Saint Catherine of Genoa is an Italian Roman Catholic saint and mystic, admired for her work among the sick and the poor (especially during the plague which ravaged Genoa in 1497 and 1501), and remembered because of various writings describing both these actions and her mystical experiences. She was born at Genoa in 1447, died at the same place 15 September, 1510.
The life of Catherine may be more properly described as a state than as a life in the ordinary sense. When about twenty-six years old she became the subject of one of the most extraordinary operations of God in the human soul of which we have record, the result being a marvelous inward condition that lasted till her death. In this state, she received wonderful revelations, of which she spoke at times to those around her, but which are mainly embodied in her two celebrated works: the “Dialogues of the Soul and Body”, and the “Treatise on Purgatory”. Her modern biographies, chiefly translations or adaptations of an old Italian one which is itself founded on “Memoirs” drawn up by the saint’s own confessor and a friend, mingle what facts they give of her outward life with accounts of her supernatural state and “doctrine”, regardless of sequence, and in an almost casual fashion that makes them entirely subservient to her psychological history. These facts are as follows:
St. Catherine’s parents were Jacopo Fieschi and Francesca di Negro, both of illustrious Italian birth. Two popes — Innocent IV and Adrian V — had been of the Fieschi family, and Jacopo himself became Viceroy of Naples. Catherine is described as an extraordinarily holy child, highly gifted in the way of prayer, and with a wonderful love of Christ’s Passion and of penitential practices; but, also, as having been a most quiet, simple, and exceedingly obedient girl. When about thirteen, she wished to enter the convent, but the nuns to whom her confessor applied having refused her on account of her youth, she appears to have put the idea aside without any further attempt. At sixteen, she was married by her parents’ wish to a young Genoese nobleman, Giuliano Adorno.
The marriage turned out wretchedly; Giuliano proved faithless, violent-tempered, and a spendthrift. He made the life of his wife a misery. Details are scanty, but it seems at least clear that Catherine spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to her husband; and that she then, for another five, turned a little to the world for consolation in her troubles. The distractions she took were most innocent; nevertheless, destined as she was for an extraordinary life, they had the effect in her case of producing lukewarmness, the end of which was such intense weariness and depression that she prayed earnestly for a return of her old fervour.
Then, just ten years after her marriage, came the event of her life, in answer to her prayer. She went one day, full of melancholy, to a convent in Genoa where she had a sister, a nun. The latter advised her to go to confession to the nuns’ confessor, and Catherine agreed. No sooner, however, had she knelt down in the confessional than a ray of Divine light pierced her soul, and in one moment manifested her own human fragility and the Love of God with equal clearness. The revelation was so overwhelming that she lost consciousness and fell into a kind of ecstacy, for a space during which the confessor happened to be called away. When he returned, Catherine could only murmur that she would put off her confession, and go home quickly.
From the moment of that sudden vision of herself and God, the saint’s interior state seems never to have changed, save by varying in intensity and being accompanied by more or less severe penance, according to what she saw required of her by the Holy Spirit Who guided her incessantly. No one could describe it except herself; but she does so, minutely, in her writings. For about twenty-five years, Catherine, though frequently making confessions, was unable to open her mind for direction to anyone; but towards the end of her life a Father Marabotti was appointed to be her spiritual guide. To him she explained her states, past and present, in full, and he compiled the “Memoirs” above referred to from his intimate personal knowledge of her.
Of the saint’s outward life, after this great change, her biographies practically tell us but two facts: that she at last converted her husband who died penitent in 1497; and that both before and after his death — though more entirely after it — she gave herself to the care of the sick in the great Hospital of Genoa, where she eventually became manager and treasurer. During this period, her life was devoted to her relationship with God, through “interior inspiration” alone.
She died worn out with labours of body and soul, and consumed, even physically, by the fires of Divine love within her. Her death had been slow with many days of pain and suffering as she experienced visions and wavered between life and death.
Some mystics are said to have been able to perform miracles. But for many mystics, the miracles occurred to them. In the Middle Ages, one common form of mystical miracle, especially for women, was the Eucharistic miracle, such as being able to eat nothing other than the communion host. Catherine of Genoa was an example of someone who experienced this type of miracle. Her writings also became sources of inspiration for other religious leaders such as Saints Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales.
