God has been often pleased to operate His grandest works by the agency of instruments which appear to man to be entirely unsuited to such great ends. What immense benefits have accrued to religion and society, through the instrumentability of the Ursuline nuns! Devoted by their institute to the Christian education of the youth of their own sex, their Order has now flourished for fully three centuries throughout all the Catholic Kingdoms.
To a poor girl without credit or authority, but inflamed with the love of God, and filled with zeal for the salvation of her kind, we are indebted for these ineffable benefits. This girl was called Angela Merici. She was born in Italy at Dezensano, a town in the States of Venice, in the diocese of Verona, near the lake of Garda, March 21st, of the year 1470. Her father and mother were distinguished in their social position, but still more distinguished were they for their exalted piety. Their first and chief care was to train up their child in the respect and fear of God.
Angela's pious disposition greatly facilitated her early education. From her tenderest, infancy she was grave and modest, loving secluded life, prayer, and the meditation of heavenly things. The ordinary amusements of children afforded her no pleasure. Religion, and all that pertained to it, constituted her delight. The father and mother congratulated themselves on the piety of their child, and blessed the Lord for it. Nevertheless, they did not live to witness the full development of those seeds of virtue, which they had planted in their infant's heart. They were taken from this world before their child had grown to girlhood.
Angela, deprived of her parents, was sent to Salo, to her maternal uncle, with one of her sisters. This sister, older than herself, partook of her religious tastes. Their uncle, a pious and wealthy man, never interfered with their holy occupations, but, on the contrary, approved highly of their designs and acts. The two girls longed for a perfect state of life; and they therefore resolved to quit the busy city, and spend the remainder of their lives in solitude. At the time appointed for carrying out their designs, they withdrew, without telling any one, to a secluded cavern, some distance from Salo.
Their uncle, alarmed at not finding them returning at the accustomed hour, was greatly disheartened, and he then set out in search of them. He at last found them in the solitude they had selected. After making some observations on what he deemed an imprudent step at such an early moment of their lives, he brought them home to his house, where they enjoyed the amplest liberty to follow the impulses of their devotion.
Taking advantage of this kind concession, they converted their home into a sort of hermitage, where they held unbroken communion with God. The fame of their austere life and fervor was soon diffused abroad through the city, where they became objects of the greatest admiration.
But God, who takes delight in testing virtue, was pleased, in his inscrutable designs, to strew thorns in the path of the two sisters. Jealous of the possession of our hearts, He wishes to have them entirely His own, and even at the risk of causing them to suffer. He insensibly breaks all the bonds that would alienate them from Him.
Angela had lost her father and mother, and this privation filled her with deep and sincerest grief. Now, only one sister was left to partake of her pious sentiments, and this dear one was taken from her by implacable death.
This second stroke was far more terrible for Angela than the first, or rather it revived all the grief consequent on the first, in sending an additional affliction on her. The poor young girl now found herself bereft of all her family joys. Nevertheless, although but fifteen years of age, she simply said to those who came to console her, "After all, who am I, or why should I murmur at the decree of God? My sister belongs to Him, why therefore should He not take her to Himself? Ah! may His name be blessed for evermore."
Meanwhile Angela's grief was soon assuaged by the assurances she received of her sister's eternal salvation. One day while meditating on the felicity of the saints, she besought God to reveal to her if He had taken her sister into His everlasting tabernacles. Her prayer was heard. Suddenly a dazzling light shone round about her; and she beheld the Virgin Mary, surrounded by hosts of angels, and at her side that dear sister for whom she had been weeping. "Continue," said the sister to her, "to walk perseveringly in the ways of perfection, and thou shalt one day share with me the delights of eternal beatitude."
This apparition and revelation from Heaven, redoubled the zeal and. ardor of Angela. There was no sacrifice that she was not prepared to make, in order to reach the exalted glory that had been promised to her.
The Third Order of Saint Francis had been established at Salo, and our young saint, desiring tp have another additional mean of sanctification, gladly embraced it. Along with the habit, she put on the spirit of its holy and humble founder. Angela's apparel, chamber, and furniture were poor: she lived on bread, water, and lettuces. On Christmas and Easter-day, she added a little wine; but she abstained from all food every Monday in Lent. Her garments were made of the coarsest sack cloth. Her bed was the hard floor, and taking but scanty rest, she devoted the greater part of night to prayer. Desiring in every particular to imitate Jesus Christ, she wished to live on alms, and all her uncle's remonstrances on this subject could not turn her from her determination.
