The 24th child of a wool dyer in northern Italy, St. Catherine (25 March 1347 in Siena – 29 April 1380 in Rome) started having mystical experiences when she was only 6, seeing guardian angels as clearly as the people they protected. She became a Dominican tertiary when she was 16, and continued to have visions of Christ, Mary, and the saints. She began to acquire a reputation as a person of insight and sound judgement, and many persons from all walks of life sought her spiritual advice, both in person and by letter. She persuaded many priests who were living in luxury to give away their goods and to live simply.
St. Catherine was one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day, although she never had any formal education. She persuaded the Pope to go back to Rome from Avignon, in 1377, and when she died she was endeavoring to heal the Great Western Schism. In 1375 she manifested the Stigmata, which was visible only after her death. Her spiritual director was Blessed Raymond of Capua. St, Catherine’s letters, and a treatise called “a dialogue” are considered among the most brilliant writings in the history of the Catholic Church. She is the only woman other than Saint Teresa of Avila to be granted the title of Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church.
Catherine is known as a mystic, a contemplative who devoted herself to prayer; as a humanitarian, a nurse who undertook to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the sick; as an activist, a renewer of Church and society, who took a strong stand on the issues affecting society in her day, and who never hesitated “to speak truth to power”; as an adviser and counselor, with a wide range of interests, who always made time for troubled and uncertain persons who told her their problems — large and trivial, religious and secular.
Her major treatise is The Dialogue of Divine Providence. This was probably begun in October 1377, and was certainly finished by November 1378. Contemporaries of Catherine are united in asserting that much of the book was dictated while Catherine was in ecstasy, though it also seems possible that Catherine herself may then have re-edited many passages in the book. It is a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God and God himself.
Catherine’s letters are considered one of the great works of early Tuscan literature. Many of these were dictated, although she herself learned to write in 1377; more than 300 have survived. In her letters to the Pope, she often referred to him affectionately simply as Papa (“Pope”), instead of the formal form of address as “Holiness”. Other correspondents include her various confessors, among them Raymond of Capua, the kings of France and Hungary, the infamous mercenary John Hawkwood, the Queen of Naples, members of the Visconti family of Milan, and numerous religious figures. Approximately one third of her letters are to women.
She died when she was only 33, and her body was found incorrupt in 1430.
Excerpts from her writings (many of these are written as God speaking to her in ecstatic vision):
“I talk about it sometimes with Him, all the suffering in the world.
“Dear God,” I have prayed, “how is it possible all the horrors I have seen, all the atrocities you allow man to commit when you – God — are ever standing so near and could help us? Could we not hear your voice say ‘No’ with such love and power never again would we harm?”
And my Lord replied, “Who would understand if I said that I cannot bear to confine a wing, and not let it learn from the course it chooses.”
But what of a man walking lost in a forest weeping and calling your name for help, and unknown to him he is heading for a covered pit with sharp spears in it that will maim his flesh when he crashes through the trap?
“Yes, why don’t I remove every object from this world that could cause someone to weep? Yes, why don’t I speak in a way that could save a life?”
I opened up my mouth and the Infinite ran to the edges of space — and all possibilities are contained therein, all possibilities, even sorrow.
”In the end, nothing that ever caused one pain will exist, No one will begrudge Me.
The Absolute Innocence of all within my Creation takes a while to understand.”
“For I created your soul with a capacity for loving — so much so that you cannot live without love. Indeed, love is your food.”
“Through this union of the divine nature with the human, God was made human and humanity was made God.”
“I am she who is not. And if I should claim to be anything of myself, I should be lying through my teeth! … For You alone are who you are, and whatever being I have and every other gift of mine I have from you, and you have given it all to me for love, not because it was my due.”
“The deluded love and possess objects apart from me, and so they pass through this life tormented, becoming insupportable even to themselves. This is why they can never be satisfied: They are always hankering after what is finite. But they are infinite in the sense that they will never cease to be, even though because of their deadly sin they have ceased to be in grace. People have been set above all other created things, not created things above people, nor can people be satisfied or content except in what is greater than they. But there is nothing greater than they except I myself, God eternal, and therefore only I can satisfy them.”
“I am not much pleased with one who wishes to kill the body with great penances without slaying the selfish will.
But no sooner is your vessel emptied than it is filled. For nothing can remain empty. If it is not full of something material, it will fill up with air. Just so, the heart is a vessel that cannot remain empty. As soon as you have emptied it of all those transitory things you loved inordinately, it is filled with gentle heavenly divine love that brings you to the water of grace.
