Yesterday’s feast of St. Catherine of Siena went by all too quickly. I owe a lot to St. Catherine’s insights in leading me to where I am today. St. Catherine is, interestingly, a wonderful example of two virtues of Catholic Manhood–courage and boldness.
My favorite of St. Catherine’s writings is her letters. Her almost 400 letters are a wide-ranging discussion of the contemporary issues of her day to a variety of audiences. One particularly famous exchange is with the pope at the time, Gregory XI. Pope Gregory had removed the papacy to Avignon and abandoned Rome because of widespread violence in Italy. In those letters, Catherine exhorts the pope to act like a man–to be stern with his flock but to embody the mercy of God. Catherine asks the pope, “in the name of Christ crucified to conquer with kindness, with patience, with humility, with gentleness the wrongdoing and pride of your children who have rebelled against you their father.” (Letter 74) We are to act as Christ would, to treat others with kindness and gentleness to bring others back under our control or love.
St. Catherine’s insight into the human soul is exceptional among saints. Short quips like “You know that the devil is not cast out by the devil but by virtue,” are useful points of meditation for all Catholics, but Catholic men in particular. We often think we can do everything through our own power. We forget to be reliant on the Lord for the graces we need to develop virtue. We cannot defeat the devil alone. We need God’s grace. But we must participate actively in this process of developing virtue. We must do as Catherine advises Pope Gregory:
So take a lesson from the true father and shepherd. For you see that now is the time to give your life for the little sheep who have left the flock. You must seek and win them back by using patience and war–by war I mean by raising the standard of the sweet blazing cross and setting out against the unbelievers. so you must sleep no longer, but wake up and raise that standard courageously. I am confident that by God’s measureless goodness you will win back the unbelievers and [at the same time] correct the wrongdoing of Christians, because everyone will come running to the fragrance of the cross, even those who have rebelled against you most. (Letter 74)
If we interpret this passage in light of our own responsibilities, our own flocks, we should raise the standard of the cross in our own families and throughout society. We must strive to bring back those who have strayed in our families and professional associations, and to do so with courage. Even those who have been hardhearted in hearing the message will eventually turn toward the cross through God’s grace and our instrumentality.
Another lesson we can learn from Catherine’s life is to have a deep level of prayer and a love for the Cross. If you ever have the chance to visit St. Catherine’s family home in Siena, as I have, I cannot recommend it enough. It is a special experience to kneel in the family chapel in front of the same crucifix that Catherine prayed in front of and through which she had her mystical experiences.
Catherine lived a simple life, largely in solitude, and always mindful of living in the presence of God. But, she was a wonderful example of the Dominican motto contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere–”to contemplate and give to others the fruits of contemplation.” Catherine took what she learned in prayer and lived it out in service to the poor. She worked at the local hospital among widows as part of the Third Order of Dominicans (those you may commonly known as active Dominican sisters today).
The symbiotic relationship between prayer and activity was perfectly lived out by St. Catherine. She knew that without prayer, her activity would be ineffective. By adding work, her prayer could bear more fruit. Without making her work a prayer, she would be working for naught.
In addition to her letters, Catherine wrote a number of prayers. I’ll leave you with one today:
Ocean of Divine Mercy:
Flow upon us!
Most pure Offering:
Procure us every Grace!
Hope and Refuge of sinners:
Atone for us!
Delight of holy souls:
Draw us! Amen.