January 30: St. Aldegondes, Undefeated by Breast Cancer

Aldegondes, “Virgin Abbess,” found meaning in suffering. She was “often tried by violent slanders and persecutions, which she looked upon as the highest favours of the divine mercy, begging of God that she might be found worthy to suffer still more for his sake.” So, showing that God answers prayers, Butler writes: “His divine providence sent her a lingering and most painful cancer in her breast.” Aldegondes subsequently died of breast cancer, “with joy” and “in raptures of sweet love.”

Here’s the thing–Aldegondes can be written off as a “masochist for Christ” who himself was a “masochist for humanity.” But that’s simply too facile, and does not do justice to the meaning that persons can indeed find in the midst of suffering that comes their way. Aldegones’ life forces us to look at the proposition that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed in the phrase, “unearned suffering is redemptive“–that he uttered in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

This is the tricky dance that lies at the core of Christianity: suffering and most certainly death come to people, so where (if anywhere) is God in the midst of those experiences? If God is indeed present, and it’s not to cure Aldegondes from breast cancer or to redirect the assassin’s bullet away from King, then what does that presence mean? The glib though perhaps obvious answers are that God is indulgent (allowing these things to happen), apathetic, or has an agenda (e.g., to teach a lesson). The next level of responses is that God is impotent, sadistic, or not-to-be-questioned (so shut up). And then there are the responses at the ends of this spectrum: God is, to paraphrase Nobelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, profoundly present Right There–in the cancered breast, in the bleeding body, in the last gasp of life; or else God does not exist.

Aldegondes regarded suffering as part of human life and embraced such experience as an opportunity–to meet with equanimity and even warmth. For her, it was not about where God was (God being everywhere) but about not resisting the “is” because it conflicts with “how I want things to be”–and for her, faith meant trusting rather than resisting the truth of the moment–and, in so doing, finding a “rapture of sweet love” that could not have come otherwise.

I’m glad that her story has been preserved for us.


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