Dr. Gary D. Knight
Saint Catherine of Siena can be recognized as a quintessence or ‘icon’ of the bride of Christ, the bride who - because of marriage anticipated – is His own mystical body: the Church. Catherine was presented to Jesus in a vision by His mother, and a ring placed on her finger. In ‘real life’ the ring was painful stigmata that brought her out of this ‘vale of tears’ at 33 years. But she received the gift of the quill miraculously, writing as compellingly as any doctor of the Church. How great that appellation is: ‘doctorus’ in Latin means teacher. Who could teach the mystical body that holds the keys of heaven, but an exemplar entirely docile to the Holy Spirit?
The ‘real life’ and ‘vale of tears’ are parenthesized for reasons that Catherine might assert. When having visions of hell, purgatory and heaven, she was in a death-like trance; yet these illuminations were more real to her than our waking hours, as is fitting for Last Things as compared with a land of exile rather like the den of Lost Boys. The world in its ‘real life’ so far from God, often runs along the line of a nightmare. Most remarkably, the professed virgin who would shun any incubus (archaic for bad dream) was led to embrace the temporal with Christian vigour, even fire.
Have you ever felt inclined to picture these passing things as a diseased reverie, or been more oppressed than by hot temperatures: like a feverish dream from which it seems better (if possible) to awake? Pity indeed those who feel it without relent and who choose to force the nocturnal hand; for as Shakespeare put it what ‘dreams’ may come? As a Christian he did not mean imaginings, but something more like the inverse of the unconscious state, where a decision to end it is part of a great delusion. That was due caution.
Catherine certainly recognized that hard realities are oppressive to distraction, delusional like the pain of an abscessed tooth with no anaesthetic in sight. And instead of remaining in cloister as she had done for a three year preparation, basting in interior light, she went into the darkness of the world: the poor, the suffering, the ignorant, and provided charm, calm and counsel along with her ministrations against distress. In this she was an incarnate daughter of Mary.
On earth the parent of a spouse is an ‘in-law’ parent; but in the heaven the relation of love surpasses ‘law’ and legalities, so that the mother of Christ is equally a mother of those who are united to Him more closely than a bride and groom. More closely because even spouses here cannot entirely share each other’s mind and affections, not even each other’s bodily strengths and afflictions (though some come close). In Christ, all is shared.
So the spouse of Jesus, daughter of Mary, rather than remaining in her hyperdulic trances, went forth just as Mary went out to visit her elder cousin Elizabeth to assist her in late-life childbearing – which couldn’t have been easy as John was a kicker and leaper even three months before birth. Her husband might even play on muteness as maybe including deafness (we don’t hear of him running out to greet Mary at her hailing). No more welcome guest to the toiling could be a daughter of Mary.
Perhaps this is why consolations found in this life are so lasting or meaningful: on the surface you wouldn’t expect that telling a few salutary prayers at a bedside would much help the dying, or arm their beloved behind. But it does. Think of your own nightmares: in panic being chased down by a wolf, the appearance of an open door too narrow for the beast is very heartening. Getting to it is even more so. And life is like that.
It is of value to insinuate ourselves in Catherine’s mind. She knows like few others that in so many ways life is a chimera, and an arduous one at that. She knows that the hints of peril we find in shame or defeat are magnified beyond all proportion on an eternal scale .. and that has a bearing on why we have a conscience at all. Yet she applies the commission received from her Spouse to go out and make disciples among all, by piercing their gloom with the hope from springs eternal. She willingly makes a temporal detour from real reality, to reach into this miasmic world and shed His light.
What does that teach us about what her Spouse did in the first place? In the vision of her Mystical Marriage, as she called it in her memoirs, Jesus showed Catherine, as He did his apostles, the glorified wounds from which had poured the price of human salvation. Salvation from what? From the exile of Eden, dominating fear of death, weakness of will, proclivity to neglect God our life, and this dream-like darkening of mind. From this incarnate ‘reality’ of exile under a darkening sun Jesus the Light had to lead souls who follow to His agony and death beyond all telling, with eclipse and quake, graves open, curtains torn, and all things gone quiet – yes, even the birds. He had to express our whole torment: “why have You turned from me?” and a mind on the edge – “I thirst”. In forty days of preparation he had never even said “I’m hungry”. This was in extremum if ever it was.
The passion of Christ is (among infinitely many other things) a reflection on the woeful power of our ‘passions’, our heavy-laden emotions with power to sway our minds without even our knowing or clear acknowledgement of their vacillating power, just as in a dream. “Weep not for me, but for your children” He said on the via dolorosa, showing the compassion of a God-Man who could see our days coming when the ‘woods would be dry’ rather than green, and when the unimaginable is being done, while then and there Deicide was perpetrated. “What will they do when the wood is dry” He asked, and it was not just cryptic reference to the new-cut limb he was bearing on a shoulder.
Jesus always showed compassion for us, who are living on the outside, past the perception of inner reality. “The (sleeping) spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. “How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks” but your (distracted) will was elsewhere. “If you knew Who it was asking you for a drink, you would instead ask Him for a draught of living water”. “Their lips are close but their hearts are far away”. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”. “You of little faith; why did you doubt?” Even Nicodemus, a ‘teacher in Israel’ could only find answers at night-time, hearing ‘you are only in gestation’: “you must be born from above”.
So this is the reality of those being formed in the mind of Christ. We are only in gestation, like the child yet unborn. That is why so often the confines and bumps of this life seem like a reverie, even a threat. Yet in this state behind the veil, we are fully human and called to the Life that is the Way, the Truth, as Jesus characterized himself saying “the Truth shall set you free”. Like his herald still in his mother’s womb, we can hear that voice and begin to be active, gesturing at the dance which transcends even graces we receive in the now. If we are just as tended-to by Mary as in the prenatal days of John, Catherine came to know it, and went forth in haste.
Prayer: Dear Lord our God
May we be so inspired and enamoured of the life and ministrations
of your beloved saint, Catherine of Siena, who armed by the undying
hope of seeing You as she does now face to face in Love, went forth
doing all the good that she could find to do .. to the poor,
the suffering, the aged, the infirm, the ignorant and the neglected,
without omitting to converse in civil and national political life
or to communicate with bishops including the successor of Peter,
we may, in some measure like her, embrace the oppressions of
this temporal life increasingly full of injustices and insults
against not just You and your saints but humanity as your creation,
and carry forth to our brothers and children and spouses and elders
the fullness of expectant hope in that birth from above
that comprises our salvation and Your eternal embrace.
Betrothedly Yours, a servant and friend of St. Catherine of Siena.