Month: April 2013

Feast of St Catherine of Siena




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.


Pope Benedict XVI’s comment:

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





Finding God in all things

From James Martin SJ in America on the Ignatian spirituality of Pope Francis:

First, one of the most popular shorthand phrases to sum up Ignatian spirituality is “finding God in all things.” For Ignatius, God is not confined within the walls of a church. Besides the Mass, the other sacraments and Scripture, God can be found in every moment of the day: in other people, in work, in family life, in nature and in music. This provides Pope Francis with a world-embracing spirituality in which God is met everywhere and in everyone. The pope’s now-famous washing of feet at a juvenile detention center in Rome during the Holy Thursday liturgy underlines this. God is found not only in a church and not only among Catholics, but also in a prison, among non-Catholics and Muslim youth, and among both men and women.

This week: St Bernadette Soubirous (1844 — 1879)

In a bookcase in my parent’s house, there was a sleeveless first-edition copy of Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette, along with Dr Spock and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity. In 1942, the translated Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel had topped the New York Times bestseller charts for a year and  the book sold well internationally. .Taking the book out from its place on the shelf and returning it later, I would  read Werfel’s novel over and over, wishing that there was somebody I could ask about this young woman. Years later, my Latin teacher gave me  books to read on Lourdes and the miracles, showed me black-and-white photographs of the vast Basilica of St Pius X at the  pilgrimage site of Lourdes.

Franz Werfel: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”

Bernadette Soubirous was born in Lourdes, France, in 1844, the daughter of an impoverished miller and a laundress. She suffered greatly with asthma and her family lived in abject poverty. Historical researchers have  found evidence Bernadette was of Basque origin and  an ‘heiress’ in the  Basque prophetic tradition. On February 11, 1858, while collecting firewood with her sister and a friend, the 14-year-old Bernadette saw a ‘a small young lady’ (in Gascon Occitan, uo petito damizelo) in a cave on the banks of the Gave River near Lourdes. She described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle and with a yellow rose on each foot. Crowds gathered when she had 18 more visions of  the Virgin, from February 18 of that year through March 4.The civil authorities tried to frighten Bernadette into recanting her accounts, but she remained faithful to the vision. On February 25, after Bernadette had clawed at the earth and eaten mud, a spring emerged in the grotto and the miraculous waters healed the sick and lame.

On March 25, Bernadette announced that the vision stated that she was the Immaculate Conception (a dogma defined only four years earlier by Pius IX), and wanted a chapel to be built. Many authorities tried to shut down the spring and delay the construction of the chapel, but support came from Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon Ill, and construction went forward. 

In 1866, Bernadette was sent to the Sisters of Notre Dame in Nevers. There she became a member of the community, and was treated harshly by the mistress of novices. This oppression ended when it was discovered that she suffered from a painful, incurable illness. She died on April 16,1879, still giving the same account of her visions. In 1933 she was canonised by Pope Pius XI. Her body remains incorrupt.


Franz Werfel was a Jewish Czech writer and refugee in flight from the Nazis when he  reached the village of Lourdes at the foot of the Pyrenees in 1940. Local people helped him and his wife to hide there, and told him the story of  Bernadette. Many of them had known her as a girl, Werfel made a vow that if he were to reach safety, he would write the story of this strange visionary. He and his wife Alma crossed the Pyrenees on foot and eventually made their way to America. He wrote the Song of Bernadette, structuring it as a rosary with five sections and 10 chapters in each section. This was a publishing sensation  and made into a film with Jennifer Jones. Werfel  died in 1945.


Bernadette incorrupt

African saints: St Zeno of Verona

Basilica of San Zeno

There is a minor basilica, the Basilica of San Zeno, in Verona, Italy, dedicated to St Zeno. Down below the cathedral,  the crypt is traditionally where Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet were married. Since 921 the crypt has housed the body of St Zeno in a sarcophagus, his face covered by a silver mask.

