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

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book Excerpt: Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset, Part 3

You can find part 1 of my blogs on this biography here and part 2 here

Catherine of Siena has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, which is an honor based on a saint’s extensive writings that promote the doctrine or explain theology or reflect great sanctity.  In her short life Catherine wrote almost four hundred letters (381 to be exact, taking up four volumes in collection) known to have survived, a book of prayers, and a book on her mysticism and spirituality simply called Dialogue.  I’d like this excerpt to give a sample Catherine’s writings, both to display her theology and her writing style, as showcased in Undset’s biography.

 First, here’s a little bit on Undset speaking about Catherine’s language.

Catherine always wrote in Tuscan, her native tongue.  It is impossible to give any proper idea of her style in translation—she has complete mastery over the music of the Italian peasant language, whether she is tenderly admonishing a soul whose welfare means just as much to her as her own, describing her heavenly visions, or threatening with the wrath of God; whether she is advising powerful lords or ordinary people, laymen or monks in cases concerning the fate if people and countries, or private people’s everyday difficulties.  But because her soul was filled with the love of Christ and belief in Him, her interest for everything human was bathed in faith; to use her own analogy, as the swimmer under the water only sees what is in the water, or what can be seen through the water, so she sees everything through her faith.  But in our time and the language of our time the expressions we use for religious emotions and religious experience have become worn out and meaningless; words which in Catherine’s language are as shining as new-minted gold, become, when repeated by us, worn-out coins, which have gone out of circulation.  Catherine speaks of Virtù, and for her the word retains its full weight; it means a vital and powerful pursuit of high ideals.  “Virtue in English has no connection in the popular mind with capacity, capacity for goodness; we think of virtue as something slightly sour, weak and boring.  Catherine’s eternal cri du coeur, “Gesù Dolce—Gesù Amore,” is filled with very different associations from those which occur to us when we read “Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.”  A sweet Jesus, a lady Jesus; Jesus-Love—a substitute or sublimation of sexual love.  In Catherine’s language and when she lived, sweetness was also a name for strength, for all that is good and at the same time gentle and merciful.  That goodness must also at times be hard and aggressive, no one knew better than Catherine.  For her and her contemporaries, even for the hosts of people who in practice tried to forget it or deny it, it was acknowledged that “Amore” love, is fundamentally an expression for the connection between God and the soul of man.  [p.190-1]

The phrase “Gesù Dolce—Gesù Amore” was her favorite way to address our Lord, and apparently she used it to sign off many of her letters.  I’m so enamored (pardon the pun) with that phrase that I’ve begun to use it in one of my prayers where I address Christ.  Here is a sample letter, this letter to Pope Gregory XI to take responsibility like a man or the Church of Christ would continue to suffer.

As usual she begins her letter in the name of Jesus Christ and gentle Mary, and addresses herself to the Pope as her dearest and most worthy father in Jesus Christ.  For herself she has chosen the title of God’s servants’ servant and bondswoman—it is reminiscent of the Pope’s traditional signature, “the servant of the servants of God.”  She describes her longing to see him standing as a fruitful tree, loaded with noble fruit because it is planted in good earth.  But if the tree is not planted in this good earth, which is self-knowledge—the knowledge that we are nothing, existing only in Him Who Is—the tree will wither.  The worm of egoism will eat up the roots, for he who loves himself feeds his soul with mortal pride, the principle and origin of evil in all men, in those who rule and those who must obey.  A man who has become the victim of self-love becomes indifferent to sins and faults among his subordinates, for he is afraid to annoy them and make them his enemies.  Either he attempts to punish them so halfheartedly that it is useless, or else he does not punish them at all.  In other words Catherine tells the Pope that in the last resort it is he who carries the whole responsibility for the terrible abuses which are draining the life of the Church, even though according to human reckoning he may be a fine person with many good qualities…”If the blind leads the blind both fall into the abyss; doctor and patient hurry to hell together.”  The kind of mercy which is due to self-love and the love of friends, relations, and temporal peace is in fact the worst cruelty, for if a wound is not cleansed when necessary with the red-hot iron and the surgeon’s knife, it festers and finally causes death.  To apply salves to it may be pleasant for the patient, but it does not heal him.  Love your neighbor for Jesus’ sake, and for the honor and glory of His sweet name.   “Yes, I could wish you were a good and faithful shepherd who was willing to give a thousand lives if you had them, for the glory of God and the salvation of His creatures.  Oh, my beloved father, you who are Christ on earth, imitate the Blessed St. Gregory.  You can do what he did, for he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as He was.  The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbor, and courage.  But to arouse this hunger in ourselves, who are nothing more than barren trees, we must graft ourselves to the fruitful tree of the cross.  The Lamb who was slaughtered for the sake of our salvation still thirst—His desire for our salvation is greater than could be shown by His suffering—for His suffering is without end, as is His love.

