A reflection on the life and witness of Catherine of Siena
Psalm 16:5-11 and Luke 10:38-42
It was June of 1376 and the church was in the midst of perhaps its greatest conflict ever. As a result of political conflict between the French and the Italians, the papacy had moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon and had been there for about 70 years. There was nothing saying that the papacy had to be in Rome, but it had been there for about 1300 years, and the fact that it was now several hundred miles away, falling increasingly under the influence of the French crown, was creating major political and religious tension.
A delegation from Florence arrived that June to negotiate peace with the French army, and in it there was a 29-year-old unwed woman from the town of Siena named Catherine. She was not officially connected to the Florentine army in any way, but she had gained influence among Florentine government figures and other regional leaders so they thought she would be helpful to the cause. She had been vocal about her opposition to military conflict even though many in the delegation were aiming to start something with France. She had a way with people. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in their objectives, and things briefly escalated. Catherine did manage through persistent pleas for peace and unity to pave the way for another delegation right behind her to achieve success.
While in Avignon, the determined and precocious woman received an audience with the Pope, Gregory XI, and tried to convince him, even amidst the political turmoil, to move the papacy back to Rome. Six months later, against all odds, he did.
That event was probably the crowning moment of Catherine’s endeavors. It was certainly a major score for her, but she kept busy, just as she had been indefatigably busy for the decade prior. She well-connected in Italian political circles, and she wrote letter after letter to city and national leader, as well as church leaders, cajoling them towards peace, urging them to work together. She was even more effective in person, and she travelled extensively. In 1378, she left her native Siena to go to the city of Rome itself, summoned there by Pope Urban VI, to work with him and the highest church authorities, which were still in major conflict over who had proper authority.
Things were a terrible mess in general in those years, but everyone both then and now would agree that Catherine of Siena was one of the few bright spots. She was almost universally admired and adored. People of all walks of life, including the most powerful in Europe, sought out her counsel and guidance. She had an enormous following of disciples made up of both men and women, clergy and lay. And yet she was not of means. She lived humbly and was immensely devout, receiving Holy Communion every day and submitting herself to some of the most stringent religious practices. In fact, toward the end of her life she had forsaken all food other than the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In ill health and weak, she succumbed to paralysis and a stroke and died at the age of 33.
So, who is Catherine of Siena? The twenty-third child of twenty-five, Catherine is born a twin. That sister ends up dying very early, and Catherine herself handed off to a wet-nurse, because is clearly busy with running a large household. Her father works in the fabric industry and does fairly well for himself.
Even as a child, Catherine stands out in her large family. She is known to be a particularly cheerful child and is eventually nicknamed “joy” by her parents. As a teenager she begins having mystical experiences, vivid dreams during times of wakefulness where she hears and feels God speaking to her directly. Rather than ignoring these occurrences or suppressing them, she tells people about them and acts on them, assured that she has been called by Jesus to be his special servant. She eventually experiences one mystical moment where she hears Christ calling her to be his bride. This encounter is confirmed by the stigmata on her hands, feet, and side. “I keep the Lord always before me,” the goes the psalm we read this evening,“because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” Catherine is not to be moved from her commitment to the Lord, a Lord she deeply knows was committed to her, who had suffered for her.
It is about this time—mid teenage years—when she begins to resist her family’s desires that she hurry up and wed, a conflict that would eventually chart a significant course for her life. When one of her older sisters dies in childbirth, pressure is put on Catherine to marry the widower. She resists by refusing to eat. Later she cuts her hair in order to make herself less attractive to potential husbands, a measure which annoys her mother.
Marriage was by far the lot of most women in those days. Families preferred it because it freed them from responsibility to them. Marrying daughters helped consolidate wealth and power. Many women chose marriage because there were not really any professional options open to them. It gave them purpose. The only other option for women was to enter a convent and become a sister. Catherine resists both of these paths, choosing to live a very active religious but single life outside of the walls of a convent. She pleads with her parents to leave her alone and finally they give her a few rooms in the house where she can live. There she lives for a few years, secluded, leaving only to go worship at church.
When she emerges at about the age of 19 she devotes herself to good works out in the city. She works in the hospitals, visits the sick in their homes. She is still joyful, unpretentious and apparently charismatic in personality, for she soon develops a following which joins her in these acts of mercy. She calls them her “family,” and they began calling her “mother.”
