|« Prev||Catherine of Siena, the Saint||Next »|
§ 21. Catherine of Siena, the Saint.
Next to Francis d’Assisi, the most celebrated of the Italian saints is Catherine of Siena—Caterina da Siena—1347–1380. With Elizabeth of Thuringia, who lived more than a century before her, she is the most eminent of the holy women of the Middle Ages whom the Church has canonized. Her fame depends upon her single-hearted piety and her efforts to advance the interests of the Church and her nation. She left no order to encourage the reverence for her name. She was the most public of all the women of the Middle Ages in Italy, and yet she passed unscathed and without a taint through streets and in courts. Now, as the daughter of an humble citizen of Siena, she ministers to the poor and the sick: now, as the prophetess of heaven, she appeals to the conscience of popes and of commonwealths. Her native Sienese have sanctified her with the fragrant name la beata poplana, the blessed daughter of the people. Although much in her career, as it has been handed down by her confessor and biographer, may seem to be legendary, and although the hysterical element may not be altogether wanting from her piety, she yet deserves and will have the admiration of all men who are moved by the sight of a noble enthusiasm. It would require a fanatical severity to read the account of her unwearied efforts and the letters, into which she equally poured the fire of her soul, without feeling that the Sienese saint was a very remarkable woman, the Florence Nightingale of her time or more, "one of the most wonderful women that have ever lived," as her most recent English biographer has pronounced her. Or, shall we join Gregorovius, the thorough student of mediaeval Rome, in saying, "Catherine’s figure flits like that of an angel: through the darkness of her time, over which her gracious genius sheds a soft radiance. Her life is more worthy and assuredly a more human subject for history than the lives of the popes of her age."367367 Gardner, p. vii; Gregorovius, VI. 521 sqq.
Catherine Benincasa was the twenty-third of a family of twenty-five children. Her twin sister, Giovanna, died in infancy. Her father was a dyer in prosperous circumstances. Her mother, Monna Lapa, survived the daughter. Catherine treated her with filial respect, wrote her letters, several of which are extant, and had her with her on journeys and in Rome during her last days there. Catherine had no school training, and her knowledge of reading and writing she acquired after she was grown up.
As a child she was susceptible to religious impressions, and frequented the Dominican church near her father’s home. The miracles of her earlier childhood were reported by her confessor and biographer, Raymund of Capua. At twelve her parents arranged for her a marriage, but to avoid it Catherine cut off her beautiful hair. She joined the tertiary order of the Dominicans, the women adherents being called the mantellate from their black mantles. Raymund declares "that nature had not given her a face over-fair," and her personal appearance was marred by the marks of the smallpox. And yet she had a winning expression, a fund of good spirits, and sang and laughed heartily. Once devoted to a religious life, she practised great austerities, flagellating herself three times a day,—once for herself, once for the living and once for the dead. She wore a hair undergarment and an iron chain. During one Lenten season she lived on the bread taken in communion. These asceticisms were performed in a chamber in her father’s house. She was never an inmate of a convent. Such extreme asceticisms as she practised upon herself she disparaged at a later period.
At an early age Catherine became the subject of visions and revelations. On one of these occasions and after hours of dire temptation, when she was tempted to live like other girls, the Saviour appeared to her stretched on the cross and said: "My own daughter, Catherine, seest thou how much I have suffered for thee? Let it not be hard for thee to suffer for me." Thrilled with the address, she asked: "Where wert thou, Lord, when I was tempted with such impurity?" and He replied, "In thy heart." In 1367, according to her own statement, the Saviour betrothed himself to her, putting a ring on her finger. The ring was ever afterwards visible to herself though unseen by others. Five years before her death, she received the stigmata directly from Christ. Their impression gave sharp pain, and Catherine insisted that, though they likewise were invisible to others, they were real to her.
