St. Catherine of Siena
Saint Catherine of Siena born Caterina de Giacomo Di Benincasa in 1347 in the Fontebranda district of Siena was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. Her father was a wool dyer of comfortable means. Most of what is known about Catherine’s childhood is embedded in pious legend, but she was a strikingly pleasant and outgoing youngster, imaginative and idealistic in her devotion. She was also stubbornly independent and this was to be a hallmark of most of her life along with the intense emotional struggle she knew when faced with more pleasant alternatives to the austere way she felt herself called to follow. As she approached the age for marriage (early teens in the 14th century Italy) a steady and clear passion for the truth of things emerged in her life, a passion that overrode every other passion in her life. She was influenced greatly by the Dominicans who had a church and cloister just down the hill from her home and the brother of her brother-in-law had become a Dominican while Catherine was a child. He was to be her first confessor and spiritual director.
At the age of seven we are told that Catherine vowed her virginity to God; at fifteen she cut off her hair in defiance of efforts to make her marry, and at eighteen she received the Dominican habit. She then began to live in solitude and silence in her room, going out for only mass. But somewhere, somehow, in this silence she learned to read. This silence ended in 1368 in her “mystical espousal” to Christ, after which she suddenly rejoined her family at home and gave herself to the service of the poor and sick. She was twenty-one years of age.
Catherine served as a nurse in homes and hospitals, looked out for the destitute, and buried her father. While this sudden public activity gained her notoriety, those who began to gather around her looked for her most of all at home in her room, where in hours of conversation she both learned and taught-learned the subtleties of theological argument and biblical interpretations, and taught what she knew from experience of the way of God. Mystical experiences continued in her life, increasing and intensifying, finally climaxing int 1370 in her “mystical death” – four hours during which she experienced ecstatic union with God while her body seemed lifeless to all observers. Her austerity was stripped to all-but-total abstinence for food and sleep. In 1375 in Pisa, she received the stigmata (visible, at her request, only to herself). When the political tensions of her country mounted, Catherine began to find herself drawn to intervene in counsel as well as prayer, at least with individuals, wherever she saw truth being compromised. 1375 also saw the beginning of a prolific letter-writing career. Letters were written to intercede with the English mercenaries who were ravaging the Italian countryside and impoverishing the city-states with their demands for peace money. She traveled back to Siena to assist a young political prisoner before his execution toward the end of 1375. As the political situation between the city-states and the papacy worsened, Florence sought the help of Catherine in winning a release from Pope Gregory XI’s interdict which put them at a severe disadvantage. Catherine was politically naive yet convinced that every possible measure must be taken to restore peace in the church. Her trust was ill-founded, for as soon as she paved the way for the political leaders of Florence, they disowned her and sent their own ambassadors to negotiate on their own terms. To this Catherine sent an appropriately scorching letter back to Florence and turned her attention to her larger concerns: the crusade, the reform of the clergy, the return of the papacy to Rome. Concerning the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon (the residence of the Popes from 1309 to 1377), Gregory XI placed great store in prophetic voices and Catherine’s insistence that he must return strongly influenced the actual move. Although artistic representations of this event depict her accompanying the pope back to Rome, she was not present on the journey.
In 1377, she founded a women’s monastery of strict observance outside Siena – but it was a monastery she herself could never be long contained in. From the summer of 1377 on, she was on a local mission of peacemaking and preaching. It was a period of personal loneliness and fullness: loneliness because she lost her spiritual director (Raymond of Capua) and fullness because during the autumn of that year she had the experience which led to the writing of her Dialogue and she actually learned to write herself (before she had always had to dictate). She was thirty years old at this point. On March 27, 1378, Pope Gregory died and was succeeded by Urban VI. Uprisings and riots continued, during one of which Catherine was almost assassinated-and in a letter to her spiritual director she wept over the martyrdom that had escaped her. Because Pope Urban VI had been opposed by many from the time of his elections and a schism was now in the works, Catherine wrote letters to any and all who were involved, arguing for loyalty and unity. She had ideas of her own as to what was needed to make that possible and she longed to be in Rome to personally promote those ideas. Finally in late November, 1378, Pope Urban sent for her and Catherine set out for Rome with her “family” – the last journey she was to make.
In Rome, she set up a household with a handful of women and men, all living on alms. She met with pope and cardinals, dictated letters, counseled her disciples. From the beginning of 1380, Catherine could no longer eat of even swallow water. Except for a few more letters, her activity was now totally in her prayer and the offering of herself. Diabolic visions tormented her as much as ecstasy ravished her. Till late February she still dragged herself the mile to St. Peter’s each morning for mass and spent the day there in prayer until vespers. On February 26 she lost the use of her legs and was confined to bed. She died on April 29 at the age of thirty-three.
