Monday, March 01, 2010

Saint Catherine of Siena and Her Mission of Love

Domenico Beccafumi (Domenico di Giovanni di Pace). 1486 - 1551
The Miraculous Communion of Saint Catherine of Siena about 1513 - 1515
Oil and gold on wood
11 1/4 x 16 1/4 in.
The Getty Centre, Los Angeles

Domenico Beccafumi (Domenico di Giovanni di Pace). 1486 - 1551
Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata 1513-5
Oil and gold on wood
11 1/4 x 16 1/4 in.
The Getty Centre, Los Angeles

Domenico Beccafumi (Domenico di Giovanni di Pace). 1486 - 1551
Stigmatization of St Catherine of Siena between St Benedict and St Jerome
c. 1515
Oil on wood, 208 x 156 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Domenico Beccafumi (Domenico di Giovanni di Pace). 1486 - 1551
Mystical Marriage of St Catherine , Circa 1521
Oil on canvas. 220x205 cm
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Domenico Beccafumi (Domenico di Giovanni di Pace). 1486 - 1551
A Vision of St. Catherine of Siena 1528
Oil on panel
Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Domenico Beccafumi (Domenico di Giovanni di Pace). 1486 - 1551
The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine amongst the Saints c. 1528
Oil on panel 310 x 230 cm.
Collection Chigi-Saracini. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena, T.O.S.D, (25 March 1347 – 29 April 1380) was a tertiary of the Dominican Order, and a Scholastic philosopher and theologian.

She also worked to bring the Papacy back to Rome from its displacement in France, and to establish peace among the Italian city-states. She was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

She is one of the two patron saints of Italy, together with Francis of Assisi.

She is one of the most extraordinary women who ever lived. In her time her great stature was acknowledged by all.

She was not a formal religious. She was a tertiary. She was part of the movements amongst the laity in medieval times which had such great effect.

In the following passages, from Currents of religious thought and expression (Chapter 3) in The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume VI c, 1300 - c. 1415 (2008) Jeremy Catto (Fellow of Oriel College, University of Oxford) describes the times in which St Catherine lived:

"Both within and outside the established orders, however, the variety of spiritual experience and the informality of the groups in which a religious life was developed is striking. One such informal group was the famiglia of the Dominican tertiary Catherine Benincasa, later canonised as St Catherine of Siena, which she formed about herself, and extended in her correspondence, between 1367 and 1380.

It included her spiritual director Raymond of Capua OP, later a reforming master-general of his order, the English hermit of Leccato, William Flete OESA, and the Vallombrosan monk Giovanni dalle Celle, all of whom, in spite of Catherine’s somewhat imperious tone in her correspondence, were highly individual figures and spiritual advisers in their own right.

They respected her personal experience of God, which arose from introspection: `my cell’, wrote Catherine, ‘will not be one of stone or wood, but that of self-knowledge’.

Her influence was all the greater for not flowing through established channels. ...

It was certainly open to non-religious who did not wish to live in organised communities with a rule: to Catherine of Siena, for instance, who about 1367 chose to live in the world as a Dominican tertiary among a various body of disciples and associates, though she evidently had the services of Raymond of Capua OP as her spiritual director. Both his account of her, the Leggenda Maiora, and some of her own writings survive; among the latter, which includes a large collection of her letters and some prayers, her Dialogo of 1377–8 was particularly widely read and often translated.

The absence of speculative language in her works may not especially distinguish her from her German and Dutch contemporaries, since the works of nuns such as Margaret Ebner and Suso’s biographer Elizabeth Stägel are equally free from it: speculative mysticism was the province of their mentors, theologians like Suso himself and Eckhart.

In fact Catherine’s theme of the soul’s ascent from sin through various grades of discernment and love to eventual union with God, and the identification of God with what is and the sinner with nothingness are stressed in the Dialogo, the fruit perhaps of her Dominican instruction. What was more particularly her own was her assertiveness and confident association of her individual vision of God with the need to reform the evils of the world: like John Wyclif, her contemporary, she identified these evils with the failure of the clergy to give a moral lead, and more specifically with the absence of the papal court from Rome.

Interior spirituality or ‘self-knowledge’ must be associated with the apostolate of the Church, and with a reformed and ordered public religion, a theme taken up in the fifteenth century. For Catherine, the recall of lost sheep to conformity with God’s will was a work of charity, by which the genuine life of contemplation would be known.

Catherine of Siena combined humility with the authority of holiness, an authority which seems to have been respected even by Gregory XI when she admonished him for residing at Avignon. It was one sign of the diffusion of spiritual leadership in the course of the century; in parallel with and in some ways as the result of the proliferation of theological learning, the spread of knowledge of the art of contemplation at the hands of the friars allowed local spiritual counsellors to emerge, to influence a restricted clientele or even, in time and through their disciples or writings, a larger body of devotees."

