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St. Catherine of Siena: A Life Lived In Excess

At the end of his Gospel, John the Evangelist writes: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What John is saying here is not simply that Our Lord’s actions were too numerous to be written, for as any human life the earthly life of the Son of God Incarnate was finite and thus to recount His earthly actions would in theory be possible. Rather, what John is so deftly communicating to us here is what modern phenomenologists refer to as an excess of meaning. Contemporary philosopher Jean-Luc Marion calls those phenomena which confront us with an excess of meaning saturated phenomena, an occurrence or phenomenon wherein what is presented or, better, what is given contains a level of meaning that we intuit exceeds our ability to define or even describe adequately with the concepts at our disposal (In Excess, xxi).

On Marion’s account, the saturated phenomenon par excellence is God’s self-revelation. As Marion puts it, when God reveals Himself to the human family, “…the excess of intuition overcomes, submerges, exceeds—in short, saturates—the measure of each and every concept” (In Excess, 159). This does not mean, however, that nothing can be known of God, but rather that what can be known is always greatly exceeded by what cannot be known, but not for all that unnoticed. Marion writes: “In short, God remains incomprehensible, not imperceptible—without adequate concept, not without giving intuition” (In Excess, 160). This is what John is putting his finger on by concluding his Gospel in this way. So great was the meaning of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God, of His living and moving among us, so great was His Passion, death, Resurrection and ascension, that we can only begin to describe what it means.

I preface the exploration of the life and meaning of the saint celebrated by the Church today (April 29), St. Catherine of Siena, in this way because by participating in the life of Christ, so full of divine life are the saints that any account of the meaning of their lives is bound to fall far short of the meaning they contained. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time with St. Catherine knows this to be true of her. Yet, it is altogether appropriate for us to contemplate the meaning of her life for she was and is an extraordinarily generous gift of God to the human family. Hers was truly a life of excess, yet not for that without many important lessons to teach us today.

Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa was born in 1347 in Siena, located in modern day Tuscany in central Italy (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 3). The twenty-fourth of twenty-five children given to Italian dyer and wool merchant, Giacomo Benincasa and his wife Lapa, Catherine was by all accounts a precocious, imaginative, strikingly pleasant, energetic and outgoing child (The Encyclopedia of Catholic Saints, Vol. 4, 187; cf.  Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 3). God had graced her with a desire for knowledge of and devotion to Him from a very young age such that by the time she was “seven years old…she vowed her virginity to God,” and when her parents attempted to marry her at the age of fifteen, “she cut off her hair in defiance” (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 4). Strong willed and knowing what it was that she wanted, at the age of eighteen Catherine received the Dominican habit as a member of the Mantellate, “women who were affiliated with the Order of Saint Dominic and wore the habit but lived in their own homes, serving the needs of the poor and the sick under the direction of a prioress and ultimately under the direction of the friars” (ibid.). Though she died at the young age of thirty-three in 1380 (likely due to her tireless work on behalf of Christ and His Church), Catherine’s was truly a life lived in excess, to such an extent that she is recognized as one of the great Doctors of the Church (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 1 & 7).

The excess of St. Catherine’s life can be demonstrated in many different ways. Hers was simply a life of seemingly nonstop activity. Her brief thirty three years on this earth contains traveling great distances during her many efforts building peace and harmony between various city-states so as to preserve peace within the Body of Christ the Church, such as that to establish peace between Avignon and Florence (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 5). Countless tales of heroic and seemingly excessive works of mercy are attributed to her. For instance, her biographer and spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua tells us that Catherine frustrated the members of her household for giving away their belongings to the poor, for a time, without their consent (Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena, Part II, Ch. 2, 83-84). Catherine also took special care for the sick. In one instance, she encountered a religious sister who was extremely ill with breast cancer, such that the open wounds emitted such a fowl odor that none of the other sisters wanted to spend time with her (Ibid., Part II, Ch. 3, 101-102). Out of compassion, Catherine requested to be charged with the sister’s care. One day, in coming to the sister to change her linens and dress her sore, Catherine uncovered the wound to discover that she was overwhelmingly repulsed by the odor, but instead of leaving Catherine determined to place her mouth on the ulcer until she overcame her disgust (Ibid., 102). This was, from Catherine’s perspective, an attempt to imitate Christ ever more perfectly, as is evident from her use of the very same image in The Dialogue to describe Christ’s healing of our fallen nature (The Dialogue, 14, pg. 52). Consequently, when the same sister began to calumniate Catherine by saying she had broken her vow of virginity, Catherine treated her with the same loving respect, kindness and forgiveness Christ displayed to those who crucified Him (Part II, Ch. 3 103-104).

