Peacemakers Rock the Boat: Preaching Catherine of Siena

Continuing all the while her diligent practice of contemplative prayer, Catherine acquired a reputation as a woman of keen spiritual insight and discernment. Many people from all walks of life eagerly sought and trusted her counsel. Becoming a sort of combination of Mother Teresa and Ann Landers, Catherine penned advice for bishops, kings, scholars, and merchants as well as obscure peasants. Over four hundred of her letters have been preserved, including those written to the pope himself. In the middle of the 14th century, the popes, officially the Bishops of Rome, had been living for about seventy years not at Rome but in Avignon, France, where they were under the political control of the French King, following Rome's capture by the French in 1303. Catherine traveled to Avignon in 1376 and scolded Pope Gregory XI, telling him that he had no business residing outside of Rome. Remarkably, Pope Gregory heeded her advice, packed up his miter, and moved back home.

When Pope Gregory died in 1378, the College of Cardinals, mostly French, elected an Italian pope, Urban VI. Urban (far from urbane) turned out to be horribly ill-mannered, abrasive, arrogant, and tyrannical, wreaking havoc throughout the church. The cardinals, eager to rectify their blunder, declared that the election of Urban had occurred under duress due to pressure from the Italian citizenry whom they labeled a mob (though not yet the Mob.) Reconvening in secret, the Cardinals invalidated Urban's selection and chose an anti-pope, Clement VII, who established his residence at Avignon.

Catherine, to put it colloquially, went nuts. While feverishly warning Urban to curb his temper, mind his manners, and seek God with his whole heart, at the same time she stubbornly remained loyal to his having been called by God. One historian described her communication with Pope Urban as "kissing his feet while twisting his arm." For Catherine, unity in the church was the paramount manifestation of Christ on earth. The church of Jesus could not be divided and still be the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, despite her tireless efforts, Urban did as he pleased and the great papal schism persisted for more than fifty years. It greatly diminished Rome's credibility as the seat of Christianity and thus paved the way for the Protestant Reformation a century later.

Catherine died in 1380 at the age of 33. A humanitarian who cared for the least of the least, an activist who spoke truth to power and with power, an advisor to the mighty, Catherine is most prominently remembered as a mystic. Mystics are those for whom faith takes strong experiential and emotional shapes. Mystics are reputed to have access to the "mysteries of Christ," those places where God only is at work affecting the soul and its relationship with the divine. Because of its emphasis on the subjective and its refusal to rest on human reason, mysticism (particularly in its medieval forms) has always had its critics. Nevertheless, it was Catherine's intense, mystical faith that energized her extraordinary life and made her the center of Christian revival and of a formidable devoted family of followers. Though she never learned to write, her dictated letters and her most famous work, called The Dialogue, surface throughout devotional literature.

"You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea," she said in her dialogue with God. "The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you. You are insatiable, you in whose depth the soul is sated yet remains always hungry for you, thirsty for you, longing to see you with the light in your light . . . You are a fire always burning but never consuming; consuming in your heat all the soul's selfishness. You are a fire lifting all chill and giving light. In your light you have made me know your truth: You are that light beyond all light who gives the mind's eye supernatural light in such fullness and perfection that you bring clarity even to the light of faith. In that faith I see that my soul has life, and in that light receives you who are Light . . . Truly this light is a sea, for it nourishes my soul in you."

Since this is a dialogue, Catherine also dictated God's reply: "If it is the devil who has come to visit the mind under the guise of light, the soul experiences gladness at his coming. But the longer the devil stays, the more gladness gives way to weariness and darkness and pricking as the mind becomes clouded over by his presence within. But when the soul is truly visited by me, eternal Truth, she experiences holy fear at the first encounter. But with this fear comes gladness and security, along with a gentle prudence that does not doubt even while she doubts. Through self-knowledge she considers herself unworthy. So the soul says, 'I am not worthy to receive your visitation—how can I be worthy?' Then she turns to the greatness of my charity, knowing and seeing that I can grant it. For I look not to her unworthiness but to my worth, and so make her worthy to receive me. For I do not scorn the longing with which she calls to me. She receives my visitation humbly, saying, 'Behold your servant: Let your will be done in me.' She emerges from the course of humble prayer with spiritual gladness and joy . . . acknowledging that it all has come from me. This then is how the soul can tell whether she is being visited by me or by the devil: In my visitation she will find fear at the beginning; but in the middle and at the end, gladness and hunger for virtue. When it is the devil, however, the beginning is happy, but then the soul is left in spiritual confusion and darkness."

3/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.