Saint Catherine of Siena was a 14th century mystic. She was the 23rd of 24 children of a wealthy cloth dyer named Jacopo and his wife Lapa. As a woman who has experienced just four pregnancies, I think Lapa should receive sainthood, too!
Catherine accomplished much in her 33 years. At age 7, she experienced a vision of Christ that led her to take a secret vow of virginity, revealed to her parents only when they began arranging potential suitors for her. At age 18, she took on the habit of an order of women associated with the Dominicans, pledging chastity and charity. She developed a following of disciples who sought out her guidance and instruction. She was a prolific writer of hundreds of letters and of her religious visions; the latter she collected in The Dialogue, a kind of lengthy conversation between herself and God.
At age 29, Catherine traveled to Avignon, the displaced seat of the papacy since 1303, where she convinced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. She accomplished this feat of persuasive powers while also suffering from a (mental?) illness that began years earlier and prevented her from eating any solid food beside the sacrament. Weakened by her disease, Catherine died in 1379.
What strikes me most about Catherine’s story is her fortitude—her faithful confidence that seems unlikely in a well-to-do young woman of medieval Europe. Against the backdrop of the patriarchal structures that often silenced women during this time period, Catherine’s agency stands out boldly.
Where did a teenager find the courage to rebel against her parents’ wishes and take on the religious life?
How could a young woman give, give, give of herself to those in great need—both physically and spiritually—without wearing thin?
What chutzpah to berate the pope, for goodness’ sake, into doing what she thought was right—and on a presumably quite empty stomach!
Perhaps the key to Catherine’s story can be found in the early part of her adult life. Immediately after taking the vows of her order, instead of going straight to work among the poor, Catherine spent three years holed up in her room in her family’s home —a kind of medieval, religious version of a “gap year” or, in this case, three. During this time known as Catherine’s “mystical espousal” to Christ, she developed an understanding of the importance of dwelling in “the cell of self knowledge.”
For Catherine, self knowledge meant something more than understanding one’s self, though that was certainly a piece of it. Self knowledge also means knowing one’s limitations and utter dependency on God. “I am the one who is not, and you are the one who is,” she writes in one prayer. In The Dialogue she writes to God, “You are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you.”
It seems to me that, in those three gap years of isolation, Catherine came to understand what it takes most of us a whole lifetime to grasp, if we ever do: without God, without the divine love that empowers us, we are nothing.
And while, at first glance, that might seem like a depressing thought, it can actually be freeing. If and when I recognize that I don’t have the capacity for active love within myself, within my own being, then I can stop working so hard trying to constantly manufacture it. My capacity for love comes from God who always loves me first.
The world can feel like a dark place right now: war and violence rage; assaults on human dignity and growing polarizations among communities spread throughout the globe. To be a Christian committed to the kingdom work of justice and reconciliation is hard. To be a Christian parent on top of all of that seems even harder. How can we teach our children to value empathy, to continue looking outward and engaging in that good work when we ourselves feel exhausted by it?
We don’t have the luxury of Catherine’s gap years, but we can still take a page from her book. We can trust — and teach our children — that the source of our capacity for empathy and love is not within ourselves, but rests in God, who is never-ending and eternal. And whether the feats we accomplish be persuading a pope to move back to Rome or a three-year-old to eat the roma tomato, they are worthy acts of God’s kingdom when they are powered by God’s love.