In obedience to a revelation, Catherine renounced the retired life she had been living, and at the age of twenty began to appear in public and perform the active offices of charity. This was in 1367. She visited the poor and sick, and soon became known as the ministering angel of the whole city. During the plague of 1374, she was indefatigable by day and night, healed those of whom the physicians despaired, and she even raised the dead. The lepers outside the city walls she did not neglect.
One of the remarkable incidents in her career which she vouches for in one of her letters to Raymund was her treatment of Niccolo Tuldo, a young nobleman condemned to die for having uttered words disrespectful of the city government. The young man was in despair, but under Catherine’s influence he not only regained composure, but became joyful in the prospect of death. Catherine was with him at the block and held his head. She writes, "I have just received a head into my hands which was to me of such sweetness as no heart can think, or tongue describe." Before the execution she accompanied the unfortunate man to the mass, where he received the communion for the first time. His last words were "naught but Jesus and Catherine. And, so saying," wrote his benefactress, "I received his head in my hands." She then saw him received of Christ, and as she further wrote, "When he was at rest, my soul rested in peace, in so great fragrance of blood that I could not bear to remove the blood which had fallen on me from him."
The fame of such a woman could not be held within the walls of her native city. Neighboring cities and even the pope in Avignon heard of her deeds of charity and her revelations. The guide of minds seeking the consolations of religion, the minister to the sick and dying, Catherine now entered into the wider sphere of the political life of Italy and the welfare of the Church. Her concern was divided between efforts to support the papacy and to secure the amelioration of the clergy and establish peace. With the zeal of a prophet, she urged upon Gregory XI. to return to Rome. She sought to prevent the rising of the Tuscan cities against the Avignon popes and to remove the interdict which was launched against Florence, and she supported Urban VI. against the anti-pope, Clement VII. With equal fervor she urged Gregory to institute a reformation of the clergy, to allow no weight to considerations of simony and flattery in choosing cardinals and pastors and "to drive out of the sheep-fold those wolves, those demons incarnate, who think only of good cheer, splendid feasts and superb liveries." She also was zealous in striving to stir up the flames of a new crusade. To Sir John Hawkwood, the freelance and terror of the peninsula, she wrote, calling upon him that, as he took such pleasure in fighting, he should thenceforth no longer direct his arms against Christians, but against the infidels. She communicated to the Queen of Cyprus on the subject. Again and again she urged it upon Gregory XI., and chiefly on the grounds that he "might minister the blood of the Lamb to the wretched infidels," and that converted, they might aid in driving pride and other vices out of the Christian world.368368 Scudder, Letters, pp. 100, 121, 136, 179, 184, 234, etc.
Commissioned by Gregory, she journeyed to Pisa to influence the city in his favor. She was received with honors by the archbishop and the head of the republic, and won over two professors who visited her with the purpose of showing her she was self-deceived or worse. She told them that it was not important for her to know how God had created the world, but that "it was essential to know that the Son of God had taken our human nature and lived and died for our salvation." One of the professors, removing his crimson velvet cap, knelt before her and asked for forgiveness. Catherine’s cures of the sick won the confidence of the people. On this visit she was accompanied by her mother and a group of like-minded women.
A large chapter in Catherine’s life is interwoven with the history of Florence. The spirit of revolt against the Avignon regime was rising in upper Italy and, when the papal legate in Bologna, in a year of dearth, forbade the transportation of provisions to Florence, it broke out into war. At the invitation of the Florentines, Catherine visited the city, 1375 and, a year later, was sent as a delegate to Avignon to negotiate terms of peace. She was received with honor by the pope, but not without hesitancy. The other members of the delegation, when they arrived, refused to recognize her powers and approve her methods. The cardinals treated her coolly or with contempt, and women laid snares at her devotions to bring ridicule upon her. Such an attempt was made by the pope’s niece, Madame de Beaufort Turenne, who knelt at her side and ran a sharp knife into her foot so that she limped from the wound.
