In our most recent meeting, we had contemplated taking St. Gemma as a patroness of the Daughters of St. Philip Neri. It turns out that in God's providence she and St. Philip were the recipients of very similar graces and the only two saints I am familiar with that experienced the same dramatic expansion of the heart enflamed with the love of God. Both Gemma's and St. Philip's hearts grew to such an extent that they broke the upper ribs outward; a discovery made in each case only after death.
The following reflection about this spiritual kinship between the two great saints was taken from the website dedicated to St. Gemma Galgani:
In a letter to Father Germanus CP, her spiritual director, St Gemma writes: “…Jesus is in me and I am all His. I am awaiting the grace to be entirely transformed into Him, and I am consumed by the desire to be able to plunge into the infinite abyss of Divine Love….Jesus continues to make Himself felt in all times and in all places. May He be blessed forever! Oh, what violence I have to use in order to hide myself from others, particularly when I am in Church or outside! It goes so far that I sometimes pass the entire day trying to suffocate these yearnings to cast myself into the infinite abyss of the Divine Love. I cease all resistance only for a few minutes after Holy Communion, and these moments are hurried, because I fear being noticed by others. In the evening, I feel feverish, because of my effort in trying to restrain myself. But I know I am advancing, because Jesus tells me that He is pleased with my acting this way. Shall I always be able to restrain myself? I fear I will not, because these impulses keep growing stronger and more frequent, so as to surpass my power of resistance. When I can restrain no more, then I must let it take its course; Jesus always and forever!”
In another letter to her spiritual director she writes: “Having been to Holy Communion, I felt Jesus coming, and do you know how I felt Him? At first, when I had just received Him into my heart, He began to make it beat, oh so violently, that I thought it would leap out of my breast! Then He asked me if I truly loved Him. I answered ‘Yes and do You love me?’ I said.
Then Jesus touched me and kissed me and I remained as if reduced to ashes in His presence.”
Again in a letter she writes: ”Oh what precious moments these are! It is a delight that can only be compared to the heavenly joy of the Angels and Saints. Yes, I am happy, because I possess You, oh Jesus. Oh Jesus, with what joy it fills me to know that I possess You! But, my God, if You deal so with us on earth, what must it be like in heaven!”…and writing to her spiritual director: “Oh Father! If I am only able to feel and taste more fully all the gifts that Jesus grants me! Oh, how good Jesus is! I ask Him to cease and put limits to so many graces, because it is too much for me. Help and bless me.”
However, in order to purify her ever more, and test the depth her love, God withdrew His sensible presence from her on numerous occasions, depriving her of the sweetness of His Divine presence, causing her to exclaim “Who knows if Jesus will let Himself been seen anymore? But, even if He does not turn to me anymore, what matters? I look to Him always, and if He does not want me with Him any longer, I for my part am always seeking Him. I will think of Him without ceasing, and in the end He will return. Fly from me, fly far away Oh Lord, if You will it. I will continue to follow You, being certain that neither heaven, nor earth, nor hell can ever separate me from Thee. If it pleases You to make me suffer this martyrdom of hiding Yourself from me, it will be all the same to me if only to know that You are satisfied. You being satisfied, then all should be satisfied. Jesus hidden, Jesus for all eternity!” Even though she sought to abandon herself to God’s will, the loss of His sensible presence caused her great pain, she could not help to exclaim “Why did You show me so much love at first, and then leave me so desolate? It is my love for You Jesus that makes me speak thus. But, if You do not return, my God, I shall die. Oh Jesus, sustain me. Let everything fail me, but not Your love, then fly from me as much as You will.”
Gemma writes to her spiritual director: “For the last eight days I have felt something mysterious in the area of my heart that I cannot understand. The first couple of days I disregarded it, because it gave me only a little trouble. But today is the third day, and this fire has increased, oh so much, as to be almost unbearable. I should need ice to put it out, and it hinders my eating and sleeping. It is a mysterious fire that comes from within, then goes to the outside. It is, however, a fire that does not torment me, rather it delights me, but it also exhausts and consumes me……Jesus, Father, will make you understand everything about it. Great God, how I love You! Oh, how love You!”.
