Saint Catherine of Siena

Teacher, Activist, Doctor of the Church,
Co-Patron Saint of Italy

Written by Judy A. Johnson

Catherine of Siena

I am an introvert. I live with two cats in a one-bedroom apartment. I see it as place where I can focus and grow spiritually. For me, it is the environment where I feel closest to God. But life is not that simple. We are called to model Jesus’s beloved friend Martha—the doer, the people-person, the one who knew how to take care of others—as well as her sister—the quiet, listening Mary.

For people like me, who have struggled all our lives to blend a call to action with a yearning for contemplation, Saint Catherine of Siena balances contemplative and active life in a way that inspires both envy and admiration.

It’s tempting to divide Catherine’s life into two distinct periods, the first contemplative and the second active. The youngest of 24 children, Catherine began having visions and mystical experiences at age seven. She dedicated her life to God, vowing perpetual virginity, even cutting off her hair to make herself less attractive when she was a marriageable adolescent. She wanted to become a Third Order Dominican, a lay position that would still bind her to vows of poverty, obedience, and celibacy. Although living outside the convent, Third Order members could wear the Dominican habit. Her parents opposed this request for a time; ultimately, her father gave her “a room of her own,” in which she could remain, fasting and praying. There Jesus came to meet her daily; among other gifts, he taught her to read.

The pivotal event in Catherine’s life came after three years of solitude and ascetic practices. Jesus stood in the doorway of her room, but instead of entering as she invited, he told her, “You must come out here now.” She apparently didn’t question Jesus, but began serving others in Siena, visiting prisons and nursing plague victims. Eating, which had never been very important to her, nearly stopped altogether; according to legend, she lived on the communion wafer and a bit of water for the last nine years of her life.

Catherine actively pursued the work of making peace among the rival families of Italy and within the Roman Catholic Church, fractured by the pope’s move to Avignon, France. In 1376, convinced that Pope Gregory XI, who had been living in Avignon, needed to come back to Italy, Catherine and her followers (whom she called her “family”) walked to France. There she reminded the Pope of a vow he’d made, but which he’d never revealed. Catherine’s prophetic gifts stunned and persuaded Gregory; he returned to Italy. Catherine also supported the idea of another crusade and tried to make peace in the face of the Great Schism under Gegory’s successor, Urban VI.

Although this neat division of Catherine’s life into early contemplative and later active segments is tempting, it’s also misleading. In her early years, Catherine was a daughter in a busy home, helping with domestic duties and nursing the sick during outbreaks of the plague. During her later, more outward ministry, she sometimes entered a trance in the middle of a conversation. She also received the stigmata, the marks of Christ’s passion, on her body, though until her death they were visible only to her.

While carrying on this active ministry, Catherine wrote or dictated some 400 private letters and one major work, The Dialogue, which has been compared to Dante’s work. This conversation between the soul and God is sprinkled with spontaneous declarations of love for God and quotations from Scripture woven seamlessly into her own speech patterns.

Reading The Dialogue for a medieval church history class in seminary, I was immediately attracted to the opening words,

A soul rises up, restless with tremendous desire for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. She has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it.

I loved that image of the nun’s or monk’s cell as a place of self-knowledge. I’d long wondered how Catherine could bear to leave her cozy cell, where she and Jesus spent a thousand days together. I’ve come to realize that the cell of self-knowledge isn’t confined to a literal place with four walls, as is an enclosed contemplative’s cell. Catherine could walk beyond her cell’s threshold because she had learned who she was and what her work was to be. She recognized, too, that it was Jesus standing at the lintel; I think she must have seen Jesus in every face she looked at ever after.

I too have walked out a bit. Though by attending seminary, I wasn’t looking for a change in my service or personality, my post-seminary years have offered new opportunities for a more unexpectedly active life than I ever would have predicted: a teaching ministry among the vibrant young people of my church; opportunities to companion those in pain; and a book in print at last, with the ministries that publication can offer.

Catherine lived out the questions of the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal covenant: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The expected response is, “I will, with God’s help.” Catherine offers contemporary seekers a powerful example of blending contemplation with action.

Copyright ©2006 Judy A. Johnson

Portrait of Catherine of Siena by Sally Markell.