In the presbytery stands a smiling statue of St Zeno of  Verona. Above the bronze cathedral door is a lunette with scenes from Veronese history, including The Consecration of the Veronese Commune, St. Zeno stamping on the Devil, (symbol of imperial power) and St. Zeno delivering a banner to the Veronese people. Under the lunette are bas-reliefs showing the Miracles of St. Zeno.

Zeno of Verona came from Mauretania (Algeria and  Morocco) in North Africa, born in the year 300CE. He may have been a follower of Athanasius of Alexandria who followed his master to Verona in about 340. Because many  African Christian writers of the time  used neologisms and word play, the  ancient Sermones texts on Old Testament exegesis have been attributed to St Zeno.

He entered monastic life and would be appointed a bishop, winning converts back from Arianism, setting up a convent for  women and reforming how the Agape  feast was celebrated. He would not allow loud groaning and wailing at funerals, supported adult  baptism  by complete immersion and  established a practice of giving medals to  the newly baptised.

He was the eighth bishops of Verona for a decade or so, and is described as a ‘confessor of the faith’ in early martyrologies, may have suffered persecution under Constantius II and  Julian the Apostate  — a reference to his ‘happy death’ on 12 April, 371, indicates he may have been martyred. A contemporary letter from St Ambrose of Milan refers  to Zeno’s holiness. He is known to have lived in great poverty.

St Zeno is the patron saint of fishermen and anglers, of the city of Verona, of newborn babies as well as children learning to speak and walk. A saint for spiritual toddlers. At least 30 churches and chapels bear his name.  He may have been fond of fishing in the River Adige,  but the  depictions of  him with a fishing rod  are thought to refer to his  success in ‘catching converts’ for  the faith. A fisher of men and women for Christ.

In the year 589, at the same time that the Tiber overflowed a considerable quarter of Rome, and the flood over-topped the walls, the waters of the Adige, which fails from the mountains with excessive rapidity, threatened to drown or submerge a great part of the city of Verona. The people flocked in crowds to the church of their holy patron Zeno: the waters seemed to respect its doors, they gradually swelled as high as the windows, yet the flood never broke into the church, but stood like a firm wall, as when the Israelites passed the Jordan; and the people remained there twenty-foul hours in prayer, till the water subsided within the banks of the channel This prodigy had as many witnesses as there were inhabitants of Verona. The devotion of the people to St. Zeno was much increased by this and other miracles

From a sermon by St Zeno:

How earnestly do I desire, if I were able, to celebrate thee, O Patience, queen of all things! but by my life and manners more than by my words. For thou restest in thy own action and council more than in discourses, and in perfecting rather than in multiplying virtues. Thou art the support of virginity, the secure harbor of widowhood, the guide and directress of the married state, the unanimity of friendship, the comfort and joy of slavery, to which thou art often liberty. By thee, poverty enjoys all, because, content with itself, it bears all. By thee, the prophets were advanced in virtue, and the apostles united to Christ. Thou art the daily crown and mother of the martyrs. Thou art the bulwark of faith, the fruit of hope, and the friend of charity.  Happy, eternally happy, is he who shall always possess thee in his soul.


St Zeno of Verona

Feast of the Annunciation

The mystery of that Fiat, to assent to what  was inexplicable and overwhelming. This year the Feast of the Annunciation falls later than March, since no feasts  are celebrated in Holy Week. Reflecting on the Gospel reading this morning and listening to winter rain falling outside, I was reminded of a poem I heard  once read aloud on retreat.

by Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn,


We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
                   Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
                  The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
                                    God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
                   Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
             More often
those moments
     when roads of light and storm
     open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                              God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
                       only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                   Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                          raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                              consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                          and the iridescent wings.
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Fra angelico Annunciation

Nodding to Hans Urs von Balthasar

Sunday morning, Low Sunday or Divine Mercy Sunday.