Writings about her:
“Catherine’s states of absorption in prayer, such as we find ever since her conversion, were transparently real and sincere, and were so swift and spontaneous as to appear quasi involuntary. They were evidently, together with, and largely on occasion of, her reception of the Holy Eucharist, the chief means and the ordinary form of the accessions of strength and growth to her spiritual life… Catherine’s teaching, as we have it, is, at first sight, strangely abstract and impersonal. God nowhere appears in it, at least in so many words, either as Father, or as Friend, or as Bridegroom of the soul. It certainly springs at its deepest from one of the central requirements and experiences of her spiritual life; and must be interpreted by the place and the function which this apparently abstract teaching occupies within this large experimental life of hers which stimulates, utilizes, and transcends it all. For here again we are brought back to her rare thirst, her imperious need, for unification; to the fact that she was a living, closely knit, ever-increasing spiritual organism, if there ever was one.
The one true divine root-centre of her individual soul is ever, at the same time, experienced and conceived as present, in various degrees and ways, simply everywhere, and in everything. All the world of spirits is thus linked together; and a certain slightest remnant of a union exists even between Heaven and Hell, between the lost and the saved. For there is no absolute or really infinite Evil existent anywhere; whilst everywhere there are some traces of and communications from the Absolute Good, the Source and Creator of the substantial being of all things that are. And to possess even God, and all of God, herself alone exclusively, would have been to her, we can say it boldly, a truly intolerable state, if this state were conceived as accompanied by any consciousness of the existence of other rational creatures entirely excluded from any and every degree or kind of such possession. It is, on the contrary, the apprehension of how she, as but one of the countless creatures of God, is allowed to share in the effluence of the one Light and Life and Love, an effluence which, identical in essential character everywhere, is not entirely absent anywhere: it is the abounding consciousness of this universal bond and brotherhood, this complete freedom from all sectarian exclusiveness and from all exhaustive appropriation of God, the Sun of the Universe, by any or all of the just or unjust, upon all of whom He shines: it is all this that constitutes her element of unity, saneness, and breadth, the one half of her faith, and the greater part of her spiritual joy.”
~Baron Von Hugel, The Mystical Element of Religion
“In the early twentieth century, attention was drawn to Catherine’s remarkable mystical, mental, and at times almost pathological, experiences through the classic study by Baron Friedrich von Hügel, The Mystical Element in Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (1908). The last ten years of Catherine’s life were marked by violent interior emotions, mentioned in her works. It has been said that in many ways Catherine of Genoa is a “theologian of purgatory,” a purgatory that she herself experienced in a marriage she did not desire, in her care for plague victims, and also in her illness. She also experienced purgatory spiritually as the soul’s realization of its own imperfections, in her search for salvation and purification. Influenced by Plato and Dionysius, the focus of her mysticism was, in spite of her eucharistic devotion, not so much Christ, but above all the infinite God. Her mysticism is primarily theocentric, not Christocentric. She speaks of the absorption into the totality of God as if immersed into an ocean: “I am so…submerged in His immense love, that I seem as though immersed in the sea, and nowhere able to touch, see or feel aught but water.” At the height of her mystical experiences she could exclaim: “My being is God, not by simple participation but by a true transformation of my being.”
~Ursula King, Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages”
Excerpts from her writings:
“My I is God, nor is any other self known to me except my God.”
“I no longer see union, for I know nothing more and can see nothing more than him alone without me. I do not know where the I is, nor do I seek it, nor do I wish to know or be cognizant of it.”
“In God is my being, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this I that I often call so, in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or the good, or bliss.”
“God became man in order to make me God; therefore I want to be changed completely into pure God.”
“I find in myself by the grace of God a satisfaction without nourishment, a love without fear.”
“Faith seems to me wholly lost, and hope dead; for it seems to me that I have and hold in certainty that which I believed and hoped at other times. I no longer see union, for I know nothing more and can see nothing more than him alone without me.”
“I am so plunged and submerged in the source of his infinite love, as if I were quite under water in the sea and could not touch, see, feel anything on any side except water.”
“My being is God, not by participation only but by a true transformation and annihilation of my proper being.”
