TODAY'S BREATHING SPACE
Blessed Itala Mela: Mystic, Laywoman, Oblate
by Jacob Riyeff, author of The Saint Benedict Prayer Book
Throughout the Church's history, the saints have been lifted up as models for the faithful to imitate. Many Christians also take comfort in their personalities, their teachings, and their prayers. Though some denominations have resisted devotion to the saints completely and many do not venerate saints in long-traditional ways (like intercessory prayer, pilgrimages to shrines, veneration of relics, etc.), the saints continue to intrigue and to inspire broadly. Especially intriguing and inspiring are well known figures like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Paul, but there are so many saints and blesseds that are much less well known and yet have the power to speak to some faithful hearts. As the churches continue to raise women and men of heroic faith to the altars (to "canonize" them), it can be difficult to keep up with the stories of these new ranks in the "cloud of witnesses" that have gone before us.
As a Benedictine oblate and someone interested in monastic culture generally, one new blessed has caught my own attention. I took special notice of Blessed Itala Mela because, even though the Benedictine world has a large number of saints and blesseds to celebrate throughout the year, there has never before been a saint or blessed who was a Benedictine oblate in the modern sense of that word. (Even oblates' wonderful patron saint, Saint Frances of Rome, was foundress of an oblate community structured as a "confraternity," so was not an oblate in the modern sense.) 1 But Blessed Itala's beatification (the last step before full canonization) by the Roman Catholic Church has changed this situation. On June 10, 2017 Cardinal Angelo Amato beatified Itala Mela (aka Maria of the Trinity), an Italian laywoman, Benedictine oblate, and mystic who possessed a great devotion to the mystery of the Trinity's indwelling of the human heart.
As a Benedictine oblate with a deep desire to live out a monastic calling in the world, Blessed Itala might be a comforting and supportive patron for Benedictine oblates and others who form their spiritual lives through monastic teaching and spirituality. But devotion to her has not yet spread widely in the English-speaking world, as far as I can tell. To make her story more readily available, I've made a brief retelling of Blessed Itala's life below. Also, to promote devotion to her, I've provided a translation of the new proper for the Liturgy of the Hours approved for her feast on April 28. (I want to be clear that this translation is not official in any way. But given that it is based on the official documents, I thought it would still be appropriate for private recitation and at very least for informational purposes.) With these texts more readily available in English, devotion to Blessed Itala might encourage and support more of the faithful, especially monastics and anyone interested in Christian monasticism in the modern world.
Blessed Itala Mela, pray for us!
A Short Life
Blessed Itala Mela was born in La Spezia, Italy on August 28th, 1904. Her parents were no longer Catholics, but she was still baptized and received her First Communion and Confirmation. The death of her young brother while she was in her teens devastated her and led Itala into such an existential doubt that she became an atheist.
After graduating from high school in 1922, she went off to college in Genoa, where she performed well academically. While lodging with some nuns her first year, several encounters with the liturgy and the sacraments opened up a new dimension of life to Itala, and she began painfully to make her way back to the Church. Regarding this time of intense searching, she notes in one of her manuscripts that she had said to Jesus: "I do not want to deceive myself, because if I say yes to Christianity I will say it with all my heart and change my entire life."2
And so she did. After an excruciating several months of conversion, Itala made a final commitment to God and began the path of a fervent and devoted disciple. She gave more and more of her time to the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and her interior life, and she joined the Catholic Federation of University Students, where her plans to be a teacher became an apostolate. In 1924 she first started discerning a vocation to Benedictine monasticism, which was in harmony with her tendency toward an ascetic spiritual life. Her parents sent her on a trip throughout Italy to take her mind off such an extreme move, but the journey only allowed Itala to visit a number of Benedictine monasteries!
She began teaching in 1926 and graduated from Genoa in 1928. That year she also had her first vision. While meditating before the tabernacle on the mystery of the Trinity's dwelling in the soul, she saw a beam of light leap from the tabernacle. She was convinced her mission was to make known this indwelling of the Trinity to all people. This abiding concern would mark her the rest of her life.
Unfortunately for her plans, in 1929 she was diagnosed with pleurisy and endocarditis, just as she took up a teaching position at Milan and planned to finally enter a Benedictine novitiate. These ailments would decidedly prevent her from professing a religious vocation. Yet, in 1930 she was invested as an oblate at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Paul's Outside the Walls and renewed her four vows of poverty, obedience, chastity, and conversio morum. She professed as an oblate in 1933 shortly before returning home to La Spezia when it was clear she would not recover from her illnesses. Once back in La Spezia, she took up teaching again, but soon was too sick to continue working.
Her spiritual life focused ever more on union with Christ, the offering up of her suffering, and the "inhabitation" or "indwelling" of the Trinity in the human heart. In 1933, she made what she referred to as her "Fifth Vow." This vow was the guiding force of the rest of her life, a vow to "make the mystery of the indwelling of the Trinity the foundation of her spiritual life" and to "pray to this end for every soul," offering herself up to God for this intention.
Even as her own health suffered, she began taking care of her older family members and making herself available to others for spiritual advice and encouragement. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s she cared for relatives, organized for the care of souls in her diocese, and continued giving private lessons in the arts and classical languages, all from her home as she was not well enough to go out for long.
In these years we find two aspects of Blessed Itala's life crucial for all Christians but especially Benedictine oblates. First, due to her illness Itala had to live out her intense vocation in the midst of the world, not behind the cloister's walls. Second, for her, the whole of the spiritual path was a constant "offering," which is the English translation of the Latin word oblatus, from which our word "oblate" comes. Blessed Itala can be a vivid model and inspiration for living a radical and humble faith in the world of work, financial concerns, and family and social life.
One major part of Blessed Itala's life in the world was her many friendships and the counseling she gave to so many even as she suffered acutely. Throughout the last decades of her life, she gave of her time constantly to help others along the Way. This effort came in the midst of many trials—especially of the clergy's misunderstandings of her gifts and desires—and arose constantly from her profound interior realization of the Trinity's indwelling. This indwelling propelled her to reach out to others in charity, since the Trinity is the great mystery of God as Love.
While many who read her works now will find a kind of pre-Vatican II spirituality at times unsettlingly focused on suffering and what can feel like melodramatic concern for souls' eternal loss, her insights also speak to us across this gulf of expression. For she was not a teacher of a particular, "niche" spirituality. She simply took seriously and profoundly the root assertion of the Christian faith—that in one's baptism and participation in the sacraments, the divine life of the Trinity dwells in the human soul—and sought to live out that reality in everyday life. And she yearned to invite everyone into that Trinitarian awareness, that continual practice, moment by moment.