St Catherine of Siena
To whom do we belong? This is without doubt the central question of one’s spiritual life – do we belong to the world with its boisterous demands, worries and vain promises of satisfaction or do we belong to God? St Catherine’s life proclaims to us that man’s deepest hunger for belonging and identity – ‘to see myself as I truly am’ is something only sated in the loving encounter and union with God Himself. In the ‘Cell of Self Knowledge,’ Catherine discovered her true self in the discovery of being the fruit of God’s pure love, as He tells her; ‘It was with Providence that I created you, and when I contemplated my creature in myself, I fell in love with the beauty of my Creation (Dialogue,135).
Catherine’s rare gift to us then is a clear vision into the heart of our being – a glimpse of a God who delights in loving and forgiving, whose goodness we ourselves can taste and know in and through our struggle to find belonging, truth and happiness. A Saint of utter conviction (some would say stubbornness!), Catherine’s life was defined by a singlehearted devotion to Christ, which would draw her from the lively rooms of her prosperous family’s home in Siena to the world stage as one of the great spiritual powerhouses of the 14th Century – a relentless yet joyful servant of Christ’s Church (as a child she was known as Euphrosyne, a Greek word for ‘joy’).
Yet central to Catherine’s life and teaching is the recognition that man’s path to meaning and lasting happiness is one inevitably accompanied by suffering. Rather than seeing the pain and loss within human experience as a form of divine justice being exacted, Catherine instead discovered the opportunity to conform herself to the formative action of a God and Father seeking to bring His children to full maturity. Catherine reminds each of us of the need to recognise the hand of Providence in the dissatisfactions, failures, insults and loss of worldly status we encounter: to see in our difficulties the pruning action of a vine-dresser seeking to bring his creation to a greater Truth! Embracing God’s Will in all things became for Catherine the clearest means of expressing true love of God. A selfless life of service of the poor also reveals in Catherine a mystic deeply rooted in the care of the world, reflecting the fact that such love must be concretely realized in love of neighbour. For Catherine such charity would be bound most profoundly to a desire to bring her fellow human beings to the fullness of the light of Truth, a task which would naturally finds its expression within the Dominican Order.
Catherine teaches us then that man’s true identity is found in self denial, apostolic zeal and discernment (recognising in life’s hardships an opportunity for patience in suffering). Such a life constituted for Catherine the ‘Bridge’ towards humanity realising its true goal and purpose. Such a bridge, however, can never be crossed on our own but only through sustaining a living, loving companionship with Christ. Catherine’s heroic patience and tenacity is itself best understood in the context of her mystical revelations and encounters with the Lord which cast a splendid light upon the truth of humanity’s relationship with its Creator. Such revelations of the Lord as ‘You are she who is not, and I am He who Am’ should never be seen as a negation of humanity but rather a reaffirming of each human being for what he or she most truly is – a gratuitous act of God’s pure and intended love. Crucially Catherine tells us ‘it is the condition of love that as soon as one sees oneself as loved, one starts loving,’ – knowledge of our being loved naturally enkindles love! In today’s world marred by division, war, disease and uncertainty (much like Catherine’s own time), lets us turn our eyes of faith in prayer to God and contemplate Christ’s life, death and Glorious Resurrection for what it is; God’s boundless love, calling each of us to a wholehearted response. ‘Knowledge of the supreme Truth shines bright from the height of the Cross and draws man’s heart from step to step to the highest perfection, union with God,’ where we truly belong!
‘Stay in the Cell of Self Knowledge
There to Keep and Spend
The Treasure I have given you:
A Doctrine of Truth Founded on the Rock,
Christ the Sweet Jesus.’ Dialogue CLXVI