When we contemplate, we set aside a place, either externally in the physical world or interiorly within our minds and hearts, or both, to ponder, observe, and meditate. After Catherine donned the habit of the Mantellate she spent three years in seclusion, except when she went to church for confession and Mass, in the small room of her family’s house that she converted into a templum of continual prayer, fasting, silence, self-mortification, and study. Catherine had been inspired since childhood by the prayerful ancient Desert Fathers. Per Blessed Raymond, she “established a desert within the walls of her own home, and solitude in the midst of people.”
It is fascinating to consider that it was not until these years of contemplation that this great Doctor of the Church even learned to read and write! During a prayer one morning, Catherine asked Christ to teach her so that she could say the Psalms and sing His prayers, since she was not smart enough to master it on her own, adding that she would remain ignorant and meditate on Him in other ways if this was not His will. When she arose, she found she could read fluently. She read so fast that she was not able to read out separate syllables and could hardly spell the words, which he took as a sign of a miracle.
Catherine read Latin but could not speak it. She would not write her first letter until 1377 at around the age of thirty. Her ability to write came as a gift in a vision of Christ, who was accompanied by His beloved disciple Saint John and the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Her letters and Dialogue were written in Italian and in such beautiful language that they have been compared to the works of Dante.
During these years of secluded contemplation and through the remainder of her life as well, Saint Catherine experienced many mystical ecstasies with visions of Christ and of the saints. Raymond relates an early vision of Christ in which the most profound of theological proofs are stated simply and sublimely in just a handful of words.
In one of Saint Catherine’s first visions, Christ asked of her, “Do you know, daughter, who you are, and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed. You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is.” These simple words were as a Summa enriching Catherine’s growth in wisdom and understanding. As Blessed Raymond explains, “All creatures are engulfed in nothingness — made from nothingness, tending toward nothingness.” Sin is a nothingness, a lack of a goodness that should be present, so that when we sin, we move back toward nothingness. This is why Christ said, “[A]part from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We must embrace humility in the recognition of our potential nothingness and the fervent love of charity for the One who gives us life and sustains us.
Among the most profound of Catherine’s ecstatic visions was the “mystical marriage” in which she was espoused to Christ, the wedding party including the Virgin Mother, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, Saint Dominic, and King David, who played his harp. Christ presented her a ring that was invisible to others, but which she could see for the rest of her life.
In another powerful vision revealed to her confessor, she asked Christ to take her own heart and will from her, and Christ came to her and removed her heart. Some days later, he appeared to her again and placed his own heart within her breast. Saint Thomas said that understanding is an excellence of knowledge that penetrates into the heart of things. Christ Himself said that the pure of heart shall see God. Through the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding, Catherine was given visions of Christ, and in a mystical sense, His very own Sacred Heart.
The fruits of Catherine’s gifts of understanding blossomed most completely in her dictated work called The Dialogue or The Dialogue of Divine Providence, in which Catherine makes four requests to God the Father for herself, for the Church, for the world, and for assurance of His divine providence to provide for all things. The responses come from God in four treatises of over two hundred pages on divine providence, discretion, prayer, and obedience. The Dialogue treats of a great many basic, essential, creedal, catechetical issues of faith and morals in the most moving, intimate, and creative ways. They drip with moving and memorable metaphors containing great mystical truths.
A Treatise on Divine Providence
Catherine speaks of “the virtue of desire,” of the soul’s “fire of holy desire” that makes us contrite of heart for our sins and desirous of the limitless loving mercy of God, made possible for us through Christ’s Crucifixion. Our holy desire brings remission of sins, and here our holy hound of the Lord speaks of the “hound of conscience” as well:
“I wake up in them the hound of conscience, and make them smell the odor of virtue, and take delight in the conversation of My servants.”
She provides insights as well on the nature of virtues and of suffering and injuries, noting the virtues are demonstrated and fortified by their contraries. Patience, for example, is proven and fortified when one is injured by his neighbor. It is through such injuries that patience is given the opportunity to manifest itself and grow. We build justice within our souls when we are treated unjustly. The virtue of humility conquers the vice of pride, because a proud person can do no harm to the humble, who are not concerned about their worldly reputation. God, in his providence, has so arranged the world that from vices in some spring virtues in others; from contrition for sin springs limitless mercy; from worldly suffering springs heavenly joy.