“…Have courage Holy Father, no more indecision, raise the banner of the holy cross, the fragrance of the cross is what will bring you peace.”  “Forgive me, Father, for all I have said to you.  The tongue speaks of that which fills the heart”…

Finally she talks of the forthcoming nomination of cardinals, and warns him he must choose those men who are most worthy, otherwise he need not be surprise if God punishes him.  For the Dominican order, which is to have a new Master General, she begs him to chose a pious and virtuous man, “for that is what our order needs.”  She ends by asking humbly for his blessing and forgiveness for all she has dared to write.  “Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.”  [p.187-9]

I love her use of what would today be called folksy maxims: the blind following the blind into the abyss, a wound that is not cauterized and cut clean will lead to death, applying salves may be pleasant but it will not heal.  Her language is very vivid, charged with simile (the Pope needs to be a fruitful tree) and then extends the simile almost in the manner of Homer (the tree needs to be planted in good earth or the worm of egoism will destroy the roots).  And of course her outspoken is at the very core of her identity.  Who has the audacity to tell the Pope to have “courage”?

Finally her great work, Dialogue, should be described and sampled, and Undset does that in a whole chapter.  I can’t copy an entire chapter, but I’ll try to give a taste of it.

Catherine calls the manuscript “the book” or “my book.”  It was Raimondo who first gave it a title and called it the Dialogue.  The first Latin translation, by Critofano di Gano Guidini and Stefano Maconi, had been called by the translators the Book of Divine Learning.  Since then the various translations and unprinted editions in several different languages have gone under several names…The undercurrent beneath the waves of shifting ideas in these conversations between the Eternal Father and her whom He calls His very dear daughter, and His much loved child, is the belief in God’s mercy.  With her heart crushed by compassion Catherine begs for mercy—for all this world which sin has laid waste, for all Christians and heathens and the infidel too.  And finally, when the Eternal father compresses all He has taught His daughter into a few sentences, He says: “I have told you that I will show the world mercy so that you can see that mercy is the sign by which I am known”…

In the Dialogue the Lord repeats for Catherine all that he has taught her before of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of one’s own ego and the way to perfection: “Your service of no use to Me, it is by serving your neighbor that you can serve Me.”  The soul which has once experienced the bliss of being united with God in love, which has reached the point where it only loves itself in God, will expand and embrace the whole world with its love.  Once it has won for itself the virtue which brings a life of grace it will work with the utmost zeal to help its neighbor.  But this is an inner virtue; outward action, physical work, diligent penitence, self-chastisement and all kinds of self-denial are nothing more than the tools of virtue—God is not interested in them for themselves.  On the contrary—they can be an obstacle on the way to perfection if the soul begins to love penitential exercises for their own sake.  One must do penitence from love, with true humility and perfect patience.  And it must be done with understanding, that is to say with a true knowledge of God and one’s own self…   .  [p.262-4]

It seems that Catherine is taking us on a journey, and the journey is inward toward her mystic visions.  She seems to be suggesting the notion of Divine Mercy centuries before St. Faustina.  The visions rely on a complex imagery and symbolism, such as one of her favorite images, the swallowing sea.