Catherine’s life, especially the last 12 years of it, was marked with a balance of contemplation and action in that what she experienced in her contemplation impelled her into action. And that all she touched or was touched by in her activity was present in her prayer. For Catherine, God is la prima dolce Veritá (gentle first Truth), Pazzo d’amore (mad with love) and essa caritá (charity itself). The way to God, for St. Catherine, is the constantly lived dynamic of knowledge and love. The first paragraph of her Dialogue set the stage for this dynamic of knowledge and love, which is at the heart of her whole teaching as it was her life: A soul rises up, restless with tremendous desire for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. She has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothed herself in it.
Primary Texts St. Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue. Trans. Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist Press, 1980. (Stacks BV5080.C2613 1980) . . . .. The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, Catherine of Siena…. Trans. Algar Thorold. London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne Ltd., 1925. (Div. School BX4700.C4 A27 1925) . . . .. I, Catherine: Selected Writings of St. Catherine of Siena. Ed. and trans. Keneim Foster and Mary John Ronayne. London: Collins, 1980. (Div. School BX4700.C4 A2513 1980) . . . .. The Letters of Catherine of Siena. Ed. and trans. Suzanne Noffke. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1988. (Stacks BX4700.C4 A4 1988 Vol.1) . . . .. The Oreherd of Sion. Ed. Phyllis Hodgson and Gabril M. Liegey. EETS no.258 O.S. London: Early English Text Society, 1966. (Robbins BX4700.C31Ao v.1) . . . .. The Prayers of Catherine of Siena. Ed. Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist Press, 1983. (Div. School BV245.C3813 1983) Secondary Texts Champdor, Albert. Catherine de Sienne et son temps. Lyon: A. Guillot, 1982. (Div. School BX4700.C4 C47 1982) Curtayne, Alice. St. Catherine of Siena. New York: Macmillan, 1929. (Div. School BX4700 .C44 CS) Drane, Augusta Theodosia. The History of St. Catherine of Siena and Her Companions. London: Burns and Oates, 1880. (Stacks BX4700.C3ld) Fatula, Mary Ann. Catherine of Siena’s Way. Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier, 1987. (Div. School BX4700.C4 F37 1987) Fawter, Robert. Sainte Catherine de Sienne: essai de critique des sources Paris: E. de Boccard, 1921. (Stacks BX4700.C3lf v 1-2) Follmar, Mary Ann. The Steps of Love in the dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena. Petersham MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1987. (Div. School BV5080.C26 F64 1987) Gardner, Edmund Garrett. Saint Catherine of Siena, A Study in the Religion, Literature, and History of the Fourteenth Century in Italy. New York: Dutton, 1907. (Stacks BX4700.C3lg) Gillet, Martin Stanislas. The Mission of St. Catherine. Trans. Sister M. Thomas Lopez. St. Louis: Herder, 1955. (Div. School BX4700.CC4 G513) Giordani, Igino. Saint Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church. Boston: St. Paul Mitions, 1975. (Div. School BX4700.C4 G5613) Hodgson, Phyllis. “The Orcherd of Syon and the English Mystical Tradition.” In Proceedings of the British Academy 50 (1964), pp.229-49. (Stacks A5122.B86p v.50) Jrgensen, Johannes. Saint Catherine of Siena. Trans. Ingeborge Lund. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1938. (Stacks BX4700.G3lj) Keyes, Frances Parkinson. Three Ways of Love. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1963. (Div. School BX4659.18 K46) Levasti, Arrigo. My Servant, Catherine. Trans. Dorothy M. White. Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1954. (Div. School BX4700.C4 M513) Raymond of Capua (1330-1399). The Life of Catherine of Siena. Trans. Conleth Kearns. Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1980. (Div. School BX4700.C4 R3 1980) Richardson, Jerusha Davidson. The Mystic Bride: A Study of the Life-Story of Catherine of Siena. London: T.W. Laurie, 1911. (Stacks BX4700.C3lr) Ryley, M. Beresford. Queens of the Renaissance. Boston: Small, Maynard, and Co., 1907. (Stacks Rare ZZ60IO 1907 .R9) Undset, Sigrid. Catherine of Siena. Trans. Kate Austin-Lund. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954. (Div. School BX4700.C4 U52)