A Treatise of Discretion
Here Saint Catherine reveals the Dominican thirst to bring souls to Christ. God tells her our works are holy and sweet to Him when they are infused “with hunger and desire for My honor and the salvation of souls.” Here, too, she explicates on the instrument through which God provided the mechanism for our salvation in her most famous metaphorical elaboration of Christ as the Bridge by which man can pass from earth into heaven.
This Bridge has three “steps” that signify the three states of the soul through which we ascend to heaven from earth:
The first step signifies “the feet of the soul,” representing our affections, because as the feet carry the body, so do our desires and affections carry our soul. The pierced feet of Christ the Bridge are the means by which we reach the second step, at His side, which reveals to us the secret of His heart. When the soul desires to taste the love of Christ’s heart and gazes into his heart with the eye of the intellect, it finds His heart “consumed with ineffable love.” Having tasted of this love, the soul reaches the third step, of Christ’s mouth, and finally attains peace from the terrible war that it has waged against sin. In the first step, then, the soul steps away from earthly affections and is stripped of vice. In the second step, the soul fills itself with love and virtue. In the third step, the soul “tastes peace.”
So then this Bridge to heaven was lifted on high for us when the Father’s Son was lifted up on the wood of the holy Cross, “the Divine nature remaining joined to the lowliness of the earth of your humanity.”
A Treatise of Prayer
Saint Thomas Aquinas had written that prayer is a most reasonable thing to do. Citing the ancient Roman theologian Cassiodorus, Thomas had agreed that “prayer is spoken reason” and that speech is a function of the intellect, a power that no other creature on earth has been given by God. Prayer, for Thomas, was “the raising of one’s mind to God,” and the “parts” of prayer include supplications (humble requests) for particular blessings from God and thanksgiving for blessings He has already provided.
Saint Catherine provides most penetrating insights on the relationship between the intellect, the Scriptures, and the life of prayer. “The intellect was, before the Scriptures were formed, wherefore, from the intellect came science, because in seeing they discerned.” God illuminated the intellects of the ancient prophets and apostles before all the Scriptures had been written down. Likewise, after we had received the Holy Scriptures, God gave light to the eyes of the intellect of holy, prayerful men, such as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and Jerome, so that even the light that comes from Holy Scriptures comes through the supernatural light of illumination.
God warns us, then, that we would be better off seeking spiritual counsel from a holy person of upright conscience than from a proud, learned person who lacks God’s supernatural light. Those without God’s light are mired in the darkness of self-love, which is “a tree on which nothing grows but fruits of death, putrid flowers, stained leaves, branches bowed down, and struck by various winds.”
Indeed, the seven deadly sins are this tree’s seven drooping branches. They droop to the earth because only earthly things can feed them, and they are never satisfied. Man has been placed not below but above all other creatures, though, and he cannot be satisfied except when he rests with the eternal God.
A Treatise of Obedience
Here Saint Catherine sails into the theological waters of obedience to God’s will, for all of us in general and in particular for those of religious orders who have taken vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty. She compares the religious orders to great ships that sail toward the port of salvation. These ships are so rich that the religious need not worry about their temporal or their spiritual needs, for those who are obedient will receive all they need through the Holy Spirit who guides them.
“Now look at the ship of your Father Dominic,” God tells her. That ship was ordered perfectly, since Saint Dominic wished only that his sons would endeavor to bring honor to God and seek the salvation of souls, “with the light of science,” which is the order’s principal foundation. It cherishes poverty too, not as an end in itself, but so that the preachers need not be distracted by temporal things as they fight error and spread God’s truths. The three riggings of obedience, chastity, and poverty make his a royal ship and make it broad, joyous, and fragrant.
Glorious sons of the order Saints Thomas and Peter Martyr are praised for the illumination that arose from their obedience, and Dominic’s friend in Christ is praised for his order too: “Of a truth Dominic and Francis were two columns of the holy Church. Francis with the poverty which was especially his own, as has been said, and Dominic with his learning.”
This article is an excerpt of Dr. Vost’s Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.