For many saints through the ages, one of the most heart-opening ways to think of God was as the infant Jesus. The joy and love new parents feel in the presence of their tiny baby captures some of this feeling. At Christmas time, the sweet image of the infant Jesus can open our hearts and help us grow closer to God, if we consciously tune into it.
St. Anthony of Padua
During his brief life, St. Anthony’s tremendous spiritual magnetism and divine love converted thousands to the spiritual life.
St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195, the first son of a Portuguese noble family. He spent his youth studying with the clergy at the Cathedral of Lisbon and, at age fifteen, against his parents’ wishes, joined the Augustinian order at the nearby abbey of St. Vincent. When the frequent visits of his parents distracted him from his studies and prayer, Anthony asked to be relocated to the quiet monastery of Santa Croce in Coimbra, then the capital of Portugal, where he remained eight years.
The way of martyrdom
Anthony’s life changed radically at age 25 when he saw the mutilated, headless bodies of four Franciscan monks who had suffered martyrdom in Morocco. The bodies had been brought to Santa Croce for burial. Inspired by their example, Anthony joined the Franciscan order with the idea of becoming a martyr for Christ.
In Morocco, after several months of illness from malaria, Anthony finally accepted that martyrdom might not be God’s plan for him. Returning to Europe, Anthony traveled to Assisi where he first met St. Francis. Thereafter, Anthony developed a deep inner attunement with Francis.
Preaching and writing
Anthony’s assignment to a quiet hermitage north of Assisi aided his recovery from malaria and deepened his devotional life. He began preaching in northern Italy and France and soon became widely known for his stirring oratory, his intelligence, but most of all, for his deep devotion to God. Once, while Anthony was giving a sermon, St. Francis appeared and blessed him.
Anthony, one of the primary recorders of early Franciscan history, produced many theological writings. St. Francis wrote to him saying, “teach sacred theology as long as, in the words of the Rule, you do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion with study of this kind.” Writing about contemplative prayer Anthony said, “Contemplative prayer does not use words or thoughts, but involves an awareness of the presence of God, apprehended not by thought but by love.”
A constant flow of people
After St. Francis’ death, Anthony was assigned to the city of Padua, where the faithful welcomed him with open hearts. A tireless worker, one of Anthony’s brothers said of him, “Preaching, teaching, hearing confessions, it happened often that the sun had already set, and he had not yet eaten.” A constant flow of people sought him out for confession, even though he was known to give rather strict advice. Having never completely recovered from malaria, Anthony’s exhaustive lifestyle eventually wore him down. After five intense years in Padua, his health began to decline.
To regain his strength, Anthony secluded at a hermitage outside of Padua and arranged for a monk’s cell to be built high up in the branches of a walnut tree. There he spent his days in contemplation and prayer, returning to the hermitage in the evening. One night a follower approached Anthony’s hermitage room and, attracted by a bright light, through the window saw Anthony in ecstasy embracing the infant Jesus.
Whether Anthony’s ecstasy brought an awareness of his impending death is not known, but shortly after the vision, Anthony realized that death was near and decided to return to Padua. He was too weak, however, to travel beyond the outskirts of the city. As he lay dying, he invoked the Virgin Mary and gazed upward with longing. His brother monks asked what he saw and Anthony replied: “I see my Lord!” Anthony died peacefully on June 13, 1231 at the age of 36.
St. Catherine of Bologna
As a young nun, Catherine de’ Vigri was beset by many visions, some of divine origin while others, induced by doubts, were very disconcerting. Ultimately, Catherine had a divine vision that revealed to her the deepest teachings of Christ and her doubts vanished forever.
One Christmas Eve, after praying for many hours, the Blessed Mary appeared to Catherine, holding the baby Jesus. Referring to herself in the third person, Catherine wrote: “This kind mother came to her and gave her Son to her… Trembling with respect, but still more overcome with joy, she took the liberty of caressing Him, of pressing Him against her heart and bringing His face to her lips… He disappeared, leaving her filled with joy.”
St. Agnes of Montepulciano
St. Agnes’ life was one of quiet cloistered service to her fellow nuns whom she served both as an abbess and founder of convents. Her deep dedication and devotion found expression in deep prayer and inner communion. Agnes was often seen in ecstasy, levitating above the ground, and receiving Holy Communion from an angel. In other visions, she was allowed to hold the infant Jesus.
St. Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis lived in almost constant communion with Christ. In 1219 Francis traveled to the Holy Land where he had his first vision of the infant Jesus. With four brother monks, he went to the crib in Bethlehem and spent Christmas night in the grotto where Christ was born. In a deep state of ecstasy, Francis relived the birth of Christ. A few years later on Christmas Eve, in the small town of Greccio, Italy, Francis built a replica of this manger scene, creating the first crèche scene in history. He then experienced a second vision in which he held the infant Jesus in his arms.
St. Therese of Lisieux
At a young age, St. Therese of Lisieux said that she didn’t want to be a “saint by halves.” She desired with her whole being to be taken up by God’s love and God’s work. On Christmas Eve, when she was 14 years old, Therese had a vision of the baby Jesus and “the darkness of her soul was filled with floods of light.” She felt that Christ had given her the inner strength that enabled her to “choose all” for God.