Material in this post is from “The Life and Visions of Krəstos Śämra, a Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Woman Saint” by Wendy Laura Belcher from African Christian Biography: Stories, Lives, and Challenges edited by Dana Lee Robert (Cluster Publications, 2018), chapter 5, pp. 80-101. (Available online at wendybelcher.com.)
The autobiography of 16th-century Ethiopian nun and visionary, Saint Krestos Samra (meaning “Christ Delights in Her”), is likely the oldest account by any woman in Africa. Although dictated to a monk who wrote it down on the saint’s behalf, Gädlä Krəstos Śämra has strong claims for authenticity even from a secular historical standpoint. Saint Krestos Samra married into the imperial family, lived in extravagant wealth with hundreds of slaves attending her until about the age of forty, abandoned the last of her eleven children to enter the monastic life in penitence after killing a slave (who she raised from death by pleading with God), founded a renowned monastery after years of extreme asceticism, and is currently Ethiopia’s most beloved female saint. Despite its value, this work has never been translated into English.
Here are a few excerpts from the chapter that give a scholarly analysis of the document before the translated passages:
Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is an example of a distinctive Ethiopian genre called a gädl (spiritual struggle; plural: gädlat), used to tell the inspirational story of a saint’s life. This genre began to be written in the fourteenth century and flourished until the end of the seventeenth century.
…Her visions are not presented in abstract mystical language but are quite concrete, including clear stories about repentant magicians, fragments of consecrated bread that fly, abjecting the body by sucking Christ’s wounds, and meeting Satan in his guise as head of the church. In one, she demands that Christ forgive all the damned and then travels to hell to plead with Satan to accept Christ’s pardon so that human beings will no longer suffer due to their enmity (see Appendix 2 for an English translation of this section).
…Krəstos Śämra even debates with Christ, pressing him like a disobedient son to forgive humanity. In one of her miracles, a man was using a plant for magical protection. When Krǝstos Śämra prayed to Christ that the man be forgiven for practicing magic, Christ responded that he would not forgive him because the man had used the plant demonically. In a typical moment, she responded by arguing with Christ, pointing out, “You created the plants!” Christ bowed to this argument and forgave the man. It is for tactics like this that the scholar Ephraim Isaac has reportedly called her “the mother of peace” and an Ethiopian female philosopher.
…Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is just one example of Ethiopia’s thousands of original texts, less than 5 percent of which are available in any European language.
This English translation of one portion of the autobiography Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is by Michael Kleiner and Wendy Laura Belcher:
Then my lord Jesus Christ came to me, in great glory. When I saw him, I fell at my Lord God’s feet. Immediately, however, he raised me up with his holy and blessed hands without blemish.
Then he said to me, “Don’t be afraid, my dear Kristos Samra. Rather, tell me your heart’s desire.”
I replied, “If you permit your maidservant [to ask], tell me why you created our father Adam in your image and likeness, and why you were crucified on the wood of the cross. Was it not for the sake of Adam and his offspring?”
Christ replied, “Yes, I was crucified for their sake.”
So I said to him, “If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon [all] those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not [even] fill your hands.”
Now Christ replied to me with these words, “Please judge [for yourself], my dear Kristos Samra. [Weigh] the sins that Adam and his offspring have committed [against] the cross that I, your creator, carried in the court of Caiaphas and Annas with Pontius Pilate as their superior: If they are weighed on the scales, which one is heavier? Does not my suffering [in human hands], which I received on [Good] Friday, weigh heavier?”
When Christ said this to me, I trembled and fell to the ground.
Immediately, he raised me up again with his holy hands and asked me, “All the tribulation that I suffered, for whom do you think it was? As the prophet Isaiah says, ‘He came to be slaughtered like a sheep, and like a sheep that does not give a sound before him who shears it, he too did not open his mouth despite his suffering.’ As scripture said, I was crucified on a wooden cross—a wicked servant slapped my face, impure people spat on me, and Pilate, sitting on his throne, ordered me to be whipped. Thus was I treated: Shall I show humanity mercy or shall I punish them? Please judge [for yourself], my dear Kristos Samra.”
When Christ had said these things to me, I fell on my face and said to him, “Why do you tell me all the time: ‘Judge [for yourself]?’ You judge, please! Can a servant pass judgment together with his master, or a maidservant together with her mistress? Don’t treat me in this way, O lord! [I merely ask,] Is there any wood that doesn’t smoke [when burned], are there humans who don’t sin? So, pardon them, without questions.”
So Christ replied, “Please tell me your heart’s desire, my dear Kristos Samra, that which is in your heart.”
At that point I replied to him as follows, “My lord, I would like you to pardon the devil, and for all humanity to be saved from being condemned to [eternal] suffering. Truly, you don’t desire the sinner’s death, but rather his turning back [from sin]! This is why I say to you: ‘Pardon the devil!’ Don’t think that I like to say all these things to you. Rather, [I do it] for the sake of Adam and his offspring, because their flesh is my flesh.”
After I had said these things to Christ, our Lord replied with a laugh, “You’re asking me for a difficult thing, my dear Kristos Samra! Many saints who were before you have not asked me for this.”
After saying this, Christ summoned Saint Michael, the head of the angels. He said to him, “Go and take her to Sheol, because she has asked me to liberate the devil from the [realm of] punishment with [eternal] suffering.”
Immediately, Saint Michael, the head of the angels, took me with him to Sheol. As we were on our way, I said to Saint Michael, head of the angels, “From now on, all humanity shall find rest because I believe that the devil wants to be pardoned and not to be Lord God.”
Then we arrived in hell. My brothers, what can I tell you about the suffering that is found there? I saw people biting each other as if they were dogs.
Then Saint Michael, the head of the angels, said to me, “Summon the devil [and find out] if he wants to be saved.”
So I called out for him, in the language of the angels, “Satan!”
Instantly, Satan shouted [back], in a loud voice, “Who calls out for me, in the place where I am Lord God of many hosts?”
After Satan had said this, he came to me and told me, “I‘ve been looking for you for a long time. Today you have finally come to my home.”
At this point, I replied to him, “Come out quickly! Our Lord has pardoned you, as well as those who are yours.”
When I said this to him, he became enraged. He seized my left hand and dragged me down to the lowest level of She‘ol. However, Saint Michael came to my [aid], following me with his sword of fire in his hands. [With it,] he then struck that abominable [creature] who knows no mercy.
My brothers, what can I tell you about the wailing that arose in that hour! All the [captive] souls swarmed me like bees. [Fortunately], the number of souls who escaped from [hell] on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was something like 100,000. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.
After that, I went to [Christ] my creator, and prostrated myself to the glory of his rule. I said to him, “Is this how you have judged, O Lord?”
He replied, “Have you taken some booty from the hands of the devil?”
I replied, “Yes, my lord, I have, through your power.”
Now he summoned Saint Michael, the head of the angels, and said to him, “Go, take those souls to the home of my dear Kristos Samra.”
At that point I asked him, “Where is that home of mine, my lord?”
He replied, “Your home shall be with my mother [in heaven]. I hereby give you the name of Batra Maryam and commission you as my mother’s shoes and adorn you with great grace and majesty. Blessed are all who love you.”