Today is the memorial day of St Christina the Astonishing, a 12th/13th century Christian convert from Brustem, near Sint-Truiden, now a city in the Flemish region of Belgium. She has been popularly recognized as a saint from the 12th century to current times although never officially canonized, so has a memorial day rather than a feast day. She was placed in the calendar of the saints by at least two bishops of the Catholic Church in two different centuries (17th & 19th). The Catholic Church allows and recognizes the veneration of saints upheld by the laity even though they have not been officially canonized. Although veneration of Christina the Astonishing has never been formally approved by the Catholic Church, there remains a strong devotion to her in her native region of Limburg. Prayers are traditionally said to Christina to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness, and mental health workers.
I’d like to start this post with a little detour into linguistics because her appellation – the Astonishing – amuses me and is the main reason I’ve been attracted to her story for a long time. What does it take to be astonishing? Like so many adjectives these days, “astonishing” – not to mention “awesome,” “fabulous,” “amazing” etc. – has been crassly weakened to the point that it has virtually no force. Etymologically, it comes from the vulgar Latin extonare, a compound of ex (out) and tonare (to thunder), originally meaning to stun or daze as if hit by thunder (i.e. thunderstruck). “Astonishing” nowadays is a pretty tame word, which we use to mean, “really surprising” or the like, and it tickles me to have a saint designated as “astonishing.” Christina the Astonishing is her usual name in English only; her common Latin name is Christina Mirabilis, which we can translate as Christina the Miraculous – much clearer.
Christina was born around 1150 into a non-Christian family, the youngest of three daughters. After being orphaned at the age of 15, she worked taking herds to pasture. She suffered a massive seizure when she was in her early 20s. Her condition was so severe that witnesses assumed she had died. A funeral was held, but during the service, she “arose full of vigor, stupefying with amazement the whole city of Sint-Truiden, which had witnessed this wonder. “She levitated up to the rafters, later explaining that she could not bear the smell of the sinful people there.”
She related that she had witnessed Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and that as soon as her soul was separated from her body, angels conducted it to a very gloomy place, entirely filled with souls whose torments endured there were such that that it was impossible for them to describe. She claimed that she had been offered a choice to either remain in heaven or return to earth to perform penance to deliver souls from the flames of Purgatory. Christina agreed to return to life and arose that same moment. She told those around her that she returned for the sole purpose of relief of the departed and conversion of sinners.
Thereafter, Christina renounced all comforts of life and reduced herself to extreme destitution. She dressed in rags and lived without a home. At first she avoided human contact, and, under suspicion of being possessed, was jailed. Upon her release, she took up the practice of extreme penance. Thomas of Cantimpré, then a canon regular who was a professor of theology, wrote a report eight years after her death, based on accounts of those who knew her. Cardinal Jacques de Vitry, who met with her, said that she would throw herself into burning furnaces, suffering great tortures for extended times, uttering frightful cries, yet emerge with no sign of burns upon her. In winter she would plunge into the frozen Meuse River for hours (even days and weeks) at a time, all the while praying to God and imploring God’s mercy. She sometimes allowed herself to be carried by the currents downriver to a mill where the wheel “whirled her round in a manner frightful to behold,” yet she never suffered any dislocations or broken bones. She was sometimes chased by dogs which bit her.
After being incarcerated a second time, she moderated her approach somewhat, upon her release. Christina died at the Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sint-Truiden, of natural causes, aged 74. The prioress there later testified that, despite her behavior, Christina would humbly and fully obey any command given her by the prioress.
Modern scholars are all pretty much in agreement as to Christina’s life. If you strip away the typical Medieval clerical hyperbole and credulousness you see a woman who most likely suffered from frontal lobe epilepsy who went into status epilepticus and was presumed dead, only to spontaneously revive at her funeral. In later life the epilepsy continued along with a powerful conviction that her state was the work of God. I don’t see this naturalistic explanation as diminishing her status in any way. Modern people have a habit of dismissing people simply as “abnormal” or “mentally ill” and not to be bothered with. We live in a mundane world. Historical women are especially treated in this manner. Venerating this kind, loving, and generous person as a saint seems much more human to me than dismissing her as an hysterical loony. Science has made great strides technologically, but it has left us impoverished as people.
Christina’s home town in Limburg lies at the center of the fruit-producing region of modern Belgium, noted especially for apples, pears, and cherries, but also for berries, which are made into juices, syrups and preserves. Hundreds of hikers and bikers flock to the region in Spring to see the abundant blossoms all around. Here’s an old country recipe for Belgian apple pie that is fiddly, but delectable (probably not something Christina would approve of). I cook it quite often but usually modify it by using regular short pastry rather than a yeast dough. I also vary the spices for the apples sometimes. You can use sweet spices such as powdered cloves and allspice, but this is not supposed to be heavily spiced. You want the fresh apple flavor to be dominant. If you like you can omit the spices altogether. I do that sometimes also. If you like you can sprinkle the finished pie with chopped nuts and/or some sliced fruit.
Belgian Country Apple Pie
3 cups peeled and sliced cooking apples
3 tbsp water
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup dry-curd cottage cheese
6 oz softened cream cheese
2 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
4 tsp lemon juice
light cream (as needed)
1 tbsp warm water
4½ tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp light cream, warmed
3 tbsp butter, softened
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp active dry yeast
Prepare the apple filling.
Simmer the apples in the water over medium heat until they are very tender (45 minutes to an hour) . Combine the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg and stir them into the apples. Keep cooking and stirring for about 2 minutes or until the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Reserve.
Prepare the cheese topping
In a medium bowl, beat together the cottage cheese and cream cheese with a fork until they are well mixed. Add the egg yolks, sugar, and lemon juice and beat to a spreadable consistency. Add a little light cream if the mix is too dry. Set aside.
Prepare the pastry.
Stir together the yeast, warm water, and ½ teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl. Let it stand for a few minutes until bubbles form.
Beat the egg, 4 teaspoons of sugar, and 4 teaspoons of salt in a mixing bowl until they are well combined. Add the light cream, butter and yeast mixture and mix well. Begin adding the flour slowly, stirring all the time until you have a soft dough that is not sticky. The amount of flour you use will depend on a variety of factors which I can never fully gauge. Just use your judgment and don’t add more flour than necessary to make a dry dough.
Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in volume (about 45 minutes). Punch the dough down, shape it into a ball, and let it rest, covered, for a further 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, grease a 9-inch pie plate. Place the dough in the center of the pie plate and use your hands to spread it evenly over the bottom and up the sides. You can use a rolling pin to flatten out the dough and fill the pie plate if you prefer, but hand spreading is better. If you’ve had any experience with hot water pastry you’ll know what I am talking about. Cover the dough and let it rise for about 30 minutes, by which time it should have doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C.
For assembly and baking, spread the apple filling evenly across the bottom of the pie dough, then spread the cheese topping over the filling to form two layers.
Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. The crust will brown, but if the exposed parts brown too quickly cover them with foil. You need the dough to cook through completely.
Cool the pie a little on a wire rack, and then serve it warm. It’s also good served cold, but I prefer warm.