Catherine was also tireless in giving spiritual counsel to many, including to one no less than Pope Gregory XI, the last of the French Avignonese popes from the time when Avignon was the seat of the papacy. Catherine had famously helped convince Pope Gregory to return the papacy to Rome (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 6). However, her counsel to Gregory was not limited to this. In his Life of St. Catherine, Raymond of Capua recounts one instance of serving as a translator between the French-speaking Gregory and the Italian-speaking Catherine, wherein the young Catherine frankly asked the pontiff “why she found in the court of Rome, in which all the virtues ought to bloom, nothing but the contagion of disgraceful vices” (Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena, Part II, Ch. 3, 100). Raymond goes on to recount the puzzled response of the pontiff and Catherine’s authoritative rejoinder, telling us that the Pope remained silent and adding that “I could not overcome my surprise, and shall never forget the tone of authority, with which Catherine spoke to the great Pontiff” (Ibid., 100-101).

The source of Catherine’s compassion with the poor and the sick as well as her courage in admonishing Pope Gregory XI were one and the same, her union with Christ. Like all saints, Catherine possessed a deep reverence and desire for the Eucharist. Catherine seems to have possessed the Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel to such an extent that she knew within her bones when it was appropriate for her to receive Our Lord. Raymond tells us of times when Catherine would sigh to him: “Father, I am hungry; for the love of God feed my soul!” (Ibid., Part II, Ch. 11, 231, cf. 232). This was no mere external show of empty piety on Catherine’s part but an expression of her excessive desire for unity with her loving Lord. Her encounters with Our Lord in the Eucharist are some of the most powerful and beautiful one will come across. It is said that Catherine regularly entered into an ecstatic union with God upon receiving the Eucharist, often lasting several hours (Ibid., 234). Many miraculous events took place surrounding Catherine’s reception of the Eucharist, but here I limit myself to just one type of recurring phenomenon that took place in her life as it demonstrates a key lesson from Catherine’s life. Raymond tells us that when he gave Catherine the Eucharist, “I always perceived a certain trembling in the consecrated host, when I presented it to her lips” (Ibid., 238). Over time, Raymond came to learn that those who attended Mass together with Catherine at which she received the Eucharist, “they saw distinctly the sacred Host escaping from the hands of the priest and flying to her mouth,” entering “her mouth like a little stone thrown from a distance with force” (Ibid.).

Catherine’s mystical experiences were by no means limited to her reception of the Eucharist. Raymond tells us that it did not matter where Catherine went, she lived in continual unity with Christ (Ibid., Part II, Ch. 1, 81). Christ regularly appeared to her in various places and under various guises, sometimes in the quiet of her room, sometimes as a beggar on the street (Ibid., Part II, Ch. 2, 85-89). There was simply no place it seems that Christ would not track down Catherine, one who He so loved and in whom He found His love ardently reciprocated to the point of excess. What this demonstrates, I would suggest, is God’s obsession with us. It is the Hound of Heaven described by Francis Thompson, hurrying on to met His beloved, letting nothing keep Him from being with a soul so in love with Him.

Catherine’s many ecstatic experiences also produced one of the greatest treasures of the Christian tradition, The Dialogue. The Dialogue is quite literally a mystical dialogue between Catherine and God the Father, which was recorded over the course of approximately a year, its composition involving “a great deal of dictation on her part while she was in ecstasy” (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 13; cf. 11). This suggests the first lesson The Dialogue communicates to us: Theology must always be rooted in prayer and, in fact, if it is to be true theology is quite literally prayer in nature. This lesson appears several times throughout The Dialogue, but most clearly when God cautions against the danger of relying too much on academic learning and of the importance of intellectual humility. He says:

I tell you, therefore, it is far better to walk by the spiritual counsel of a humble and unschooled person with a holy and upright conscience than by that of a well-read but proud scholar with great knowledge. For one cannot share what one does not have in oneself, and because these persons’ life is darksome, they often share the light of Holy Scripture in darkness. You will find the opposite in my servants, for they share the light within them in hunger and longing for others’ salvation (The Dialogue, 85, pg. 157).

