This Lent, I have been reading some spiritual biographies and autobiographies, so I’m simultaneously reading Sigrid Undset’s Catherine of Siena and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. You could not find two more different holy women than St. Catherine of Siena and Servant of God Dorothy Day.
I have long loved St. Catherine of Siena (ever since I was a child in a Catholic school under her patronage) but reading her life story as a fellow young woman is overwhelming. Catherine moves from one ecstatic prayer experience to another, and her willingness to suffer is remarkable. The other night, as I was praying and nursing my youngest daughter before bed, I found myself admitting to God that St. Catherine of Siena’s life story was making me feel incredibly insecure. I truly believe that I have discerned God’s will for my life to the best of my ability — but I am not living in a cell, being sustained solely by the Eucharist, and craving heaven constantly. My vocation to marriage is the vocation that was rejected by Catherine. Does this mean that I am “less” than her? Does this mean that I can’t possibly be a saint, too?
Then, it occurred to me: Think of Dorothy Day. Dorothy was a working, single mother to a daughter she had had by a common law marriage. She was a revolutionary who was familiar with the inside of a jail cell. Yet, her cause for canonization has officially been open. It is likely only a matter of time before she, too, is a saint…just like Catherine.
In my heart, I felt God was reminding me that I am not called to be Catherine of Siena or Dorothy Day. I am called to be Michele Chronister. I am called to be a saint, but I am not called to be a saint in the way that they were. As boring and unoriginal as sin is (a fact that is affirmed by the conversion stories that I have read recently) the path to sainthood is unique. There are as many different paths to sainthood as there are saints.
There is no need to feel insecure or jealous of someone else’s path to sainthood. All that is necessary is discerning your own path to sainthood. Although their lives were vastly different, there are a few key themes in the lives of both Servant of God Dorothy Day and St. Catherine of Siena, that are applicable to our own journeys to sanctity.
Willingness to Please God Over Others
Both Catherine and Dorothy did not live the lives that their families envisioned for them. Catherine was not a distinguished Italian wife and mother, bringing security to her family through an honorable marriage to an Italian nobleman. Dorothy was not an ambivalent sometimes-Christian who was driven to succeed in the writing world, or settled into a civilized, middle class family life.
Rather, God called Catherine to live a life of vowed virginity and constant prayer and penance, mystically married to Christ. He called Dorothy to a life of voluntary poverty, advocating for and living with “the least of these.”
Neither woman was understood by her family. Catherine’s family actively persecuted her when she refused marriage to a mortal bridegroom, and Dorothy was left to raise her daughter alone when her daughter’s father refused to marry Dorothy in the Church. Both embraced great sacrifice to live the life that God called them to lead.
Maybe God has called you to a radical abandonment in order to please him. Maybe, due to abuse, dysfunction, or misunderstanding, your own family has rejected you due to your choice to follow God’s will for your life. Maybe, the choice has been less radical in your life. Maybe it is a matter of little choices — being willing to prayer a meal blessing in a public place, choosing to try and avoid servile labor on Sundays, or abstaining from meat on Fridays year-round. Even these seemingly small choices can be cause for friction in families.
Are you willing to sacrifice pleasing your family and friends (maybe even appearing foolish or excessively pious) for the sake of pleasing God?
Relying on the Sacraments
In the final years of her life, St. Catherine of Siena became very ill, and her body was no longer able to tolerate any food but the Eucharist. This is a very dramatic example of relying totally on the Sacraments, but it is an image for the reality of all our lives — we cannot become saints without the Sacraments to strengthen us.
Dorothy Day chose to be baptized into the Catholic Church, not because it was easy (the man she had been living with and who she was deeply in love with, ended up leaving her rather than marrying her in the Church) but because it was right. She admits that she felt no warm feelings of consolation when she was baptized, but that that didn’t matter to her – she wasn’t baptized to receive feelings of joy. She was baptized because the Catholic Church was the true Church.
This is a theme that Dorothy mentions elsewhere in her writings, too. She describes a time when one of her friends was near death, and he received the Last Rites at the hands of a very indifferent priest. Although the priest did not administer the Sacraments in a loving or tender way, Dorothy acknowledged that it didn’t matter — the ritual itself was what mattered. The ritual of the Sacraments were, in themselves, a consolation and efficacious. Her experience of the Sacraments is a consolation to those of us who experience dryness in prayer and liturgy.
Catherine’s experience of the Sacraments was an ecstatic one. As a mystic, she has something else to share with us. She points to the reality that underlies the Sacraments. We may not feel that mystical union when we receive Communion — but that is the reality. Catherine’s experience was a foretaste of heaven, but it also was a reminder of what is happening when we receive the Sacraments.
Do you recognize how much you need the Sacraments in your life? Do you attempt to receive the Eucharist and Reconciliation as often as possible?
Finally, both Catherine and Dorothy recognized the primacy of Christ in their lives. Christ was everything to them and was their sole motivation for what they did. When each encountered someone who was not following Christ, she yearned to convert him or her. Catherine’s life story is filled with many examples of praying and suffering for the conversion of a sinner. Dorothy Day (formerly sympathetic to Communist thought) is often shocked by how much a Communist or activist is willing to undergo for their cause, absent of Christ. She actively works to convert her fellow workers and activists to Christ, without whom she thinks her work is meaningless.
Is Christ your reason for living? Is your daily work and labor oriented to Christ? Do you actively work to convert those in your life to Christ?
With these two saintly women as guides, we can continually examine our consciences, and be challenged to become the saints that God has created us to be, too.
image: DinoPh / Shutterstock.com