4 Holy Women Transformed by Cheese

1. The Visionary: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Margaret Mary Alacoque grew up in a family of fervid cheese-haters, which wasn't exactly unusual for the time. Cheese had a bad reputation in 17th-century Europe. People all across the continent were horrified by its stench and denounced it as indigestible. They blamed the fermented curd for everything from sickness to moral corruption. So, when Margaret Mary's brother took her to join a convent in Burgundy, France, in 1671, he secured one key condition for her stay - that under no circumstances should she be compelled to eat cheese.

And yet, as soon as he left, the nuns started leaning on poor Margaret Mary. Like self-flagellation and celibacy, they believed eating cheese was a way of mortifying the flesh - giving up earthly pleasures to be closer to God. Margaret Mary struggled for days to overcome her fear. She wept; she writhed; she wished for death. Then, at last, she decided she had to "conquer or die." So, Margaret Mary prayed for strength and ate some cheese.

Unfortunately, her experience with the dairy was as horrendous as she'd feared. Margaret Mary later recalled, "I have never felt such repugnance to anything." Still, for eight years after that first trial, she ingested cheese every single day as an ascetic ritual. And as the years passed, her visions intensified. Today, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque is known for her vision of the Sacred Heart - the image of Christ's heart pierced, aflame, and crowned with thorns. Such momentous revelations don't come easy, and she couldn't have done it without the vile cheese.

2. The Intellectual: Sor Juana Inés De la Cruz

Meanwhile, across the ocean in the 1650s, a Mexican girl named Juana was struggling with the opposite problem. Little Juana was an aspiring scholar and, like most children, loved eating cheese. But when she heard it would make her stupid - a superstition of the time - she was forced to choose between her appetite and her intellect. Juana renounced the delicious dairy, proving that her "desire to know was stronger than the desire to eat."

Unencumbered by butterfat and lactose, her intellect flourished. By the time she was 8 years old, Juana had taught herself to read Plato, Aristophanes, and Erasmus in Latin. At age 13, she was paraded around the Spanish courts as a child prodigy. She wrote volumes of prose and poetry, from religious verse to scientific treatises, and earned the moniker "The Tenth Muse." And though she had many suitors, Juana took the veil at age 18, giving up men in addition to her favorite food.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is revered today as a proto-feminist and the first female theologian of the Americas. Although she never regretted the sacrifices she made for her studies, a certain longing always remained in Sor Juana. As an old woman, she wrote, "I envoy those who say that the urge to study has cost them nothing," and perhaps heaving a sigh for the lost cheese of her youth, she added, "The desire to know has cost me dearly."

3. The Martyr: St. Perpetua

In the the early 3rd century, Vivia Perpetua converted to Christianity, even though the Roman emperor Severus had outlawed the fledgling religion. Perpetua was arrested, and she faced a grim decision - either renounce Christ or meet a gruesome death. Perpetua chose the latter.

While she stewed in prison before her execution, she experienced a vision of a white-bearded shepherd who offered her some sheep's milk cheese. In the dream, Perpetua ate the cheese. Then, just as she heard the word "Amen," she awoke to the taste of overwhelming sweetness. The vision of heavenly curd reassured her of God's purpose and prepared Perpetua to die for her faith, which she soon did. Perpetua was publicly flogged, trounced by a cow, and then hacked to death in a botched decapitation. But the account of her vision - believed to be the first Christian text written by a woman - inspired millions and secured her legacy as one of the most influential martyrs in history.

4. The Gambler: Diana Duyser of Florida

Even in our jaded and secular age, cheese hasn't quite lost its religious relevance. In 1994, a humble Floridian named Diana Duyser bit into her grilled cheese sandwich and was shocked to see the face of the Virgin Mary staring back at her.

Although initially frightened by the image, Duyser composed herself and stashed the holy leftover in a plastic box filled with cotton balls. Then she placed the box at her bedside table and left it there for a decade. According to Duyser, those 10 years were filled with good luck as she won regularly at local casinos. More impressively, her grilled sandwich didn't mold.

In 2004, Duyser decided to share her miracle with the world and posted the sandwich on eBay. To the bewilderment of many, it sold for $28,000. The buyer, Golden Palace online casino, appreciated its pop-culture significance and showcased the grilled cheese until 2006. Today, the holy sandwich resides in a safe deposit box in Austin, Texas. Golden Palace proudly claims it still hasn't decayed.

Although Duyser has been ridiculed for her devotion to a grilled cheese sandwich, her faith has never wavered. "I would like all people to know that I do believe that this is the Virgin Mary Mother of God," she insists. And while money and fame have faded with Duyser, she still carries with her a timeless memento of her little cheese miracle - a tattoo of the sandwich inscribed near her heart, paid for by GoldenPalace.com

(Photo: AP via BBC News)

The article above, written by David Clark, is reprinted with permission from Scatterbrained section of the Mar/Apr 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Please don't udder another word about cheese. I think you've milked the joke for all it was worth. If you didn't like the jokes I told, I can tell you the udder one. Sorry I'm getting udderly out of control.
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