Invisible Wounds: Dr. Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena by Carol Zangari
Catherine of Siena by Carol Zangari

The Church and Her Lists

Students sometimes ask me for a list of people the Church considers damned.

They are surprised to learn that no one has ever been eternally canceled by the Catholic Church – not Cain, not Judas, not Stalin; there is simply no such list!

We do make many lists, though. We call them canons (Latin for ‘lists’). One famous canon: the holy people through the ages whose heroic virtue and obvious sanctity marked them as friends of God. These, the canonized saints of the Church, give witness beyond their time on earth and are recommended to the faithful as intercessors.

Among the canonized are an elite 36 (and counting), the doctors of the universal church. These saints’ teachings shine divine light so clearly and with such beauty that God is better known, loved, and served by those who learn at their feet.

Indeed, as 24 of these doctors lived before the ruptures of the 1500s, both Protestants and Catholics can reckon them as part of our shared heritage: Augustine, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Bede the Venerable are all fair game for true across-the-aisle reflection.

These master teachers deserve our attention, and it is a shame when they fade from view. This series of columns aims to take up some of their lessons and apply them to our time.

Dr. Caterina

We start with Caterina Benincasa, 1347-1380, known in English as St. Catherine of Siena.

Despite the expectations of her parents and medieval society, she creatively chose neither the nunnery nor matrimony and instead became affiliated with the Dominican order as a layperson. She was at once fully immersed in her own interior life and fully engaged in 14th century Italy’s rocky political life. Her contemporaries marveled at her ability to preach, to attend the sick, to pray for hours in ecstasy, and to dictate fiery letters to all who needed their hearts kindled. She worked passionately to assist the poor and fought tirelessly for unity and good governance in the church.

Her rich works of spiritual wisdom bear careful reading, and they are the principal reasons Pope Paul VI named her a doctor of the Church.

Today’s tutorial, however, comes not from her books, but from her body. 

Catherine found herself involved with Jesus Christ in an intensely intimate way. Their union was so close that her body not only took sustenance solely from the Eucharist but also bore the marks of Christ’s passionate love: the stigmata. Stigmatics throughout history (Francis of Assisi is the first known) have experienced the supernatural phenomenon of non-festering, non-healing wounds that correspond to Jesus’ crucifixion injuries.

It makes sense that Catherine became a stigmatic. Her whole self belonged to Him, with nothing held back. She even reported a mystical exchange of her heart for his. The divine union she felt burned brightly until she was spent at age 33, the traditional age of Christ at his own death.

Such intimacy would not have been appropriate or healthy between mere mortals; in human-to-human relationships, there is a part of the self that must be retained even as it makes of itself a gift. In a human marriage, a spouse does not confess all sins to her mate or ask to be absorbed completely by him. Mortal love, even when it is truly self-sacrificial, never means a transformation into the likeness of the other, physical or spiritual. When one of the partners is Jesus Christ, all those boundaries are obliterated.

Although the parent-child relationship was not the main avenue of God’s grace in Catherine’s experience, it is my path for making sense of stigmata: when one of my young children is badly hurt, I am caught up in and cannot escape from his pain, not as a matter of ideals or aspirations or temporary emotional passion, but simply as a reality, as a matter of the ground of my existence. Catherine had a love for Christ that was as in-built as the mother’s for her child, so of course she experienced his pain as native to herself. The experience of stigmata makes tangible the intangible reality of union.

A Private Affair

The wrinkle: Catherine asked for her stigmata to be invisible while she lived, and Christ granted the request. She felt the wounds, but no one could see them. Why? What lesson can we learn from this decision to keep private what otherwise would be a clear sign of divine intimacy? Would she not have gained credibility with cardinals, popes, dukes, et al., if these stamps of approval had been visible?

Perhaps while reading you found yourself thinking that being around a stigmatic would make you uncomfortable or that some of them might be frauds. If so, perhaps you have helped us answer the question. When a mystic walks around with bleeding wrists, that’s all most people see. People tend to tune out or pay too much honor to a stigmatic – either way, Catherine might have been less heard, not more, if she had visible stigmata.  Like all great saints, Catherine didn’t want the attention on herself; like John the Baptist, she existed to point to one greater than she.

Yet Catherine was hardly shy of the limelight when she felt it put Christ in the spotlight. Indeed, she did as much of her teaching by dramatic acts as she did by her words. Consider some of these prophetic dramas she carried out:

  • Staying in the city to care for the sick during an outbreak of the Black Death.
  • Accompanying a condemned man to his execution, and holding his head in her hands even as it was taken from him by the government.
  • Cutting her hair and fasting to refuse wedding plans she had not made for herself.
  • Walking all the way to France (or was that Babylon?) to confront a Pope.

If someone who did all that wanted to keep her stigmata to herself, she must have deemed it either too intimate to share or unhelpful for her ministry. In any case, the marks became manifest upon her death; for those skeptics who had doubted her mystical union with Christ, the now-visible stigmata confirmed its authenticity.

Taking Catherine Personally

As I meditate on Catherine’s sanctity, stigmata, and secrets, I take some personal notes: 

…to accept the gifts of the Lord, even when they hurt or I do not understand them.

…to guard my relationship with God. Religion is a communal affair, but it does not preclude prudent privacy. We do not need to reveal every thought, gift, or experience to our brethren. I can be careful with my own wounds, revealing them after first discerning a worthy purpose and only after weighing whether they will be perceived as stigmata or merely stigma.

…not to expect or presume to know another person’s spiritual reality. You have heard it said, “be kind – everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” but I say unto you, go further and assume everyone you meet is a secret stigmatic.

…to stop underestimating Christ’s desire for intimacy with me.

Following Up

If you would like to take the next step in learning from this doctor of the Church, consider reading Louis de Wohl’s historical novel Lay Siege to Heaven or Sigrid Undset’s biographical treatment, Catherine of Siena. You could also meditate upon one of her many popular quotes – “All the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus said, I am the Way,” or “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

Let us end with Catherine’s words: “Eternal Trinity, Godhead, mystery deep as the sea, you could give me no greater gift than that of yourself.”

Kaitlyn Dudley Curtin holds graduate degrees in Theology and in Education. She writes a monthly column, “Strong Medicine: Scripts from the Doctors of the Church.” She keeps up a personal blog and recently contributed a chapter to Teresa Tomeo’s book Listening for God. She and her school principal husband parent five lovely children in upstate South Carolina.

8/24/2021 4:26:38 AM
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    About Kaitlyn Curtin
    Kaitlyn Dudley Curtin holds graduate degrees in Theology and in Education. She writes a monthly column on Patheos, “Strong Medicine: Scripts from the Doctors of the Church.” She keeps up a personal blog and recently contributed a chapter to Teresa Tomeo’s book "Listening for God." She and her school principal husband parent five lovely children in the upstate of South Carolina.