In response to this letter, Father Germanus says “When I questioned her about it, Gemma herself had to acknowledge that the suffering that she felt from this mysterious fire, although it was a joy to her, was really very painful. She said to me: ‘In order to get some idea of it, imagine a red-hot iron, kept constantly heated in a furnace, has been placed into the very center of this poor heart. Thus I feel myself burning’. And yet she would not have exchanged this excruciating torture for all the delights of the world. For while she thus suffered in her body, the sweetness it caused in the depths her soul was truly beyond all description. Thus in ecstasy she exclaimed- “You are on fire Oh Lord, and I burn. Oh pain, oh infinitely happy love! Oh sweet fire! Oh sweet flames! And would You wish my heart to become a flame? Oh, I have found the flame that destroys and reduces to ashes! Cease, cease, I cannot withdraw my heart from so much fire. What am I saying…No; rather come Jesus! I will open my heart to You; put Thy Divine fire into it. You are a flame, and let my heart be turned into a flame!....Come then, Oh Jesus! Your heart is a flame and you wish mine to be turned into a flame as well....Jesus, I feel I must die when you are throbbing so in my heart.”
Speaking of her heart all on fire for the love of God, Father Germanus CP in his book “The Life of St Gemma Galgani” writes ”I have told [earlier in the book] how it blazed so fiercely that it burned the flesh that surrounded it, even to the outside skin.…Thus after giving me the particulars of it, she states “My heart, Father, is the victim of Love, and I shall soon die of love. These flames of love consume my body, as well as my heart, and I shall be reduced to ashes. Yesterday, as I drew near to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, I felt myself burning so violently, that I was obliged to move away. I was burning all over; it rose even to my face. Viva Gesu! How does it happen that so many who are standing so close to Jesus do not burn to ashes?”
This prodigious phenomenon was verified by me several times, by use of a thermometer. No sooner was it applied to the part affected, then the mercury instantly rose to the summit of the tube, as if it had been exposed to a burning heat”*
“My heart” she said to me “beats with the greatest violence, and seems to want to leave my breast. It is too weak and cannot be calm. It is difficult for me to be obliged to remain sitting in bed, and the entire bed shakes. At certain moments, it seems my heart is coming out of my breast, and I am obliged to put my hand on it. Oh, how I wish someone could help me moderate the fire and flames by which my heart is constantly affected.”
Do not imagine, reader, that these words are exaggerated, for I have had many proofs of what Gemma has stated. I myself have many times seem Gemma’s chair and bed vibrating greatly during these strong palpitations [of her heart] while she remained tranquil, and what is more wonderful, without the slightest sign of oppression or trembling. I once asked her what she herself thought of such a strange phenomenon, and she with her usual simplicity answered ‘Oh, don’t you see? Jesus is so great and my heart is so small! There is no room for Him in such a little heart; and yet, wishing to dwell there, He shakes it in this way. And, things will be badly remedied, if Jesus does not remedy them. Oh, if only this heart were dilated, that Jesus might stay there at His ease!'
Father Germanus continues- “Her heart was indeed dilated, and expanding, it forced out three ribs on that side [left] as we read has also happened in a strong impulse of love to St Phillip Neri. In Gemma’s case, as this mysterious occurrence lasted a considerable amount of time, there was the facility of observing and studying it. Those three ribs were greatly bent, almost at right angles, thus forming a large protuberance on the outside, and a cavity within that allowed the heart to palpitate more freely.”**
**Father Germanus writes---“On Friday, April 24th, twelve days after Gemma’s death, permission was granted by the civil authorites to exhume her body. Upon examination the attending professionals discovered that although her body had begun natural decomposition, her heart, removed from her body, showed no sign of decomposition, but on the contrary, was fresh, healthy, flexible, ruddy and full of blood, precisely as a living person. This greatly surprised the professional men deputed to make the autopsy…..That heart was a furnace of celestial fire. It so beat with a pure love of God that, unable to constrain itself in its natural cavity, it raised and greatly curved three ribs. Its fire burned the exterior corresponding part of the pectoral region and whatever touched it. That heart could not die! It was a mistake that it should have been cut open by the hand of man. But God permitted that it should so happen, in order to manifest a prodigy that otherwise would have passed unobserved.”