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Fruits of Study 6: Suffering and Love in St Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Catherine of Siena (1347-80) was very practical and focused and on how to help people be saved and sanctified in the concrete situation of their lives. For her, suffering was a daily reality and one that can be crushing and an obstacle to a life of faith. She wanted people to see suffering in the light of God’s truth and goodness and then use it positively to produce a life of love and other virtues. As with other themes she relates this to the Crucified Christ, the centre of her thought.

In the Dialogue, chapter 14 (D 14), she explains Christ’s saving work through an extended medical metaphor. We are wounded, indeed have puss in us which is deadly, and God steps in as the divine healer. She makes it clear we are too weak to suck out our own poison (the roots of our sin) and so heal ourselves. She draws on a medieval view of medicine that considered that some medicines are too strong for a baby to take. (‘Bitter’ is her own word which may be selected in view of the application she is going to make of the practice.) However, if the mother or wet-nurse (again a common practice in her day) is willing to endure the bitterness of the medicine then she can pass it on to the baby in a less bitter form along with the nourishing milk from her breast. She specifically says that God joined the divine and human natures together in Jesus to ‘drink the bitter medicine of his painful death on the cross so that he might heal and give life to you [us] who were babies weakened by sin (D 14)’. She sees God feeding us in this way as we come to the Crucified Christ and feed at Christ’s opened side or breast. (Catherine is applying striking feminine imagery to Christ and his saving work.)

God’s intention in the redemption then is not just to show respect to Divine honour or to declare us just but also and importantly to really heal us from sin and to actually give us life, life that comes from God. But this is done through the work of the cross and it is only the God-Man who is able to endure the bitterness and so feed us with its medicine. To what bitterness is she referring? It seems the bitterness must be suffering and indeed death itself.

The cross of Christ demonstrates both God’s love and Christ’s virtue and very importantly it also allows us to be formed in virtue. According to Catherine, it builds us up on the foundation of Christ’s love, shown in him freely suffering for us. We love God in return for God’s love for us, and so are called to move from a state of selfishness to one of selflessness, that is to a life of real love. A life given over to such love will produce a life of virtues, love being the mother of virtues. And virtues grow as they are tested. Suffering, difficulty and adversity test them and so a human can grow in virtues. Thus patience, for instance, which Catherine sees as being at the heart of charity ‘is not proved except in suffering (D 5)’; ‘Justice is not lessened but proved by the injustices of others … Likewise your kindness and mildness are revealed through gentle patience in the presence of wrath … Steadfast courage is tested when you have to suffer much from people’s insults and slanders … (D 8).’ To love perfectly is to accept anything from God, any adversity, and to do so with a response of love, full of such other virtues as are required to live such love.
(Citations are from Suzanne Noffke’s translation of Catherine’s Dialogue, SPCK, 1980)

Andrew Brookes


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