What St. Catherine of Siena Can Teach Us About Penance, Eternity, and Prayer
If a list existed of the greatest, canonized men and women who ever lived, St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) makes the short list. Biographies highlight Catherine’s fearless spirit—even popes should think twice about going up against a determined Dominican nun. One of the great spiritual classics of the Catholic mystical tradition is St. Catherine’s Dialogues, which record revelations from Jesus Himself. She had the gift of the stigmata (experiencing the wounds of Christ in her hands and feet), but asked that it be invisible for the sake of humility. Miraculous cures were common around Catherine. People that knew her could not help but be struck by her holiness—and sought to be the same. In 14th century Europe, a time of horse-drawn transportation and hand-written letters, St. Catherine was a genuine celebrity.
All those qualities are laudable. Some of us see lists of incredible things from extraordinary saints and conclude that sainthood lies way beyond our reach. How could a normal person do even one item from St. Catherine’s list?
Yet the Catholic Church does not canonize souls that merely do extraordinary things. For Catherine, what came first was her burning faith, inextinguishable hope, and heroic charity. None of the “fireworks” of her life would have happened without those. Neither would her canonization have happened without those virtues present. Jesus was truly the center of her life: she suffered with Him, mystically communed with Him in prayer, and gave herself completely to Him. Every extraordinary thing on her “list” started with Christ.
As we celebrate St. Catherine’s feast day, I invite all to hold two things in tension. We can appreciate the marvels accomplished through the grace of God and we can give her appropriate veneration for her extraordinary life. At the same time, we can claim her as one of our own: a sinner just like the rest of us, and she would be the first to admit it. Making Jesus the center of our lives and living out a heroic faith, hope, and love? This is the task of every Christian. These are not out of anyone’s reach! Let us look closer at the life of St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Dominic originally founded the “Militia”, or Third Order Dominicans for the defense of the Church. By Catherine’s time a century later, the order’s primary goal was penance. Members of this Third Order did not take the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they wore a habit, prayed the divine office, and fasted.
Catherine joined the Third Order at the age of 19. Her preparation lasted three years before that: she used her bedroom as a monastic cell. She only left the house for Mass and fasted like the Desert Fathers of old. Her parents had desired marriage for her, and she warded off one attempt by chopping her hair. This extreme commitment of Catherine worried her mother. No matter the effort, Catherine’s mother could never dissuade her from a life of penance.
“It is certain that Catherine voluntarily—and few women have ever had such an inflexible will—chose to suffer ceaselessly for all she believed in, loved and desired: unity with God, the glory and honour of His name, His kingdom on earth, the eternal happiness of all mankind, and the re-birth of Christ’s Church” (Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena, pg. 331).
A More Public Life
After joining the Third Order in 1366, Catherine embarked on a more public life. She attended to the sick and served the poor in Siena. Her life changed again in 1370, when she had a vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Those were accompanied by a call to live an even more public life. During her last ten years on earth, Catherine sent letters to princes, bishops, the pope, and ordinary people. Some sought her out for spiritual guidance and for the others (mainly the princes, bishops, and pope), she volunteered her advice.
Roaming bands of mercenaries took advantage of the fractured political climate in Italy. She urged a crusade, hoping to redirect the soldiers’ energies and bring peace to the Italian peninsula. There was no “Italy” at the time; every city looked to its own interests, including the Papal States, which made up a considerable portion of the center of the peninsula. Given Catherine’s force of will, holiness, and willingness to serve, the pope sent Catherine on diplomatic missions to other cities in Italy (St. Catherine of Siena, Catholic Encyclopedia).
Closing the Door on Avignon
Perhaps Catherine’s most famous battle was against the pope himself. The papacy had resided in Avignon, France for nearly 70 years before Catherine’s involvement. She visited Pope Gregory XI in 1376, urging him to return to Rome. One of the things that tipped the scales was a secret promise Gregory made as a cardinal: that if he was elected pope, he would return to Rome. Our Lord revealed this to her and Pope Gregory found out what the rest of us already knew: holy, determined, Italian nuns usually win in the end.
In Eternal Life
This de facto continental leader kept her schedule while continuing her life of penance. In 1375, she received the stigmata, but requested that it be invisible. She passed away into eternal life in 1380, as one of her contemporaries described her, as “the mother of thousands of souls” (The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, in “Transit of the Saint”, pg. 335). She was canonized in 1461 and declared a Doctor of the Church by St. Paul VI in 1970.
Good biographies were written by Catherine’s spiritual director, Bl. Raymond of Capua, and Sigrid Undset (also available as an audiobook on Formed.org). Her quotes are timeless and of great spiritual benefit. One last book I recommend is Louis de Wohl’s historical fiction novel on St. Catherine, Set All Afire.
What can we learn from Catherine and her life?
How to Do Penance
We just finished Lent, which finds many of us breathing a sigh of relief that the penitential season is over. Popular perception of suffering souls is fairly low; suffering is pointless, miserable, and someone like Catherine is presumed to possess those qualities as well.
The key to suffering is joy—which stems from a love of Christ. Yet nearly any mention of the name of Jesus was accompanied by words like “gentle” and “good.” All of her letters started with a sentence of devotion or praise, like “In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary” or “Praised be our gentle Savior!” Her penance was filled with love, not self-loathing.
Our Lord taught us a great lesson on embracing suffering through two visions to Catherine. In the first, Catherine had a vision of Jesus opening her side and taking her heart. In the days to follow, she encountered Our Lord again. “‘My daughter,’ he said, ‘a few days ago I took your heart from you; now, in the same way, I give you my own heart. For the future, it is by it that you must live.’” (Bl. Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena pg. 174-175). Jesus closed up the opening in her side—and left a scar. Our Lord promises us a share in His cross and the accompanying scars that come with it. That’s only half the promise, however; the other half is heaven.
For good reading on this topic, I recommend Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book, Consoling the Heart of Jesus.
Learning About Eternity
St. Catherine’s visions of heaven put her in an extended trance. Her “famiglia” was used to seeing her drop into mystical trances but nothing that lasted more than a couple hours. Upon awakening, Catherine grieved for two days after, devastated. When pressed, she replied that “I have seen the hidden things of God and now I am thrust back into the prison of the body.” (see “Visions of Heaven by Saint Catherine of Siena”).
St. Catherine had regular visions of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Mary Magdalene. And a vision of heaven so far surpassed anything she had previously experienced! She experienced what St. Paul said: “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Her visions of and conversations with Jesus are recorded in The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena. They are organized into four treatises, on divine providence, discretion, prayer, and obedience. The longest of the four is on prayer. Without it, we have an ensured defeat in the spiritual life. We do not have to be a saint or mystic to reach out to Our Lord in prayer. Go to Him in prayer today!