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

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Excerpt: Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset

I’ve been reading Catherine of Siena by the Nobel Prize Winning author Sigrid Undset.  I scheduled this reading as my Lenten read, in that the biography is that of Saint Catherine of Siena, the fourteenth century saint who is also a Doctor of the Church. 




So far I’m about a third of the way in.  Her early life has been covered, and I can’t wait to read more.  These two excerpts are from chapter 2, which covers her adolescence and I think provides a good insight into her nature.  The names mentioned in these passages are the following: Lapa is Catherine’s mother, Bonaventura is Catherine’s favorite older sister, Raimondo is her confessor and first biographer, and Jacopo is her father.

It was the custom in Italian towns that once a girl was twelve years old she could not go out unless accompanied by an older woman.  She was considered more or less of an age to be married, and her parents must now begin to look around for a suitable husband.  When Catherine had reached her twelfth year, therefore, there came an end to running errands for her mother or slipping out to visit her married sisters.  Her parents and brothers hoped that they would be able to find a husband for her who would bring honor and advantages to the whole family.  Lapa was especially happy, sure that she would find a remarkable man for her darling, the charming and sensible youngest daughter.

But when Lapa told the young girl that now the time was come to try to make the very best of her beautiful appearance, arrange her lovely hair in the way that suited her best, wash her face more often, and avoid anything which could spoil her delicate complexion and white throat, she was bitterly disappointed.  Catherine was not the least keen to make herself beautiful for the sake of young men: on the contrary, it seemed as though she shunned their company and did everything she could not to be seen by them.  She fled even from the apprentices and assistants who lived in their house, “as though they were snakes.”  She never stood at the front door or leaned out of the window to look at the passers-by and be seen by them.

Lapa sought the help of Bonaventura to make Catherine more amenable.  Lapa knew how extremely fond Catherine was of her elder sister, and for a while it really seemed that Bonaventura succeeded in making the child slightly more obedient to her mother, so that she began to take more care of her appearance.  According to what Raimondo says, Catherine was never a startling beauty, but young and vivacious as she was, slim, with fair skin, beautiful dark eyes and an abundance of that shining golden-brown hair which Italians have always admired so much, she must have been an extraordinarily attractive young woman.

[Excerpts from Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset, Translation by Kate Austin-Lund, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2009.  p. 19-20]

And after Catherine rejects marriage we see her family tightens the screws.  Catherine then rebels:

It was perhaps Jacopo who had the idea of sending for a Dominican monk who was an old friend of the family in order to see if he could persuade Catherine to comply with the family’s plans.  It was Fra Tommaso della Fonte, who had once been brought up with Catherine.  She confessed to him that she had already promised Christ that she would be His alone as long as she lived.  Fra Tommaso could only advise her to meet the hardness which her family showed her so resolutely that they would have at last to understand that she would never give in.  And Fra Tommaso thought that if she were to cut off her hair, which was her greatest beauty, perhaps they would leave her in peace.

Catherine accepted this advice as though it came from heaven.  She immediately fetched a pair of scissors and cut off her lovely golden-brown plaits close to the head.  Then she tied a little veil over her shorn head.  It was against the custom of that time for an unmarried woman to cover her hair, so when Lapa saw her daughter with this extraordinary headdress she immediately rushed up to her and asked what it meant.  The girl dared not tell her the truth and would not tell a lie, so she did not answer.  Lapa tore off the veil, and when she saw her beautiful daughter standing there so disfigured she sobbed with sorrow and fury: “Child, child, how could you do such a thing to me?”  Silently the girl put on her veil again.  But when Jacopo and the boys came hurrying in, startled by Lapa’s shrieks and tears, and heard what had happened, they threw themselves upon Catherine in fury.

To make matters worse for Catherine she had now a suitor, a young man whom the Benincasas were very intent on bringing into the family.  So they abused her roundly.  “You wicked girl, do you imagine that you can escape our authority by cutting off your hair?  It will grow again, and you shall be married, even if it breaks your heart.  You shall never have any peace or quiet until you give in and do as we say.” 


That was pretty dramatic, reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi stripping himself in front of his father.  Her family would go on to make her life at home very difficult.  But Catherine persevered.

The Holy Spirit had taught her how to build herself an inner cell, a place of refuge where she could pray and think of her Beloved, and from this no one could recall her; here no one could come and disturb her.  “The Kingdom of God is within you”: now she understood the meaning of those words, spoken by Him who is truth itself.  Within us—it is there that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out upon us to perfect our natural talents, to break down internal and external obstacles.  If we passionately desire the true good, the heavenly Guest comes and lives within us—He who has said “Be of good courage, I have conquered the world.”

Catherine trusted in Him, and felt that a cell, not built by human hands, was formed within her, so that she had no need to regret what they had taken from her the little cell of wood and stone.  Later she used to advise her disciples when they complained of being so overburdened with the problems of the world that they never found quiet to meet God or to drink of the spring by which they lived: “Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it.”  Raimondo admits that he did not understand these words of his “mother” at once, but “it is extraordinary to see how I and all who have lived near her understand all her actions and words much better now than in those days when we had her beside us.”

[p. 25]

Sigrid Undset is an interesting woman in her own right as you can read in the Wikipedia entry.  She was Norwegian, though actually born in Denmark, and she grew up in a secular, atheist home but mid way through her life, after a failed marriage, had a crises of faith, and ultimately converted to Catholicism.  She certainly must have had her share of suffering.  Two of her three children died while she was alive, her son killed fighting the Nazis.  While in exile during the war she lived in Brooklyn, NY, where I grew up, though not the same neighborhood.  She was independent, outspoken, and deplored the growing moral relativism.  I can see in this biography she thoroughly understood Catholic theology; she was a ThirdOrder Dominican herself.    Undset is known for her great work, a trilogy of novels, which go by the name of Kristin Lavransdatter   I’ve never read any of her works before, but I certainly intend to read that one eventually.  The work centers on the life of the title character, set in the middle ages in Scandinavia.  Undset is supposed to have done a lot of historical research to accurately portray the lives.  Unfortunately the trilogy amounts to over a thousand pages, and so is a commitment of time.  I will certainly get to it though.


  1. Wow that sounds really interesting. I named my fifth child Rachael Catherine, long before I ever imagined I would become Catholic. I have an interest in the meaning of names, and am always surprised at the aptness of names -- my own and my family's.
    So I am interested to know more about st. Catherine, though I do pray to her for my Rachael.
    I have always wondered about the Old Testament prophets, and if we can pray to them? I am not sure about the Church's view on that. I have two sons, named Daniel and Benjamin.

    I just got a collection of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I had to order from the library. So you are keeping me reading! :) Not a bad thing.

    1. I don't know if we can pray to the OT prophets. I don't see why not.

      Good that you got the Singer collection. The one's I can recommend are "Gimpel the Fool," "Joy," and "The Spinoza of Market Street." If you find one that's extraordinary, let me know; I'll put it on my list to read.

  2. My second name is Caterina Rita, so thank you for letting me know more about one of my saints!

    1. That's great. My parish is called St. Rita's. Those are three great Catholic saints in your name, and I'm referring to St. Anthony of Padua. My first name doesn't have a saint, and I was not given a middle name. But I did take Francis as my confirmation name that I use as my middle.

      By the way Antonella, St. Catherine of Siena, along with St. Francis of Assisi are the co-patron saints of Italy, if you didn't know.

  3. This looks like a good book. Kristin Lavransdatter is absolutely wonderful.

    1. Jan, I'm now half way through the book and you will get some more excerpts. You haven't seen anything yet. This is a great work on a great Saint. It's a must read for devout Catholics.