Insight and encouragement from St. Catherine of Siena

by | Jan 22, 2017 | Blog, News and Updates | 0 comments

Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset (2009), references are to the kindle version.

“Daughter, do you know who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will be very happy. You must know that you are that which is not, but I am That Which Is. If your soul is possessed of this knowledge the devil will never be able to cheat you, and you shall escape all his snares and all his cunning without suffering. You will never consent to anything which is against My commands. Without difficulty you will attain all the gifts of grace and all the virtues of love.” God has created all life out of nothing, and if the mercy of God did not sustain its existence it would immediately return to nothing. If we are left to ourselves, without the mercy of God, we fall into sin, which is also nothingness. By ourselves we can neither think of nor achieve anything which is virtuous or good. It is therefore true that that which is created is in itself nothing. But because God is the foundation and origin of everything, it is only He Who Is. As soon as a creature through the light of belief has come to understand this truth he may call himself blessed. For eternal blessedness consists of this: knowing God as He really is 517

My visions are always accompanied at first by a certain amount of fear, but as they unfold they bring a growing feeling of security. First comes bitterness, but later come strength and consolation. The visions which come from the devil create at first a feeling of security and sweetness, but they end in terror and bitterness. My way is the way of penitence. At first it seems hard and difficult to follow, but the further you pursue it, the happier and sweeter it appears. The way of the devil, on the other hand, is sweet and happy to begin with, but as the soul pursues the way of sin it goes from bitterness to bitterness, and the end is eternal damnation. And because I am the Truth My visions always lead to a greater knowledge of the Truth, and it is of the greatest necessity that a soul gains knowledge of Me and of itself. This makes the soul honour Me and despise itself, and that is the meaning of humility. Visions which come from the devil make the soul which he visits proud, for he is the father of lies and of pride, and the soul is filled with vanity which is the core of all pride.” Later Our Lord taught her other axioms: “My daughter, think always of Me, and I promise to think of you.” “Empty your heart of all other cares and thoughts, think only of Me and rest in Me. 533

The young girl “swam under the water in the sea of God’s love” this natural happiness changed to the supernatural joy which was later to make such a deep impression on her children of the spirit. They found the most astonishing and delightful characteristic of their beloved “mother” was this joy which ceaselessly flowed from her, even when she had to bear an inhuman burden of work, apparent defeat and disappointment, terrible physical and spiritual suffering— 544

She knew that “we cannot live without loving.” There was the true and proper love of the Reality which is God, and the false love towards oneself and the world—love for things which have no real existence. 561

For My sake shall you let all that is bitter seem sweet, and all that is sweet seem bitter. Then you need be afraid of nothing, for you will be strong in all adversities.567

The artificial division of religion and politics did not exist for the people of the Middle Ages. If they thought over the matter at all, they were completely aware that all the problems concerning the community—good or bad government, the welfare or misery of the people—are in the final instance religious problems. 1851

Catherine never had any doubts about the answer. A man is nothing by himself, has nothing from himself. His existence is in his Creator, everything he is and owns is from his Creator. United with his Creator, who is boundless Love, eternal Truth, Wisdom personified, man receives his share of the qualities of the Divine—within the limits of humanity. If a man loves God, he will be able to love his neighbour, to attain wisdom, and to be just and truthful. Because God is our eternal blessedness, a child of God becomes a blessing for his fellows. Love for one’s own ego, for something which is in reality nothing, leads to an abyss of nothingness. The love of a selfish man is nothing, truth escapes between his hands, his wisdom will show itself to be foolishness, his justice injustice, and in the end a series of disappointments and mistakes will lead him to hell—to the devil who is the spirit of disappointment and barrenness. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” Catherine knew the truth of these words. 1855

Catherine’s genius was that her Christ-like heart had room for all her children of the spirit—perhaps she did not love them all with equal intensity, but at any rate she loved them in such a way that no glimpse of any jealousy among them has reached us. It is as though she loved each one in a special way, so that for each daughter and son she could be exactly what he or she needed. The theme of all her letters to Neri di Landoccio is always the same: be of good courage. But she also advised him solemnly to see through this world, to see how little its gifts are worth, to fill himself with the love of God, for His love for us will fulfil all our truest and holiest desires. 1873