This does not evacuate the importance of studying theology. In fact, from her references to the likes of Augustine, Jerome and Aquinas, it is clear that Catherine drank a far bit from these illustrious fonts of theological knowledge (see, e.g., Ibid. & 96, pg. 181). What it does mean is that knowledge of God will never be had apart from the love of God. The unity of love and knowledge is likewise a central theme in The Dialogue. At one point God says to Catherine “love follows upon understanding. The more they know, the more they love, and the more they love, the more they know. Thus each nourishes the other” (Ibid., 85, pg. 157). This is an element of practical importance for us and it is one that Catherine wonderfully exemplifies in her life and in The Dialogue. That is, if we truly love God we will seek out knowledge of Him. This is no astounding revelation, for it is the same with all things we love, whether it be a sport, a hobby, a friend, or one’s spouse; when we truly love something or someone we want to know more about it or them. A carpenter or a mechanic who is in love with his craft can name tools that no one else could that enable him to get the job done more efficiently and accurately. The same is true in the Christian life, if we truly love God. To be sure, life is busy and filled with many concerns, but if we aren’t setting aside a significant amount of time in our life to learn whatever we can about God, we are hard pressed to claim that we truly love Him. The best place to start, of course, is with the Scriptures. Catherine’s Dialogue is so saturated with Scripture that, as Suzanne Noffke, O.P., notes, its passages “flow in and out of her sentences with such ease and integration that it is more often than not difficult to set them off with quotation marks. She so rearranges and combines passages around a single stream of thought that her own message and that of Scripture fuse into one” (Suzanne Noffke, O.P., “Introduction” to Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 10).

Time spent with Scripture will, in addition to leading to increased knowledge of God, lead to increased knowledge of self. Self-knowledge is another central theme in The Dialogue. However, this self-knowledge has a particular form and it most certainly is not the type of “knowing oneself” that we hear used in popular parlance today, meant in the sense of spending time with oneself in order to get in touch with one’s emotions and desires. Rather, self-knowledge in The Dialogue has to do with our nature as creatures created in imago Dei. Thus, God says to Catherine:

I told you in the beginning that one comes to knowledge of the truth through self-knowledge. But self-knowledge alone is not enough: It must be seasoned by and joined with knowledge of me within you. This is how you found humility and contempt for yourself along with the fire of my charity, and so came to love and affection for your neighbors and gave them the service of your teaching and your holy and honorable living (Ibid., pg. 158).

Communicated here is the truth that the human person makes no intelligible sense apart from relationship with God. In other words, to be most fully ourselves means to participate fully in the divine life. Thus the goal of human life is excess, to become more than what human nature in and of itself could ever possibly become; it is, divinization, and it is this that we must set our sights on and work tirelessly toward.

Catherine, however, is no Pelagian. To be sure, The Dialogue is saturated from beginning to end with admonishments to strive for the cultivation of the virtues, but virtue is the fruit of grace for Catherine (Ibid., 23, pg. 60-61). More specifically, virtue is the fruit of life lived in participatory imitation of Jesus Christ, who God refers to as The Bridge which unites Heaven and earth in the most pivotal portion of The Dialogue. Referring to the virtues as stones, God tells Catherine:

after these stones were hewn on the body of the Word, my gentle Son (I have told you that he is the bridge), he built them into walls, tempering the mortar with his own blood. That is, his blood was mixed into the mortar of his divinity with the strong heart of burning love. By my power the stones of virtue were built into walls on no less a foundation than himself, for all virtue draws life from him, nor is there any virtue but from him, that is, by following his example and his teaching…So now all the faithful can walk without hindrance and with no cringing fear of the rain of divine justice, because they are sheltered by the mercy that came down from heaven through the incarnation of this Son of mine (Ibid., 27, pg. 66).

On this account, the life of virtue no less than the life of prayer takes on a mystical quality to it. In this, Catherine, who is sometimes referred to as an activist for all of her political involvement and activity on behalf of the poor and sick, defies any division between the life of prayer and the life of virtue, the former blossoms into the latter while the latter seeks nourishment from the former. Consequently, God repeatedly tells Catherine through The Dialogue that virtue can only be nourished through love of neighbor, and is lost through disregard for one’s neighbor (Ibid., 7, pgs. 35-37).

