Women of Prayer and Justice
Session 4: St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
prepared by Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, MN
of prayer and compassion, like Catherine of Siena, influenced not only
their own contemporaries but continue to speak to women and men of our
times. They trusted in their own experience of God and were models of
living Christian life to its fullest. From their lives and writings we
can learn what it means to be fully human and completely open to the
As you look at this photograph imagine you are the person
walking on this path. Ask God for the grace to let the light of Christ
shine on you as you begin this retreat with Catherine of Siena. Pray in
Catherine's words: “In the light of faith I gain wisdom of the Word,
your Son; in the light of faith I am strong, constant, persevering; in
the light of faith I have hope....This light teaches me the way, and
without this light I would be walking in the dark.” Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980)
of Siena teaches us through her words and life that Jesus Christ is the
way, the truth, the light, and the love that leads us to God. In one
of her best known quotations from The Dialogue she says, “All the way to
heaven is heaven, because Christ says, "I am the way.”
saints and mystics think of their lives as a journey to God or a way to
heaven. You might like to spend some time thinking about your own life
as a journey to heaven with Christ leading the way. In the New
Testament Jesus speaks of himself as the way, the truth, and the light.
Which of these three images of Christ most appeals to you? Are there
other images of Jesus that you find helpful?
differs from the other mystics in personality, vocation, time in
history, and cultural setting, she is similar to them in acknowledging
that all her gifts came from God. One of her greatest gifts was an
experiential awareness of Jesus Christ enabling her to grow in faith and
love. In a remarkable way Catherine showed a willingness from early
childhood on to do whatever God asked of her, and God asked a great deal
Catherine experienced the same struggles we do -- family
problems, misunderstandings, serious illness, lack of fervor. She lived
in Siena, Italy in the 14th century in the midst of great turmoil in
church and society. Today it is still possible to visit the large house
in which she was born -- the 23rd of 25 children, of whom 13 reached
adulthood. The Benincasa family lived quite close to the famous Siena
cathedral which has portraits of all the popes painted at the upper edge
of the nave. Much of Catherine's adult life would be spent trying to
reform the papacy of her time.
When she was seven years old,
Catherine consecrated herself to Christ after seeing a vision of Christ
telling her to reform the church. At 13, the age most girls in her
culture married, her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her, but
she refused. She considered herself espoused to Christ. Despite her
parents' attempts to change her mind by treating her as a servant and
making her do hard, menial work, she remained adamant.
parents finally gave up their desire to marry her off and allowed her to
live a contemplative life of prayer and good works and to have the
solitude she needed in a room of her own. Three years later she became a
member of an organization of lay women, associated with the third order
Dominicans. The members were mostly widows, who cared for the sick and
needy of the city.
In response to divine call, Catherine
ministered selflessly to the needs of people who were poor, sick and
imprisoned. Again, in response to God's request when she was older, she
became involved in church and state controversies by actually
confronting the pope who was living in Avignon in France. Catherine
showed deep faith and great courage in challenging the pope and the
leaders of the church she loved to return to Rome in 1377. The pope
asked Catherine to try to bring about peace between some of the warring
city-states in Italy as well as to reconcile the city-states in conflict
with the papacy. Sometimes she succeeded in establishing peace, but
not always. We are told by some of her biographers that she was a
formidable woman actually feared by some political leaders. She met
with serious opposition on some of her peace-making missions. In
addition to her actual travel she wrote over 400 letters to leaders of
church and state.
Throughout much of her life, Catherine
suffered from serious illness. In a near death experience she was told
by Christ that she was to return to earth for the good of souls. She
fasted almost continuously, eating almost nothing at times. However, in
one of her letters she tells others not to fast as she did. Fasting and
suffering to the extent that Catherine of Siena did was her special
call. All of us need to remember that we can admire and be inspired by
the mystics, but we should not try to imitate their austere practices
unless God calls us to do so.
Like us the women mystics treasured
their friends. Catherine of Siena had a group of friends she called
“bella brigata” or loosely translated, “the delightful gang.” It is
interesting to observe that these women mystics all included men among
their circle of friends.
