196. ST. Catherine of Siena. Part one
ST. Catherine (1347- 1380) is one of the greatest mystics of all times.
She was not only a mystic but also a church reformer. She is only one of the two women, other being ST Teresa of Avila, who has ever been awarded the title of Doctor of the Church. One is dazzled by the plethora of miracle that she performed. She performed more miracles than any other person I know, except Jesus Christ. This mote holds the opinion that miracles reflect the power of God. God gives His own special powers to persons close to Him. Very few humans are worthy to hold these powers. Most persons are given one or two of these supernatural powers ( although this does not mean that closeness to God can be solely judged on the variety of powers; a person can be very close to God and have no supernatural power such as ST Therese of Lisieux), very few have many . ST. Catherine had several powers.
The second thing which impressed me was her extraordinary proximity to Jesus. She was mentally talking to him most of the time, and he talking back. She could see him most of the time. He was in her heart. I quote:
‘For she herself revealed to me, she would no sooner be enclosed in her cell that He would deign to appear to her and reveal things useful to her soul’
The third glaring feature of her life is her endeavors to reform the church. Clergymen lived in luxury. Popes and their advisors used their power and wealth for their own good. She exhorted them to abandon such life.
The fourth facet of her life was her love of neighbor.
The fifth aspect that struck me was her pious life. Her austerities, her selflessness, her stigmata, her ecstasies, fill one with awe and wonder.
Now the details. But before we go in details we have to prove the authenticity of various events. Otherwise no one will believe us. Biographies are full of exaggeration and unbelievable events. What makes her life story believable is the fact that the book ‘The life of St. Catherine of Siena” was written by her contemporary and confessor; Blessed Raymond of Capua. This book is the principle source of information about Catherine. At the end of each chapter he mentions, how he learned it. Were there any witnesses and who were they? For example at the end of one chapter is the following paragraph:
“ What I have said in this chapter has been told to me by Lapa, Catherine’s mother, and Lisa, the wife of one of her brothers; and what I could not be told by other people in the house, I learned from the holy virgin herself.
At the end of chapter 6 on ecstasies and revelations, is the following paragraph:
“Lastly, with regards to the rising in the air and remaining there………this was witnessed by a number of the Sisters of St Dominic, including a certain Catherine, the daughter of Ghetto da Siena, who was a for a long time the virgin’s inseparable companion; and if I am not mistaken, her sister-in-law Lisa, who is still alive, and the above mentioned Alessia was also there at the time”
In another place, he writes, “As to the facts, you must know that whatever I relate, I made myself fully conversant with, either through witnesses, or through writings, or from my own experience…….I can also remember the gist of many other things she said….I have been obliged to add this aside, for fear of offending against truth”.
Who was Raymond of Capua (1330-1399)?
As Catherine’s fame grew, so did the vicious rumors and controversies about her. Did she really eat or sleep very little? Was it the work of God or Satan? Since she belonged to the order of St Dominic, the Church Elders felt compelled to investigate. She was ordered to appear before the Master-General of the order of Preachers (Dominicans) in 1374. After the meeting she was sent home without censure. Soon afterward, Father Raymond of Capua, a scholar of great ability and renown, was sent to Siena to be her confessor and advisor. He took over from a fellow member of the Dominican community, Thomas della Fonte. Raymond was a man of stature in the church. He was the best man they had. He rose to the rank of Master General of his Order later in life. He wrote her official biography. He leaves the impression of a truthful man, not capable of lies, but not a critical observer either. He was her confessor only for six years. In a letter she wrote to him in 1377, she said, “Sweetest Father, your soul has made itself food for me.”
He had three personal supernatural encounters with her.
As he arrived in Siena he contracted plague. The epidemic killed hundreds of citizens of Siena. Raymond struggled to her house in delirium. When she came home she put her hands on his head and prayed. He felt as if the sickness was being pulled out of her body. He wrote, “It was as if something was being pulled out of me at the end of all my limbs”. At the end of half hour prayer, he was completely cured.
To be continued
1. ‘The life of ST. Catherine of Siena’ by Blessed Raymond of Capua, Confessor to the saint. Translated by George Lamb.
2. ‘Catherine of Siena , a biography’ by Anne Baldwin