St Catherine of Siena is surely one of the most dynamic and interesting female saints in the Catholic tradition. Born in the fourteenth century, in the beautiful city of Siena (once a major rival to Florence), she was the twenty-fifth child born to her mother. She moved from being a fairly reclusive woman to becoming a prominent political player in several of the papal disputes raging at the time.
She was also a profoundly spiritual woman, whose major work, The Dialogue, is said to have been written in a state of ecstasy, dictated to a scribe. The Dialogue is exactly that: a conversation that takes place between her and God.
The benefit of mystics such as St Catherine is that they reconnect us once again with who God truly is as an active, personal God. Sometimes our images of God can grow stale and our love can grow cold, and it takes an unexpected twist to bring us back. The Dialogue is a wide-ranging work, but at its heart is a God who is madly in love with His creation, who, truly like a lover, finds Himself consumed with love for His beloved and is determined to do everything within His power to draw her back to Him.
In some sense, the God who speaks in St Catherine’s Dialogue is a God who loves without reason. At one point during the Treatise of Discretion, God the Father shares with Catherine how the Cross of His Son formed a bridge across which humanity could pass into eternal life. If we contemplate this bridge, God says, we find ourselves gazing through the pierced side of Christ and ‘into that open Heart of My Son . . . consumed with ineffable love.’
I say consumed, because He does not love you for His own profit, because you can be of no profit to Him, He being one and the same thing with Me. Then the soul is filled with love, seeing herself so much loved.’
So much of human love is tainted by the tendency to get something in return, to love for a reason or for a purpose. God’s love has a divine purity to it in that He receives no profit, nothing at all, from loving us. He loves – and loves lavishly – because that is who He is.
In the same treatise, Catherine exclaims at such senseless love:
Who would not be inflamed by such great love? What heart can help breaking at such tenderness? It seems, oh, Abyss of Charity, as if you were mad with love of Your creature, as if You could not live without him, and yet You are our God who have no heed of us, Your greatness does not increase through our good, for You are unchangeable, and our evil causes You no harm, for You are the Supreme and Eternal Goodness. What moves You to do us such mercy through pure love . . .?’
It was precisely this senseless, all-consuming love that drove Christ to the Cross. ‘By Mercy You have washed us in the Blood, and by Mercy You wish to converse with Your creatures,’ Catherine writes. ‘Oh, Loving Madman! Was it not enough for You to become Incarnate, that You must also die?’
The question of why exactly Christ had to die the way He did has perplexed saints and theologians for centuries, especially with the recognition that, as St Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘one drop’ of His blood would be enough to ‘heal the entire world of all its sins.’ At the end of the day, it comes down to this: a demonstration of love. The Cross, God tells Catherine, was like ‘an anvil on which My Son, born of human generation, should be remade, in order to free you from death, and to restore you to the life of grace . . .’
. . . wherefore He drew everything to Himself by this means, namely, by showing the ineffable love, with which I love you, the heart of man being always attracted by love. Greater love, then, I could not show you, than to lay down My life for you; perforce, then, My Son was treated in this way by love, in order that ignorant man should be unable to resist being drawn to Me.’
It’s funny: humanity comes across here like someone too obtuse to realise when a person is trying to get their attention or win their affection. God is doing everything He can to break through to us, to wake us up from our ignorance and realise just how much we are loved. Nothing demonstrates love like sacrifice. Nothing wins a heart over like a life freely given for no other reason than the person being utterly, totally, maddeningly in love with the beloved they sacrifice for. If you look at the Cross and think, ‘Why?’, there’s your answer.
The call on God’s people is to taste this divine love and become intoxicated with it. In her first treatise, the Treatise of Providence, God tells Catherine that nothing we do could ever really make up for sin, ours or anyone else’s. The only thing that counts for anything in God’s economy is ‘the affection of love.’ Making up for sins is not about ‘finite pain endured,’ Catherine is told, but about the ‘desire of the soul’ to love God and shun evil, as expressed in true contrition.
The talk of desire leads us to think once more of God as a jealous lover, begging His beloved to simply desire Him. If we have the desire, God tells Catherine, then He will take care of the rest:
Labour, therefore, to increase the fire of your desire, and let not a moment pass without crying to Me with humble voice, or without continual prayers before Me for your neighbours.’
In that treatise God compares this life we have been given to a dowry, that wedding gift of old. There are some, however, who do not recognise the dowry, whose hearts become hardened like diamonds – impenetrable. This dowry consists of:
memory so as to remember My benefits, intellect, so as to see and know the truth, affection, so that he should love Me . . . This is the dowry I have given you all . . .’
We should not be like those whose hearts are like diamonds, God says. Instead we should let our hardness of heart be ‘broken by the Blood,’ the only thing that can possibly break it. Once that happens, and we drink deeply of the Blood, we can enter eternal life intoxicated:
Thus, as if drunk with the Blood of the Immaculate Lamb, and clothed in the love of the neighbour, they [the saints] pass through the Narrow Gate, bathed in the Blood of Christ crucified, and they find themselves in Me, the Sea Pacific, raised from imperfection, far from satiety, and arrived at perfection, satisfied by every good.’
The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, on 29 April.
Melbourne Catholic26 April 2022
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