The virtues of our Saint excited the envy of the devil, who, to deceive her, manifested himself to her under the appearance of an angel; but the humble servant of the Lord recognized the malice of the tempter. She bowed her forehead to the ground, and exclaimed that her numerous sins rendered her unworthy of being visited by the angels of God. This act of humility put the devil to flight; but although victorious, Angela believed it to be absolutely necessary to arm herself still more strongly against this adversary, by redoubling the mortifications of her body and the number of her pious practices.
God never suffers himself to be excelled in liberality. Angela was generous, and so was God to His servant by the abundance of spiritual treasures which He poured into her soul. Her daily communions now became to her a source of ineffable delights, her devotion to the august Sacrament of the Altar was so ardent, that she spent entire hours on her knees before the tabernacles of the adorable Eucharist; and often after having passed whole days thus, she would get up at night to return to the same devout practice. Then while her hands were crossed on her bossom, and whilst the fire of divine charity burned in her soul, she would ever and anon give utterance to such tender sentiments as these, "Sacrament of my God, Jesus, my life and my love, oh how I love to be near thee! How sweet and tender are the sentiments thou kindlest in my soul! How kindly hast thou visited me in my sorrows, changing them into transports of joy! When in thy presence, oh how insignificant is the whole outward world! Thou, my Jesus, art all sufficient for me! Ah, chase from my memory the grand productions of art, the sumptuous dwellings of the great - I desire no other object for my love or admiration than this great work of my God. Oh, my Jesus! thou containest all good, thou art all good. Great God, hear my prayers. Let me die before thy tabernacle, drowned in my tears." And the flying hours that bring the day-dawn in their train, found her still before the Adorable Object so dear to her heart.
The death of her uncle determined Angela to return to Dezensano, her native town, but the change of locality nowise altered her pursuits, and in this new asylum she was as edifying as at Salo.
At Dezensano there was a sisterhood of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and Angela now united herself to them. Her companions soon learned to admire her virtues, her humility, her spirit of mortification, her charity and her zeal for the salvation of her neighbor. Often would she converse with them on the desire that she entertained to consecrate herself to the Christian instruction of young girls. A mysterious vision with which God favored her, served in great measure to augment this desire, and finally determined her to undertake this good work. One day while at prayer she saw before her a mysterious ladder based on the earth and reaching into heaven; a choir of angels sending forth harmonious strains from divers instruments, floated around and over her, while a countless crowd of young maidens, their heads crowned with diamond crowns, alternately ascended and descended the ladder. Absorbed in the contemplation of this wonder, she heard a voice saying to her; "Thou knowest, Angela, that God hath sent thee this vision that you mayst learn to establish a community of chosen virgins: such is the will of God."
The humble servant of God after many hesitations, and conferences with her spiritual guide, made her companions aware of the vision that she had had, and at last induced them to agree with her in her design. They therefore collected together in their house the little children of Dezensano, and began to teach them the Christian doctrine. The results of this experiment were marvellous. The scholars became singularly remarkable for their modesty; and even public morality began to ameliorate sensibly. Angela's reputation was soon widely diffused, and she had to visit Brescia, the capital of the province, where her virtues were regarded with the greatest respect.
Angela had been for a long time projecting some holy pilgrimages; and now she hastened to Mantua in order to have a conference with sister Hossana d' Andreasie, a religious of the Order of Penance of Saint Dominic, and already celebrated for the lustre of her virtues. Thence our Saint set out for Venice where she courageously embarked on the long and perilous voyage to Palestine in order to visit the holy places where Jesus Christ suffered for the salvation of the human race. They disembarked in the is1and of Candia, where Angela became totalIy deprived of the faculty of sight. Thus bereft of the consolation which she thought was in reserve for her, our saint did not lose courage, but persevered in the voyage. Though she could not see with bodily eyes the spots sanctified by the Redeemer's footmarks, she would fain tread that holy soil, and cause herself to be led by the hand through all the localities identified with the history of our Savior. Oh! who could describe the throbbings of her heart when she descended into the Lord's sepulchre, or visited the place where He expired on the cross! What great memories crowd over that land - the land of the Manger and of Calvary!
"Between the valley of the Jordan and the plains of Idumea," says Chateaubriand, "stretches out a chain of mountains which commences in the fertile fields of Galilee and loses itself in the sands of the Yemen. In the centre of these mountains there is an arid basin locked in on all sides by yellow rocky peaks; these peaks open only on the east, and give glimpses of the Dead Sea and the distant mountains of Arabia. In the midst of these stony landscapes, on a broken and inclining site, within the circuit of a wall ages ago battered by military engines, and strengthened by tottering towers, the eye rests on vast ruins. Straggling cypresses, and some masses of Arabic masonry like whitened sepulchres, are scattered over this heap of ruins: such is sad Jerusalem.
