Although the subject of self imposed penances and mortifications is quite controversial in our modern age, especially self-inflicted corporal penances such as lashes, scourges, knotted belts, disciplines, cilice, hairshirts etc., nevertheless these practices played an significant role in the lives of countless Saints throughout history, and likewise in Gemma’s life and spirituality, and so Gemma’s extraordinary penances should be included on this website, so as to portray an honest and full picture of this remarkable Saint.
The practice of mortification is a means of curing bad habits and implanting good ones. Penance is making reparation for ones sins (and even the sins of others), and these practices come in two forms, ordinary and extraordinary. We are all called to practice ordinary penances and mortifications, however what will be dealt with in this article are the extraordinary mortifications and penances that Gemma practiced. In presenting Gemma’s extraordinary mortifications and penances here, I am not advocating or condoning such practices, but it must be understood that many Saints have practiced such extraordinary penances, while others have not, nevertheless all Christians are called to make ordinary sacrifices and to do penance, but certainly not in the very heroic, extraordinary and severe forms that will be mentioned below in this article.
Gemma’s use of extraordinary instruments of penance
By the age of 18 (but most probably even before) in a heroic effort to control and master her flesh and bodily desires, it was discovered that Gemma took up the ancient spiritual practice of external penances and self-imposed external mortifications. One of these penances consisted of a rope that was full of knots, which she tied around her waist like a belt, beneath her clothing. Her confessor since childhood, Monsignor Giovanni Volpi, discovered this fact while questioning Gemma during confession. Not approving of such severe forms of penance, he immediately had her take the knotted rope-belt off, and requested that she not wear it anymore.
Concerning this knotted rope-belt Brother Famiano, who knew Gemma well wrote: "If she had been allowed to continue she would have shortened her life through mortification. Once she let me see a knotted cord which I understood she had worn around her waist. Her confessor had ordered her to take it off because the knots had eaten their way into her flesh."
On one occasion Aunt Cecilia found her in a faint on the ground, which was all covered with blood, and near her there was a scourge of iron. Aunt Cecilia prudently took the scourge and hid it under her clothes, not wanting Gemma to impose such fierce penances upon herself, and also so that Gemma, who was reviving at that moment, would think that she had not been observed using the scourge by anyone. The patriarch of the Giannini family, Chevalier Matthew Giannini deposed:
"I heard my sister say that she (Gemma) had a scourge, and that she used to beat herself with it. I can truly say that she fasted always, and it really appeared to me that she could not live in that way without a miracle."
And Brother Famiano again adds:
“On one occasion she wanted me to exchange a scourge which was of iron for hers which was of cord, which as I noticed was covered with blood-stains."
But there were those who watched over the Servant of God and who moderated the ardours of her desire for penance. Several times, both her confessor and her director deprived her of her instruments of penance. Father Germanus had done so and thus describes them: 'A belt studded with sixty sharp iron points; a scourge likewise of iron, with five thongs, and a long knotted cord in which she had inserted nails, which she wore tight around her waist.'
With regard to Gemma’s use of these extraordinary instruments of penance and mortification, Sr. Gemma Euphemia Giannini deposed: 'She was obedient to her confessor when he spoke with her and moderated the ardour of her penances, and a thing that made me and all at home marvel was that these extreme exercises of mortification, even though she was in delicate health, never exhausted her, or made her incapable of carrying out her duties in the family. She did indeed seem to be sustained by a supernatural strength.'
“The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and it is the violent who carry it away” (Matt. 11:12)
Whoever wishes to follow Jesus and be perfect must deny self, that is, to renounce all things and take up the Cross. Because without the Cross it is impossible to become like Jesus Christ, who is God Crucified and Whom endured the Cross unto His bodily death. “Pickup your cross and follow Me” our Lord has said. In doing so, man who is assailed by temptation and sin must endeavor to subjugate his wicked appetites of heart and senses. This “violence to self” is done through sacrifice, penance and mortification. Hence the Divine Master Himself has said: "The Kingdom of Heaven," that is the sanctification of the soul, "suffers violence and it is the violent who carry it away”. These words became the rule of Gemma's spiritual life. She realized the force of the above doctrine. It moved her to the heroic practice of all virtues, by the constant thought of Jesus Crucified, and hence her determination was to overcome every obstacle to her complete likeness to Him.
While it is not for most of us to imitate the great Saints such as Gemma in their extraordinary heroic penances and mortifications, nevertheless we who are often so indulgent to the passions and desires of our flesh ought to at least be inspired by her holy example, that we might endeavor to practice more ordinary penances and mortifications, in an effort to master ourselves, make reparation for our sins and thereby draw closer to God.
To gain even more insight into Gemma’s heroic mortifications of the flesh, let us quote from a first hand witness, her spiritual director Ven. Father Germanus C.P. from his book “The Life of Gemma Galgani”
“…the more violent her impulses, so much the more earnestly did she apply herself to curb them and bring them under control. "I will not give them peace," were her words, "until I find them dead within me."
This contest was in her mind, and she was most watchful lest anyone might notice it; nevertheless, those who lived with her knew quite well that she had to strive without ceasing in combating her impulses.
