Let us run to Jesus, Heart of Love, Heart full of tenderness. Let us ask Jesus to give us the riches of His pure love—to breathe only for love, to live only for love. -St. Gemma Galgani
I first “met” St. Gemma Galgani when I was fourteen years old and had reached the point in Confirmation class when we were told to choose a patron saint. My mom left her book of saints on my bed so I could read it. But—and I can’t remember if it was from any type of conviction or simply laziness—I never made it past the first page. The beautiful, dark-haired girl in the photograph gracing the cover became my patron saint: St. Gemma.
Helping Me Find My Way Home
For years, she lingered in the background of my heart while I drifted away from the Church in high school, finding my way back the summer before my senior year, just in time to send in my application to a Catholic university I had insisted I didn’t want to attend.
And as I journeyed “Home,” I often thought of St. Gemma. I didn’t know anything about her other than that she was a canonized Saint, she was Italian, and she was beautiful. Who was this young woman—who I’m confident was interceding for me for all those years—even though I had never bothered to get to know her?
My Spiritual Companion
As I fully embraced my Catholic Faith and the Communion of Saints we are blessed to be surrounded by, I admittedly “clicked” with other Saints a lot more. St. Gemma was…too perfect. There are accounts of her wisdom and holiness from the time she was two years old, and her spiritual director shares in The Life of St. Gemma Galgani that “she would have passed through any torment rather than deliberately consent to even the merest shadow of venial sin.” Talk about hard to relate to!
It wasn’t until I dove into the aforementioned biography that I learned just how much work, dedication, time, and even (read: especially) physical sacrifice led her to this level of holiness. She put in the work, battled aspects of her own personality that contradicted the faith God specifically called her to, and accepted cross after cross in hopes of becoming more deeply united with the Crucified Jesus.
Learning from St. Gemma Galgani
Even though my vocation (marriage and motherhood) couldn’t be more different than hers (an almost hermit-like single life), here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from her about loving Jesus and growing in holiness.
1. Naming and writing down habits we want to cultivate is powerful.
After making her First Communion, St. Gemma wrote down five spiritual resolutions and committed to living them out—and she did, all throughout her life.
While she certainly added more practices to her devotions as she grew up, these five habits, from “[receiving] Holy Communion each time as if it were to be the last” to “[endeavoring] to keep always in the presence of God” formed the core of her spiritual life.
2. Virtues must be actively pursued and practiced.
Much of her biography is dedicated to unpacking the virtues St. Gemma mastered, most notably obedience, humility, purity, and simplicity. Her spiritual director reveals that despite how near-perfectly she lived out these virtues, they were a constant struggle for her.
Having gazed upon the wounds of Jesus in His Passion during her frequent ecstasies, and even sharing in them through the stigmata, she was deeply sensitive to her sinfulness and took every possible measure to avoid the near occasion of sin. She even prayed, with her spiritual director’s approval, that she might never find pleasure from such an earthly satisfaction as food!
Her perspective is summed up well in this quote:
I wish to be all and only of Jesus, and what is there to love on this earth now that I possess Jesus? World, creatures, all you are no longer for me, nor am I for you, and so I cannot love you and will not love you more.
3. We don’t need the perfect situation or setting to pursue holiness.
St. Gemma deeply desired religious life. When she was miraculously healed from a case of meningitis that nearly took her life, everyone (herself included) thought the reason for her recovery was so that she could enter the convent.
However, for one reason after another, and despite the sisters’ love and admiration for her, she was ultimately turned away. She was heartbroken. But when she returned home, she quickly incorporated the lessons and habits from her time with the sisters on retreat into her life with her relatives and siblings. She trusted in God completely, and accepted that her plan, as wonderful and noble as it was, was simply not His plan.
It may have been easier for St. Gemma to live out her unique, private, mystical life from within cloistered walls. But striving to live that way in the midst of people who didn’t understand her undoubtedly contributed to her holiness and humility.
4. We do not need to live at the mercy of our senses.
How often do we make decisions based on our senses?
I’m not going to kneel during Holy Hour because my knees hurt. I want to head home as soon as Mass is over because I’m hungry.
I’d venture to guess that our senses, my own very much included, guide more of our lives than we may realize. St. Gemma became such a master of her senses that she could essentially turn them off, entering instantly into communion with God.
Her spiritual director revealed:
If she wished to commune with Heaven, in an instant, her imagination was silenced and ceased its wanderings; her memory became powerless to remember any created thing as food for thought or expression; the importunate movements of her heart stopped still; and even her physical pains were no longer a trouble or distraction.
While I can only pray to grow even remotely close to this level of detachment, I can train myself to become more aware of what earthly desires and distractions are keeping me from a deeper relationship with God.
5. We learn to love Jesus through the Cross.
If there is one thing to know about St. Gemma, it is that her greatest love was Jesus Crucified. From an early age, she pleaded with her mother and teachers to explain the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary to her, and she constantly meditated on the Passion of Jesus.
In 1899, she received the stigmata for the first time. It lasted from Thursday evening until Friday afternoon and returned each week until the last three years of her life, when her confessor forbade her to accept it anymore. Along with the five wounds of Christ, St. Gemma also experienced each of the sufferings of the Passion: sweating of blood, the scourging, the crown of thorns, and the physical trauma that Jesus experienced carrying the Cross.
While most of us will never experience the intimacy with the Passion of Jesus that St. Gemma did, we can draw closer to Christ Crucified, especially with Good Friday still fresh in our minds and hearts. We can meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries frequently and devotedly. We can carry the crosses God gives us and accept suffering with humility and gratitude for the opportunity to unite ourselves more with Jesus. And, since that is so much easier said than done, we can plead to St. Gemma, she who so willingly and beautifully suffered in both body and soul, for her intercession.
Happy Feast of St. Gemma Galgani!
Sisters, have a blessed feast day of St. Gemma today! If you’re interested, I’m sharing a few simple ideas for commemorating this day here.
St. Gemma Galgani, pray for us!
*Quotes in this post are from The Life of St. Gemma Galgani by her spiritual director, Venerable Fr. Germanus, C.P.[Tweet “Learning to Love Jesus with St. Gemma Galgani #BISblog //”]
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