Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"O Abyss of Mercy": Reading Catherine of Siena

I've been reading along with Brandon's fortnightly book: Catherine of Siena, by Sigrid Undset. Catherine is my name saint, and yet I've rarely felt any devotion to her -- probably, in part, because of the spun-sugar painting of her in the children's book of saints we had. Undset does not spin sugar. Her Catherine is so vividly alive that it hard indeed not to love her, as those who knew her found.  Catherine was consumed, almost literally in the end, by the love of God pouring from the wounded side of Jesus, and her life of extreme penitence and sacrifice was a burning away of all earthly loves that might hold her back from sinking fully into the depths of His profound mercy.

Her most famous earthly work of her brief life (1347-1380) was her tireless crusade to call the Pope, then living in Avignon, back to Rome, the seat of his spiritual authority. She was infallibly faithful to the Pope and to the Church, always working to unify and restore the Bride of Christ both for the sake of Christ and because of the immense witness of the true nature of the Church. Undset, describing Catherine's Dialogues, uses a lovely formulation: "if the Holy Church should regain the outward beauty which is an expression of its eternal inner beauty, the whole world would be saved, for it would draw all men to itself so irresistibly that it would lead to the conversion of all men, both Christians and heathens." She worked ceaselessly for peace, writing letters to personages great and small, urging them to seek spiritual good over earthly good, or spiritual loves over earthly loves, or in the case of the virtuous but severe Pope Urban VI, to embrace God's mercy over harshness as he tried to weed out vice in the clergy and laity of his day. She was called at a young age to begin preparing for this great labor of holiness -- her first vision was at age seven -- and her penances and fasts were so complete that from the time she was 23, she rarely consumed anything but the Eucharist, a fact attested to by many witnesses. Catherine's life and her revelations were so extraordinary that she has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for the way in which her theology brings fresh insight into the Christian life and the nature of God, who is love.

Catherine often passed into ecstasies in which she experienced the consolations of Divine love and joy, and Undset's accounts of these is so compelling that I, reading them, felt drawn into these mystical experiences and yearned to understand this kind of love. I know about love, of a human sort. I've loved as a friend and as a lover and a wife and a mother, and each of these loves deepens and broadens over time. But Catherine's divine love is different, so consuming and so personal that it almost feels alien. How can we understand this kind of love, of which all human loves are merely a facet and the slightest glimpse, without it being revealed to us?

And Catherine sought this love tirelessly through the kind of prayer and fasting and penances that I instinctively shrink from. God, of course, can reveal Himself to anyone at anytime, but can a person see His face and live without a rigorous spiritual life like Catherine's? And can someone live such an intense life of union with God without being prepared from a young age? Catherine seemed called specifically to this particularly demanding life, stripped of much human consolation and comfort, and her mortifications were not just the necessary preparation for this life, but a response to the overwhelming love of God revealed in and through her prayers.

In fact, her life is so extreme that it would be easy to dismiss as an example, because if we were all virgins and mystics and visionaries and sources of great social and ecclesiastical change, who would build the churches Catherine prayed in? Who would finance the hospitals Catherine worked in? Who would make the clothes she wore, or grow the fibers, or tend the ground? Who would bear and raise and instruct the children? Who would carve the furniture, and who would support the carpenter so that he could carve good furniture? But these are, of course, false dichotomies, because the only way to holiness is the way that God calls each person to, individually, so that someone living a vocation in the world, experiencing God's goodness reflected in His creation, stewarding the resources He provides, has as much potential to plunge deep into the ocean of heavenly love, to borrow a favorite image of Catherine's, as she did. The potential, of course, is not the same as the actuality; Catherine is a saint because she answered the call to the fullest of her being, in a way that few people throughout history have done. And yet she is not the only model of holiness for Christians. The calendar is full of saints who have, in divers ways, responded to God's call.

Catherine would approve of that. Self-knowledge was a constant theme of hers: knowledge of our sins, knowledge of our faults, knowledge of the need for conversion. "Knowledge must precede love," she said in her book of Dialogues, "and only when she has attained to love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth." Our whole spiritual journey is a process of coming to understand our life in God. Jesus told Catherine, "You must know that you are that which is not, but I am That Which Is." We are not, because we have no existence but in God, who is the totality of existence. We have no existence outside of God because He is existence itself: "In Him we live and move and have our being." He is the source of all goodness, being Goodness itself, and so sin, which is a rejection of God's goodness and love and mercy, is a nothingness, a rejection of being. Even in sin, though, God's mercy sustains us through the pull of our conscience. Every pang of guilt and desire for change, every dissatisfaction with our own inadequacy, is a sign of His grace drawing us back to Him and calling us to trust His mercy.

Catherine lived in turbulent times, the kind of turbulence which makes a mockery of those who wring their hands nowadays at potential schism in the church because every utterance of the Pope does not please. Undset has a word to say to about that in the last words of the book.
But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth -- on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: "The Son of Man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?" He did not tell us the answer.  
But these words should make those who talk of the bankruptcy of Christianity in our time a little more careful. We have never been given any promises of a world where all men and women willing accept the teaching of Christ as their way of life. They have not even done so in a period when there were very few who doubted that He was the lord of heaven and earth: they still tried to escape Him or deliberately refused to listen to Him. For every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.

Brandon has his review up; go read it. 


Finicky Cat said...

Thank you for this! It is excellent, and so helpful to me in learning to appreciate a saint (one among many, truth be told) whom I have found alien and frightening. Now I'll add Undset's book to my wishlist!

Deanna said...

One of my favorite saints and a great book as well.

Itinérante said...

I had no idea who Saint Catherine was and I was really happy that I first met her like that (at Brandon's then here) =)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I got halfway through the book and got distracted and put it down, oh more than a year ago. But I liked the part that I read. Undest does sometimes go on about politics and the like, which sometimes I enjoy and sometimes I can do without. It's most definitely a refreshing book. Would that all saints biographies could have so meticulous and sympathetic an author who neither sugar coats nor debunks for the sake of debunking.

Sarah said...

Self knowledge was a theme for Therese de Avilla too. It's interesting to me how diverse the saints are, that there's no cookie-cutter way to love God or to be one's self.