St. Catherine of Siena

by Cristina DeLuca

Catherine of Siena was born in Italy in 1347 at a time when political and religious changes were affecting the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Dedicating her life to the Holy Spirit from a very young age, Catherine pursued a life of purity and simplicity that served as a background to her great literary work, The Dialogue of the Divine Providence . Her work focuses on the importance of prayer and its transcendent power in human life.

In the early stages of Catherine's life the surfacing modern age was bringing with it social turmoil which spread throughout Europe (Giordani 3). During Catherine's lifetime, according to Mary Ann Sullivan in her essay “St. Catherine of Siena,” the center of Catholic rule fluctuated between Rome and Avignon and contributed to a schism between popes in Italy and France (1). Catherine was born 23rd in a line of 25 children and, according to Sullivan “even at a young age, [she] sensed the troubled society around her and wanted to help” (1). While her parents were not exceptionally religious, St. Catherine's biographer Blessed Raymond of Capua discusses Catherine's early zeal for Catholic practices: “When she was about five she learned the Hail Mary, and repeated it over and over again as often as she could…she was inspired by heaven to address the Blessed Virgin in this way whenever she went up and down stairs, stopping to kneel on each step as she did so” (24). Her devotion to the Virgin Mary would become especially important in a vision she had around this time while walking with her brother to visit one of her sisters.

When Catherine was six she saw a bridal chamber up in the heavens with Jesus Christ who bestowed upon her the sign of the cross and his eternal benediction (Raymond of Capua 25). This vision had such an impact on her that “from [then] onwards the fire of Divine love burned within her, enlightening her mind, kindling her will, strengthening her power of thought, and enabling her external acts to conform to the laws of God” (Raymond of Capua 26). Catherine sought Christ's hand in marriage and appealed to the Virgin Mary to grant her this connection. She prayed, “O most blessed and holy virgin…I pray to you that out of your ineffable goodness…you'll deign to grant me this great grace ¾ to give me as a Husband Him whom I desire with all the power of my soul, your most holy son, our one Lord Jesus Christ; and I promise Him and you that I will never choose myself any other husband, and will always do all I can to keep my virginity unspotted.” (qtd. in Raymond of Capua 31). In order to preserve her virginity, she once wished to take the habit of the Order of the Preaching Friars based on a story she once heard about a woman pretending to be a man and becoming a monk in order to avoid marriage (Gardner 5).

Raymond of Capua deduces in his book The Life of Saint Catherine of Siena that the marriage between Catherine and Christ was granted by the Virgin Mary based on the mercy Mary bestows on everyone who prays to her. He writes, Catherine “turns to one who distributes her graces most generously who, being unable to refuse even sinners, and never rejects anyone, who gives to wise and foolish alike…How can such a one fail to hear an ardent innocent young girl?” (32). Catherine's newfound bond with Christ was sealed soon after when she was able to levitate while praying in a cave near her sister's house (Raymond of Capua 28).

In two paintings depicting the mystical marriage, one by Giovanni di Paolo and the other by Pisan Master, Christ is surrounded by saints and the Virgin Mary as he reaches out to give a ring to Catherine (111, 117). Pisan Master depicts Catherine looking up toward the heavenly sky as she receives Christ's hand in marriage. In Giovanni di Paolo's painting, Christ, Mary and the saints are sitting in a bridal chamber almost on an equal level with Catherine possibly giving the marriage a more human quality.

At 16, Catherine was granted entry into the sisters of Penance of St. Dominic (Sullivan). Her parents were initially against her choice to devote her life to religion but eventually supported her decision. Her father, Giacomo, gave his blessing when he first heard of his daughter's choice to become a nun. “Pray for us a great deal,” he said, “that we may be worthy of the promises of your Husband who in His grace singled you out from your earliest years” (qtd. in Raymond of Capua 49).

The greatest challenge Catherine faced during her religious service was in attempting to restore the power of the Catholic Church to Rome. The relocation of the papal residence to France was a political one which gave the king of France much more power and influence over the social and religious landscape of France. Igino Giordini writes of the desperate measures King Philip the Fair had taken in order to keep the pope in France: “Philip the Fair, in order to resist that Papacy at Rome and dominate the clergy in France, had prepared the framework of what was to become the ‘French Church'...when Pope Boniface VIII resisted, a royal minister...assaulted him and struck the aged Pontiff [who] eventually died of a broken heart” (94). Many prominent Italian poets, like Dante Alighieri, tried to persuade the pope to come back to Rome years earlier, to no avail. Catherine, however, was interested in not only bringing the pope back, but restoring the general order of Rome and Italy as a whole (Giordini 95).

