Saints are saints because they followed the will of God. When we abandon ourselves to the will of God, we might not end up where we thought we would, but we can trust that we will end up with God.
Bl. Gherardesca of Pisa (c. 1212 - c. 1269) was very determined to do the will of God despite the apparent obstacles which she encountered.
At an early age, she was convinced that her life should be dedicated solely to God. And, at the very tender age of seven, she ran away to join a convent. Her mother found her after a time, and she was able to convince Gherardesca that the best course of action was to return home.
Unfortunately, Gherardesca's mother was not pleased with the idea of a religious life for her daughter and planned for her to be married. Gherardesca was torn with the idea, but in order to please her mother, agreed to be married.
The Unhappy Marriage
Gherardesca married Alferio di Bandino around the year 1231. It was not a happy marriage. In fact, both husband and wife were quite sad in the marriage. The problem was that neither Gherardesca nor Alferio really wanted to be married and neither were probably supposed to be married. However, they tried to make it work. For her part, Gherardesca decided that the best course of action was to simply to live the life of a religious within her home as if she actually lived in a convent. Gherardesca would attend daily mass, say the divine office, spend additional time in prayer, take on various mortifications, observe the fasts of a religious, and perform good works to help the poor.
She was unable to get pregnant which was particularly troubling to her mother. Her mother is reported to have prayed often for a grandchild. However, the response which her mother received from God in a dream was puzzling to her: St. John the Evangelist would be her daughter's son.
Finally, after about three years of marriage, Gheredesca and Alferio began to discern that married life was not for them. Neither one thought that they could "earn eternity" in the world as married people. They spoke frankly with one another and resolved to get an answer to the question of whether it was possible to have a "dissolution" of the marriage. From the Church's point of view, it certainly was possible if both Gherardesca and Alferio were called to the religious life.
(This is not the place to deal fully with this unusual situation, but the position of the Church can be based on the idea that either there never was a marriage because it lacked the necessary conditions by one or both parties or the two parties can mutually agree to release one another from their marital obligations in light of their obligation to answer calls to religious life. This is not a type of hand waving by the Church which would allow for divorce. In the case of Gherardesca, it could be possible that there never was a marriage. Agreeing to marry someone to please your mother or anyone else might indicate the lack of free consent to get married and certainly shows a lack of understanding of the true nature of marriage. On the other hand, if there was a marriage, the Church can allow for both spouses to mutually agree to pursue religious vocations. They would not be free to get married to someone else as they would be considered married but not under obligation to fulfill marital obligations to one another. Because there never was a pursuit of reviewing the marriage, it is assumed that they were, in fact, married but released one another from their marital obligations. There are other saints who have done this.)
The End of the Marriage and Religious Life
No sooner had the couple made their decision than they took action. Gherardesca hustled Alferio off to the the abbot of the local Camaldolese monastery which was named St. Savino. The abbot, who happened to be a relative of Gheredesca, welcomed Alferio, and he began his life as a monk. Unfortunately, we do not actually know much more about Alferio after this point in his life. For Gheredesca, a small cell was built for her which was located off of the main building of the monastery where the men lived. And, Gheredesca was given a habit to wear. For the first time in years, she was happy.
As it would turn out, Gheredesca would always remain a tertiary and never become a sister or a nun. However, it was certainly a call to the religious life as she dedicated herself to prayer, penance, serving the poor and essentially renounced the world.
Religious Life and Her Gifts
The fruit of Gheredesca's life certainly seems to indicate that she certainly was called to dedicate her life to God outside of a life in the world. She possessed the gift of being able to read hearts which she used to help many hardened sinners turn their lives around as she told them their secret sins which motivated them to go to confession and begin a life of prayer and the sacraments.
Gheredesca also had the gift of healing which she used to bring about several remarkable cures.
Finally, Gheredesca received numerous visions which seemed to be the fruit of her contemplation. Many of them dealt with the afterlife including Heaven, hell, and purgatory. She also had visions of Our Lord and Our Lady.
Like other mystics, she might remain in her deep prayer and be insensitive to the world around her. On several occasions, it was assumed that she might even be dead because she did not respond when poked or shaken. As had been foretold, her visions included St. John the Evangelist, and often they might begin with Gheredesca seeing an eagle which is the symbol of St. John.
Controversy, Excommunication, and Restoration
Fortunately, Gheredesca found a priest from the monastery who was able to serve as her spiritual director to help her navigate her spiritual life. It is thanks to Fr. Paolo that we know about Gheredesca because he recorded a number of her visions and put together a biography of her.
As is often the case with those who receive visions, Gheredesca found herself, despite her humility, the object of attacks and envy. Monks at the monastery were aroused through mistrust and jealousy to renounce Gheredesca to the superiors of the order. Gheredesca was put through rigorous questioning in order to determine whether she was faithful to the Church.
After what was considered a thorough investigation, the superiors determined that Gheredesca was not in communion with the Church and the bishop excommunicated her. This was devastating to her, and she turned to the Lord and her confessor Fr. Paolo. The priest was convinced that Gheredesca had done nothing wrong or held no beliefs which were contrary to the faith. And, the Fr. Paolo defended Gheredesca's innocence.
Eventually, the excommunication was lifted and Gheredesca's name was cleared. Not long after this, she died. She was buried in the church of St. Savino in Pisa. Unfortunately, through the damage caused by wars between Pisa and Florence, the location of her grave has been lost.
Did you enjoy this story about Bl. Gheredesca of Pisa? Sign up to receive a free saint story every week via email.
You Might Also Like to Read
Feast Day (Memorial): May 29th