"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Book Excerpt: Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset, Part 2

Part 1 of this biography can be found here.
One of the unique aspects of Catherine’s discernment was that it was both inwardly contemplative and outwardly engaged.  When she essentially locked herself in a cell at her parent’s home engaged in mystical union with her “Bridegroom Christ” alone, she felt an “indescribable happiness” [p.46].  Her betrothal to Christ is one of her early experiences where Christ comes to her and says, “I here betroth you as My Bride in perfect faith, which for all time shall keep you pure and virgin, until our marriage is celebrated in heaven with great rejoicing” [p. 49].  She probably would have been so inclined to be in contemplation for the rest of her life if let be, but Christ had other plans.  The excerpts for this blog will touch on some of her mystical experiences and the process in which Christ drew her out of her contemplative cocoon and thrust her into the issues of the outside world.

A little while after her mystical betrothal Catherine again saw her Lord in a vision.  It was the time of day when the good folk of Siena gathered round the dinner table.  Jesus said: “You are to go and seat yourself at the table with your family.  Talk to them kindly, and then come back here.”

When Catherine heard these words she began to weep—she was so completely unprepared to leave her cell and her life of contemplation and mix again with the people of the world.  But Our Lord was firm:

“Go in peace.  In this way you shall serve Me and become more perfectly united to me through love of Me and your neighbor, and then you will be able to rise even more quickly to heaven, as though on wings.  Do you remember how the desire to bring souls to salvation burned in you while you were still a child—and that you dreamed of dressing yourself as a man and entering the order of the Friars Preachers to work this end?”

Although Catherine was more than willing to obey the will of God she tried to raise objections: “But how can I be of any use in the work of saving souls, I who am merely Your poor servant girl?  For I am a woman, and it is not seemly for my sex to try to teach men, or even to speak with them.  Besides they take no notice of what I say,” she sighed.

But Jesus replied as the Archangel Gabriel had once replied:

“All things are possible for God who has created everything from nothing.  I know that you say this from humility, but you must know that in these days pride has grown monstrously among men, and chiefly among those who are learned and think they understand everything.  It was for this reason that at another period I sent out simple men who had no human learning, but were filled by Me with divine wisdom, and let them preach.  To-day I have chosen unschooled women, fearful and weak by nature, but trained by Me in the knowledge of the divine, so that they may put vanity and pride to shame.  If men will humbly receive the teachings I send them through the weaker sex I will show them great mercy, but if they despise these women they shall fall into even worse confusion and even greater agony.

“Therefore, my dear daughter, you shall humbly do My will, for I will never fail you; on the contrary, I will come to you as often as before and I will guide and help you in all things.”

Catherine bowed her head, rose and went from her chamber and seated herself at the table with her family.  It is a pity none of Catherine’s biographers has described for us the amazement it must have caused Jacopo and Lapa [her parents] to see their hermit daughter seated among them—not to speak of her brothers and sisters-in-law and their children.  But although Catherine had returned in the flesh to the bosom of her family, her thoughts were with her Savior.  And as soon as the Benincasas rose from the table Catherine fled back to her cell, filled with longing to continue her conversation with her Lord.  For the young girl who was later to have such experiences with unyielding courage, this first return to the family circle after having lived outside it for three years must have been a terrible ordeal.  [p51-2]

When Catherine went into her contemplative moments, it was truly an ecstasy, consuming her whole body.  Here is a description of what her body became in one of these moments. 

From the time when she began her life of active charity, her familiarity with the secrets of the supernatural world became more apparent to the world around her.  When her soul rose upwards in prayer and contemplation, her body became as rigid, cold and insensible as a stone.  It happened also that her companions saw the motionless, kneeling woman lifted from the floor, “so high that one could put one’s hand between Catherine and the floor”—they had certainly tried for themselves.  At other times, and especially after she had received the Body of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, as she was withdrawn in ecstasy, it was as though her body was flooded with such heat that beads of sweat appeared all over her flushed face.

As the ecstasies came over her most often in church, the whole town was soon talking about her.  For her friends, who were convinced that Catherine was a chosen vessel of God, these extraordinary attacks of unconsciousness were a source of awe and joy; when her soul had been lifted up to the presence of Divine Love it always returned bearing gifts for her fellows.  Andrea di Vanni, the painter who once, while Catherine was in her twenties, made a sketch of her on a pillar in St. Dominic’s church, firmly believed she was completely sincere, although it does not even seem he had at that time joined the circle of her nearest friends.  He has given us the only authentic portrait we possess of St. Catherine.  The lily which she holds in her hand, and the woman kneeling before her, were added after Catherine’s death.  [p58-9]

Other than receiving the stigmata, one of the few saints ever be so blessed, the most glorious mystical experience was the displacing of her heart with that of Christ’s heart.  I’m not sure how many saints were praying to Christ’s heart before St. Margret Mary’s Sacred Heart, but Catherine was doing so three hundred years earlier.