I had an uncle of French Mauritian extraction, now dead, who lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and  had great devotion to St Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun born in 1905 who entered the religious order of Our Lady of the Sisters of  Mercy in Cracow, Poland, in the 1930s. She claimed to have visions of and  conversations with Jesus, kept notebooks in which she recorded messages about God’s Divine Mercy and  died in 1938.  Sr Faustina was  the first saint to be proclaimed in the 21st century.  My uncle would send me cuttings, prayers and stacks of  lurid  prayer cards about her. He was not a mystic and probably not a saint, combining a  bossy and controlling nature with a childlike fondness for miracles, holy water, prophecies of doom. I wasn’t sure what to make of St Faustina and my ambivalence annoyed him but he didn’t expect much of me as a convert and coming from the family into which he had married. He  was married for more than 60 years to one of my mother’s sisters, whose first names curiously  all began with E.  Like all of my mother’s family, she was immune or impervious to religion and my uncle’s zeal. I suspect she found the  little paintings of  saints scattered around the house quite horrible.

So. Complexity and  the psychology of saintliness, the stretching of the mind and  spirit beyond miraculous  paintings and  doom-laden secrets. Which have their place.

Along with finding out more about St Faustina albeit with reluctance, I am thinking today about the  persisting influence on so many of us of the great Swiss Catholic  theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. I have a copy of his essay on St Therese of Lisieux in which he explores the nature of her ‘littleness’ as true sanctity and her understanding of the mercy of God:

Therefore at the end of her life she desires to appear empty-handed before God, and rejoices at the thought. When Pauline says, “Oh, when I die I shall have nothing to show to the good God, I shall arrive empty-handed, and that makes me very sad”, Therese answers: “You are not like me, then, though we are both in the same position. Even if I had performed all the deeds of St. Paul I would still consider myself an unprofitable servant; I would notice that my hands were empty. But that is precisely the cause of my joy; since I have nothing, I shall expect everything from the good God.”


It is easily seen that Therese does not sit in judgment on anyone’s works or labors, but the one thing she cannot abide is that human beings should boast of their works in the face of God. To do so would be to insult grace, since “Jesus wants to grant us the same graces, wants to give us His Heaven as a free gift”. The fact that there is no relation between earthly labor and heavenly reward was already her greatest incentive for throwing all her energies into the love and service of God when she was no more than fourteen: “I already had a presentiment of what God has prepared for those who love Him; and realizing the lack of proportion between these eternal rewards and the petty sacrifices of this life, I desired to love, to love Jesus passionately, to offer Him countless tokens of my affection whilst I could still do so.”


This lack of proportion cannot be identified with the empty dialectic between sin and grace characteristic of Protestantism; it is the Catholic truth that the relation between grace received and grace to be received is infinitely increasing. It is this which touches Therese so deeply in Our Lord’s words to St. Mechtild: “I am telling you the truth, that it gives me great joy when men expect mighty things of me. However great their faith and boldness may be, I shall bestow on them far more than their merits.” And so Therese entrusts herself to this “far-more ” promised by God’s grace. “I know well that I shall never be worthy of what I am hoping for; but I put my hand out like a begging child, and I know that You will grant me so much more than I ask, because You are so good.”

How Love Names the Soul

The very marvelous one.
The Not Understood.
Most Innocent of the Daughters of Jerusalem.
She upon whom the Holy Church is founded.
Illuminated by Understanding.
Adorned by Love.
Living by Praise.
Annihilated in all things through Humility.
At peace in divine being through divine will.
She who wills nothing except the divine will.
Filled and satisfied without any lack of divine goodness through the work of the Trinity.
Her last name is: Oblivion, Forgotten.

An excerpt from The Mirror of Souls by the Beguine  mystic and  so-called heretic Marguerite Porete. Like Meister Eckhart she was condemned as a heretic. Unlike Eckhart she was burned at the stake in 1310. Later scholars acknowledged she  said nothing that cannot be found in the  writings of Hildegarde of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross. Local hostility to the Beguine movement of the  Dominicans and Franciscans is thought to have fuelled the persecution of Porete.