Here is one of St Catherine`s letters to Pope Gregory XI, in Avignon in February 1376. In it she again implores the Pope then resident in Avignon to return to Rome and there to reform the Church. She calls him "Babbo" - Daddy. She tells him to forget his fears and return to the place where he knows that his duty lies. She is genuinely courteous, respectful and direct. Her communication is private. She does not wish to scorn or humiliate the reader in public and into submission. He had had enough of that from other sources. Her motivation is love and she wishes to inspire, encourage and persuade by, with and through love.

"In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary.

My most reverend and holy father in Christ gentle Jesus,

I Caterina, your poor unworthy daughter, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you a good shepherd, my dear babbo, for I see the infernal* wolf carrying off your little sheep, and there is no one to rescue them. So I am turning to you, our father and shepherd, begging you in the name of Christ crucified to learn from him who with such blazing love gave himself up to the shameful death of the most holy cross to save this little lost sheep, the human race, from the devils' hands.

Because of its rebellion against God, here are the devils, holding this sheep as their own possession. Then along comes God's infinite goodness and sees the sheep's sorry state, its ruin and damnation. He knows he cannot use wrath or war to entice it away from them. Supreme eternal wisdom doesn't want to do it that way, even though the sheep has wronged him (for humankind, by its rebellion in disobedience, was deserving of infinite punishment). No, he finds a delightful way—the most sweet and loving way possible; for he sees that the human heart is drawn by love as by nothing else, since it is made of love.

This seems to be why human beings love so much, because they are made of nothing but love, body and soul. In love God created them in his own image and likeness, and in love father and mother conceive and bring forth their children, giving them a share in their own substance.

So God, seeing that humankind is so quick to love, throws out to us right away the hook of love, giving us the Word, his only-begotten Son. He takes on our humanity to make a great peace. But justice wants vengeance for the wrong done to God. So along comes divine mercy and ineffable charity and, to satisfy justice as well as mercy, condemns his Son to death once he has clothed him in our humanity, in the clay of Adam who had sinned.

So by his death the Father's anger is appeased and justice is satisfied by the sentence passed on the person of his Son. And mercy is satisfied because he has snatched humankind from the devils' hands!

This Word played life against death and death against life in tournament on the wood of the most holy cross, so that by his death he destroyed our death, and to give us life he spent his own bodily life.'With love, then, he has so drawn us and with his kindness so conquered our malice that every heart should be won over. For a person can show no greater love (he said so himself) than to give his or her life for a friend.

And if he praises the love that gives one's life for a friend, what shall we say of the consummate blazing love that gave his life for his enemy?

For through sin we had become God's enemies. Oh gentle loving Word, with love you recovered your little sheep, and with love gave them life. You brought them back to the fold by restoring to them the grace they had lost.

Oh my dear most holy babbol I see no other way, no other help for getting back your little sheep who have left the fold of holy Church as rebels disobedient and unsubmissive to you their father. So I am begging you in the name of Christ crucified, and I want you to do me this favor: use your kindness to conquer their malice. We are yours, father, and I know for certain that all of them realize they have done wrong. And even though there is no excuse for wrongdoing, still, because of all the suffering and injustice and unfairness they were enduring from bad pastors and administrators, it didn't seem to them they had any alternative.

They smelled the stinking lives of these bad administrators (who you know are devils incarnate) and they became so terribly fearful that, like Pilate, who killed Christ so as not to lose his authority, they attacked you rather than lose their position.

So I am asking your mercy for them, father. Don't look at your children's pride and foolishness. No, with the bait of love and of your own kindness give peace to us poor children who have sinned, adding whatever sweet discipline and kind rebuke may please your holiness. I tell you, dear Christ on earth, in the name of Christ in heaven, if you do this without creating a storm or tempest, they will all come and lay their heads in your lap in sorrow for what they've done. Then you will be happy and so will we, because by love you will have put your little lost sheep back in the fold of holy Church.

And then, my dear babbo, you can carry out your desire and God's will—I mean the holy crusade. I invite you in his name to do it soon, without putting it off. These same people have been ready and will be ready to give their lives eagerly for Christ.

Oime! God sweet love! Do raise the standard of the most holy cross soon, babbo, and you will see the wolves become lambs. Peace! Peace! Peace!—so that war may not delay this sweet time! But if you want vengeance and strict justice, take it out on this poor wretch; give me any pain and torment you please, even death. I believe the stench of my sins has been the cause of much evil, discord, and great misfortune. So take as much vengeance on me your miserable daughter as you like.

Oime! Father, I am dying of grief and cannot die! Come, come; don't resist any longer the will of God who is calling you! The starving little sheep are waiting for you to come and take possession of the place of your predecessor and model, the apostle Peter. You, as Christ's vicar, ought to be residing in your proper place. Come! Come! Come! Don't put it off any longer! Take heart, and don't be afraid of anything that might happen, for God will be with you. I humbly ask your blessing for myself and for all my children. And I beg you to pardon my presumption.

I'll say no more.

Keep living in God's holy and tender love.

Gentle Jesus! Jesus love!"

For the letters of St Catherine see: