Learning about the life of St. Catherine of Siena

“I wish you to know that every tear proceeds from the heart, for there is no member of the body that will satisfy the heart so much as the eye. If the heart is in pain the eye manifests it.” – St. Catherine of Siena

A visit to Siena is the chance to discover more about St. Catherine, a patron saint of Italy along with St. Francis of Assisi, and one of the six patron saints of Europe nominated by Pope John Paul II.

Catherine is one of the most revered saints of medieval Catholicism, and she is a fascinating character. She is one of very few women who have been named “Doctors of the Church” as a result of her contribution to theology.  Due to her collection of letters and her major treatise, known as her Dialogue, much of which she dictated during “religious ecstasies”, she is viewed as one of the most important Catholic writers.

She was one of twins born on March 25, 1347, to Lapa Piagenti , who had already given birth to 22 children, though about half of them died, including her twin sister. Catherine is said to have had her first visions of Jesus when she was a child. She was walking home with her brother when she experienced a vision of Christ seated in glory.

This is an account by Father Raymond, her confessor and biographer, talking about what happened that day when she was returning from an errand. She was only about six at the time:

“The holy child, lifting her eyes, saw on the opposite side above the Church of the Preaching Friars, a most beautiful room, adorned with regal magnificence, in which was seated, on an imperial throne, Jesus Christ… clothed in pontifical vestments, and wearing on His head a papal tiara; with Him were the princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, and the holy evangelist John. Astounded at such a sight, Catherine stood still, and with fixed and immovable look, gazed, full of love, on her Saviour, who, appearing in so marvellous a manner, in order sweetly to gain her love to Himself, fixed on her the eyes of His Majesty, and, with a tender smile, lifted over His right hand, and, making the sign of the Holy Cross in the manner of a bishop, left with her the gift of His eternal benediction. The grace of this gift was so efficacious, that Catherine, beside herself, and transformed into Him upon whom she gazed such love, forgetting not only the road she was on, but also herself, although naturally a timid child, stood still for a space with lifted and immovable eyes in the public road, where men and beasts were continually passing, and would certainly have continued to stand there as long as the vision lasted, had she not been violently diverted by others,” Father Raymond wrote, a section of which is reported in the introduction to the Dialogue.

According to reports of her life, her brother said that at that young age she had vowed that she would dedicate herself to God. Later on, she would say that she had chosen Jesus as her spouse, and when she was 21 she experienced what she described as a mystic marriage to Jesus, which is a subject often depicted in art.

Alessandro Franchi and Gaetano Marinelli, The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, 1896

Catherine had also seemed like a special child because around the age of five she used to climb the stairs reciting Ave Maria, and her mother would say that at times she had flown up without touching the steps.

When she was a teenager, Catherine’s older sister died in childbirth, and she was told that she would marry her sister’s widower. She refused to do this due to the marriage vow she had already made with Jesus, and she also cut off her hair in protest at her mother trying to make her seem more attractive for her potential husband-to-be. When I heard this side of Catherine’s story, about her determination to remain single, refusing to become a wife in the fourteenth century, she sounded like an amazingly strong woman. It is hard enough these days to live as a single woman, let alone say openly that is what you want to do, so if she managed to do it in that era she must have been extremely tough, and so sure about pursuing her calling.

Her determination and dedication to her faith must have been obvious to her parents and those around her, because ultimately they relented and let her live the life she wanted.

And what was this life like? She had her own cell in her family house where she would pray through the day and often at night as well. This can still be visited nowadays. She carried out a lot of penances, including whipping herself, fasting, and depriving herself of sleep. She grew close to the Dominican religious order, with St. Dominic being her favourite saint, and she was accepted into a group of Dominican laywomen when she was about 16.

After several years of solitude, often spent in ecstasies, she lived an active life helping the poor and sick in Siena. She passed a lot of the time in the city’s hospitals, often tending to people with horrific diseases and the dying. This work carried on when Siena was hit by the plague. She was also dedicated to converting souls to her faith and convinced many in Siena to join the Church.

Catherine also became active politically. She would tour around northern and central Italy, pushing for reform of the clergy. She started dictating her influential letters to scribes, increasingly to figures of authority, seeking to resolve disputes between the various principalities and republics in Italy and pushing for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome.

In 1377, she spent a year in Rocca D’Orcia, South East of Siena, where she is said to have miraculously learnt to write, and started to produce her major work, the Dialogue of Divine Providence.

Eventually her strict penances caught up with her. Her friends and acquaintances had tried to convince her to eat properly, but she said her struggle to eat was an illness. In 1380 she started having trouble swallowing, then she slowly became paralysed and died.

When you are in Siena, one of the first sites related to her that you can visit is her family’s house. Here you can learn about her life and see various chapels and monuments dedicated to her.

Then you can also go to the nearby church of San Domenico, where you can see some relics, including her head. Her official tomb however is in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. In San Domenico there are many pretty frescoes related to her life, including this one by Andrea Vanni (from around 1400).

To learn more about her dedication to helping the sick and also to see a wonderful museum and many art treasures, you can head to Santa Maria della Scala and see the Oratory of St. Catherine of the Night, where she is said to have come to sleep and pray when tending to the sick here.

After visiting the sites of St. Catherine in the Siena area, I decided that I should read her letters and her dialogue. The insights she gives in them are very profound and what struck me also is that the virtues and values she focuses on are very rarely talked about in the modern world. Here are a selection that stood out for me below as ideals that would be worth thinking about even today:

  1. Being patient rather than intolerant and easily frustrated

“Patience shows better and more perfectly than any other virtue, that God is in the soul by grace,” St. Catherine writes in a letter to Monna Agnese. “Just as impatience shows more clearly than any other sin that the soul is deprived of God.”

