One last excerpt from the biography, this time with the focus on the author. I’ve mentioned that Sigrid Undset went from an agnostic at best to a Roman Catholic convert in mid life. She experienced the full catastrophe of the Second World War, losing her home and her son’s life. There are a number of places in her biography of this saint from the middle ages she personally speaks from a perspective of one who has lived through the first half of the twentieth century, suggesting that we here in the modern world have much to learn from Catherine. I found those passages interesting and worth noting.
Here is a most moving passage where Undset, starting from Catherine’s vision of drinking blood from the actual side of Christ, contemplates the remedy Catherine would proscribe to horrific life of the modern condition.
In our own lifetime we have learned to know the smell of rotting corpses on battlefields and in bombed towns; we know of the stinking sores and boils of prisoners from concentration camps, where dead and dying were made to lie on beds as wretched as the one Catherine had chosen for herself. We have poured out oceans of blood and tears, both of the guilty and the guiltless, while we hoped against hope that this blood and these tears could help to save a world reeling under the weight of its miseries. And how little have we achieved of the great things we dreamed! Yet we ascribe it to the confused ideas of the time she lived in and her own dark vision of Christianity, when Catherine intoxicated herself on the blood of Christ—that blood which would put an end to human bloodshed, if only we could agree to receive it as redemption from our bloodthirsty passions, our insatiable lust for imagined gain for ourselves projected onto other nations or classes. Indeed, many Catholics think in this way. The strong-willed, brave and strangely optimistic girl who handled the powerful men of her time so masterfully, who had an unusual understanding of the characters of the men and women among who she lived, who succeeded in making peace between many of her unruly townsmen, who in fact on one or two occasions prevented war, and on many put an end to bloody feuds—she would answer us as she answered her contemporaries in her letters and conversations and in the Dialogue: that the blood of Christ was the only source of her own courage and strength and wisdom, of her amazing and indomitable joy of living. She would say to us, Drink of it with the lips of your souls, as the saints in their visions seemed to drink it with their lips of flesh; assuage your thirst in the love which streams from God’s holy Heart—then there will be an end to the vain shedding of man’s blood by the hand of man. In her visions Catherine saw God’s fire fall from heaven, like a rain of blazing light and burning warmth: can we really understand anything of her experience, we who have seen the fire of hate falling from the clouds, who fear in our hearts for the day when an even more destructive fire, invented by an even more bitter hatred and more violent passions, shall rain down over us and our children? For us, Catherine would have only the same message which she brought to her contemporaries, she would know only of the same remedy for our misery—the blood of Christ, the fire of God’s love, which burns up self-love and self-will, and lets the soul appear, beautiful and full of grace, as it was meant to be when God created it. [p.83-5]
For Undset, the remedy that Catherine would offer is the remedy that all the saints taken in their comprehensive whole offer this age. It is in our bond of a common humanity that they serve as guide posts for us. The wars and devastation of our age have shown us that suffering is part of our condition. It is in our response to suffering that distinguishes people, but our Catholic faith tells us that suffering is not to be shunned.
The fact that the saints have been so willing to suffer, that they often in fact seemed to be in love with suffering and chose it as their inheritance on earth, is often looked upon by non-Catholics—that is to say non-Catholic Christians—as incomprehensible, and, in the eyes of many, extremely unsavory. If God is goodness, if Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins, why should Christians have to suffer—and suffer not only merely ordinary opposition, which may have an educational value for the sufferer, but, though innocent, suffer for other’s sins? One thing is certain, that all the saints have maintained that they suffer for their own sins, although we cannot see it otherwise than that they suffered for the sins of others. It is only among the saints that we find any who have the right to say, “Nothing human is foreign to me.” Nevertheless, we may all, at any given moment, find that we have to suffer for what in our eyes are exclusively the sins of others. Two world wars, and their aftermath, spread over almost the whole of the world, should have made this truth understandable—emphatically understandable—even for the simplest and most self-satisfied of souls. [p.331]
What the saints show us is that through suffering and a holy life we can achieve wholeness, “unity with the Origin of life.” Suffering is not wasted; a holy life will find its reward.
The saints have always known the power of good is something quite incalculable. When they renounce even pure and harmless happiness on earth, that they might have none of the hindrances interposed by care for their own or another’s material needs, in their struggle to achieve unity with the Origin of life, they knew if He filled them with His grace and mercy, His superfluous gifts—gifts bringing health and life—would overflow into the lives of other men—even to people outside the range of their knowledge, beyond their sight and the field of their activity. St. Catherine must have felt discouraged when she saw no concrete results of her efforts for certain individuals, both men and women, through prayer and attempts at persuasion. But she never wavered; she gave of herself until her physical life was used up, in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth—on the contrary. If we expect to see His triumph here, His own words should warn us: “The Son of Man, when He cometh, shall he find, think you faith on earth?” He did not tell us the answer. [p. 334]
Finally what the saints and Catherine offer us is wisdom, a wisdom achieved by seeing beyond the material, beyond human constructions, beyond the human ego.
It is not given to us to know what Christendom’s final fate on earth will be. The gates of hell shall not overpower His Church, but those who wish to break out of it have full freedom to do so. The real question is: when the conditional reality which we call the material world withers away, who will have won real life in all eternity in the land of the living? Even the people of our times, who have magnified mankind’s ineradicable trust in the things which we can see, touch, and enjoy with our senses, and made their articles of faith out of materialism, self-aggrandizing humanism, collectivism, or whatever one likes to call it—even they have caught a glimpse of how utterly worthless all material things are. In light of the split atoms, solid objects become as it were transparent, evanescent. But who can say how mankind will react to the new discoveries it makes? We sorely need the wisdom of the saints.
Has the world changed much since Undset wrote that in the late 1940’s, post World War II and at the onset of the Cold War? Those wars of devastation have passed, and perhaps we can breathe a sigh of relief. But the culture, if anything has deteriorated even further. Nihilism has taken root; self-doubt in our heritage, in the existence of God, in noble values, in the dignity of the human person has only expanded. Nazi and Soviet holocausts may be over but in our very democracies that stand on the ideal of human rights the slaughter of the unborn go on at holocaust proportions. Undset showed us how Catherine of Siena emptied her ego into that of Christ crucified. That forgoing of one’s ego is what is sorely lacking today. I don’t know if Undset would be surprised (probably not) but I’m sure she would have been saddened.
Not sure how old Undset was here, but it’s obviously in middle age. I particularly like this photo since it shows her proudly displaying her cross pendent. She was a lovely woman.
If you wish to find more on St. Catherine of Siena, these links are most interesting:
I’ve mentioned this all encompassing St. Catherine of Siena site, Drawn By Love.
Here is an article from Crises Magazine proclaiming Catherine “The First Catholic Feminist?” by Christopher Check:
And one of my favorite Catholic bloggers, Jimmy Akin, has just put out a piece, “8 Things to Know About St. Catherine of Siena” just in time for her feast day:
Tomorrow, April 29th is St. Catherine’s feast day. Let us appeal to her for her prayers.