The dyer’s daughter now turned her attention to the task of confirming the supreme pontiff in his purpose to return to Rome and counteract the machinations of the cardinals against its execution. Seeing her desire realized, she started back for Italy and, met by her mother at Leghorn, went on to Florence, carrying a commission from the pope. Her effort to induce the city to bow to the sentence of interdict, which had been laid upon it, was in a measure successful. Her reverence for the papal office demanded passive obedience. Gregory’s successor, Urban VI., lifted the ban. Catherine then returned to Siena where she dictated the Dialogue, a mystical treatise inculcating prayer, obedience, discretion and other virtues. Catherine declared that God alone had been her guide in its composition.
In the difficulties, which arose soon after Urban’s election, that pontiff looked to Siena and called its distinguished daughter to Rome. They had met in Avignon. Accompanied by her mother and other companions, she reached the holy city in the Autumn of 1378. They occupied a house by themselves and lived upon alms.369369 Gardner, p. 298, says one of the two houses is still shown where they dwelt. Her summons to Urban "to battle only with the weapons of repentance, prayer, virtue and love" were not heeded. Her presence, however, had a beneficent influence, and on one occasion, when the mob raged and poured into the Vatican, she appeared as a peacemaker, and the sight of her face and her words quieted the tumult.
She died lying on boards, April 29, 1380. To her companions standing at her side, she said: "Dear children, let not my death sadden you, rather rejoice to think that I am leaving a place of many sufferings to go to rest in the quiet sea, the eternal God, and to be united forever with my most sweet and loving Bridegroom. And I promise to be with you more and to be more useful to you, since I leave darkness to pass into the true and everlasting light." Again and again she whispered, "I have sinned, O Lord; be merciful to me." She prayed for Urban, for the whole Church and for her companions, and then she departed, repeating the words, "Into thy hands I commit my spirit."
At the time of her death Catherine of Siena was not yet thirty-three years old. A magnificent funeral was ordered by Urban. A year after, her head, enclosed in a reliquary, was sent to her native Siena, and in 1461 she was canonized by the city’s famous son, pope Pius II., who uttered the high praise "that none ever approached her without going away better." In 1865 when Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome was reopened, her ashes were carried through the streets, the silver urn containing them being borne by four bishops. Lamps are kept ever burning at the altar dedicated to her in the church. In 1866 Pius IX. elevated the dyer’s daughter to the dignity of patron saint and protectress of Rome, a dignity she shares with the prince of the Apostles. With Petrarch she had been the most ardent advocate of its claims as the papal residence, and her zeal was exclusively religious.
In her correspondence and Dialogue we have the biography of Catherine’s soul. Nearly four hundred of her letters are extant.370370 None of these are in her own hand, but six of them are originals as they were written down at her dictation. Gardner, p. xii., 373 sqq. Not only have they a place of eminence as the revelations of a saintly woman’s thoughts and inner life, but are, next to the letters written by Petrarch, the chief specimens of epistolary literature of the fourteenth century. She wrote to persons of all classes, to her mother, the recluse in the cloister, her confessor, Raymund of Capua, to men and women addicted to the pleasures of the world, to the magistrates of cities, queens and kings, to cardinals, and to the popes, Gregory XI. and Urban VI., gave words of counsel, set forth at length measures and motives of action, used the terms of entreaty and admonition, and did not hesitate to employ threats of divine judgment, as in writing to the Queen of Naples. They abound in wise counsels.
The correspondence shows that Catherine had some acquaintance with the New Testament from which she quotes the greater precepts and draws descriptions from the miracle of the water changed into wine and the expulsion of the moneychangers from the temple and such parables as the ten virgins and the marriage-feast. One of her most frequent expressions is the blood of Christ, and in truly mystical or conventual manner she bids her correspondents, even the pope and the cardinals, bathe and drown and inebriate themselves in it, yea, to clothe and fill themselves with it, "for Christ did not buy us with gold or silver or pearls or other precious stones, but with his own precious blood."371371 Letters, pp. 54, 65, 75, 110, 158, 164, 226, 263, 283, etc.
