There are times when the centuries we call ‘the medieval ages’ seem further away than much more ancient times. Medieval thinking and customs seem so alien, so inaccessible. And yet there are voices who come down to us so fresh and urgent, they could be our contemporaries.
Catherine of Siena who was born in March 1347 in Siena, northern Italy, was the 25th child of a wool dyer named Giacomo Benincasa and his wife. That alone gives me pause for thought, the huge family, an ageing mother (Lapa Piagenti, perhaps the daughter of a local poet) who was 40 when she gave birth to twins. More than half of the children had died. The Black Death was raging through Siena and the twins were separated: little Giovanna was given to a wet nurse and would die. Catherine was nursed by her mother and survived. When Lapa had another daughter the following year, she named this daughter Giovanna too, her 26th child. I find myself thinking here of Therese of Lisieux who cherished the memory of the little brothers and sisters who had died before her and implored their protection. Catherine of Siena must have pondered those deaths, the twin who she never knew. A child born in a time of plague and uncertainty.
Catherine was deeply religious and perhaps a mystic from early childhood. She had a vision of Jesus smiling at her when she was perhaps five or six years old. At the age of seven she consecrated herself to chastity, to live a life consecrated to Christ. Her younger sister Giovanna died.
A young life shaped by extreme vulnerability and the proximity of death. Catherine’s older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth. At the age of 12 Catherine refused to marry her sister’s brutish widower. She cut off her long shining hair — saying this rebellious act made her feel jubilant — and fasted. And as an adolescent she found a way forward amidst powerlessness and threat, the first of many self-taught understandings and insights that would come to her in prayer and solitude: “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee.”
She loved her family and served them humbly as though they were the Holy Family. At the same time she would not obey them. She wanted to join the Order of St Domenic and when her mother took her to the baths in Bagno Vignoni as a distraction and to improve her health, she fell ill with what we might describe as psychosomatic fevers and rashes. Her father gave in; her mother gave in.
The young Catherine put on the austere black and white habit of a Dominican tertiary, joining the ‘Mantellate’ although she would continue to live within seclusion at home. Catherine learned to read and write, fasted to extremes and gave away most of her food and clothing. There was considerable Dominican opposition to her joining the ‘tertiaries’ who up to this point were widows.
This is one of the paradoxes we find again and again in many Catholic women mystics — the surrender of will and self-negating, complete willingness to yield in submission to God, alongside the absolute willed determination to counter any worldly or even churchly opposition to the perceived Will of God.
In about 1366, Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a “Mystical Marriage” to Christ. Her biographer Raymond of Padua tells how she entered into this union and received the stigmata, was given heavenly communion by the Bridegroom and then received a command from Christ that she should go back into the world and serve others.
According to Raymond of Capua, the Lord Jesus appeared to Catherine “holding in his holy hands a human heart, bright red and shining”. He opened her side and put the heart within her saying:
“Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it for ever”
What we might call a vocation that was no longer monastic, her original charism, but a call to evangelization. Catherine emerged from her seclusion and dedicated herself to caring for the ill and destitute. She would care for those suffering from leprosy whom others feared to touch.
In 1374 the Dominican Order called her to Florence where she was interrogated for possible heresy. Her beliefs and actions were found to be orthodox. And then Catherine was free to begin her preaching and educational ministry, travelling through northern and central Italy calling for reform of the clergy and urging her listeners to repent and seek renewal. She called the Church back to encounter again the ‘total love of God’ she had found in her cell and in serving the poor.
From the early 1370s she began to dictate letters to friends and patrons. She would emerge as a major influence amongst Catholic theologians and thinkers as she called for the return of the papacy from Avignon in France. (The Avignon Papacy, sometimes called the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy, began when the King of France, captured Rome and the Pope in 1303. ) Her most famous correspondent was Pope Gregory XI. In 1376 Catherine travelled to Avignon as the ambassador for Florence, in an attempt to make peace with the Papal States. She had some success as the papal admisnistration was restored to Rome — but then she struggled with what is termed the ‘Western Schism’ in the Church from 1378 onwards, supporting Pope Urban VI and living in Rome until her death. The Western Schism is a complex issue, but in brief: after Gregory’s death in 1378, the Cardinals, mostly French, elected an Italian Pope, Urban VI, who on attaining office turned out to be arrogant and tyrannical. The Cardinals declared that the first election had been under duress from the Roman mob and therefore invalid, and elected a new Pope, Clement VII, who established his residence at Avignon. Catherine worked tirelessly, both to persuade Urban to mend his ways (as James E Keifer points out, her letters to him are respectful but severe and uncompromising — she perfected the art of kissing the Pope’s feet while simultaneously twisting his arm), and to persuade others that the peace and unity of the Church required the recognition of Urban as lawful Pope. Despite her efforts, the Papal Schism continued until 1417.
Catherine died at the age of 33 on 29 April, 1380, following a stroke. Her lifelong fasting and rigorous austerities may have contributed to her failing health, but I am not sure that labelling her ‘anorexic’ is historically accurate, any more than describing the penance of flagellation as ‘self-harming. is accurate or helpful.’ That spiritual connection between physical mortification, sublimation and the value of disciplines leading to metanoia is something lost to us for the greater part.
Catherine’s mother Lapa lived to the age of 89 and helped write her daughter’s hagiography. (As with the life of Zelie Martin, mother of Therese of Lisieux, a biography of the extraordinary mother of the saint would have been very welcome.) Catherine of Siena was canonised in 1461 and is a patron saint of Italy together with St Francis of Assisi. In 1970 Pope Paul VI made her a Doctor of the Church.I began reading her writings in my early 30s and they are not easy. I found Etienne Gilson’s introduction to medieval thought a help, especially the philosophies of that time. The Dialogue of Divine Providence (Libro della Divina Dottrina) offers a co0nversation between the Eternal father and a ‘human soul’ and it is largely allegorical. Through the Dialogue and the Epistolaria, the love Catherine had for God and for the Church shines through.
When the fame of her holiness spread, she became the protagonist of an intense activity of spiritual guidance for people from every walk of life: nobles and politicians, artists and ordinary people, consecrated men and women and religious, including Pope Gregory XI who was living at Avignon in that period and whom she energetically and effectively urged to return to Rome.
She travelled widely to press for the internal reform of the Church and to foster peace among the States.
It was also for this reason that Venerable Pope John Paul II chose to declare her Co-Patroness of Europe: may the Old Continent never forget the Christian roots that are at the origin of its progress and continue to draw from the Gospel the fundamental values that assure justice and harmony.
Letter of Catherine of Siena to a cloistered niece (Letters available at project Gutenberg):
"In this way, vocal prayer can be useful to the soul and do Me pleasure, and from imperfect vocal prayer it can advance by persevering practice to perfect mental prayer. But if it aims simply to complete its number (of paternosters), or if it gave up mental prayer for the sake of vocal, it would never arrive at perfection. Sometimes, when a soul has made a resolution to say a certain number of prayers, I may visit its mind, now in one way, now in another: at one time with the light of self-knowledge and contrition over its lightness, at another, with the largesse of My charity; at another, by putting before its mind, in diverse manner as may please Me, and as that soul may have craved, the Presence of My Truth. And the soul will be so ignorant that it will turn from My Visitation, in order to complete its number, from a conscientious scruple against giving up what it began. It ought not to do thus, for this would be a wile of the devil. But at once, when it feels its mind ready for My Visitation, in any way, as I said, it should abandon the vocal prayer. Then, when the mental has passed, if there is time it can resume the other, which it had planned to say. But if there is not time it must not care nor be troubled or bewildered."