THE SAINTS – 29 April: Saint Catherine of Siena

THE SAINTS – 29 April – Catherine of Siena

In the Calendar of the Church year tomorrow April 29 is the Feast of Saint Catherine of Sienna. On the morrow  we will venerate and remember her life and work.  On this eve of her day I present here a precis of her biography as it appears in Holy Women, Holy Men a book that has been in trial use (but is longer authorized as a liturgical resource starting in 2015) in the Episcopal Church USA which celebrates the Saints and provides biographies along with appropriate readings and prayers to offer in commemoration of their lives and ministries.1  I urge my fellow Christians to bear in mind that God has not stopped making Saints.  One does not have to have lived five hundred or a thousand years ago to be a Saint.  Catherine died in 1380 but there are Saints in this day and time as well.   Many times they lead seemingly ordinary and mundane lives but by putting their faith into action they bring God’s love into the world.  So for all you know you may be “one too” and we must always strive to be open to God’s call to us.

A word about Catherine.  Catherine was one of those unique persons to whom God spoke directly.  Her life resembles that of another Saint we celebrate on 8 May and that is Dame Julian of Norwich.  Dame Julian wrote of her “revelations” in her work entitled Revelations of Divine Love.  In the introduction to one translation it is noted that “The Chruch has always tended to react negatively to “revelations” and sensible men everywhere will applaud such hesitance.”  and that in today’s world “Withdrawal from the world in order to give oneself to prayer is thought to be selfish and cowardly…”2  But, in the Middle Ages it is noted “the solitary life was almost popular” and “It took various forms” 3

Both Catherine and Julian lived a largely solitary and prayer driven life.  They did relate to the world on a limited basis but truly represented those rare persons to whom God chose to reveal himself “directly”.  They both suffered grave illness at a very young age and following those illnesses they experienced visions or revelations which the Chruch has come to recognize as true communications from God. From these most pious of women we can learn to appreciate that the God we worship is most capable of talking directly to his people if he chooses.  And, when we sense a voice, or a pull, we should be willing to listen and be receptive to his message.  We should head the lesson of the story of Eli and Samuel as told in 1 Samuel 3:1-14.  Like Eli we should train ourselves to “perceive… that the Lord  …is …calling …us ” and invite him to “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.”

Catherine of Siena

“Catherine Benincasa was the youngest of twenty-five children of a wealthy dyer of Siena.”  Her life took a decided turn when she had a “remarkable vision” in which she beheld Jesus seated in glory with Saints Peter, Paul and John.  She once remarked that Jesus “smiled on her and blessed her”.

Catherine spent most of her time in prayer and meditation from that time on.  Like most parents her mother attempted mightily to “force her” to be like other girls. As a “force majeure” Catherine cut off her hair.  The family finally “let her do as she would” that being to close herself away in a darkened room, fast, and sleep on boards.   She eventually was accepted as a Dominican postulant.

“Catherine had numerous visions, and was also tried most severely by loathsome temptations and degrading images.  Frequently, she felt totally abandoned by the Lord.  At last, in 1366, the Savior appeared with Mary and the Heavenly Host, and espoused her to himself, so ending her years of lonely prayer and struggle.  She became a nurse, as Dominicans regularly did, caring for patients with leprosy and cancer whom other nurses disliked to treat.”

Some were not sure as to whether Catherine was a saint or a fanatic. Fortunately a bishop, the Bishop of Capua, who had been appointed her confessor, helped her to win full support from the Dominican Mother House.  Catherine was a courageous worker in time of severe plaque; she visited prisoners condemned to death; she constantly was called upon to arbitrate feuds and to prepare troubled sinners for confession.

Besides her many letters to all manner of people, Catherine wrote a Dialogue, a mystical work dictated in ecstasy.   Exhausted and paralyzed, she died at the age of thirty three.

To supplement the biography I offer an excerpt form the Dialogue: 

An excerpt from the Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena (From that section of the Dialogue titled A Treatise of Divine Providence):

How finite works are not sufficient for punishment or recompense without the perpetual affection of love.

Then, the Eternal Truth seized and drew more strongly to Himself her desire, doing as He did in the Old Testament, for when the sacrifice was offered to God, a fire descended and drew to Him the sacrifice that was acceptable to Him; so did the sweet Truth to that soul, in sending down the fire of the clemency of the Holy Spirit, seizing the sacrifice of desire that she made of herself, saying: “Do you not know, dear daughter, that all the sufferings, which the soul endures, or can endure, in this life, are insufficient to punish one smallest fault, because the offense, being done to Me, who am the Infinite Good, calls for an infinite satisfaction? However, I wish that you should know, that not all the pains that are given to men in this life are given as punishments, but as corrections, in order to chastise a son when he offends; though it is true that both the guilt and the penalty can be expiated by the desire of the soul, that is, by true contrition, not through the finite pain endured, but through the infinite desire; because God, who is infinite, wishes for infinite love and infinite grief. Infinite grief I wish from My creature in two ways: in one way, through her sorrow for her own sins, which she has committed against Me her Creator; in the other way, through her sorrow for the sins which she sees her neighbors commit against Me. Of such as these, inasmuch as they have infinite desire, that is, are joined to Me by an affection of love, and therefore grieve when they offend Me, or see Me offended, their every pain, whether spiritual or corporeal, from wherever it may come, receives infinite merit, and satisfies for a guilt which deserved an infinite penalty, although their works are finite and done in finite time; but, inasmuch as they possess the virtue of desire, and sustain their suffering with desire, and contrition, and infinite displeasure against their guilt, their pain is held worthy. Paul explained this when he said: If I had the tongues of angels, and if I knew the things of the future and gave my body to be burned, and have not love, it would be worth nothing to me. The glorious Apostle thus shows that finite works are not valid, either as punishment or recompense, without the condiment of the affection of love.”

Notes:

  1. The Triennial (General Convention) of the Episcopal Chruch did not extend the authorization for the use of this book as an official liturgical resource beyond the year 2014.  However, the biography of Catherine used here is substantially the same as that set out in Lesser Feasts and Fasts which is still officially authorized.
  2. Wolters Introduction to Revelations of Divine Love, Penguin Books, London 1966 at page 21.
  3.  Ibid, page 21.
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