I’m not sure at this point how many books about Catherine of Siena I have read. She is an Italian saint, who lived from 1347 to 1380.
I for years have argued with Teresa of Avila, who lived about 200 years later in Spain, about how she abused herself – flogging, hairshirts, wearing chains with spikes, etc – and tried to understand why destroying the body she was born in would have pleased her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
The same arguments go on here, with the added dis-ease that Catherine became anorexic, probably before she was 11 or 12, and finally died at 33 from a stroke brought on by her not eating, and often not drinking.
I began to read about Catherine because she was coming up in conversations, mention of her church in Westwood, mention of her politics. So I figured there were lessons around all these mentions somewhere.
Catherine of Siena, A Passionate Life, by Don Brophy, 2010, is the most helpful in understand something of that time in Italy and Europe and in the beliefs of common folk at that time. He explains that those extreme behaviors were seen as actually helping others get to heaven, that they were offerings to God to make up for Jesus’ suffering.
Catherine spent much time in ecstatic states, rigid, immobile, particularly right after receiving communion. She also have conversations with Jesus / God, making bargains by taking on to herself someone else’s sins, so they could go to heaven more quickly.
She was also very political, writing letters to leaders all over Europe, and persuaded Pope Gregory XI to move back to Rome, from France. Every city in Italy was fighting with every other city, there were mercenaries hired from many countries to wage wars in other countries. In some ways, it was the beginning of democracy in some Italian cities, but total madness and waste of resources everywhere, plus the top 1% controlled wealth, and life and death. Catherine was invited to mediate many of these struggles, and sometimes just barged in.
She gave lip service to the ‘I’m just a poor uneducated woman’ meme, but usually just did what she wanted, and did not hesitate to take whatever steps she felt needed to be taken – politically and spiritually. She asked permission sometimes, though it seems to me she chose who she asked and what she asked for. Her book Dialogue is called a spiritual masterwork – it is written as God talking, giving us what we need to hear.
It is hard for me to imagine this culture, so fully of negativity, more patriarchal than our own, where, in the church, everything is acted on politically, while denying that anything of the sort is happening.
Catherine obviously had a relationship with Christ / the Universe / All That Is, where what is communicated to her fits into her framework. Or perhaps she simply never listened to any information that caused her cognitive dissonance. She drank blood from Christ’s wounded side and heart, even exchanged hearts with him.
Much of this I can accept fairly easily, through my own experiences and those of others. And yet my framework is joy, not suffering, misery, sacrifice. I just don’t, at some deep level, have an ability to understand all this emphasis on / need for pain.
But I’ve read as much as I can about Catherine. The rest of what I might like / need to know will have to come through meditation and reflection – or not.
Here’s what I’ve just finished: Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena, A Biography, by Anne B. Baldwin, and the Don Brophy book mentioned above.