“I do not know where the I is, nor do I seek it, nor do I wish to know or be cognizant of it.”
“I see without eyes, and I hear without ears. I feel without feeling and taste without tasting. I know neither form nor measure; for without seeing I yet behold an operation so divine that the words I first used, perfection, purity, and the like, seem to me now mere lies in the presence of truth. . . . Nor can I any longer say, “My God, my all.” Everything is mine, for all that is God’s seem to be wholly mine. I am mute and lost in God. God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God; and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued.”
“Therefore it seems to me that I shall never rest until I am hidden and enclosed in that divine heart wherein all created forms are lost, and, so lost, remain thereafter all divine. I am no longer of this world, since I can no longer do the work of the world like the others; indeed, every action of others that I see disturbs me, for I do not work as they do, nor as I myself used to do. I feel myself altogether estranged from earthly affairs, and from my own most of all.”
“I cannot work, or walk, or stand, or speak, but all this seems to me a useless thing. I am mute and lost in God.”
“Many are astonished at this, and since they do not know the reason, they are offended. And truly, if it were not that God stands by me, the world would often consider me mad, and that is because I almost always live outside myself.”
“God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God; and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued.”
“I am so submerged in the sweet fire of love that I cannot grasp anything except the whole of love, which melts all the marrow of my soul and body.”
“So long as any one can speak of divine things, enjoy and understand them, remember and desire them, he has not yet arrived in port; yet there are ways and means to guide him thither. But the creature can know nothing but what God gives him to know from day to day.”
“This is the beatitude that the blessed might have, and yet they have it not, except in so far as they are dead to themselves and absorbed in God. They have it not in so far as they remain in themselves and can say: `I am blessed.’ Words are wholly inadequate to express my meaning, and I reproach myself for using them. I would that every one could understand me, and I am sure that if I could breathe on creatures, the fire of love burning within me would inflame them all with divine desire. O thing most marvelous!”
“I do not wish a love which may be described as for God, or in God. I cannot see those words, for and in, without their suggesting to me that something may intervene between God and me; and that is what pure and simple love, by reason of its purity and simplicity, is unable to endure. This purity and simplicity is as great as God is, for it is his own.”
“I cannot desire any created love, that is, love which can be felt, enjoyed, or understood. I do not wish love that can pass through the intellect, memory, or will; because pure love passes all these things and transcends them.”
“I shall never rest until I am hidden and enclosed in that divine heart wherein all created forms are lost, and, so lost, remain thereafter all divine; nothing else can satisfy true, pure, and simple love.”
“In my soul, therefore, I can see no one but God, since I suffer no one else to enter there, and myself less than any other, because I am my own worst enemy.”
“If, however, it happens to be necessary to speak of myself, I do so on account of the world, which would not understand me should I name myself otherwise than as men are named, yet inwardly I say: my I is God, nor is any other self known to me except my God.”
“All things which have being, have it from the essence of God by his participation: but pure love cannot stop to contemplate this general participation coming from God, nor to consider whether in itself, considered as a creature, it receives it in the same way as do the other creatures which more or less participate with God. Pure love cannot endure such comparison; on the contrary, it exclaims with a great impetus of love; my being is God, not by participation only but by a true transformation and annihilation of my proper being.”
“In God is my being, my me, my strength, my beatitude, my good, and my delight. I say mine at present because it is not possible to speak otherwise; but I do not mean by it any such thing as me or mine, or delight or good, or strength or stability, or beatitude; nor could I possibly turn my eyes to behold such things in heaven or in earth; and if, notwithstanding, I sometimes use words which may have the likeness of humility and of spirituality, in my interior I do not understand them, I do not feel them. In truth it astonishes me that I speak at all, or use words so far removed from the truth and from that which I feel. I see clearly that man in this world deceives himself by admiring and esteeming things which are not, and neither sees nor esteems the things which are.”
“When God sees the Soul pure as it was in its origins, He tugs at it with a glance, draws it and binds it to Himself with a fiery love that by itself could annihilate the immortal soul. In so acting, God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God; and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued. These rays purify and then annihilate. The soul becomes like gold that becomes purer as it is fired, all dross being cast out. Having come to the point of twenty-four carats, gold cannot be purified any further; and this is what happens to the soul in the fire of God’s love.”