The same day Catherine was meditating over the words of the prophet, “Cor mundum crea in me, Domine,” and as she prayed for God to take away her own heart, in which her self-will was rooted, she saw a vision.  Her heavenly Bridegroom came to her, opened her left side, took out her heart, and carried it away in His hand.  This impression was so strong and was accompanied by such a physical reaction that Catherine told Fra Tommaso at confession that she had no heart in her body.  The monk could not help laughing, “Now, now, no one can live without a heart…”  But Catherine was adamant.  “But it’s true Father, I would have to distrust my own senses if I were to doubt that I now have no heart in my body.  It is certain that with god nothing is impossible.”

A day or two later Catherine had been to Mass in the Capella della Volte and remained in church to pray along after all the others had left.  Suddenly Christ appeared to her; in His hand he carried a human heart, deep red and sparkling with light.  When Catherine saw how it shone she fell on her face.  But again Our Lord opened her left side, and put the burning heart into her body.  “My dear daughter, the other day I took away your heart.  To-day I give you My heart, which will give you eternal life.”

Her most intimate friends assured her biographer that they had with their own eyes seen the scar under her left breast where this exchange of hearts had taken place.  From now on Catherine no longer prayed, “Lord, I offer You my heart” but “Lord, I offer You Your heart.”  And often when she received the Blessed Sacrament, the heart beat so violently that those who stood near her heard it and were amazed.  [p.104-5]

I don’t know what to make of such extreme spiritual experiences that are physically transformative such as that and go outside my personal ken.  The displacing of her heart sounds more like a bit of folklore, but that would be presumptuous on my part.  Ultimately I hold open the possibility of it being exactly true, especially since I revere St. Catherine so, but I can’t help a hint of skepticism.  I believe, help my unbelief.

Later that summer she lay in her bed ill (she had a problem with holding down food most of her life and hardly ate anything) and went into one of her ecstasies.  This passage is too long to quote in its entirety, so I’ll use ellipses (…) to reduce the verbiage and get the crux down.
But all these ecstasies seemed to take such a toll on her physical strength that the moment came that the body could stand no more…

For many days she remained so weak that she could not move.  But most of the time she was in ecstasy, and her friend who listened to her low whisperings said afterwards she seemed transported with bliss: she smiled and laughed softly, while her lips uttered expressions of love to her Bridegroom, talking of her ceaseless longings to be called to that heavenly home where Christ would be hers for ever and no separation could force her back to the world of the senses.

She was so tired of this body which shut her out from all she desired.  But when her Lord said to her that she must not be selfish, He had still work for her which she was to carry out among her fellow men on earth, she humbly bowed before His will.  But she asked that she might be allowed to taste a little, only a very little—as much as she could bear—of the agony He had suffered in His body here on earth for the salvation of mankind…She was granted this.  But when in this way she learned how bitter His pains had been, how boundless was the love which succumbed to such suffering because His heart pitied mankind, then it was as though her heart broke and the breath of life left her body…

She wept unceasingly for many days.  But little by little she told Tommaso della Fonte something of what she had experienced when she lay as though dead.  She was quite certain that her soul had been freed from its prison of flesh and blood; she had seen a little of the pain and the burning desires of the souls in purgatory who know that the time will come when they shall possess God as He is, but as yet are cut off by their deeds and thoughts from that revelation that is blessedness itself.  She had seen the agonies of the lost souls in hell, and for a moment had tasted the joy of the blessed in heaven…

Finally Christ had said to her: “There are many whose salvation depends on you.  The life you have led up to now will be altered: for the sake of the salvation of souls you will be required to leave your native town, but I shall always be with you—I shall lead you away, and I shall lead you back again.  You shall proclaim the honor of My name to rich and poor, to clerks and laymen, for I shall give you words and wisdom which no one can resist.  I shall send you to popes and the leaders of My church and to all Christians, for I choose to put the pride of the mighty to shame by the use of fragile tools.”

It is not strange that Catherine asked her confessor at times, “Father, can you not see that I have changed?  Can you see that your Catherine is no longer the same?  [p.107-10]

It is at this point that Catherine went on first to aid the poor and ill of her town, and then to be regarded as a true holy woman throughout her city limits, her region, and then Italy and beyond, from which Princes, Bishops, and Popes would seek her intervention.  I take her  “no longer the same” to refer the transformation from the shy young girl who wanted to hide to the assertive, bold woman who scolded men, the aristocracy, and church leaders to have courage to do the moral thing.  She castigated Pope Gregory XI when he wavered from returning the Papacy to Rome from Avignon because he feared the French Cardinals to “Be a man.”

I came across this interview on EWTN with Fr. Mitch Pacwa with a Dominican scholar who has written a book on her teachings and writings, Fr. Thomas McDermott, OP.  It’s an hour long, but it captures her life well.


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