The Catholic Church is very careful when it comes to approving apparitions and alleged mystical experiences. That's because, through the centuries, a number of false seers have been recorded.
One of the most famous was Magdalena de la Cruz, a Franciscan religious sister, whom apparently entered into a pact with the devil at a young age. He promised to deliver 40 years of fame, as well as a reputation for sanctity.
Although nowadays, most people don't care if others think of them as devout, things were much different in 16th-century Spain, where Magdalena came of age. Someone considered a "living saint" would attract the attention of nobles, kings, bishops and even the Pope.
She would be thought of much as we view sports stars and television celebrities today. Her name would become a household word, and her every move closely followed.
By all accounts, Magdalena was a very pious child. As a young girl, she was truly devoted to God. However, her spiritual pride eventually got the upper hand.
She succumbed to this great temptation. As a teenager, she entered a Franciscan convent in Cordoba. The other nuns were greatly impressed by her ability to undertake severe penances, such as whipping herself to atone for her sins and to keep her passions under control. Despite this violence to her body, she never seemed to suffer any ill effects.
According to one written account, the other nuns often felt inadequate, because their penances were much lighter.
Magdalena did something else that set her apart from the other sisters. She was able to subsist solely on the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the Body and Blood of Christ.
Although there have been a number of very-well documented real saints who did this, Magdalena was fooling everyone, as you'll learn later.
Magdalena's Reputation Spreads Throughout Europe
The devil gave Magdalena the ability to work a few wonders. God can bring about real miracles, and the devil can make things appear miraculous. Magdalena began to be able to predict future events, and, oftentimes, she was correct. When she was right, news of her remarkable prophetic abilities spread far and wide.
Her 40 years of fame were accompanied by signs that led people to assume she was favored by God. One happened on the day she made her final vows as a religious sister. A white dove came to briefly rest on her shoulder. To everyone in the pews, this would seem as if the Holy Spirit was visibly pleased with the start of her consecrated life.
Sometimes, though, the devil pushed things too far, casting doubts upon Magdalena's sanctity.
Magdalena's "Miraculous" Pregnancy
In the spring of 1518, Magdalena told her religious superior that she was expecting a baby, a seemingly impossible event for a celibate Catholic nun. However, she said that it happened through the action of the Holy Spirit.
As far as anyone knew, such a conception took place only one time in the history of mankind, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the Mother of God. However, for some inexplicable reason it was happening again.
Much to her superior's consternation, Magdalena began to show. In order to avoid scandal, a physical examination was ordered at the Archbishop's behest. The attending midwives reported that it appeared as if Magdalena was still a virgin, despite the fact she'd be giving birth soon.
On Christmas Eve, Magdalene went into "labor," in a small hut on the convent grounds, erected just for that purpose. A couple of days later, she emerged, unscathed, but without a child. She explained that she gave birth to Christ, but, of course, had to return Him to Heaven, but was allowed to hold him for a bit.
Amazingly, even after this extraordinary tale, most people still believed they had a saint in their midst. But the seeds of doubt were planted.
The Truth Eventually Comes Out
The story of Magdalena's pregnancy only worked to cement her long-standing reputation as a holy woman. Largely because of this event, her convent received so many monetary donations that it was able to underwrite the construction of a new cathedral.
However, now that doubts had arisen, Magdalena's actions were subject to increased scrutiny. Guards were stationed at her cell, round the clock, to determine if she was sneaking food into it, or if someone was secretly bringing her meals. (As it turns out, she later admitted the devil was giving her food.)
But the growing skepticism didn't prevent her from being elected abbess of her community. However, bizarre decisions under her rule resulted in more questions.
Eventually, the truth came out when she fell ill and was in danger of death. Fearing for her eternal salvation, she confessed about how she had made a pact with the devil in her youth. Her "baby," she admitted, was conceived by a demon. Instead of taking a human form, she had delivered a serpent.
With an exorcism, Magdalena was finally freed from his grip. However, she was required to undergo penance for the rest of her life. She died in 1560.
Her story should serve as a warning to Catholics who should proceed very carefully when attempting to judge whether an alleged apparition or mystical experience is of God.