There seems to be a lot of anger and intolerance around in the world today. Online, people immediately react to things they do not like with frustration and agitation. How about considering this virtue of patience, which involves being able to accept or tolerate delays, issues, inconvenience and suffering without becoming annoyed or stressed. This could be viewed as a strength of character rather than a weakness.

  1. Refraining from judging others

“Often, if we followed our own impressions, the devil would make us see many truths to lead us into falsehood; and this, because we make ourselves judges of the minds of our fellow-creatures, which are for God alone to judge,” St Catherine writes to Daniella of Orvieto.

It is so easy to judge people nowadays, and people are so quick to do it. Everyone wants to share their opinion and criticise what others are doing. Is this perhaps because we are looking online at each other’s profiles and feeling bombarded by their information? How about looking away? And how about waiting a moment before judging them harshly, perhaps imagining what we would do if they were there in front of us physically?

Rather than focus on the fault of one person, it is important to look at how all of society is behaving, which is probably what is influencing actions which we may perceive as being inappropriate. Instead of looking so closely at specific individuals, how about concentrating on encouraging more positive ways of acting in society.

“God shows us the faults of others, keep on the sager side, for your own judgment may be false. On thy lips let silence abide. And any vice which thou mayest ascribe to others, do thou ascribe at once to them and to thyself, in true humility.  If that vice really exists in a person, he will correct himself better, seeing himself so gently understood, and will say of his own accord the thing which thou wouldst have said to him,” she says in a letter on the Consecrated Life.

  1. Caring for your neighbour, and being lenient even when they wrong you

“We ought to be of profit to our neighbour, because he is the means by which we test and gain virtue,” St. Catherine writes to Catarina Di Scetto.

Catherine talks a lot about considering our neighbours and how it is through them that we are able to serve a higher power. She describes how it is good to focus on love, rather than remembering everything that people have done wrong to us, and trying to seek revenge for that.

 “If men are untrue to us, we ought to be true to them, and faithfully to seek their salvation, loving them of grace, and not by barter.”

“It befits us to to love in general every rational creature: those who are outside of grace we must love with grief and bitterness over their fault, because they wrong God and their own soul”

“Through charity to God we conceive virtues, and through charity toward our neighbours they are brought to the birth.”

  1. Suppressing your will to help remind you to follow God

This was an important practice for Catherine. She observed penances such as fasting to remind her not to give in to her own sensory desires, but rather to focus on the way of God. Catherine took these practices a little to the extreme side and according to some accounts it is partly because of her self-mortification like fasting that she died at the young age of 33.

Nevertheless I think there is something to learn in the idea of holding back and fasting every so often, to remind you that you cannot always just take whatever you want, and that you need to listen to the rules of how to be righteous above and beyond listening to your own bodily wants and desires, which will not always be in line with what is fair and good. It also reminds you of the fact that many people in the world at any given time are being deprived of the things you are enjoying.

“Kill, kill your own will, that it may not be so tied to your relatives, and mortify your body, and do not so pamper it in delicate ways. Despise yourself, and have in regard neither rank nor riches, for virtue is the only thing that makes us gentlefolk, and the riches of this life are the worst of poverty when possessed with inordinate love apart from God,” Catherine wrote in a letter to Monna Colomba.

  1. Discretion vs. showing off

“Discretion should regulate one’s charity to one’s neighbour,” she writes to Sister Daniella of Orvieto.

Discretion involves the ability to behave without causing embarrasment to another. Especially by keeping things secret. This is an interesting one to think about in the modern world when we often keen to share everything. And it also stands opposed to the way we are so quick to ridicule others publicly. How about holding back on the public shaming, and helping people quietly and behind the scenes.

  1. Beware of self-love and adulation

This is always a big challenge for humans, and I imagine in the internet age with the temptation of Instagram popularity, it is becoming even harder to control.

“There are three principle vices: namely: self-love, whence proceeds the second, that is love of reputation, whence proceeds the third, that is pride, with injustice and cruelty, and with other filthiness and iniquitous sins, that follow upon these,” Catherine writes in her Dialogue.

  1. Embracing a poor, simple life rather than seeking riches

“Christ embraced voluntary poverty and was a lover of continence; the wretched man who has made himself a follower and lover of falsehood does just the contrary; not only does he fail to be content with what he has, or to refrain through love of virtue, but he robs other people,” she says in a letter to Lorenzo Del Pino of Bologna (written in trance).

  1. Loving truth vs. fake news and false prophets

There are some interesting lessons to learn nowadays in what Catherine says about believing people without thinking through their motives carefully, and always keeping the search for the truth in the forefront of your mind.

“We ought to recognise the truth about our neighbour, whether he be great or humble, subject or lord. That is when we see that men are doing some deed in which we might invite our neighbour to join, we ought to perceive wither it is grounded in truth or not, and what foundation he has who is impelled to do this deed. He who does not do this, acts as one mad and blind, who follows a blind guide, grounded in falsehood, and shows that he has no truth in himself, and therefore seeks not the truth,” Catherine wrote to Giovanna Queen of Naples.

  1. Wickedness comes from being far from God

(Extract from the Dialogue with “God” speaking )

 “I am that Fire which purifies the soul, and the closer the soul is to Me, the purer she becomes, and the further she is from Me, the more does her purity leave her; which is the reason why men of the world fall into such iniquities, for they are separated from Me, while the soul, who, without any medium, unites herself directly to Me, participates in My Purity.”

  1. Refusing to fall into despair and instead fighting for goodness and truth, especially in difficult times

(Extract from Dialogue, with “God” speaking)

“Despair is that sin which is pardoned neither here nor hereafter, and it is because despair displeases Me so much that I wish them to hope in My mercy at the point of death, even if their life have been disordered and wicked.”


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