In the precious blood of Jesus Christ was healing for his soul, which Catherine once compared with a leaf which trembles with every wind. 1878

She reminded them that they had once taken vows to live in poverty (the Augustinian hermits are also a mendicant order); but how had they kept these vows? They lived like cardinals, in spacious cells, with bookshelves, good beds and arm-chairs. (In comfort) “How can you dare to try to understand anything of the kingdom of heaven? You have thrown away the kernel and now chew the empty shell of faith. For the sake of Jesus Christ, stop living such a life. . . 1956

When she spoke as though she believed that her sins were the cause of the misery of the Holy Church and the whole world, she meant it with deadly seriousness. Obviously she knew that hundreds of thousands of other souls were also sufficiently sinful to bring the same miseries over the whole world and the Church. But it was not for her to judge them—she could only judge herself. 1991  in a mysterious way the sins of the faithful impoverish the whole of Christendom. 1995  We all have our share in the rewards of all the saints and the guilt of all sinners. 1998

Love alone is able to put an end to discussion, unite those who are divided, enrich those who are poor in virtue; for love will bring to life all the other virtues, give peace, put an end to war, give patience, strength and perseverance in all good and holy causes. “It never tires, cannot be divorced from the love of God and our neighbour, either by suffering or injustice, either by derision or injuries; it cannot be moved by impatience, nor by the joys and pleasures which this unreal world can offer us. “I exhort you”, the young Mantellata writes to the Cardinal, “to take upon yourself these bonds, this love, so that you may listen to the sweet Truth who has decided your destiny, given you life, form, and order, and has taught you the dogmas of truth.” She commands him to work with all his might to clear away the disgraces and miseries of which the world is full, and which are caused by sin and offend God’s name. He is to use the power given to him by the Vicar of Christ in the way she says: without love he cannot do his duty. But in order to love God with the whole of one’s heart one must tear all self-love out of the heart, and with it, all submission to one’s ego and the world. For these two kinds of love are opposites, so that self-love divorces us from God and our neighbour. The one kind of love brings life, the other death, the one light and the other darkness, the one peace and the other war. Self-love makes the heart shrink so that it cannot even contain its own ego; and certainly not its neighbour. It causes slavish fear which hinders a man from doing his duty, either from ignorance or from the fear of losing his position in the world. So Catherine advises the Cardinal to take courage and strength in Jesus Christ, to be zealous and to raise the banner of the holy cross. She signs this letter in the same way as all her other letters: “Dolce Gesù, Gesù Amore.” 2035

In another letter she writes of the same subject: “A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. Oh, how dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see nor understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a human being loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason of this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance nor being and vanish like the wind. . . .  2049

Our Lord hates above all things three abominable sins: covetousness, unchastity and pride. 2076

She advises him to repent sincerely of his sins, and begs him to work not only for the temporal well-being of the Church, though this is surely important too, but above all to drive these wolves from the fold, these devils in human shape who think of nothing but their own sinful pleasures and their criminal love of pomp and power. Finally she begs his forgiveness for her boldness, and asks him to pray for her. 2083

“Love, love, love, and remember that you were loved even before you were created. For God who sees Himself, passionately loves the beauty of His creation, and He created it because His love is boundless, to give it eternal life and to allow it to enjoy the indescribable blessedness which He Himself possesses.” No power is worth having unless one has power over one’s own soul. “This city [the city of the soul] is so strong, you are so powerful within it, that neither devil nor man can take possession of it without your consent.” 2096

To see the Bride of Christ regain her original beauty, to see the Church washed clean of all that its unworthy servants had soiled it with, became more and more the very core of Catherine’s struggle to achieve perfect unity with Jesus Christ. 2108

Her advice is always the same: break the chains of sin, cleanse yourselves by confession, be reconciled to God—then you will be real rulers, for who can really be master if he is not master of himself, if reason does not rule his senses? 2321

“Let all do the work which God has given them, and not bury their talent, for that is also a sin deserving severe punishment. It is necessary to work always and everywhere for all God’s creatures. God is not bound by places or people. He looks upon our honest and holy desires, which are the tools we must work with.” 2326