When Catherine was 27, she was called to
a general conference in Florence held by the Dominican order. Here she
was tested by learned theologians to see if her holiness was authentic.
The theologians who questioned her were satisfied with her answers and
gave her their approval. At this meeting she became acquainted with St.
Raymond of Capua who became her friend, spiritual director, and
From this very brief biographical sketch of Catherine
of Siena, what impresses you about her life? Would you like her for a
friend? Fear her as an opponent?
Catherine's gift to the
Christian world were her letters and a spiritual treatise known as The
Dialogue. In The Dialogue which is a conversation between God and
herself, the focus is on truth, the truth about God, self, others, and
the world. Her passion for truth overrode every other passion. The
book contains everything Catherine learned about the life of the spirit.
She began this book in 1377 and completed it in 1378, two years
before she died at the age of 33. Reading The Dialogue requires effort
for it is intense in its content and complex in its structure.
However, to read it slowly and selectively can greatly enrich and deepen
our spirituality. In it Catherine speaks of the universality of
Christ's love and sees him as loving and personal. She says that there
is no one best way to follow Christ, but only the way that Christ
inspires in each of his followers.
Readers will find an emphasis
on self-knowledge and truth in the opening words of The Dialogue: “A
soul rises up, restless with tremendous desire to God's honor and the
salvation of souls. She has for some time exercised herself in virtue
and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in
order to know better God's goodness toward her, since upon knowledge
follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself
in it” (p. 25). Here Catherine is speaking of herself and invites us to
grow in knowledge of ourselves and the pursuit of truth.
to reflect on your knowledge of yourself and the truth of who you are.
Ask God to enlighten your mind that you may become more like Jesus
Christ in all you say and do.
Catherine concludes The
Dialogue with these words: “[Lord], you yourself have given and you
yourself answered and satisfied me by flooding me with a gracious light,
so that with that light, I may return thanks to you. Clothe, clothe me
with yourself, eternal Truth, so that I may run the course of this
mortal life in true obedience and in the light of most holy faith.” (p.
You may wish to spend a few moments in prayer asking
God to help you respond to these words. Thank God for the light you
have already received and pray that you and all who are a part of your
life may continue to seek the truth in love.
While she was in
ecstasy, Catherine dictated The Dialogue to St. Raymond of Capua.
Scholars continue to discuss how the process of dictation came about.
Her own disciples were the first to spread her works both for the value
they saw in them and for the support they would lend to the cause of her
She was canonized shortly after her death and in
1970 named a doctor of the Church for her deep and sound theological
teachings shown in The Dialogue and in her many letters. Both St.
Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena were named doctors of the
Church in 1970, joining 30 male doctors of the Church who included such
notable theologians as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
does St. Catherine of Siena say to us and to our spirituality today?
She would probably say that we should try to be true to ourselves in our
own vocations and situations in life. Christ leads each of us on our
special journey. Although we can admire and be inspired by mystics of
the past, we are not called to imitate them.
We are, however,
like all mystics and saints called to be attentive to God's action in
our lives. We become more attentive through prayer, reflection, reading
scripture, and taking time for solitude.
Catherine would also
tell us to find supportive friends who are seeking to deepen their
spiritual lives. She would remind us to seek the truth in love and try
to do everything in a spirit of love.
An authentic Christian
mystic tries to relate to others with a gracious hospitality that
witnesses to God's presence. Such Christians strive for truth in all
aspects of life. They are capable of making critical judgments about
injustice, sin and evil and of speaking their minds, as St. Catherine of
Siena did, when occasions require it. Their prayer and life have no
boundaries to love as they serve others.
Catherine of Siena
reminds us that perfect love of God and of neighbor cannot be achieved
by human beings in this life, but she reminds us that we are on the way.
Let us ask her to continue to inspire us to remember her words: “All
the way to heaven is heaven, because Christ says, 'I am the Way.'”
Click to go to the next Women of Prayer and Justice retreat:
Julian of Norwich
| Session 1: Dorothy Day|
Session 2: Therese of Lisieux
Session 3: Teresa of Avila
Session 4: St. Catherine of Siena
Session 5: Blessed Julian of Norwich
Session 6: St. Hildegard of Bingen