Catherine of Siena

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CATHERINE OF SIENA (13471380), Caterina da Siena; Italian mystic and Christian saint. The particular genius of the spirituality of Catherine of Siena had its earliest beginnings in a visionary experience of Christ when she was six years old, and her subsequent childish yet serious vow of virginity. She persisted in her purpose in spite of family opposition until she was accepted as one of the Mantellate, a Dominican third-order group comprising, up to then, only widows. For about three years thereafter she gave herself to prayer and asceticism in almost complete seclusion, until her very prayer (which had become deeply mystical) led her out, first to serve the poor and the sick in her own city, and gradually into wider and wider spheres.

She had learned in her solitude to read, and now she became an enthusiastic conversationalist, feeding insatiably on the theological knowledge of friends she attracted among Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans, and Jesuits. She began, too, to draw as disciples people from every walk of life, a circle she would call her famiglia. She found an ideal mentor in the Dominican friar Raymond of Capua. Raymond was an astute theologian and diplomat, under whose guidance and in whose company Catherine's scope broadened to include the ecclesiastical and the politicalin her mind always of one piece with the spiritual, and all ultimately oriented to the same spiritual ends.

Unlike her contemporary Birgitta of Sweden, Catherine was an ardent promoter and recruiter for the crusade projected by Pope Gregory XI and his successor, Urban VI. A holy war seemed to her a perfect means of uniting in a common cause Christians now at odds among themselves and with the papacy. She saw Palestine as a Christian trust, and she believed with many that the advance of the Turks toward Europe must be halted. A main object of the crusade would be the conversion of the Muslims, who would in their new faith be a leaven to reinvigorate a sick church. And it would provide her and others (she apparently intended to go along) the opportunity to pay Christ "blood for blood."

It was the dissension between Florence and Gregory XI that brought Catherine to that city in 1376 to attempt to mediate a reconciliation. On the mandate, probably, of only certain Guelphs she traveled to Avignon (where the popes had resided since 1309) with no official credentials, only to be ignored by Florentine ambassadors who came later. In subsequent efforts, also, she failed to influence the Florentines significantly in this dispute, which was to her essentially religious but was to them a matter of political survival.

Once rebuffed by Florence, Catherine turned her energy toward the two issues she considered the root of the dissension: the continuing absence of the popes from Rome and clerical corruption. If the pope would return to Rome, she reasoned, Christians would have no more cause for rebellion, and reform could begin. Gregory XI had in fact so resolved but had repeatedly, in fear, put off taking action. Catherine can surely be credited with finally moving him. In fact, when dissent deepened after his return to Rome, many including the pope blamed Catherine's advice.

Gregory XI died on March 27, 1378, and within months his successor, Urban VI, was being denounced by a growing number of the cardinals, who in September of that year elected Clement VII as antipope, thus effectively splitting the church. At Urban's invitation Catherine came to Rome to support his cause. Though her health was by this time failing under her fierce asceticism and exertion, she continued to pray and work tirelessly for unity and reform, both of which seemed to her ever more elusive. The weight of this sense of failure surely contributed to her early death on April 29, 1380. She was canonized in 1461 and proclaimed a doctor of the church in 1970; she and Teresa of Ávila were the first women to receive that title.

Catherine used letters prodigiously as a favored vehicle of influence. The nearly four hundred letters that have been collected and edited date mostly from 1375 to 1380. They are addressed to persons as diverse as popes, high-ranking clergy, nobles, relatives, disciples, prisoners, and prostitutes. Unfortunately, the early compilers' purposes of simple edification led them to delete much that was personal from the letters, but still they open a revealing window on Catherine's evolving thought and on her warm and spontaneous personality.

In 1377 and 1378, in addition to all her other activities, Catherine composed the work since known as The Dialogue (because she cast it as an exchange between God and herself). Her intent in writing it was to share with her disciples and others the insights she had gained in prayer and in her own experience. In it she approaches the way of holiness from several vantage points, and develops at length the themes of God's providence, the role of Christ as redeemer and mediator, and the church. Finally, during the last three and a half years of Catherine's life, her secretaries sometimes recorded her prayers when she spoke in ecstasy. Twenty-six such prayers have been preserved.

Through her reading and her associations, Catherine gained a knowledge of the Christian tradition remarkable in an otherwise unschooled person. In her works she draws freely not only from scripture but from Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bernard, and Thomas Aquinas (to name only those most frequently reflected), as well as from contemporaries such as Ubertino of Casale, Domenico Cavalca, Iacopo Passavanti, and Giovanni Colombini. Her own writing, however, is not speculative or systematic or analytical. Rather, she synthesizes into an integrated whole all of the various aspects of Christian faith on which she dwells. Her purposes are eminently practical, her tone warm and personal. She resorts for clarification not to conceptual argumentation but to literary images, developing the meaning of each as she goes and interweaving them one with another.

The central principles around which Catherine's teaching revolves are everywhere evident in her writings: God alone is absolute being, and God's being is at once love and truthlove that is truth and truth that is love. When humankind cut itself off from God by sin, God's endlessly creative and re-creative being took flesh in Jesus Christ, who in himself repaired the breach. The foundation of all spiritual life is knowledge of oneself in God and of God in oneself. Human nature is God's creation and as such is essentially good, and Catherine is therefore understanding and compassionate of human weakness even as she denounces sin. Desire for the truth and love that is God puts all in order, and what God asks of the human heart is infinite desire.


Works by Catherine of Siena

The most complete recent edition of Catherine's letters is Le lettere di S. Caterina da Siena, 4 vols., translated and edited by Niccoló Tommaseo, revised by Piero Misciattelli (1860; reprint, Florence, 1940). The first volume of the only truly critical edition was prepared by Eugenio Dupré Theseider, Epistolario di Santa Caterina da Siena, vol. 1 (Rome, 1940); the work on this critical edition is being pursued by Antonio Volpato. A complete English translation from the critical edition is in progress under my editorship. I have translated Giuliana Cavallini's critical editions of Il dialogo (Rome, 1968) and Le orazioni (Rome, 1978) as The Dialogue (New York, 1980) and The Prayers of Catherine of Siena (New York, 1983), respectively.

Works about Catherine of Siena

A useful primary source for the life of Catherine of Siena is Raymond of Capua's The Life of Catherine of Siena (13851389), translated by Conleth Kearns (Wilmington, Del., 1980); other biographies in English are History of St. Catherine of Siena and Her Companions, by Augusta Theodosia Drane (London, 1899), good for its inclusion of primary source material not otherwise available in English; Saint Catherine of Siena: A Study in the Religion, Literature and History of the Fourteenth Century in Italy, by Edmund G. Gardner (New York, 1907), complete on historical contexts and well indexed; and Arrigo Levasti's My Servant, Catherine, translated by Dorothy M. White (Westminster, Md., 1954), which concentrates on Catherine's psychology and spirituality and also gives an excellent bibliography. Eugenio Dupré Theseider's entry "Catherine da Siena, Santa," in Dizionario biographico degli Italiani (Rome, 1979), covers very well Catherine's life and theology, including debated points, and offers a very comprehensive bibliography.

Suzanne Noffke (1987)

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Catherine of Siena

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Catherine of Siena