I made these things to serve my rational creatures; I did not intend my creatures to make themselves servants and slaves to the world’s pleasures. They owe their first love to me. Everything else they should love and possess, as I told you, not as if they owned it but as something lent them.
Those who give up their material attachments find my burning charity. This charity is a fire that comes forth from me and carries off their heart and spirit, accepting the sacrifice of their desires. So it is with the soul when she has come to taste the fire of my divine charity, having passed through this life with loving charity for me and for her neighbors, with that unitive love which caused her to shed tears. She never ceases her constant offering of her desires, blessed now and painlessly tearful. Hers are not physical tears now — for she has been dried out in the furnace — but the Holy Spirit’s tears of fire.”
“Oh, how blessed is this soul who while still in her mortal body enjoys the reward of immortality! She holds all things in reverence, the left hand as well as the right, trouble as well as consolation, hunger and thirst as well as eating and drinking, cold and heat and nakedness as well as clothing, life as well as death, honor as well as disgrace, distress as well as comfort. In all things she remains solid, firm and stable, because her foundation is the living rock. She has seen and known, by the light of faith and with firm hope, that I give everything I give with the same love and the same concern for your salvation, and that I provide for everything. If souls were truly humble and notpresumptuous, they would see by the light that I, gentle first Truth, name the situation, the time, and the place, consolation or trials, whatever is necessary for salvation and to bring souls to the perfection for which I chose them. And they would see that everything I give is for love, and that therefore they should accept everything with love and reverence. For I will only your well-being, and whatever I give, I give it so that you may reach the goal for which I created you.”
“The soul waits for the coming of the Holy Spirit, for me, the flame of love. How does she wait? Not lazily, but in watching and constant humble prayer. And her watching is not only physical but spiritual as well. Her mind’s eye never closes, but watches by the light of faith and with contempt tears out her heart’s wandering thoughts. She watches in love of my charity, knowing that I want only her sanctification. By the very fact that her eye is watching in the knowledge of me and of herself, the soul is praying continuously. This is the prayer of a good and holy will, and this is continuous prayer.”
“Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.”
“Never leave the knowledge of yourself. Then, put down as you are in the valley of humility you will know me in yourself, and from this knowledge you will draw all that you need. No virtue can have life in it except from charity, and charity is nursed and mothered by humility. You will find humility in the knowledge of yourself when you see that even your own existence comes not from yourself but from me, for I loved you before you came into being. And in my unspeakable love for you I willed to create you anew in grace.”
“And the more they abandon themselves, the more they find me. My mercy is incomparably greater than all the sins anyone could commit.”
“This is that superb state in which the soul even while still mortal shares the enjoyment of the immortals. In fact, she often attains such union that she hardly knows whether she is in the body or out. She tastes the pledge of eternal life though her union with me as well as because her own will is dead. It is by that death that she realizes her union with me, and in no other way could she perfectly accomplish that. These souls have, then, a taste of eternal life. They have let go of the hell of self-will.
Her selfish will died when she tasted my loving charity. So in this third stage the soul finds such a peace that there is nothing that can disturb her. She has let go of and drowned her own will, and when that will is dead there is peace and quiet.
She brings forth virtue for her neighbors without pain. Not that this is in itself painless, but the dead will feels no pain because it endures pain willingly for my name’s sake.
But beyond the beauty I have given the soul by creating her in my image and likeness, look at those who are clothed in the wedding garment of charity, adorned with many true virtues: They are united with me through love. So I say, if you should ask me who they are, I would answer … that they are another me; for they have lost and drowned their own will and have clothed themselves and united themselves and conformed themselves with mine.”
“You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea: The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you. You are insatiable, you in whose depth the soul is sated yet remains always hungry for you, thirsty for you, eternal Trinity, longing to see you with the light in your light.
You are a fire always burning but never consuming; you are a fire consuming in your heat all the soul’s selfish love; you are a fire lifting all chill and giving light. In your light you have made me know your truth: You are that light beyond all light who gives the mind’s eye supernatural light in such fullness and perfection that you bring clarity even to the light of faith. In that faith I see that my soul has life, and in that light receives you who are Light.
