: TPI, 1995), 682.
 Cf. James A. Wiseman, OSB, “Mysticism”, 682.
Bouyeras quoted in James A. Wiseman, OSB, “Mysticism”, 682.
 Karl Rahner as quoted in James A. Wiseman, OSB, “Mysticism”, 688.
 James A. Wiseman, OSB, “Mysticism”, 692.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All – A Biography of Bl. Mariam Thresia, (Thrissur: Holy Family Congregation, 2002), 236.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 238.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 219
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 227. It is true that one’s sanctity is not measured by the extraordinary phenomena of mysticism. St. Teresa of Avila states about the betrothal of the soul to the Divine Majesty: “the devil will take great pains about combating it and will try to hinder the betrothal”. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. and ed. by E. Allison Peers (New York: An Image Book Doubleday, 1989), 120.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 228.
 Fr. Joseph Vithayathil as quoted by George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 69.
 St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 136.
Cfr. George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 69 -72, 229 – 231.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 231.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 48.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 48-49.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 50.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 52-53.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 53.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 56.
 George Nedungatt SJ, Crucified with Christ for All, 94.
 St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 83.