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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Not a Waste: the Short Life of Catherine of Siena

The lily is associated with Catherine of Siena
   This installment in a series I began in January comes with more reservations than I had in the other biographies.  Catherine of Siena lived before the Protestant Reformation; as such she was a Christian born in Italy with the mileu of Popes and certain teachings that are no longer universal in Christendom.  During her lifetime she was considered outspoken for a woman, yet in 1461 she was canonized and then further recognized with the title "Doctor of the Church" for her teachings in 1970.  I read two different accounts about Catherine before including her short life of influence for consideration here.

   Catherine of Siena was born in Tuscany, Italy during the early Renaissance period (1347).  Remarkably, she was the 23rd child born to her parents; she had a twin who died.  Between 5-7 years of age she reported seeming her first vision, which led her a life very conscious of spiritual things.  The expression "Renaissance Man" is given to a person who is intelligent and well-informed in a variety of subjects.  Based on my research, I would have to call Catherine of Siena a "Renaissance Woman" in the same sense.  Some of her accomplishments and roles included the following:

  • She acted as a nurse to ungrateful patients, including one with leprosy
  • She ministered to victims of the Plague when it came to Siena
  • She visited prisoners and gave support to them when they were about to be executed
  • People came to her for advice on practical matters
  • She taught herself to read and was well-versed in the Bible, Psalms and works of the early church Fathers
  • She tried to be a peacemaker in religious and political disputes
  • She wrote letters and prayers that have survived to the present-day
  • She wrote a book entitled Dialogue, a mystical expression of her teachings and understanding of salvation.  In it she uses vibrant metaphors to communicate spiritual truths.
  • She was involved in expanding the use of the vernacular (Italian instead of Latin) within the church
  • She was a "model for the union of both contemplation and actions in the service of church reform." [1]
   Catherine did all of these things before she reached the age of thirty-three.  Throughout her life she refused certain comforts, such as pillows, and fasted regularly.  It would appear that at some point her fasting bordered on what we would now call anorexia or that she had a stomach ailment whereby she could not keep food down for the last months of her life.  The words she spoke as she left this world were "Grazie, Grazie," Italian for "Thank you" to her Lord for sustaining her.

[1] Bernard McGinn, The Doctors of the Church, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999, page 132.

1 comment:

  1. What a remarkable lady, from the beginning (#23!) to the end. While mainstream Renaissance Italy was competing to build the tallest churches, the finest bridges, the busiest markets, the richest families, the most powerful bishops, the highest defences, the most ostentatious festivals, the fastest horses (Siena was horse-race central) and the most beautiful murals and tapestries, Catherine steadily represented Christ through one-on-one interactions with the "uncelebrated" in her local society. She is truly a role model for us Christians who forget that God's work is done with meekness, patience and gentleness. "Renaissance" is "rebirth." Could her life story have been a rebirth of her contemporaries' understanding of Christ? Let me think on this.