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Catherine of Siena: Prayer and Action

Friday, April 25, 2008
Catherine of Siena was born Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa in 1347 in the Fontebranda district of Siena, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. From a very early age, she had a great devotion to God and a passion for the truth. Her desire for the truth seems to have been greatly influenced by the preaching of the local Dominicans. Because of this desire for VERITAS, Catherine decided to take the habit of the Dominican Order at the age of eighteen while living a life of solitary prayer and penance in her family home only venturing outside to attend the celebration of Mass at the Dominican convento. It was during this time that she entered into contemplative union with God, which resulted in her mystical espousal to Christ.

Through her experiences of God in prayer, Catherine was able to realize the intimate connection between contemplation and service of her neighbors. Shortly after her mystical espousal, she joined the Mantellate, a group of women who were affiliated with the Order of Saint Dominic and wore the habit but lived in their own homes, serving the needs of the poor. The union of contemplation and action in the life of Catherine is important for our reflection on the Christian life. It demonstrates for us that prayer and action are not separate realities but are intimately woven together into the continuous activity of discipleship. In her Dialogue, she states that God told her “I ask you to love me the way I love you. I know that you cannot do this gratuitously but out of duty, this is why I place your neighbors in your path so that you may love them and so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me…”

The connection between mystical experience and involvement in the concerns and affairs of the world is very clear and very striking in Catherine's case. In 1363, at the age of 15 or so, she emerged from a period of intense solitude to get involved again in the affairs of her family. In 1366, at the age of 19, she experienced a spiritual espousal or 'marriage' to Christ after which she became involved in the life of her city, Siena. In 1370, at the age of 23, she experienced a mystical 'death' and we find her getting involved in the affairs of Tuscany and of Italy generally. Finally in 1375, at the age of 28, she received the stigmata and we see her becoming a figure on the European stage. She becomes the ambassador of Florence to the papal court at Avignon, entreats the Pope to return to Rome, and becomes in turn the ambassador of the Pope to Florence.

Rarely has any Christian, at one and the same time, been so completely immersed in political and pastoral activity while living a life of profound, mystical contemplation. Her mystical experiences are recorded in her Dialogue while her letters show her to be a pastoral theologian and spiritual director of exceptional wisdom and compassion. The eminent Irish Dominican, Archbishop William Barden (the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year), regarded Catherine of Siena as the greatest of all Dominicans, women or men, perhaps, he suggested, even greater than Saint Dominic himself!

In essence, Catherine reveals to us that contemplation and action form the seamless garment of faith, which all the baptized receive in the Sacrament of Baptism and which we are called to exercise in our daily discipleship as Catherine did through her tireless prayer and work on behalf of peace in the Church and in society.

Quotation from Catherine's Dialogue is from the translation of Susanne Noffke OP, published at New York in 1980


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