Today, 29 April 2012, is the feast day of St Catherine of Siena, a 14th century Italian mystic, Doctor of the Church, and member of the Third Order of St Dominic. Her life closely mirrored that of Jesus, with a hidden life of prayer and fasting to begin it, a very active period of public apostolate to end it, bearing the stigmata and dying at the same age as Jesus, at the age of 33 in 1380.
The good Lord has raised up many Saints with the name of Catherine, and each one I have come to know holds her own special place in my heart. Since my parents chose the name of Catherine for me, I consider myself under the patronage of all of them. However, St Catherine of Siena holds first place among them, due to her active love, service and intercession for the Church. So it is with particular joy and gratitude that I honour her today.
During my university years I read her Dialogue, despite the English translation of Algar Thorold’s that must have been well received in 1907 but which seems rather formal and stilted today. It’s one of those spiritual classics that deserves re-reading at least every ten years, and which I must be due to re-read again soon.
What I didn’t realise was that many of St Catherine’s letters are still extant. Given that The Dialogue is almost entirely written as a dictation from God the Father, apart from her heartfelt prayers, it bypasses her personality. So using the marvellous material at Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8ltcb10.txt I’m going to honour my patroness today by learning from these letters of hers.
The first extract from one of these letters is from St Catherine to Monna Agnese, the wife of Orso Malvolti and in it she speaks about impatience – something which I give in to on a regular basis:
“I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His Precious Blood, with the desire to see you established in true patience, since I consider that without patience we cannot please God. For just as impatience gives much pleasure to the devil and to one’s own lower nature, and revels in nothing but anger when it misses what the lower nature wants, so it is very displeasing to God. It is because anger and impatience are the very pith and sap of pride that they please the devil so much. Impatience loses the
fruit of its labour, deprives the soul of God; it begins by knowing a foretaste of hell, and later it brings men to eternal damnation: for in hell the evil perverted will burns with anger, hate and impatience.”
Ouch! But true! The second extract comes from a letter of St Catherine to Sr Bartolomea Della Seta of Pisa, and speaks about uniting our thoughts to Jesus and how difficult we can find it at times. St Catherine stresses how much perseverance is necessary:
“You, who are a bride of Christ Crucified, ought not to think or will anything apart from Him–that is, not to consent to any other thoughts. That thoughts should not come, this
I do not tell thee–because neither thou nor any created being couldst prevent them. For the devil never sleeps; and God permits this to make His bride reach perfect zeal and grow in virtue. This is the reason why God sometimes permits the mind to remain sterile and gloomy, and beset by many perverse cogitations, so that it seems unable to think of God, and can hardly remember His Name. Beware, when thou mayest feel this in thyself, lest thou fall into weariness or bewildered confusion, and do not give up thy exercises nor
the act of praying, because the devil may say to thee: “How does this prayer uplift thee, since thou dost not offer it with any feeling or desire? It would be better for thee not to make it.” Yet do not give up, nor fall for this into confusion, but reply manfully: “I would rather exert myself for Christ Crucified, feeling pain, gloom and inward conflicts, than not exert myself and feel repose.” And reflect, that this is the state of the perfect; if it were possible for them to escape Hell, and have joy in this life and joy eternal beside, they do not want it, because they delight so greatly in conforming themselves to Christ Crucified; nay, they want to live rather by the way of the Cross and pain, than without pain. Now what greater joy can the bride have than to be conformed to her bridegroom, and clothed with like raiment? So, since Christ Crucified in His life chose naught but the Cross and pain, and clothed Him in this raiment, His bride holds herself blessed when she is clothed in this same raiment; and because she sees that the Bridegroom has loved her so beyond measure, she loves and receives Him with such love and desire as no tongue can suffice to tell.”
So, when dryness and distaste in prayer hits us, let us be consoled by these words of St Catherine’s and see these difficulties from her helpful perspective. The last extract is from a letter of St Catherine to Catarina of the Hospital and advises her that when she sees the Church subject to scandal and disaster, to seek prayer. It is wise advice in our age when it seems that each news report delights in reminding people of the sinfulness and frailty of the priests of the Church.
“We see with our wretched eyes that Blood which has given us life persecuted in the holy Church of God. Then let our hearts break in torment and grieving desire; let life stay in our body no more, but let us rather die than behold God so reviled. I die in life, and demand death from my Creator and cannot have it. Better were it for me to die than to live, instead of beholding such disaster as has befallen and is to befall the Christian people. Let us draw the weapons of holy prayer, for other help I see not. That time of persecution has come upon the servants of God when they must hide in the caves of knowledge of themselves and of God, craving His mercy through the merits of the Blood of His Son. I will say no more, for if I did according to my choice, my daughters, I should never rest until God removed me from this life.”
Do we love the Church, the Body of Jesus, this much? Are we concerned for her welfare and holiness. Do we pray for her, for the Pope who leads her on earth, and for her priests? From St Catherine we can learn to make the desires and interests of Jesus our own. May she help us to do so, that we may please Him better! In each one of her letters, St Catherine writes to people through the Precious Blood of Jesus. One of my favourite prayers is this one about the Precious Blood, which is attributed to her….
Precious Blood, ocean of Divine Mercy, flow upon us! Precious Blood, most pure offering: Procure us every grace! Precious Blood, hope and refuge of sinners: Atone for us! Precious Blood, delight of holy souls: Draw us! Amen.
St Catherine of Siena, pray for us.
St Catherine of Siena, please continue to intercede for me.