Fr Billy Swan
Although her feast day was yesterday, I can’t allow the occasion pass without reflecting on the life and thought of one of my favourite saints – St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). There are many reasons why St Catherine is a special friend to me and so many others in the Church. If she was better known, she would be a friends to many more. Here I would like to highlight three reasons why she is not just a friend but a teacher of all Christians today of the art of praising, blessing and preaching.
First, she teaches us how to praise. In so many of her writings, we are given the strong impression that the words she uses struggle to contain her intense emotion and desire to praise, worship and adore the God of love with every fiber of her being. Consider these words she wrote to her friend and spiritual director Raymond of Capua:
‘Let our hearts explode wide open, then, as we contemplate a flame and fire of love so great that God has engrafted himself into us and us into himself! O unimaginable love!’ (Letters 2, 6). For Catherine, God was certainly not a distant deity or a dull dogma. Instead, Catherine’s God was a passionate lover: ‘O mad lover! It was not enough for you to take on our humanity, you had to die as well!’ (Dialogue, 30, 72). Here Catherine challenges a false image of God as cold and aloof but rather believes in the God who is passionately concerned for our welfare. God’s love is active as he draws us to himself through ‘charity’s affection and ‘it was to draw the soul’s affection to higher things and to bring the mind’s eye to gaze into the fire, that your eternal Word wanted to be lifted up high’ (Prayers, 206). For Catherine, God’s love warms and enflames those who are touched by it. This warmth is created by charity. By loving our neighbour and offering ‘material help with a great and generous heart’ we not only love God but ‘give God the blossoms of glory and praise’ (Letters, 2, 680). In sum, to praise God for this Dominican saint is to shimmer with the joy of doing so. For the Christian, to praise God is not something we have to do but want to do in a way that transcends the human spirit and draws us deeper into the divine life. This is what it means to share in the priesthood of Christ and to join with him in praise of the Father.
Second, Catherine’s writings are full of graciousness and blessing. Again, in the words of Raymond of Capua: ‘The Lord had endowed her with a most ready tongue, a charisma of utterance adapted to every circumstance, so that her words burned like a torch and none who ever heard her could escape being touched’ (Life, 9, 8). Without doubt, the ability of St Catherine to uplift others in this way, was attributed to her self-esteem that was conferred on her by the Father’s love. In her own words: ‘The love the soul sees that God has for her, she in turn extends to all other creatures. And what is more, she immediately feels compelled to love her neighbour as herself, for she sees how supremely she herself is loved by God, beholding herself in the wellspring of the sea of the divine essence’ (The Letters, 3, 297). Elsewhere she wrote: ‘Nothing in this world of sense around us can possibly compare in loveliness with a human soul’ (Life 151, 146). Such high esteem for the innate goodness of the human soul, did not however, make Catherine naïve about the presence of sin and human weakness. Rather she advises us: ‘Put the shortcomings of others on your own shoulders. If you haven’t done it as sensitively as you should, let’s do better in the future’ (Letters 2, 638). So instead of judging others for their shortcomings, the saint encourages us to take on the failings of others as if they were our own. It was this spirit that enabled Catherine to be such a gracious woman and to be so successful as a peacemaker among warring kings and political rivalries in medieval Italy. To a man in Siena who was living an immoral life she wrote: ‘Acknowledge your guilt, not with confusion of mind but with self-knowledge and hope in God’s goodness’ (Letters 1, 178-180).
For Catherine, faith in God opens up the soul to greater horizons. When our eyes are fixed on Christ and directed to the Father’s glory, then ‘you will become one with him and have a share in his great-heartedness and not be narrow and constricted. I tell you again that unless a soul raises itself up and opens its eye to focus it on the boundless goodness and love God has shown for his creature, it can never attain to this greatness of soul but will remain instead so narrow and constricted that it will have no room either for self or neighbour’ (The Letters 3:198-199).
Finally, Catherine of Siena was a prophet of all the baptized being summoned to announce the Gospel. She was an uneducated lay woman who longed to be a contemplative but was called by God to an apostolic and public life where her gifts were needed. Instead of a cloistered convent, she found herself at the heart of society, speaking boldly to popes, cardinals, lawyers, poets and being a mediator in disputes between kings. After the example of St Dominic and fellow members of the Order of Preachers, Catherine was a woman possessed with a desire to speak of the things of God and about God. Speak she did and write she did. And what she said and wrote has lost nothing of its power and vitality over six centuries later. Like St Dominic, all her preaching was directed towards the saving of souls and a passionate love of everyone. This was the mark of her great love for the Church. She once wrote: ‘Alas, sweet Jesus. I am dying and cannot die. I am bursting and cannot burst with my longing for the renewal of holy Church, the honour of God and the salvation of every creature’ (Letter to Raymond, T 211). Remarkably, she was unafraid to speak boldly when necessary, even to the Pope, asking him to return to Rome. She was unafraid to do so because she was convinced that what she said was true: ‘Let truth, eternal truth, be my excuse and my liberator’ (Letter to Raymond, T 267).
What burns like a flame across the centuries is Catherine’s passion to praise God as someone madly in love with him. These flames have been lit by the mystery of God’s love for her that burned within her. So too does she teach us how to bless everything that is good, true and beautiful. She rejoices in God’s grace where she finds it and calls us to the greatness of soul that God has intended for all of us. Lastly, St Catherine of Siena urges a timid Church to boldness of spirit, a passion for the truth and a freedom that is the gift of the Spirit. May she pray for us and walk with us on our pilgrim way. May she teach us how to praise, how to bless and how to preach the living Word of God.