To Catherine the religious life was a subjection of the will to the will of God and the outgoing of the soul in exercises of prayer and the practice of love. "I want you to wholly destroy your own will that it may cling to Christ crucified." So she wrote to a mother bereft of her children. Writing to the recluse, Bartolomea della Seta, she represented the Saviour as saying, "Sin and virtue consist in the consent of the will, there is no sin or virtue unless voluntarily wrought."
To another she wrote, "I have already seen many penitents who have been neither patient nor obedient because they have studied to kill their bodies but not their wills."372372 Letters, pp. 43, 162, 152, 149.
Her sound religious philosophy showed itself in insisting again and again that outward discipline is not the only or always the best way to secure the victory of the spirit. If the body is weak or fallen into illness, the rule of discretion sets aside the exercises of bodily discipline. She wrote, "Not only should fasting be abandoned but flesh be eaten and, if once a day is not enough, then four times a day." Again and again she treats of penance as an instrument. "The little good of penance may hinder the greater good of inward piety. Penance cuts off," so she wrote in a remarkable letter to Sister Daniella of Orvieto, "yet thou wilt always find the root in thee, ready to sprout again, but virtue pulls up by the root."
Monastic as Catherine was, yet no evangelical guide-book could write more truly than she did in most particulars. And at no point does this noble woman rise higher than when she declined to make her own states the standard for others, and condemned those "who, indiscreetly, want to measure all bodies by one and the same measure, the measure by which they measure themselves." Writing to her niece, Nanna Benincasa, she compared the heart to a lamp, wide above and narrow below. A bride of Christ must have lamp and oil and light. The heart should be wide above, filled with holy thoughts and prayer, bearing in memory the blessings of God, especially the blessing of the blood by which we are bought. And like a lamp, it should be narrow below, "not loving or desiring earthly things in excess nor hungering for more than God wills to give us."
To the Christian virtues of prayer and love she continually returns. Christian love is compared to the sea, peaceful and profound as God Himself, for "God is love." This passage throws light upon the unsearchable mystery of the Incarnate Word who, constrained by love, gave Himself up in all humility. We love because we are loved. He loves of grace, and we love Him of duty because we are bound to do so; and to show our love to Him we ought to serve and love every rational creature and extend our love to good and bad, to all kinds of people, as much to one who does us ill as to one who serves us, for God is no respecter of persons, and His charity extends to just men and sinners. Peter’s love before Pentecost was sweet but not strong. After Pentecost he loved as a son, bearing all tribulations with patience. So we, too, if we remain in vigil and continual prayer and tarry ten days, shall receive the plenitude of the Spirit. More than once in her letters to Gregory, she bursts out into a eulogy of love as the remedy for all evils. "The soul cannot live without love," she wrote in the Dialogue, "but must always love something, for it was created through love. Affection moves the understanding, as it were, saying, ’I want to love, for the food wherewith I am fed is love.’ "373373 Scudder, Letters, pp. 81, 84, 126 sq.; Gardner, Life, p. 377.
Such directions as these render Catherine’s letters a valuable manual of religious devotion, especially to those who are on their guard against being carried away by the underlying quietistic tone. Not only do they have a high place as the revelation of a pious woman’s soul. They deal with unconcealed boldness and candor with the low conditions into which the Church was fallen. Popes are called upon to institute reforms in the appointment of clergymen and to correct abuses in other directions. As for the pacification of the Tuscan cities, a cause which lay so close to Catherine’s heart, she urged the pontiff to use the measures of peace and not of war, to deal as a father would deal with a rebellious son,—to put into practice clemency, not the pride of authority. Then the very wolves would nestle in his bosom like lambs.374374 Letters, p. 133.
