Lay Siege to Heaven is a novel about St. Catherine of Siena by Louis DeWohl. She lived in the 1300s in Siena, Italy – he wrote the novel in 1960, while living in New York, California and Switzerland.
The title comes, I suspect, from her habit of bargaining with God – when something was not going her way, she would pray all night, telling God to give her the pain now being suffered by the person she was paying for – for instance, her mother. She used the same tactic with God when she was trying to get the Pope to return the papacy to Italy, rather than Avignon, France, where popes and cardinals had been for many years.
Italy was then a country of city-states, and she spent much time moving from one to the other, solving problems, stopping wars – Catherine was a political super star, practical, smart, intuitive. She almost always got her way.
The other side of her life was darker. She basically quit eating in her teens, and died at 33 after a stroke likely brought on by her anorexia. She went to communion every day, until ordered by a cardinal not to – to go only once a month. When ordered to eat, she said she would – but that she could not order her stomach to keep the food. She had a close retinue of 8 to 10 people, none of whom reported her eating.
She worked almost around the clock for weeks when the black plague hit Italy, with almost no rest. And even in normal tiems, she slept little, praying much of the night, and needing 3 transcribers to keep up with her letter writing – to family, to those who asked for help, to political and religious leaders all over Europe.
The amount of work, travel, political impact she had by the end of her 33 years was amazing. But she spent most of her time focused on dying to join her Bridegroom, and always regretted someone else’s death – she offered frequently her bargain to God – to go in their place.
A powerful woman at a time when women had no power, an anorexic girl who had visions while very young, a dynamic influence in the turbulent 14th century – this is an intriguing story.
I, of course, believe in and experience miracles. But knowing that these physical miracles are part of the Catholic church’s mystique, I am still a little dubious, and probably will read more.
Why do these saints require suffering and misery? Why cannot joy be the keynote? In part, at least, this met the needs of the culture of the time. Which I do not like.