After she aided in Gregory XI's return to Rome from Avignon, he died soon after and a new pope, the Italian Urban VI, was elected in 1378. The cardinals, however, upset with Urban VI's conduct in power, elected Clement VII as a replacement. Clement VII was unable to remain in Rome and eventually relocated back to Avignon. The schism had begun as both popes claimed to be legitimate and each had his own set of cardinals (Berrigan 253). In a letter to Urban VI, Catherine emphasizes the pope's relationship with Christ. She writes, “[God] has placed you as a steward to apportion the blood of Christ crucified, Whose vicar you are” (qtd. in Wilson 257). Catherine's belief that the pope was the human form of Christ in her letters is also striking. According to Joseph Berrigan, “[t]his identification of the pope with Christ is all the more significant when one recalls Catherine's powerfully personal experience of Christ as the suffering savior. He was her teacher as well as the object of her ecstasies” (255). This gave Catherine an intense personal stake in seeing the papal controversy solved. Catherine did not live long enough to see her letters lead to any kind of solution; she would die two years later.

Around this time of turmoil within the Church, Catherine began formulating her most famous work, The Dialogue of the Divine Providence : “When disaster struck, with the election of an antipope [in Rome] on September 20, 1378, the voice of the Eternal became more insistent than ever and in October...Catherine dictated what is now known as The Dialogue ” (Giordini 206). The work is titled a “dialogue” because it is essentially an exchange of questions and answers between Catherine and the Lord. The work is divided into four parts. Catherine writes in “a state of ecstasy” asking for the Lord's mercy for herself, for the world, for the Church, and for a particular case, and each topic is relevant to a range of social issues which affected Catholics at the time. (Giordini 207).

In the section “A Treatise of Prayer,” Catherine justifies the importance of solitude in payer, and the spirituality of the soul. She writes, “during the time ordained for prayer, the Devil is wont to arrive in the soul, causing much more conflict and trouble then when the soul is not occupied in prayer” ( Dialogue 3). Similar to when Catherine was “raised” in prayer in the form of levitation when she was a child, she describes the feeling of a “lifted” soul in prayer. “When a soul lifts herself up,” she says in the opening of The Dialogue , “a thirst with very great desire for the honour of God and the salvation of souls, she exercises herself for a while in habitual virtue, and dwells in the cell of knowledge of self, in order better to know the goodness of God” (Gardner 5). Because Catherine could not read or write, she had to dictate her work to others. By recording her work in this way, she made certain that her ideas would survive. It seems extraordinary for a woman in the middle ages to believe that her thoughts were of such value and significance. Catherine was convinced that she was serving God, and that gave her reason to believe anything she had to say was of great importance. Whether or not her spiritual visions and experiences were real, Catherine provided a necessary voice for the people of the time. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff describes her writing style as “emotional” and “concrete rather than abstract” which differed from other religious writing of the time (28). Also, Catherine was often very critical of the Church in her work: “quick to point out hypocracy and crime in the clergy, sharply observant of the lack of spirituality in religious leaders, and indignant of the wealth of the church” (21). These criticisms show that she felt that the Church could serve its ordinary worshipers far better than it had been.

According to Edmund Gardner, Catherine's work in The Dialogue is one of the most successful literary pieces to connect spirituality with issues affecting the daily life of the people. Similar to Dante's Divina Commedia , Catherine represents all people looking to find connections between life on earth and in the eternal as she questions the Lord (350). Even though the result is complex and layered, at the end of The Dialogue Catherine refers to it simply as “the book in which I have found some recreation” (qtd. in Gardner 354). According to Gardner, “although her friends and disciples thus describe her as dictating it to her secretaries, it is not clear that she herself would have made any claims of supernatural authority for it, or have regarded it as anything more than the pious meditations of a spirit” (354). What she wrote about reflected on own encounters with Christ in times of intense meditation (Berrigan 254).

Catherine died at the age of 33 in 1380. She was canonized 81 years later by Pope Pius II, and in 1970 she was named one of the first women doctors of the Church (Sullivan 3). In her earliest visions of herself as Christ's bride, she expresses a responsibility to Him as both his wife and servant. Her writings and influence during the time of the schism within the Church show her dedication to finding a higher meaning among the troubles of everyday life and her willingness to share her insights with the common person.


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