She does find a spiritual home in the Order of Dominicans, adopting their spiritual disciplines. The Dominicans are a group of priests, nuns, and friars who pursue preaching and learning and do not tend to live in seclusion like some other orders. Women who are Dominican sisters were unmarried and wear the habit that probably many of us associate with nuns through TV and the movies. During her twenties she begins to write profusely, sending letters to different authorities about matters spiritual topics as well as public matters. Catherine’s status and influence in Siena grows, and in 1374, when she is 27, the Dominicans give her formal protection, which means she travels with an entourage. By then she is already trading correspondence with elected and appointed leaders in the church and around Italy. We still have several of her works, including one called the Dialogue or a Treatise on Divine Providence.
She is literate, but has no formal schooling, and her main mentor and spiritual director for most of her life is a Dominican priest by the name of Raymond of Capua. He eventually goes on to write her memoirs. As Catherine grew, Raymond begins to seek spiritual direction from her. She still provides spiritual direction today through her writings and her example. She was the first woman declared “doctor of the Church” and, along with Francis of Assisi, is named as one of the six patron saints of Europe.
Even though we feel far removed from Catherine of Siena by time, place, and religious tradition, we must understand that her contributions to Christian faith and her society at the time were enormous. Through her strong faith in the presence and guidance of Christ in her life, she charted her own course which eventually opened up more vocational possibilities for women.
People described her as “boundless in energy” and single-minded and intensely devoted to her ideals. One of her most famous lines was, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!” She loved being in service to Christ even if that meant enduring great suffering.
It’s hard to categorize Catherine of Siena, for the normal formal roles of influence and authority never were open to her. She didn’t preside over a parish because she couldn’t be a priest. She wasn’t given a governmental title because she wasn’t a bureaucrat and never sought office. She wasn’t a former teacher because she wasn’t on faculty anywhere. She followed Christ into the public sphere so ardently that she just managed to attract people and shepherd them. In that alone, she was mighty foolish. Her faith in God just flowed from her, and people could see God at work in her, in spite of the barriers that existed. One of her own writings includes this line, which could serve as a guide for anyone seeking to help others: “Do you think that our Lord would be pleased with us if we left works of mercy undone because our neighbor is unthankful?”
Her wide freedom to serve because she bound to Christ rather than the duties of a family, allowed her to accomplish a lot in 33 years. Catherine never used this power for any personal purpose or glory, and it was the neglect of her own health for the sake of others that likely led directly to her death.
One could describe her as a fool in Christ not only because of the way she forged her own path of faith expression in spite of her gender, but also because of her deep, unwavering desire to safeguard the unity of the church. She was truly non-partisan at a time when everyone was taking sides. The fact that she rose so high in respect and power that she, a truly unattached, single woman, could have an audience with more than one Pope is nothing short of remarkable. Her advice was cherished by many a leader, both political and ecclesial.
In many ways, she may remind us of a Billy Graham of her time. Surely there are more differences than similarities between the two, but some strong similarities are there. Even though she was sought after by the highest people in power, no one managed to fully claim her as theirs. And while she had clear opinions on certain public matters, she never managed to get herself pigeonholed into one particular cause or faction. She was articulate and intelligent, innovative, and published many devotional works.
All of this led to the main way she was a fool in Christ: her mysticism. Mysticism is difficult to explain and comprehend, but it is a belief derived from physical or personal union with the divine. Catherine truly believed in her visions and in her belief that she was married to Christ. This may have been done out of a need to defend her unmarried status, but throughout her life she was overcome by profound spiritual moments marked by very personal dialogue with God.
It is easy to think of Mary at this point—the Mary who was the sister to Martha who hosted Jesus in their home. Mary spends all her time at the foot of Jesus, listening, contemplating his words. She is ridiculed by Martha for doing nothing, for only meditating, but then Martha is surprisingly but gently ridiculed by Jesus, pointing out that Mary has actually chosen the better part.
A mystic like Catherine chooses this better part more adeptly than most people. This set Catherine apart in ways that apparently did not alienate others but drew them to her. In a way, we are all mystics of some sort, since we have been joined to Christ through the waters of our baptism. God has chosen us to reflect Christ’s love in the actions of our bodies, in the words of our lips, in the dreams of our imaginations. Some, like Catherine, stand among us as particularly vibrant examples of what this might look like. It is as if the prayer of the day that we’ve been using each week this Lent applies perfectly to Catherine. It lends itself towards faith of a certain mysticism:
“Almighty and Eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; then use us, we pray, as you will, but always to your glory and the welfare of your people.”
Make us a bit like Catherine, O Lord. Make us a bit more mystic. Make us a fool in Christ.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.