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“Health is the vital principle of bliss,” wrote the poet James Thomson. This is one of those sorts of truisms that stands or falls on what one means by “health” and what one means by “bliss.” Secular and Christian definitions tug at those words in different directions, and we can witness that tension in the lives of the saints in general but perhaps never more so than in the life of Saint Germaine Cousin. Her life is a heroic tale that can turn our typical notions of health and bliss upside down.
St. Germaine was born in 1579 to a peasant family in Pibrac, France, a little town just a few miles West of Toulouse. She was the daughter of Laurent Cousin and Marie Laroche. Her mother died when Germaine was still just a baby. Perhaps this was part of what drove Mr. Cousin to despise his own daughter as much as he did. Perhaps he blamed her for his first wife’s death. Whatever the case, it was certainly not the only reason he treated her so poorly.
Germaine was born with a deformed and weak right hand, and she developed lymphadenitis, which causes large but benign masses to form around the neck. These tumors can grow quite large and turn blue and purple. They are rather unsightly, and for the peasant family in Pibrac during the 16th century, it was taken as a sign of some evil in the girl. Consequently, Germaine’s father and her stepmother felt justified in treating their child as something less than human.
The girl was forced to sleep under the stairs without a proper bed, having only straw to cushion her from the hard wooden floor. She was fed after the family meal with the scraps left over. She was subject to beatings and scalding with boiling water if she made a mistake, real or imagined. For fear that her disease would be contagious, she was not allowed to interact with their other children and was instead sent off to tend the sheep in the fields. She never received a kind word from her parents.
This is a rough start for a child. In our own day, sadly, she may have been aborted for her failure to be “perfectly” formed. Her lack of “health,” as it was viewed by the world then and now, kept her ignorant of the human love of a parent or a sibling. But Germaine was not unhealthy at all. She had the interior spiritual and mental health of one who knew the Lord.
While out in the fields, she took in the beauty of the natural world and found the God who loved her dearly. Germaine would pray the rosary regularly. She attended Mass daily, never allowing anything – not even a swollen stream according to one story – to keep her from visiting Christ. Though she couldn’t read, the peasant girl would teach the basics of the Catechism to some of the children. Her interior health proved to be the vital principle of her spiritual bliss, which was the only bliss she cared about.
One day in the middle of winter in 1601, Germaine was chased out of her house by her stepmother. The girl, now a woman of 22 years, was accused of stealing food from her father’s table. The stepmother wielded a stick with which she was about to beat the child. The neighbors almost stepped in, but then something amazing happened. The stepmother tugged at Germaine’s apron, expecting to see bits of bread tumble out that would prove the girl’s guilt. Instead, out came a bouquet of summer flowers, scattered on the snowy ground.
It was a miracle.
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After this incident, Germaine’s parents lamented their many years of abuse on the girl. They begged her to sleep in a proper room on a proper bed in the house, but the saintly Germaine insisted on keeping her old bed of straw under the stairs. After all, Jesus did not have much better. She passed away only a short time after this miracle, and her feast in on June 15th, the day she finally found her bliss.
The example of St. Germaine is a sobering one as we think about health and illness, bliss and tribulation. Health that is the vital principle to bliss is a health founded in relationship with Christ Jesus.
Without Him, we suffer a withered, unhealthy soul that will keep us from any real bliss here on earth and could very well bar us from bliss in the hereafter. Her story is also a reminder that the world’s hatred for weakness is a sign that the world is sick and not the disabled child of God created so lovingly.
St. Germaine Cousin of Pibrac, pray for us, and teach us to seek true health in Christ Jesus.