Setting the world on fire with Catherine of Siena

KristinBerkeyAbbott
04/30/2012

Catherine of Siena

We don’t tend to think of the medieval time in Europe as a high water mark of feminism, but female monastics accomplished amazing feats during that time period. Catherine of Siena is one of those female monastics who lived in the later part of the 14th century in a plague-ravaged part of Italy. Despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived, she left behind a collection of accomplishments that would have been amazing for a woman of our day.

Unlike many of the other female mystics of the medieval period, like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena didn’t live a cloistered life. She was part of a monastic tradition, but she returned to live with her family so that she could live among them and continue to reject them, a much tougher spiritual task. While doing that, she gave away food and clothing, to the detriment of the family wealth. She didn’t care.

Early on, she had mystical visions where she claimed to be wed to Christ and claimed to be fed by him. Often, mystics make me feel further away from God -- their experiences are so different from anything I understand. Catherine of Siena is no different.

I find myself thinking, "Well, at least her visions don’t involve pain and piercings, like those of Teresa of Avila." Some part of me envies these mystics, who claimed visions sent to them by God, and I wonder why God doesn’t speak to me this way. Some part of me speculates about the mental health of these mystics with their extreme visions.

Throughout her life, she had trouble eating. Would a modern doctor have diagnosed her with gastro-intestinal trouble or would a psychiatrist have seen anorexia? Perhaps, but she turned her dislike of eating into a mark of spiritual virtue.

Even though she didn’t consume many calories, she burned through her life with amazing energy. She did the actions we would expect from a member of a religious order, like feeding the poor. But she also worked on political issues of her day, lobbying for peace between warring Italian principalities and advocating clergy reform. She wrote numerous letters demanding that the pope return to Rome from Avignon.

Her writing is seen as an important part of literary history, and not only because we have so few medieval texts authored by women. She wrote "The Dialogue of Divine Providence," a discussion between a soul and God. She wrote letters to a wide variety of people, from the pope down to the common woman. Over 300 letters survive.

Many of her ideas still seem relevant to our own time. She said, "Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee." During the hectic days at work, I try to remember to retreat to inner peace, even as outer chaos reigns supreme. I may not have a monastic cell to call my own, but if I’m lucky, I can always find one in my brain. Catherine of Siena might have advised me not to rely on luck, but to train my thinking in this way.

We all face constraints of various kinds. The life of Catherine of Siena shows what can be accomplished, even during a time where women did not have full rights and agency. She said, "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire." She didn’t say "Be who God meant you to be within the boundaries of your society." No, she directed us to strive to find our full potential. She knew the stakes. But she also knew the power of a life directed toward God’s purposes, not human purposes.

We can discover that power too.

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Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.

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