In order to succeed better she began very early to crucify her flesh by means of severe austerities. How many times had she not asked her confessor to allow her to discipline herself, to wear a hair shirt, chains and other instruments of penance! And she knew so well how to insinuate her wishes, that she often succeeded in obtaining his leave, which she looked on as a special favor.
More frequently, however, it happened that her instruments of penance were taken from her; and she made an offering to Our Lord of at least her will to use them. I was the last one who confiscated them. They consisted of a band armed with sixty very sharp iron points, a discipline likewise of iron and having five pointed strikers, and a long knotted cord, with points and nails in the knots, to be used as a girdle.
She did not on this account desist from her austerities, but in a hundred other ways sought means of compensating her losses. "This nature of mine," she used to say, "inside and out is always seeking its satisfactions, and always on the lookout for a respite. Give me leave to do all I can to overcome self. The flesh would like to command, and instead I wish to make it serve me as it ought, now and forever."
Once, when speaking heart to heart with her God, she was heard to say with filial simplicity: "Look Jesus, it is my body that rebels, but I shall know well how to manage it. It often cries out, and would fain not obey me, but I'll see to that. Yesterday it seemed as if it would revolt, and I made it keep quiet by dint of hard blows." As I knew too well to what extent she would have gone, I took care not to yield to her repeated pressing requests. Besides, I was well aware of the immense internal and external sufferings to which God Himself subjected her.”
Fasting from food and her command over her appetite
As we can see, Gemma burned with the desire of practicing penance to master herself and her senses, and also to make reparation for her own sins, and even the sins of others. Her heart became inflamed at the contemplation of Jesus Crucified. Her one desire was to be like Him. At table she provided herself with a chair somewhat lower than the others so that she would be more hidden. Her place at table was in the corner near Aunt Cecilia, very much in the background. She ate so little that Chevalier Matthew would sometimes say jokingly: 'You had better eat a little, Gemma, or I shall make you take some medicine to give you an appetite.'
She used to answer with one of her sweetest smiles. Annetta deposed: 'She would take her soup with a spoon that had holes in it, so as to let it appear that she was drinking it, and then when she thought she was unobserved, she took her plate to the kitchen, and was reproved by Aunt Cecilia for doing so. We (the Giannini children) used to say: "Find fault with us, but why mortify Gemma?." Now and again Aunt Cecilia commanded her in virtue of holy obedience to eat, and she did so, but she had to vomit it up again.'
These last words refer particularly to the complete abstinence from every food which she practiced from Pentecost to June, 1902, during which period she lived entirely on Sacramental Communion.
Concerning Gemma's command over her appetite, her spiritual director Ven. Father Germanus writes:
"No one was ever able to ascertain what meat or drink pleased her most, and in order to induce her to partake of what was on the family table it was necessary to press her, otherwise she would deprive herself of what was absolutely necessary. To hide her mortification she used a thousand artifices, feigning to take food while her hands moved but nothing entered her mouth. She went so far as to carry into effect the thought of making a small hole in her spoon, so that the broth might leak through before she brought it to her lips. We have seen that she found pretexts to rise frequently from table, now for one thing, now for another. When in the kitchen helping the servant, she would never taste any of the treats being prepared, nor would she ever partake of sweets or fruits that were offered her outside of mealtime. And in order not to be lacking in courtesy by her refusal, she managed to get away gracefully and charitably.
Being a healthy girl she had a natural taste for food and a good appetite. This seemed to her a sort of derangement, and little short of sensuality. With a view to overcome it she would willingly on her part have abstained from taking any nourishment, but this was not allowed her. She thought and rethought, and at last, all gladness at having found a means of remedying her difficulty, she came to propose it to me. Note with what delicate skillfulness she did so:
'Father, for a long time Jesus seems to have inspired me to ask you a favor. Don't be vexed with me, for in any case I will do as you wish. There will certainly be no harm in granting my request, but you will have a thousand reasons to bring forward against it: that I am thin, that it is not necessary, etc. But these are valueless reasons- don't wonder at my way of putting it, it is Gemma who writes. Listen, will you be content with my asking Jesus the grace not to let me feel any satisfaction in taking food, as long as I live? Oh, this favor is necessary, and I hope Jesus will tell you to grant it to me. Yet either way I am content.'
"As I did not answer this letter, she repeated her request several times. And at last, more to see how such an extraordinary thing would end than from any other motive, I gave her my consent. Then the simple child went at once to speak to her Jesus, and at once her prayer was granted. From that day forward she lost all sensibility of palate and thus never again felt any impression of taste in eating and drinking; neither more nor less than if she had eaten straw or drank only water. Thus did this young girl mortify a sense that may be considered one of the most difficult to subdue.”
Finally, even in regards to sleep we hear from Justina Giannini who stated that “Gemma slept very little. Sometimes when she was asked in the morning how she had slept, she answered: ‘A short hour!' “
And even when she did sleep, her will was still united with Jesus— for she once wrote: “I sleep, but Jesus my heart does not sleep. It watches with Thee at all hours."
-St Gemma, pray for us!
"Yesterday I gained a good victory over my worldly tongue, but I had a hard struggle to keep from speaking! And afterwards I ever more resolutely renewed my determination never to answer unless questioned. If you only knew what a storm there was between Aunt and me! But silence has overcome all. I have begun, I may tell you, to keep these my resolutions, but with such difficulty!" -St Gemma Galgani