This world, Catherine did not believe in it. For her it was a mirage, which shines for a moment before it vanishes into nothing. This did not prevent her judgment of worldly affairs from being acute, and the advice she gave her correspondents full of sound common sense. But her advice was too straightforward and honest for people who dealt in cunning and intrigues—so they did not follow it. 2345

Tuscany — these republics were already examples of the advantages and disadvantages which follow democracy always and everywhere. Freedom had made the citizens rich, cultured and intelligent, their best men burned with patriotism and took their responsibility towards their countrymen very seriously. But these free citizens were also implicated in an endless series of private quarrels and political feuds—sometimes the enmity was caused by childish vanity or mean egotism, sometimes by serious conflicts between ideals and philosophies which led to differing opinions as to what is necessary to a good and just government. There were ceaseless encounters between men who cynically sought their own advantage or blindly believed in the infallibility of their own wisdom. People constantly changed sides in these quarrels, either because of their convictions or for the sake of what they could get out of it. Freedom had emptied its cornucopia over the beautiful Tuscan countryside and let its good and evil gifts rain down. 2443

She describes her longing to see him stand as a fruitful tree, loaded with noble fruit because it is planted in good earth. But if the tree is not planted in this good earth, which is self-knowledge—the knowledge that we are nothing, existing only in Him Who Is—the tree will wither. The worm of egoism will eat up the roots, for he who loves himself feeds his soul with mortal pride, the principle and origin of evil in all men, in those who rule and those who must obey. A man who has become the victim of self-love becomes indifferent to sins and faults among his subordinates, for he is afraid to annoy them and make them his enemies. Either he attempts to punish them so halfheartedly that it is useless, or else he does not punish them at all. In other words Catherine tells the Pope openly that in the last resort it is he who carries the whole responsibility for the terrible abuses which are draining the life of the Church, even though according to human reckoning he may be a fine person with many good qualities. Nevertheless it is he who is responsible for the bad shepherds and the treacherous monks whose shameful way of living is undermining the faith of believers. “If the blind leads the blind both fall into the abyss; 2489

God is That Which Is Strong, for all strength and virtue emanate from Him. This strength has not been taken from His bride, and nothing else possesses it. The enemies of the Church, who fight against her, have lost this strength and help; 2596

It seems to me that God reveals no other remedy than peace. 2660  Afterwards. The Sweet Truth reminded her of these words in the Gospel: “It must needs be that offences come”, but also “woe to him through whom they come.” 2706 “Rejoice therefore when you suffer affliction, and love, love, love each other. 2714

So the great truth was made clearly apparent—that Christ receives a soul entirely because of His mercy, and not because of any merits of the soul itself. But as the soul of Niccolo entered the mystery of the Holy Trinity it turned and looked at her, as the bride does when she has come to the house of her bridegroom and with bowed head acknowledges those who have accompanied her, as a last sign of gratitude. 3027

A man is forced to live up to his social position; even people who otherwise condemned the luxury of the prelates were agreed on this. 3430

Père Hurtaud chose the most appropriate when he decided to call his French translation The Book of Mercy. The undercurrent beneath the waves of shifting ideas in these conversations between the Eternal Father and her whom He calls His very dear daughter, and His much loved child, is the belief in God’s mercy. With her heart crushed by compassion Catherine begs for mercy—for all this world which sin has laid waste, for all Christians and heathens and the infidel too. And finally, when the Eternal Father compresses all He has taught His daughter into a few sentences, He says: “I have told you that I will show the world mercy so that you can see that mercy is the sign by which I am known.” God is inseparable in His being, but we must speak of Him as we experience His actions in different ways: thus St. Thomas speaks of one of God’s qualities which is neither love nor goodness, nor righteousness, nor providence, but which perfects all God’s perfections, which is the root of all His actions towards that part of His creation which He has given the ability to think and judge—His mercy. 3497