As for the pope’s return to Rome, she urged it as a duty he owed to God who had made him His vicar. In view of the opposition on the Rhone, almost holding him as by physical force, she called upon him to "play the man," "to be a manly man, free from fear and fleshly love towards himself or towards any creature related to him by kin," "to be stable in his resolution and to believe and trust in Christ in spite of all predictions of the evil to follow his return to Rome."375375 Letters, pp. 66, 185, 232, etc. To this impassioned Tuscan woman, the appointment of unworthy shepherds and bad rectors was responsible for the rebellion against papal authority, shepherds who, consumed by self-love, far from dragging Christ’s sheep away from the wolves, devoured the very sheep themselves. It was because they did not follow the true Shepherd who has given His life for the sheep. Likening the Church to a garden, she invoked the pope to uproot the malodorous plants full of avarice, impurity and pride, to throw them away that the bad priests and rulers who poison the garden might no longer have rule. To Urban VI. she addressed burning words of condemnation. "Your sons nourish themselves on the wealth they receive by ministering the blood of Christ, and are not ashamed of being money-changers. In their great avarice they commit simonies, buying benefices with gifts or flatteries or gold." And to the papal legate of Bologna, Cardinal d’Estaing, she wrote, "make the holy father consider the loss of souls more than the loss of cities, for God demands souls."
The stress Catherine laid upon the pope’s responsibility to God and her passionate reproof of an unworthy and hireling ministry, inclined some to give her a place among the heralds of the Protestant Reformation. Flacius Illyricus included her in the list of his witnesses for the truth—Catalogus testium veritatis.376376 Döllinger, Fables and Prophecies of the Middle Ages, p. 330, calls attention to the failure of Catherine’s predictions to reach fulfilment. "How little have these longings of the devout maiden of Siena been transformed into history!" With burning warmth she spoke of a thorough-going reformation which was to come upon the Church. "The bride, now all deformed and clothed in rags," she exclaimed, "will then gleam with beauty and jewels, and be crowned with the diadem of all virtues. All believing nations will rejoice to have excellent shepherds, and the unbelieving world, attracted by her glory, will be converted unto her." Infidel peoples would be brought into the Catholic fold,—ovile catholicum,—and be converted unto the true pastor and bishop of souls. But Catherine, admirable as these sentiments were, moved within the limits of the mediaeval Church. She placed piety back of penitential exercises in love and prayer and patience, but she never passed beyond the ascetic and conventual conception of the Christian life into the open air of liberty through faith. She had the spirit of Savonarola, the spirit of fiery self-sacrifice for the well-being of her people and the regeneration of Christendom, but she did not see beyond the tradition of the past. Living a hundred years and more before the Florentine prophet, she was excelled by none in her own age and approached by none of her own nation in the century between her and Savonarola, in passionate effort to save her people and help spread righteousness. Hers was the voice of the prophet, crying in the wilderness, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
In recalling the women of the century from 1350 to 1450, the mind easily associates together Catherine of Siena and Joan of Arc, 1411–1431, one the passionate advocate of the Church, the other of the national honor of France. The Maid of Orleans, born of peasant parentage, was only twenty when she was burnt at the stake on the streets of Rouen, 1431. Differing from her Italian sister by comeliness of form and robustness of constitution, she also, as she thought, was the subject of angelic communications and divine guidance. Her unselfish devotion to her country at first brought it victory, but, at last, to her capture and death. Her trial by the English on the charges of heresy and sorcery and her execution are a dark sheet among the pages of her century’s history. Twenty-five years after her death, the pope revoked the sentence, and the French heroine, whose standard was embroidered with lilies and adorned with pictures of the creation and the annunciation, was beatified, 1909, and now awaits the crown of canonization from Rome. The exalted passion of these two women, widely as they differ in methods and ideals and in the close of their careers, diffuses a bright light over the selfish pursuits of their time, and makes the aims of many of its courts look low and grovelling.
|« Prev||Catherine of Siena, the Saint||Next »|
►Proofing disabled for this book
► Printer-friendly version