Virtue, on this account, then, is itself an excess, an abundance of Christ’s presence within us that must give birth to love of neighbor. Therefore, God insists on two important elements of loving one’s neighbor to Catherine, which are especially important for us today, who live amidst very trying times, times in which the Church no less than society at large seems to be bursting at the seams. First, it is imperative that we courageously live lives of virtue thereby providing an example of love for others to imitate. Thus, God tells Catherine:

I have set you as workers in your own and your neighbors’ souls and in the mystic body of holy Church. In yourselves you must work at virtue; in your neighbors and in the Church you must work by example and teaching. And you must offer me constant prayer for the Church and for every creature, giving birth to virtue through your neighbors. For I have already told you that every virtue and every sin is realized and intensified through your neighbors. Therefore, I want you to serve your neighbors and in this way share the fruits of your own vineyard. Never cease offering me the incense of fragrant prayers for the salvation of souls, for I want to be merciful to the world (Ibid., 86, pg. 159).

The second point expands upon the last line just quoted, that God desires to be merciful to the world. If God desires to be merciful to the world, and if we are to imitate the life of God through, with, and in Jesus Christ, then we too must be merciful to the world. Sadly, there are many within the Church today whose voices seem to be dedicated only to criticizing their brothers and sisters, claiming a certain elite status among the faithful because of the way they pray and worship, openly criticizing the Pope at nearly every turn (rather than privately as Catherine had done) thereby putting the unity of the Church at risk (a unity Catherine worked so tirelessly for), and at times going so far that they seem to relish the thought that some souls will be lost to hell. The Dialogue clearly communicates to us that the true Christian desires the salvation of all and works tirelessly precisely for that outcome, leaving ultimate judgment to God. Thus, God tells Catherine that “the saints and all souls who have eternal life are desirous of the salvation of souls, but without pain” (Ibid., 82, pg. 152). This necessarily excludes any kind of elitism from the life of virtue, any view that Christ can be pursued only one way, and asserts God’s greater glory is revealed by the infinite paths taken to pursue unity with Him in virtue and holiness. This is precisely how God describes the mentality of those who live in the gentle Light of Christ:

[They] do not sit in judgment on my servants or anyone else, but rejoice in every situation and every way of living they see, saying, ‘Thanks to you, eternal Father, that in your house there are so many dwelling places!’ And they are happier to see many different ways than if they were to see everyone walking the same way, because this way they see the greatness of my goodness more fully revealed. In everything they find joy and the fragrance of the rose. This is true not only of good things; even when they see something that is clearly sinful they do not pass judgment, but rather feel a holy and genuine compassion, praying for the sinner and saying with perfect humility: ‘Today it is your turn; tomorrow it will be mine unless divine grace holds me up’ (189-190; cf. 197).

Here we see the punch line of The Dialogue, if you will: Everything is grace! God in His excessive love for us provides us with the grace of living in virtuous imitation of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and therefore, when we see others living viciously our first thought must not be, “I thank God I am not like that sinner!” (Luke 18:9-14) Rather, our first thought should be, “but for the grace of God, there go I” and with the next heartbeat a prayer of loving compassion in excess for that person, who God tirelessly pursues and desires to spend eternity with no less than myself. This is what it means to live in excess.

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us, that we too might allow God’s grace to dispel pride from our hearts, a pride which so plagues our society and our Church, so that divisions might be overcome and we might grow toward the unity which God the Father so desires for us and provided the possibility for in the sending of His Only Begotten, Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Your servant in Christ,
Tony

4 thoughts on “St. Catherine of Siena: A Life Lived In Excess

  1. Tony-

    the “excess” of your synthesis of Catharine’d search in her divination
    argues convincing measure of the grace visited on her by the
    Christ. Michael Belongie

    1. Yes, she is a beautiful woman in the truest sense, a life saturated with Divine Beauty, which she radiated so wonderfully that its brilliance illumines the human experience down to the present day.

    1. I’m very glad to hear that! The meaning and importance of the saints’ lives is such that we could spend the rest of our lives contemplating them and never exhaust their meaning.

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