In a short life of 33 years, Saint Catherine of Siena never seems to have wasted a moment. She is remembered as a mystic who, after a vision at the tender age of 6, devoted herself not only to a life of prayer, but also of service, activism, reform, and counsel to some of the most powerful men of her time. She nursed the least loved patients—those suffering from leprosy and advanced cancer. She wrote hundreds of letters, and through them convinced priests and bishops to give up their wealth and luxury and live more simply. She visited Pope Gregory XI in Avignon and convinced him to move the papacy back to Rome (it didn’t last, but still, a 29-year old woman in the 14th century shaming a Pope?). Honestly, she makes me feel like a slacker.
But the best aspect of studying Catherine for this piece came with the discovery—not difficult as she was a prolific writer—of the deeply faithful reflections on God that she left behind. In Godly Play, we often tell of people who “came so close to God, and God came so close to [them],” and it seems to me that Catherine was certainly among these.
If she were writing today, she’d have a massive social media presence and we’d all be retweeting and sharing her thoughts to our stories. I find that as a mom, there are many I want to offer my boys for reflection, strength, and comfort in this most challenging of years.
It is only through the shadows that one comes to know the light.
In the last 14 months, I’ve frequently felt a sense of walking through the shadow of the valley of death, both metaphorically and literally. The death tolls are staggering, the impact of long Covid and remote school and isolation and loneliness, and the division among neighbors…sometimes the shadows overwhelm us. I’m so grateful that Catherine is not instructing us to light the candle, because there are moments when it feels like no one has a match or the energy to strike one. But there is a deep hope that by going through the shadows, we will come to know the light. The light is there; God is holding it for us, persistently inviting us to turn and see it, and then to shine it beyond ourselves.
Preach the truth as if you had a million voices.
I so often question the value of my voice, knowing that others are wiser, better educated, more certain of themselves. But God has gifted me with the power to lift others’ voices—from the youth in our community marching against gun violence in their schools to Dr. Catherine Meeks in her untiring work for racial healing. I am struck, every time I hear her, at how soft-spoken Dr. Meeks is, and yet she proclaims the truth in an undeniable determination to do the work God has called her to do. Greta Thunberg, Amanda Gorman, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the hundreds of thousands who march and chant and show up for justice. And let’s remember the name of Darnella Frazier, the brave teen who recorded the murder of George Floyd. It occurs to me that there are as many ways to declare truth to power as there are causes that need our voice, and we can share this courage with our children by proclaiming to them the stories of people who lift their voices. This may not be exactly what Catherine of Siena, who seems never to have doubted the value of her own voice, meant, but I’m grateful for her words and a chance to discern how I can act on and teach them.
The soul is in God and God in the soul, just as the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish.
I love this. I love the idea that we are swimming in the Spirit, and the Spirit is swimming in us. All the time. But why, then, is it sometimes so hard to feel God in our hearts? Why, then, is the world filled with tragedy and challenge? Over the last year, many of us have felt we’re swimming in heartbreak, division, and fear. How is it possible that God inhabits those same waters? Dr. Jack Levison, author of A Boundless God, describes the wind of the Spirit as both a “fickle friend” and a “relentless enemy.” How do we relate this to the loving and gentle God we want our children to know? Maybe we would serve them, and their long term faith, better if we remembered, as Dr. Levison says, that “the wind has to blow so we can feel it; this is the work of the Spirit—constant movement, constant change.”
So, perhaps, the God our children should know desires that we follow another line from Saint Catherine:
Start being brave about everything. Drive out darkness and spread light. Don’t look at your weaknesses. Realize instead that in Christ crucified you can do everything.
Amen, and thank you Catherine.
[Image Credit: Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]