In the mirror of God’s goodness the soul sees how badly it has degraded and crippled itself by love of the wrong things. When she saw herself in this mirror Catherine realised that her guilt was so great that it was enough to have caused all the misery of the world and the Church which she wept over. Therefore she begged God that His vengeance might fall on her head, but His mercy over His people. “I will not go from Your presence before I have seen that You will have mercy on them. What would it help me if I knew that I was sure of my own blessedness, if Your people are to be given to death, and darkness shrouds your Bride, for my sake and no one else’s?” So she prayed for the Holy Church and for all men, calling on the love which caused Him to give His Word, His only Son, so that He might be a mediator between Him and us. “O abyss of mercy, we are Your image, and You became our image when You united Yourself with man and unveiled the eternal divinity in the dark clouds of Adam’s degenerate flesh.” When she saw that she had been given a new and deeper understanding of the love which caused the redemption by Christ Crucified, Catherine was filled with holy joy and prayed again for the whole world—although if the Holy Church should regain the outward beauty which is an expression of its eternal inner beauty, the whole world would be saved, for it would draw all men to itself so irresistibly that it would lead to the conversion of all men, both Christians and heathens. But when Adam rebelled against God the old royal road which led innocent man from earth to heaven was destroyed. An abyss opened between the two kingdoms, and through this abyss runs a dark and tumultuous river—all the unreal, fleeting things to which mankind’s contorted desire aspires. For we cannot live without desire; our soul’s actions are desire, holy or unholy. So when mankind had rebelled against God it immediately rebelled against itself; the flesh rebelled against the spirit and mankind drowned in the dark and bitter waters of sin. Because these waters lack solidity, none can live in them without drowning. These waters are the joys and honours of this world: in all eternity they stream past and are carried away in the current. Man thinks it is the things he loves which float, but in reality it is he himself who is swept by the stream towards the end of his life. He would like to stop, to keep his hold of this life and the things he loves, so that they are not washed out of his reach. He reaches out blindly to whatever he happens to touch, but he cannot tell the difference between the valuable and the valueless. Then comes death and takes him from all he loves, or Providence takes a hand, and even before his death he may be robbed of all his beloved worldly treasures. And because he has run after unreality he has followed the way of lies and is the child of the devil who is the Father of Lies. 3514

God made a bridge over this abyss when He gave the world His Son. For God, who created us without our having anything to do with it, demands of us that we should work with Him for our salvation. We are all bound to work in the vineyard where God is the husbandman. We have all been given our little vineyard, but the way in which we cultivate it is of great importance for the prosperity of our neighbour’s vineyard. Out in the country Catherine had certainly seen how a piece of earth overgrown with weeds and infested with insects was a source of infection for the neighbouring fields. In fact all our vineyards are a part of the Lord’s great vineyard, the Holy Church, and we are all bound to work here too. But because it is through the grace which God gives us that we are able to work with Him for our salvation, Catherine prays for light. 3535

It is the old teaching of the mystics on the Via Purificativa, the way to cleanse the soul, the Via Illuminativa, the way to enlightenment of the eternal truths, and the Via Unitiva, the way to unification with God in love. She develops the bridge symbol in several ways. The soul steps onto the bridge by three steps. 3542 intelligence and will. With an interpretation, entirely her own, of a phrase in the Bible, Catherine declares that when these three qualities of the soul run together in the desire for unity with God, Christ will fulfil His promise: “When two or three are gathered together in my name, I am among them.” She compares memory with a pitcher full of the impressions which we obtain through our emotional life; fill it with nothing, and the empty pitcher is easily broken, or it emits a shrill clang if anyone knocks it. Or fill it with reality, the love of God, and, like a pitcher filled with water from the well, it can take a knock without being broken or emitting a loud noise. For none here on earth can escape suffering and blows, and the pursuit of nothingness also brings hard blows and great bitterness for the soul: those who follow the devil have to bear his cross, and there are many who become martyrs for the devil too. But for a heart which is full of God, suffering is sweet, for we know that it is sent to us by love, so that we shall gain by it. For a soul cannot live without loving. It must have something to love, for it was created of love. No place or position in the world exempts us from the law of love. None may make his inheritance, his office, his authority, marriage or children an obstacle which hinders his attainment of this unity with God. All visible and sensual things are created by Him and are good in themselves; it is only if we love the created things more than the Creator that they become the tools of our damnation. Ceaselessly the devil tries to tempt us to this wrong kind of love, but it is we who condemn ourselves, because we are willing to be led astray. 3550