When she saw that she had been given a new and deeper understanding of the love which caused the redemption by Christ Crucified, Catherine was filled with holy joy and prayed again for the whole world—although if the Holy Church should regain the outward beauty which is an expression of its eternal inner beauty, the whole world would be saved…So when mankind had rebelled against God it immediately rebelled against itself; the flesh rebelled against the spirit and mankind drowned in the dark and bitter waters of sin…Man thinks it is the things he loves which float, but in reality it is he himself who is swept by the stream towards the end of his life.  He would like to stop, to keep his hold of this life and the things he loves, so that they are not washed out of his reach.  He reaches out blindly to whatever he happens to touch, but cannot tell the difference between valuable and the valueless.   Then comes death and takes him from all he loves…

God made a bridge over this abyss when He gave the world His Son.  For God, who created us without our having anything to do with it, demands of us that we should work with Him for our salvation…    .  [p.264-5]

The symbol of the bridge (God’s grace) becomes further complicated as it intertwines with the symbol of light as the path to God. 

But because it is through the grace which God gives us that we are able to work with Him for our salvation, Catherine prays for light.  This too she is given, and then she sees how one can receive and increase the grace God gives freely.  It is the old teaching of the mystics on the Via Purificativa, the way to cleanse the soul, the Via Illuminativa, the way to enlightenment of eternal truths, and the Via Unitiva, the way to unification with God in love.    [p.266]

Does the bridge become transformed into a bridge of light?  I’ve perused the Dialogue itself (here, free on the Internet), and I have to admit it is hard to follow.  Her imagery shifts fluidly, too fluidly, and her symbols seem to be built on top of each other.  She violates several rules of rhetorical clarity, but what she loses in clarity she gains in poetic vision.  She writes (actually mutters while in mystic transcendence and someone else is writing it down) like a complex modern poet, symbols morphing into symbols.

She develops the bridge symbol in several ways.  The soul steps onto the bridge by three steps.  Sometimes, according to her, the steps mean the three grades of intimacy with Christ, which are also expressed by the kiss on His feet, the kiss on the wound in His side, and the kiss on His mouth.  Then she lets the three steps mean three stages toward perfect union with God: slavish fear of God’s punishment is what leads most souls to the bridge.  The next step is the faithfulness of a servant who follows his kind lord through love, even though this love is still imperfect, because the servant of his reward—the blessedness which God gives His faithful servants.  This leads to the third step, where the soul loves God with the love of a son—for what He is, not for His gifts.  At another time, the three steps become a symbol for the qualities of the soul—memory, intelligence, and will.  With an interpretation, entirely her own, of a phrase in the Bible, Catherine declares that when these three qualities of the soul run together in the desire for unity with God, Christ will fulfill His promise: “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.”   [p.266]

Undset describes that the structure of the work is not linear in progress, but rhythmic, as the sea.   The book was written in four or five days, the divisions into chapters and sections by others subsequent to the transcription.

The contents of the book came from Catherine’s lips during a series of visions and take the form of thoughts which are often repeated or which reappear constantly in new forms.  Her mind is like the waves of the sea which break inwards over the same problems and then wash back again, then break again.  The comparisons and symbols, some of them old favorites from earlier visions and letters, are repeated or given new meaning.  No translation can do justice to the beauty, tenderness, and pathos she expresses in her lovely Tuscan dialect, and which have made the Dialogue one of the masterpieces of Italian literature as well as a milestone in Catholic thinking.  [p.267-8]
Finally if you want to hear Fr. Thomas McDermott speak about Catherine's writings, you can watch his interview on EWTN's Bookmark.


  1. I never knew she was so mystical. It is kind of tough to get one's mind around some of it.

    1. I know what you mean. Real mysticism is beyond us regular folks. What is remarkable about Catherine of Siena is that she was both worldly and mystical. Some saints are very much part of the world of embracing humanity (Mother Theresa for example) and other saints look deeply inward and mystic, Theresa of Avila for example. Catherine was both. I don't think there's too many like that. I'm not sure St Francis of Assisi was all that mystical, but her certainly embraced humanity.