Feast Day: April 29
My wife-to-be burst into tears when I proposed to her. She assures me that they were happy tears. I certainly hope that’s true. I think it’s interesting how tears and joy can go together. Even Jesus said as much when he comforted his disciples the night before his crucifixion by promising that the coming agony would lead to a lasting joy just as the joy of a new mother eclipses the agony and tears of childbirth (John 16:20-22).
The family of St. Catherine of Siena gave her the childhood nickname of Euphrosyne (meaning “joy”) and yet she also was a saint who received the “gift of tears,” the ability to be profoundly moved spiritually including in sorrow. She wrote poignantly on her mystical experience of ecstatic love with Jesus, yet her contemporaries admired her just as much for her severe acts of bodily penance. She was a living paradox in a way that sanctifies our internal contradictions that are part of our humanity.
St. Catherine’s Spiritual Life
Catherine entered life in 1347 into a sea of Italian city-states equally blessed with Renaissance creativity and beset by internecine warfare. She was one of those young souls to whom God gave the gift of precocious devotion. At age five she would kneel on each hard step going upstairs and say a Hail Mary. Around that age she had the first of the visions that shaped her life.
When her older sister died and her parents pressured her to marry the widower (presumably to maintain the family alliance), Catherine proclaimed her dedication to a chaste religious life. Despite her family’s resistance, her quiet, sweet stubbornness finally won them over. Catherine associated herself with the Mantellate, a group of lay women following the “Third Order” rule of St. Dominic (designed for those who did not enter a nunnery), and followed that structure while living at home.
Initially Catherine focused inwardly on prayer and penance. As she developed in the spiritual life, she felt a calling to turn outward as well. She engaged in charity, visited hospitals, and cared for lepers. Her obvious holiness turned her into a local hero.
The attention brought an investigation from the Dominican Order, which ended up wholeheartedly approving her. It also attracted the attention of politicians who asked her to serve as an ambassador in peace negotiations with the Papal States (a small Italian kingdom ruled by the Pope). The bold young woman went beyond her mandate to urge the pope (then living in the south of France) to return to his seat at Rome. Catherine lived to see him do so before she took ill and passed away at the young age of 33.
The Paradox of Catherine
Catherine wrote hundreds of letters as well as a longer spiritual treatise (her Dialogue). The richness of her work and the way she touched lives defies a blog-length summary. One facet of her spiritual wisdom that stays with me though is her ability to reconcile apparent opposites in the love of God.
Take, for example, Catherine’s move from mysticism alone to uniting it with ministry to the sick. The active life of ministry without an inner life often drains us and makes us bitter at the injustice of the world. An inward-looking life can devolve into a navel-gazing abandonment of charity. For most of us, the solution is to take time for both.
For Catherine, there was no distinction. Her prayer was an act of charity. Her ministry was an act of prayer. She had the gift of truly seeing Christ in the body of the sick in front of her. To kiss their sores and wounds was, in her lived experience, literally kissing the wounds of Jesus from which His saving blood flowed. Even in daily life at home, obeying and loving her parents merged seamlessly into obeying and loving God the Father and Mother Church.
Catherine wrote, “Nothing great is achieved without much enduring,” and she lived a life of extreme penance. Yet she equally believed that nothing we can do merits salvation and we’re utterly dependent on God’s grace and love. How did she resolve this paradox? Love. She loved Jesus so much that she trusted him implicitly and therefore felt the horror of her sin even more, making it inevitable that she strive to purge herself and remove that offense to her Beloved.
The heart of Catherine’s experience was a vision of spiritual marriage to Christ that simultaneously gained a real bodily richness. She saw Christ take out her heart and put it in his chest. He then put his heart in her, saying they lived in each other’s body. This is the same deep intimacy that she felt when kissing the sick; and, in both, physical and spiritual experience became one.
Catherine said that she wore an invisible wedding ring. Some said it was made out of Christ’s foreskin. That kind of carnal imagination causes modern readers (like me) to blush. I think, though, it’s a reminder that other ages had perhaps a healthier appreciation of sex and marriage than ours. Whether or not Catherine saw her invisible wedding ring like that, she would have approved of the fullness of union that it represented encompassing her body and soul.
I’m not a mystic like Catherine, but she inspires me to try to see Jesus’ love infusing the world. In her spirituality, even little ants show God’s creative love. How much more does everything human give glimpses of God’s love! Jesus’ human nature lets humanity participate in his holiness. The fulness of human experience—from family life to sickness to the marriage bed—are mystical experiences if we can just see them correctly.
Just think what joy you could have, even in trying times, if you could see Jesus’ presence as Catherine did! Can you pause and appreciate just for one moment each day Jesus in your own internal human experience? Can you give thanks for the opportunity to touch him in the people around you? St. Catherine, pray for us that we may learn to see the world truly as it is in the light of God.
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