God speaks to His daughter of the presumption of judging one’s neighbour, and explains to her how it is possible to work for the conversion of sinners, calling evil by its rightful name, but yet leave the judgment of them to God. He particularly warns Catherine against judging unworthy priests and monks. To wage war on the Church because its bad servants sin is itself a great sin. God who raised up His priests and clothed them in power and dignity will judge them Himself, and however wretched they may be they are still the ministers of the sacraments which nourish the life of grace in us. But Christ says, “My priests shall be high-minded men, not hired apprentices. They must not sell the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is Myself, for rewards.” In the Dialogue God speaks too of the degeneration within the Church, and expresses Himself so uncompromisingly regarding bad priests and monks that some of the French translations which appeared at a time when anti-clericalism in France was at its most violent, simply omitted these chapters in Catherine’s book. She compares good priests and monks with suns which give life and warmth to the whole of Christendom. But woe to the priests and monks who are proud, practise simony, and intrigue to win honour and power among men. They waste the riches of the Church, which should be used for charitable work and for the upkeep of ecclesiastical buildings, on themselves and their concubines and bastards, or on their relations for whom they have exaggerated love. Instead of feeding Christ’s lambs they flay them and use their dishonest earnings for gambling and drinking. Nevertheless God says the same to us as His Truth says in the Gospel: “Do as they tell you, continue to keep the commandments they preach, but do not imitate their actions.” 3568  Mercy is so divine that You cannot deny it to those who pray for 3587

In her beautiful final prayer Catherine pours out her thanks for the treasures with which the Holy Trinity has filled her heart: “O eternal Trinity, You are a bottomless ocean. The more I throw myself into the ocean, the more I find You, and the more I find You the more I will search. I can never say of You—It is enough. . . As the hart longs for the running water of the spring, my soul longs to escape from the dark prison of my body to see You in truth. . . For in the light with which You have illuminated my intellect I have seen and tasted Your bottomless depths, O Eternal Trinity, and beauty of all that is created. . . O Eternal Trinity, You are the Creator, I am Your creature. In my redemption through the blood of Your Son I have recognised that You love the beauty of Your creatures. O abyss, O Eternal Divinity, bottomless ocean! Oh, what could You give me that is better than Yourself? You are the fire which burns eternally, and never dies. You are the fire which consumes self-love, You are the fire which melts all the frost and illumines all things, and it is in this light that You have taught me to know Your truth.” 3605

Not that all that God has created is not good in itself, but how sinful and stupid our flesh is which clamours for and becomes attached to the transitory goods of this life! Our life and the beauty of youth are as short-lasted as the beauty of a flower; once it has been plucked no one can preserve it. So it is with our life on earth when the Highest Judge lets death pluck us, none knows when. She reminds them that it is their duty to be examples of pure and holy life—and they have become as hired apprentices, ungrateful and untruthful. For it is a lie to say that they elected Urban out of fear—the comedy with Cardinal Tebaldeschi was played through fear. 3728

Besides her usual advice regarding love for oneself and love for Life, she offers particular advice regarding the sins of ingratitude: blasphemy, swearing, scandal, and wicked attempts to ruin the names and reputations of one’s neighbours. Only men who have learned to love God humbly and sincerely can govern their fellow-men with righteousness and human love, remain faithful to Christ in His Church, and faithfully protect the honour and happiness of their neighbours. 3940

Only the will can commit a crime; neither devils nor any other being can force it to commit the smallest sin if it is not willing. Therefore the sinful will which submits to the temptations of the enemy is a sword which kills the soul when it is offered to the enemy by the hand of free will. Which is more cruel, the enemy or the person who is wounded? We are the more cruel, for we agree to our own death.” She quotes a proverb which was current in the Middle Ages: “It is human to sin, but devilish to persist in sinning.” 3967

“In Your nature, Eternal Divinity, I have learned to know my own nature” 4010

“Love which moves the sun and all the stars.” 4017

Laudato Si’ Movement
Laudato Si’ Movement

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