Truly this light is a sea, for it nourishes the soul in you, peaceful sea, eternal Trinity… This water is a mirror in which you, eternal Trinity, grant me knowledge; for when I look into this mirror, holding it in the hand of love, it shows me myself, as your creation, in you, and you in me through the union you have brought about of the Godhead with our humanity.”
“For the soul is never so perfect in this life that she cannot become yet more perfect in love… Not that you would advance to another stage once you had reached that final [state of union with me]. But you can make that very union grow in whatever kind of perfection you choose with the help of my grace.
This is how those souls behave who have reached the final stage of which I have told you. Because they return continually to the valley of self-knowledge, their exaltation and union with me is never blocked.”
“O eternal God, light surpassing all other light because all light comes forth from you! O fire surpassing every fire because you alone are the fire that burns without consuming! You consume whatever sin and selfishness you find in the soul. Yet your consuming does not distress the soul but fattens her with insatiable love, for though you satisfy her she is never sated but longs for you constantly. The more she possesses you the more she seeks you, and the more she seeks and desires you the more she finds and enjoys you, high eternal fire, abyss of charity!”
“They find joy in everything. They do not sit in judgment on my servants or anyone else, but rejoice in every situation and every way of living they see, saying, “Thanks to you, eternal Father, that in your house there are so many dwelling places!” And they are happier to see many different ways than if they were to see everyone walking the same way, because this way they see the greatness of my goodness more fully revealed. In everything they find joy and the fragrance of the rose. This is true not only of good things; even when they see something that is clearly sinful they do not pass judgment, but rather feel a holy and genuine compassion, praying for the sinner and saying with perfect humility, “Today it is your turn; tomorrow it will be mine unless divine grace holds me up.”
“They do not waste their time passing false judgment, either against my servants or the world’s servants. They are not scandalized by any grumbling on anyone’s part: if it is against themselves they bear with it in compassion for their neighbor, grumbling neither against the grumbler nor the victim, because their love for me and for their neighbor is well ordered. And because their love is well ordered, dearest daughter, they are never scandalized in those they love, nor in any person, because in this regard they are blind, and therefore they assume no right to be concerned with the intentions of other people but only with discerning my merciful will.
They feel the same about trial and consolation because they are not seeking their own consolation. They do not love me with a mercenary love for their own selfish pleasure; rather, it is the honor and glory and praise of my name they seek. The will alone is the source of suffering. And because my servants are stripped of their own will and clothed in mine, they feel no grief in suffering but feel me in their souls by grace and are satisfied.”
“Whenever you think God has shown you other people’s faults, take care: your own judgment may well be at fault. Say nothing. And if you do attribute any vice to another person, immediately and humbly look for it in yourself also. Should the other person really possess that vice, he will correct himself so much the better when he sees how gently you understand him, and he will say to himself whatever you would have told him.”
“But no sooner is your vessel emptied than it is filled. For nothing can remain empty. If it is not full of something material, it will fill up with air. Just so, the heart is a vessel that cannot remain empty. As soon as you have emptied it of all those transitory things you loved inordinately, it is filled with gentle heavenly divine love that brings you to the water of grace, in which I relieve you of this lover’s game of going and coming back. I call it a “lover’s game” because I go away for love and I come back for love — no, not really I, for I am your unchanging and unchangeable God; what goes and comes back is the feeling my charity creates in the soul.
To such as these it is granted never to feel my absence. I told you how I go away from others (in feeling only, not in grace) and then return. I do not act thus with these most perfect ones who have attained great perfection and are completely dead to every selfish impulse. No, I am always at rest in their souls both by grace and by feeling. In other words, they can join their spirits with me in loving affection whenever they will. For through loving affection their desire has reached such union that nothing can separate it [from me]. Every time and place for them is a time and place of prayer. For their conversation has been lifted up from the earth and has climbed up to heaven. In other words, they have shed every earthly affection and sensual selfishness and have risen above themselves to the height of heaven by the stairway of virtue.
Beyond this knowledge, because of the union [with me] that she has realized, the soul rises to a light acquired not by nature nor by her own practice of virtue but by the grace of my gentle Truth who does not scorn any eager longing or labors offered me.
And so the light runs on, all of you showing it forth, now one way, now another. But the inmost feeling, the ineffable sweetness and perfect union — you cannot describe it with your tongue, which is a finite thing! … Oh how lovely, how lovely beyond all loveliness, is the dwelling place of the soul’s perfect union with me! Not even the soul’s own will stands between us, because she has become one thing with me.”