“When the soul is naughted and transformed, then of herself she neither works nor speaks nor wills, nor feels nor hears nor understands; neither has she of herself the feeling of outward or inward, where she may move. And in all things it is God who rules and guides her, without the meditation of any creature…. And she is so full of peace that thought she pressed her flesh, her nerves, her bones, no other thing come forth from them than peace.”
“We must not wish anything other than what happens from moment to moment, all the while, however, exercising ourselves in goodness.”
“Since I began to love, love has never forsaken me. It has ever grown to its own fullness within my innermost heart.”
“I will detach my spirit from all the goods of both this world and the other, which I will henceforth regard as if they had no existence. I have implored God neither to suffer me to rejoice interiorly nor to grieve over any created thing, so that I may never be seen to shed a single tear. And I have begged Him to take away from me the freedom of my will, so that I may no longer do what pleases me, but only what is according to His pleasure: all these things I have obtained from his clemency.”
“I see clearly with the interior eye, that the sweet God loves with a pure love the creature that He has created, and has a hatred for nothing but sin, which is more opposed to Him than can be thought or imagined.”
“There is no doubt that, if man could perceive the many difficulties thrown by self-love in the way of his own good, he would no longer allow himself to be deceived by it; and its malignity is the more to be dreaded because it is so powerful that were but one grain of it in the world would be sufficient to corrupt all mankind. Wherefore I conclude that self-love is the root of all evils which exist in this world and in the other.”
“Now although man is created for the possession of happiness, yet, having deviated from his true end, his nature has become deformed and is entirely repugnant to true beatitude. And on this account we are forced to submit to God this depraved nature of ours which fills our understanding with so many occupations, and causes us to deviate from the true path, in order that he may entirely consume it until nothing remains there but himself; otherwise the soul could never attain stability nor repose, for she was created for no other end.”
“And likewise when I speak of being, I say: all things which have being, have it from the essence of God by his participation: but pure love cannot stop to contemplate this general participation coming from God, nor to consider whether in itself, considered as a creature, it receives it in the same way as do the other creatures which more or less participate with God. Pure love cannot endure such comparison; on the contrary, it exclaims with a great impetus of love; my being is God, not by participation only but by a true transformation and annihilation of my proper being.”
“Whence, if I consider and observe clearly, with the interior eye, I see that I ought to live entirely detached from self; Love has wished me to understand this, and in a manner I do understand it, so that I could not possibly be deceived; and for my part I have so abandoned myself, that I can regard it only as a demon, or worse, if I may so say.”
“When I see and contemplate what God is, and what our own misery is, and behold the many ways by which he seeks to exalt us, I am transported beyond myself with astonishment. On the part of man, I see such a perversity and rebellion against God, that it seems impossible to bend his will except by the lure of things greater than those he enjoys here in this life. This is because the soul loves visible things, and will not renounce one but with the hope of four. And even with this hope, she would still seek to escape, if God did not retain her by his exterior and interior graces, without which man, whose instincts are naturally corrupt, could not be saved; for we are naturally corrupt, could not be saved; for we are naturally prone to add actual to original sin, and to continually tend toward earth for our satisfactions.”
“Oh, Love! let me remain thus, that I may be submissive; for otherwise it would be impossible that I should not do something wrong. Oh, how good and admirable is the knowledge of a soul, which, being all protected, united, and transformed in God, her felicity, sees clearly, on one side, her own inclination to all that is evil, and on the other, how she is restrained by God, that she may not commit actual sin! One thing is certain; namely, that never is the soul so perfect that it does not need the continual help of God, even though it be transformed in him. It is true, that the nature of the sweet God is such, that he never allows these souls to fall, although the soul, left to herself, could fall if she were not thus restrained. But he only preserves those who never with their free will consent unto sin; and allows those to fall who do voluntarily yield assent thereto; for truly, having given us free will, he will not force it. Consequently, those who fall into sin do so by their own fault, and not by that of God, who is ever ready to aid the soul even after her fall, if she will allow herself to be aided, and will correspond to the divine grace which never ceases to call her, saying: “Turn from evil and do good, and be converted to me with your whole heart.'”