St. Catherine of Siena & The Thirst for Holiness

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Catherine of Siena who is one of the four female Doctors of the Church. One of the great literary works found in the Catholic tradition is The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue is private revelation dictated by her to her secretaries while she was in a state of ecstasy and it was completed in 1370. It is a work rich in fruit and spiritual depth and includes four treatises on the topics of: Divine Providence, discretion, prayer, and obedience. There is too much wonderful material to cover in so short a piece, so I will focus on material found in the Treatise on Divine Providence, namely the call to personal holiness through prayer and suffering.

St. Catherine was born in 1347 and was the twenty-fifth child of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. She began receiving visions from Our Lord at the age of 6, when she saw Jesus seated in glory along with members of the Church Triumphant: Peter, Paul, and John. It was then that Catherine resolved to give her whole life to Christ. Her parents desired that she marry, but she remained resolute in her abandonment and surrender to God. Eventually her parents recognized the workings of God in her life and they relinquished her to God through prayer. Catherine decided to follow the great Dominican Founder, St. Dominic, and became a tertiary (now known as Lay) Dominican. She fully embraced a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She remained with her family as she served the poor and sick in her community. It was in her service to the sick and suffering servants that she recognized the love of the Crucified Christ.

St. Catherine was well known for her wisdom and ability to mediate between disagreeing parties. She was sought after for reconciliation and peaceful resolutions in a wide range of matters. Her intervention and counsel to Pope Gregory that he needed to return to Rome and no longer reside in Avignon has sealed her notoriety in Church history. The Pope eventually acquiesced in 1377 and the papacy returned to its proper place in order to begin much needed reforms. All that she did was for love of Christ and His Church. Volumes have been written on her life and I have only been able to touch on a few key biographical details.

Given what we know about her, it is apparent that holiness was the center of her life. She desired to serve others completely, even going into the ugliness of pain and suffering in order to minister to others. Her desire to be united to Christ crucified is most realized in her Dialogue in which she shares her private revelation from God. It was through constant prayer, the Sacraments, and service that she was able to live a life in conformity to the Blessed Trinity. In the Treatise on Divine Providence, God shares with St. Catherine the necessity of prayer and suffering united to Him in love.

Prayer

Her Treatise of Divine Providence begins by sharing the importance of prayer in living a deeper communion with God, a deeper knowledge of self, and the strength to serve others.

The soul, who is lifted by a very great and yearning desire for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, begins by exercising herself, for a certain space of time, in the ordinary virtues, remaining in the cell of self-knowledge, in order to know better the goodness of God towards her. This she does because knowledge must precede love, and only when she has attained love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth. But, in no way, does the creature receive such a taste of the truth, or so brilliant a light therefrom, as by means of humble and continuous prayer, founded on knowledge of herself and of God; because prayer, exercising her in the above way unites with God the soul that follows the footprints of Christ crucified, and thus, by desire and affection, and union of love, makes her another Himself.

There is a lot of material to unpack from this section. St. Catherine shows that it is in prayer where we become intimately connected with Christ so that we may become like Him and that we may fully understand what it means to be human, or more fully ourselves. In order to live a life of holiness prayer must be our primary focus for we cannot fully know God or live in communion with Him if we do not seek to grow closer to Him. We grow closer to God through a healthy prayer life and, of course, frequent reception of the Sacraments. Holiness is our mission. It is what gives our lives meaning and purpose and God through St. Catherine’s private revelation teaches us to make prayer a priority in our daily lives.

Chastisement

God desires our union with Him. Not all suffering is meant as punishment for sins and God often uses certain punishments as corrections.

Dost thou not know, dear daughter, that all the sufferings, which the soul endures, or can endure, in this life, are insufficient to punish one smallest fault, because the offense, being done to Me, who am the Infinite Good, calls for an infinite satisfaction? However, I wish that thou should know, that not all the pains that are given to men in this life are given as punishments, but as corrections, in order to chastise a son when he offends; though it is true that both guilt and the penalty be expiated by the desire of the soul, that is, by true contrition, not through the finite pain endured, but through the infinite desire; because God, who is infinite, wishes the infinite love and infinite grief.

The path of holiness is for each one of us by virtue of our Baptism that we may be conformed fully to the love of the Blessed Trinity. God desires that in those moments when we fall and sin that we return to Him out of love for Him. He wants our contrition, because through it we return to His love. There will be times in our lives that God will need to correct us as a Father who corrects His child. It is in those moments that loving chastisements, in the form of suffering, will be given. It is deeply difficult, but we must learn to embrace those moments in charity and hope. We must always be mindful of our eschatological end: that we are made for Heaven. St. Catherine greatly understood the nature of suffering through her service to the sick and wounded. She is an example for us that we may learn to embrace the chastisements we receive out of love from God.

Self Sacrifice

St. Catherine lived a life of self-sacrifice. She desired to unite all of her actions to her love of the Blessed Trinity. It is in this understanding that she was able to persevere even in the darkest of hours. God desires that we bear our Crosses for our own salvation and the salvation of others.

Very pleasing to Me, dearest daughter, is the willing desire to bear every pain and fatigue, even unto death, for the salvation of souls, for the more the soul endures, the more she shows me that she loves Me; loving Me she comes to know more of My truth, and the more she knows, the more pain and intolerable grief she feels at the offenses committed against Me.

This bearing of pain can come in many forms during our sojourn here on earth. It can be the mother who devotes every waking hour to prayer and service of her husband and children. It may be the father or mother who works long hours or many jobs in order to put food on the table. This bearing comes in the form of holding the hand of a dying loved one or embracing the suffering of our neighbor. It can be the loss that we experience in our own lives whether through illness, career, finances, or stability. And, it could even be to embrace martyrdom for love of Our Lord, as we are witnessing around the world at present. By her life and the private revelation of the Dialogue we can see how important it is for us to offer everything that we do in our daily lives for the glorification of God.

St. Catherine’s life is a great witness to the power of holiness and devotion to God. By her example and her Dialogue we can learn how to live a life of prayer and acceptance of suffering. There is so much to gain from this powerhouse saint. She eventually received the stigmata and lived her life in service to God until the very end. When we view our lives through the knowledge that all God does for us is out of love, we can then embrace the challenges of life through our own gift of love. St. Catherine of Siena, ora pro nobis.

image: Jean-Claude CHARLES /Wikimedia Commons

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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