Recently five Blesseds were listed as approved for canonization. Among them, the laywoman, Narcisa, has received little mention. Here are some details and reflections on her life:
Born: 29 October 1832 at Nobol, Guayas, Ecuador. Died: 8 December 1869 at Lima, Peru of natural causes; remains transferred to Guayaquil in 1955. Memorial: 30 August. Profile: Daughter of Pedro Martillo Mosquera and Josefina Moran. Her people were farmers, and her parents died when she was still a child. She moved to Guayaquil for the next 15 years she worked as a seamstress to raise her younger siblings, living a single life, helping those even poorer than herself when she could, and spending her time in prayer. In 1868 she moved to Lima where she worked in a convent of Dominican nuns. She never took vows and remained a lay person her whole life, but spent eight hours a day in prayer, lived as austerely as any religious, and was known to experience ecstasies.
Some additional information.
Orphaned at an early age, Narcisa Martillo Moran, of Nobol, Ecuador, worked as a seamstress to contribute to the support of her brothers and sisters. Supported by the guidance of several spiritual directors, she resolved to consecrate her virginity to Christ and to spend the rest of her life offering prayers and penances to God in expiation for mankind’s sins. Although she remained a laywoman, Narcisa followed a demanding daily schedule of eight hours of prayer, offered in silence and solitude. In addition to imposing upon herself an austere diet and very humble living quarters, she devoted four hours of the night to various forms of mortification, including the wearing of a crown of thorns. Narcisa was frequently seen in a state of ecstasy.
But these are all toned-down accounts. As often happens with saints, we’re actually rather scared of who they really were. It is a lot easier if we can just place them within the old categories of sanctity: went to spiritual direction, spent long hours in prayer, supported her family, gave alms to the poor, “frequently seen in ecstasy.” But these are not the ingredients that make the saints. The ingredients that make the saints are their unconditional surrender to the demand of Jesus Christ on their lives and hearts. And this demand usually takes weird twists. The above accounts leave out quite a bit from the life of Narcisa. For example, they leave out her purported incorrupt body, seen here. They also leave out the difficulty of her life for Christian mimesis. Like Francis, we see her, and admire her, and cannot be like her. And so we do one of two things: we either simplify her life so as to make it imitable, or we do what is often done to St. Francis of Assisi, reducing the paradox of his life to a simple set of dialectics. But as Chesterton says concerning this option:
Now this is simply to be stone-blind to the whole point of any story. To represent Mount Alverno as the mere collapse of Francis is exactly like representing Mount Calvary as the mere collapse of Christ.” Rather, we must turn to what he taught us: “He understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing. He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere fact of existence if we realize that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist…. From him came a whole awakening of the world and a dawn in which all shapes and colours could be seen anew.
This is the meaning of a saint. A saint is someone who brings to the Church a new set of eyes, a new way of looking upon the meaning of Incarnation. And so in the case of Narcisa. Here is a good place to read more about her, though it is in Spanish. She, as all saints, is difficult to understand. She beat herself senseless with a whip to imitate Christ. She wore a crown of thorns that made her collapse from loss of blood. There is one interesting bit about the influence of Jesuits on her. When her first spiritual director, Amadeo Millan, was called back to Rome, she placed herself under the direction of the Jesuits who replaced him at the local church. Her new confessor, Padre Luis Segura, gave her to read the famous spiritual work of the Jesuit Alfonso Rodriguez, not to be confused with the famous Alfonsus Rodriquez of Mallorca, spiritual director of St. Peter Claver. This work, “El Ejercicio de la Perfeccion y Virtudes Cristianas,” Narcisa read and loved so much that
in her intellectual simplicity she no longer wanted to read anything other than this and the Sacred Scriptures and that she wasn’t born to be a theologian or erudite person. From this moment she made the decision to unite her name with that of Jesus as a sign of her alliance with him.
There is much to be learned from Narcisa, as I hope will be unpacked by others in the future. For now, we can hope that she will do for the Church in Ecuador, especially during this difficult time, what Balthasar points that all saints do for the life of the Church:
One is inclined to suspect that the great movements and reforms of the Church, in the present and the future, will not be initiated by such panels and boards but by saints, the ever-unique and solitary ones who, struck by God’s lightning, ignite a blaze around them.