Fearless and Fiery: the Letters of Catherine of Siena

CatherineIn today’s world of Facebook, text messaging, tweets and instagrams – receiving a hand written letter imbued with deep spiritual sentiment and edifying insight is a rare thing indeed.  In fact, it would be rare to ever receive such a letter in our lifetime! In our fast-paced world of “high-speed” internet communications – messages come to us in staccato sentences rarely filled with any real meaning beyond addressing the practical matters of the day.

Yet, the communications of Saint Catherine of Siena had a profound impact on her times.  Though she lived more than 600 years ago, her letters deeply influenced the complex political and religious climate in which she lived.   Born in 1347 as the 24th of 25 children, Catherine experienced her first vision of Christ at the tender age of six in front of Siena’s San Dominic Church where she said Jesus smiled at her, blessed her, and left her in ecstasy.  By the age of seven she had taken a vow of chastity refusing to ever marry.  In her teens, Catherine became a Dominican Tertiary donning the traditional black and white habit of the Third Order of Saint Dominic.  While continuing to live at home, Catherine led a life of solitude and near complete silence in a small cell while also serving as household help to her parents and siblings.  Later, her confessor and biographer, Father Raymond of Capua, wrote that during this time of preparation, Catherine experienced a mystical marriage to Christ and was eventually told by Jesus to leave her withdrawn existence, mix with her fellow men and learn to serve them.

Pope Gregory XI

Pope Gregory XI

Heeding Our Lord’s call, Catherine dedicated much of her life to helping Siena’s poor and sick.  Catherine also began traveling throughout Italy with a band of earnest associates urging reform of the clergy, support for the crusades, and settling disputes between republics, principalities, and powerful Italian families.  But it was her letters to people from all walks of life that was her preferred form of communication.  Writing to an ever increasing audience, Catherine corresponded with everyone from popes and royals to prisoners and peasants.  Foremost among her written letters was her long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, from which he eventually heeded her advice and moved back to Rome – officially ending the Avignon Papacy in 1377.

Approximately 385 of Saint Catherine’s Letters have survived, the earliest of which are from 1370 to 1380 – written during her most active years of ministry.   As of 2008, a complete translation of the saint’s letters, the first to appear in English, have been published for the first time in a four volume series through Arizona State University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  The comprehensive translations come from Sister Suzanne Noffke, an internationally recognized Catherinian scholar, lecturer and member of the Racine Dominicans.   With her remarkable labor of love now complete, Sr. Suzanne Noffke has fully launched St. Catherine of Siena into the English-speaking world.  The four-volume annotated translation is more than a translation; it is a comprehensive modern edition that places Catherine’s almost 400 letters in chronological order.  Thus, for the first time in the English speaking world, readers have the chance to benefit from Catherine’s vast spiritual knowledge as well as her fearless discourse with the powerful and meek of her time.

Not one to mince words, Catherine’s letters moved popes and politicians to action.  In urging Gregory XI to leave Avignon and re-establish the Papacy in Rome she wrote:

“Since [Christ] has given you authority and you have accepted it, you ought to be using the power and strength that is yours.  If you don’t intend to use it, it would be better and more to God’s honor and the good of your soul to resign….If I were in your place, I would be afraid of incurring divine judgment.”   Later in her letter she continued, “Cursed be you, for time and power were entrusted to you and you did not use them!”

To a priest she was instructing as a spiritual son, she writes of her utter reliance upon Christ:

“I am ignorant and not very insightful.  Everything else is from supreme eternal Truth: give him the credit, not me.”

Each letter Catherine wrote gives us a greater understanding of her personality, humor, charm and deep spiritual wisdom.  Miracle worker, mystic, contemplative, stigmatic, humanitarian, Doctor of the Church, activist, and counselor – this is a woman whose letters you want to spend some time with!  Why? Because they are letters that allow us to peer deeply inside the soul of a celebrated saint.  They are a gift from her to us from across the centuries – filled with spiritual and practical advice – from her troubled times to ours.  Ultimately, they contain the simple gift of being able to learn from a saint and in doing so, hopefully, become saints ourselves.

Sr. Suzanne Noffke’s Letters of Saint Catherine of Siena, Vol. 1-4 can be purchased through Amazon.com or directly from Arizona State University’s Center of Medieval & Renaissance Studies at www.acmrs.org

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Judy Keane is a Catholic writer and a communications/marketing executive who resides in Washington, D.C. She holds an MBA in International Business and is the author of Single and Catholic, published by Sophia Institute Press.

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