Need help with accounts of St Ebba and other holy nuns in Catholic tradition...

Hello all!

I hope this is the right forum section…I’ve come across something that, while it doesn’t at all put into question what I believe, is just a little hard to reconcile with my faith.

Basically, sometime ago I started reading a classic book by St Alphonsus Liguori called True Spouse of Jesus Christ, which is about the religious state for women. Near the beginning of the book, Saint Alphonsus (whom I otherwise greatly appreciate!) mentions how a certain saint, named St Ebba, along with thirty other companions, mutilate themselves out of fear of a barbarian invasion…it can be read here, on page 18. A short account of the same thing can be read about on the Catholic Online website. Also, Wikipedia mentions it in its article on the expression, “cutting off the nose to spite the face”: here

Anyway, although St Alphonsus helpfully mentions that such conduct need not be imitated, I still can’t help but wonder, 1. How these nuns, saintly as they were, went about doing such a thing to themselves, and 2. More importantly, how St Alphonsus said that such actions were “an impulse of the Holy Spirit”?

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but it keeps bugging me in the back of my mind. However, I’m confident some of you will be able to help me out on this! I would appreciate receiving thoughtful and reasonable responses, if possible.

Thanks in advance, and I wish you all a happy and blessed month of May!

People have lived in barbaric times.
Context. Much of what happens/happened in history is very alien to the 21st century mind.
I can’t imagine people dragging St. Agnes naked through the streets either, but again, those were barbaric times. Think of all the Saints who were beheaded. Those who slept on broken glass…the list goes on and on.

Some women will do anything to make themselves unattractive to rapists.
Sad, but true.

Well, since St. Ebbs and all the nuns of Coldingham were martyred by having their nunnery burned to the ground with them in it, I don’t know how any of the sources could have known anything about why the ladies’ corpses that survived enough to make out were found with their noses cut off. I mean, there was no Anglo-Saxon CSI unit.

It was more usual for Danes going a-viking to kidnap women and boys to serve as thralls (slaves) back at home, or to sell them in Muslim or Byzantine slave markets, than to burn nuns alive.

Probably St. Ebba refused to surrender the house in the face of threats, more threats were made that involved noseslicing of some poor captured nun, and finally the pirates burned the place in order to scare other nuns into surrendering. And probably the other Saxon nuns retaliated by making it into a grand saga of defiance with introducing made voluntary.

(Usually burning houses to the ground with people in them was a staple of particularly bitter Norse feuds back at home. That way, all the relatives were suffocated and nobody was left to play avenger, including women and kids. Except that there was always a relative left somewhere.)

Ebbs = Ebba
Introducing = noseslicing

If you read St. Ambrose’s book on virgins, which he wrote for his own sister, you will see that he tells some very pagan-Roman-ish stories of women’s valor, to the point that many of the female martyrs commit old-school pagan Roman suicide to protect their chastity. Why? Because he and his sister came from a pagan Roman cultural background, even though they were committed Christians in every other way.

But in the next Christian generation, you get St. Augustine explaining, at the beginning of his book The City of God, that being raped by Goths during the Sack of Rome didn’t make a chaste wife any less chaste, and that a raped virgin was still completely virgin in the eyes of God; and he emphasized the teaching that suicide for any reason was wrong. Why? Because Augustine was fighting the pagan Roman culture inside Christian society, in order to save women from thinking they had to kill themselves, and to save their reputations and keep them safe.

You get a strange situation to this very day in many countries, where Christian morals and old pagan shame and honor cultures often meet and collide. Montfort’s France was like that. So it was actually a nice fierce story, from some women’s point of view, while others from other cultures would have thought it was gross.

But the way Montfort phrases that about impulses of the Holy Spirit? It means the person’s response to the Spirit’s impulse was stupid, so don’t try this at home. Writers say similar things about over-enthusiastic early Christian guys who wanted to literally make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God.

I can’t deny that what you’re saying is true, harsh as it sounds. The only difference in the case of the nuns/female saints is that the “barbarism” was self-inflicted. Nonetheless, in either case we can say people were tougher back then, and there was the strong motive of self-preservation, fighting against vanity, etc.

I like your points about understanding these things from a cultural-historical perspective (and I couldn’t help laughing on the “CSI unit” bit). I suppose it could be inspiring for women (and no doubt men) of the past to hear about nuns, or at least stories of them, voluntarily mutilating themselves, as opposed to being involuntarily harmed

As for the impulses of the Holy Spirit part (which was mentioned by Liguori; I’m not sure if Montfort ever mentioned them), it kind of reminds of Samson, who was said to be “filled with the Spirit”, but acted in a way that didn’t always seem to be divinely inspired…

Anyway, thanks for the lengthy response!

St. Rose of Lima was very beautiful and many men aggressively courted her.

She rubbed hot pepper n her face to disfigure herself so that they would stay away.

We would put her in an institution now, but she remained pure and is in Heaven. Who’s crazy?


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