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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

St. Catherine of Siena


Women 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 divine.

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)

Catherine 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.”

Many 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?

Although Catherine 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 of her.

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.

Her 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 biographer.

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.

Pause 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. 366).

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 canonization.

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.

What 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