"At first sight of these desolate regions a great sadness seizes the heart. But passing from solitude to solitude, while the horizon expands before you, this sadness vanishes by degrees. The traveller experiences a secret terror, which far from casting down the soul, gives it courage, and elevates it. Wonderful sights meet the eye on this soil, sanctified by miracles. The burning sky, the impetuous eagle, the bumble hyssop, the proud cedars, the sterile fig tree, all the poetry, all the pictures of the Scripture are there. Every name reveals a mystery, every grotto speaks of the future, every mountain-peak echoes the accents of prophets. The dried-up torrents, the rent rocks, the gaping tombs attest this prodigy; the desert seems dumb from terror, and one is inclined to think that it has not dared to break the silence since the time when it heard the voice of the Eternal."
Angela did not tarry long in Jerusalem. She soon afterwards set sail for Italy, and in Candia where she lost her sight, she recovered it while kneeling before an image of Jesus Christ crucified. From Candia she proceeded to Italy. During this voyage they encountered a terrible tempest, and two vessels of the convoy were entirely wrecked. The ship in which Angela sailed reached Venice in safety after having struggled against the storm for fully nine days.
Our Saint remained in Venice with the sisterhood of the Holy Sepulchre, till she retrieved her shattered health. The fame of her sanctity attracted the most distinguished of the citizens to her, and many of them urged her to place herself at the head of the religious establishments then flourishing in the city of the Doges.
The humble maiden declined this flattering proposal, and in order to escape the honors the people intended to confer on her, she left the city secretly, and arrived in Brescia, November 24, 1524.
The Jubilee of 1525 had commenced, and Angela proceeded to Rome, to partake of the great spiritual favors granted on such a grand occasion. Pope Clement VII then occupied the chair of Saint Peter, and he not only admitted Angela to an audience, but gave her a most cordial reception. Intimately convinced of the eminent merits of our Saint, his Holiness deemed it his duty to persuade her to fix her abode at Rome, and thus take charge of the various houses devoted to works of mercy. But Angela never forgot the vision which intimated that she was to be foundress of an Order, and she therefore respectfully excused herself to the Pontiff. After receiving his benediction and sanction, she returned to Brescia.
In the meanwhile, Italy was desolated by wars, which forced our Saint to leave Brescia; but as soon as peace returned, she laid the foundations of her celebrated Order. She did nothing without weighing well every circumstance that might advance or retard her project; and, indeed, her great humility caused her to entertain doubts of its success.
It was on the 25th November, 1535, that Angela formed her little community of twenty-seven virgins. She drew up for them a short rule, divided into twelve chapters. She did not require any dowry with her postulants, in order that they might have no difficulty in joining her institute. The duties she imposed on them did not oblige them to live in common, but they were, nevertheless, admirably suited to carrying out her holy intentions.
Motived by the holiest spirit of humility, and despising all earthly fame, our Saint, to conceal her own name, called her new Institute "Saint Ursula's." But although she satisfied her innate modesty by excluding her own name, she was greatly mortified nevertheless when she heard the people, all of whom were edified by the young community, styling it the "Holy Company", and the "Divine Order." Angela herself foretold that her Institute should continue to flourish for ever, as it had for its patroness and protectress, that illustrious Saint who led so many virgins to martyrdom.
As the number of the sisters increased daily, it became necessary to elect a superioress to govern the rising community, and for this purpose Angela assembled all its members. Their choice was soon fixed, and they all with one accord selected her to govern them. It was with great repugnance that she accepted this dignity; but she soon proved how worthy she was of her position. Her sweetness, her goodness, her evertness of temper, won her the hearts of all her children, and they deemed themselves blessed under her guidance. As soon as her Institute had been sanctioned by the Bishop of Brescia, Angela would gladly have retired from the position of superior; and so desirous was she of this that she alleged her age and infirmities, hoping that the bishop would release her from this grave responsibility. The instances and tears of her community, however, compelled her to continue in her place. The bishop commanded her to retain her authority, and it was in obedience to him that she continued to hold the appointment. Were it not for this, all the instances of her community must have been of no avail.
Her submission was soon followed by infirm health, for she fell sick about the beginning of January, 1540; and from that very moment she predicted that the time of her decease was not far off. Her first care, now that she found herself in danger, was to assemble the community, and give the sisterhood salutary instructions, replete with wisdom. Thenceforth, her only occupation was to testify to her Divine Master her burning desire of being united to Him. Feeling her strength beginning to fail, she received the Sacraments of the Church with admirable fervor. Even to her latest gasp she did not cease to make acts of faith and hope.
At length, rich in every sort of Christian merits, aged about seventy years, consumed by the most ardent charity, and consoled with all the comforts that the Church provides for its children, Angela peacefully breathed her last sigh, and presented to the Divine Spouse her unsullied baptismal garment, January 27, 1540.