About the Commemoration
Catherine was born in Siena probably in 1347, the twenty-third and last child in the large, devout Benincasa family. At age six she began to have visions of Christ, and throughout her life she continued to have mystical experiences, including visions and prolonged trances. Near the beginning of Lent 1367, a vision convinced her that she was to be a bride of Christ, and she accepted his command to carry her love for him to the world, subsequently receiving the stigmata.
I saw the crucified Lord, coming down to me in a great light…. Then from the marks of his most sacred wounds I saw five blood-red rays coming down upon me, which were directed toward the hands and feet and heart of my body. Perceiving the mystery, I exclaimed, “Ah, my Lord God, do not let the marks appear outwardly on the body.” While I was speaking, before the rays reached me, they changed their blood-red color to splendor and like pure light they came to the five places in my body—the hands, feet, and heart. The pain that I feel in those five places, but especially in my heart, is so great that unless the Lord works a new miracle, it does not seem possible that the life of my body can endure such agony.
She claimed to have encountered St. Dominic in a vision and thereafter was permitted to wear the habit of the Dominican Third Order of Penance. She stubbornly clung to the vow of celibacy she made while still a child, despite her family’s persistent pleas for a suitable marriage. Eventually, at the age of sixteen, she won the reluctant permission of her parents to live in a special closed-off room in her family’s house, fasting and praying, and leaving the room only to go to church.
After three years, she emerged from her seclusion to devote herself to good works, doing household chores for her family and ministering to the sick and unfortunate in hospitals and in their homes. From 1368 to 1374 she gathered about her in Siena a group of friends whom she called her “family.” They were men and women, priests and laity, and all (though older than she) called her “mother.” During this period, she fasted almost constantly and continued the intense devotion to the sacrament that she had begun earlier. At the same time, she is reported to have maintained her merry, unpretentious manner, and she had a powerful spiritual influence on many people. She dictated letters of spiritual instruction and also dealt with public affairs, urging a crusade against the Turks. Her outspoken advice brought her misunderstanding and opposition.
The Dominican Order, which had been guiding her spiritual life for some years, gave her official protection in late spring 1374. During the period 1374-1378 her influence in public affairs was at its height. She opposed the war of Florence and its allies against the papacy (1376—1378). She pressed for the renewal of the Church, which was clearly in need of reform. Her naive but earnest holiness made an impression on Gregory XI, whom she met at Avignon in June 1376. She urged him to return from his residence in France to his see in Rome. In the following year he did return to Rome, and the “Babylonian captivity” of the Church was ended.
In November 1378 Catherine went to Rome, where she worked for the unity of the Church and engaged in writing and prayer. Although she had not learned to read and write until her teens, she carried on a voluminous correspondence with leaders of the Church and state. Many of her letters have been preserved. She also dictated to her secretaries a book called the Dialogue or A Treatise on Divine Providence in which she reported what she felt were God’s words to her about the fundamentals of Christian faith and practice. The book is still read by many who find comfort and wisdom in the words of this unschooled woman.
At the age of thirty-three, after a period of almost complete paralysis, Catherine died in Rome, April 29, 1380, surrounded by her “family.” She was buried in the Church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. A woman of boundless energy, single-mindedness, and devotion to her ideals, she was able to deal effectively with rulers, diplomats, and leaders of all kinds, and she was also loved by the common people for her mystical christocentric spirituality. She was a forerunner of those women of later centuries who were to find their fulfillment not in marriage but in a professional career of service. These words of hers are worth pondering, “Do you think that our Lord would be pleased with us if we left works of mercy undone because our neighbor is unthankful?”
Catherine has been widely commemorated in Christian churches. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1461, and her feast day was set on April 30, but the present Roman calendar as well as the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist calendars commemorate her on the day of her death, April 29. Her feast day was popular in northern Europe, and she was retained on a number of Lutheran calendars after the Reformation, among them the Evangelical Calendar of Names (1965).
With Catherine, it maybe useful also to remember other influential mystics of the fourteenth century. Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, the founder of German mysticism and the originator of German philosophical language, was born at Hochheim in Thuringia, Germany, about 1260. He became a member of the Dominican Order, studied at Paris, returned to Germany as Provincial-Prior of the Dominican Order for Saxony, and went back to Paris for further study. He then went to Strasbourg, the foremost religious center of Germany and there became known as a great preacher; he next lived in Cologne. Rufus Jones said of him (Studies in Mystical Religion, 217), “He is a remarkable example of the union of a profoundly speculative mind and a simple, childlike spirit. No mystic has ever dropped his plummet deeper into the mysteries of the Godhead, nor has there ever been a bolder interpreter of those mysteries in the language of the common people.” He was allowed to teach unmolested until the end of his life, although his teaching seemed to many to verge on pantheism. In 1326 the Archbishop of Cologne brought charges against him and before the matter was settled, Eckhart died in 1327. Two years later certain of his writings were declared heretical by a papal bull which concluded, “He wished to know more than he should.” Meister Eckhart is on the German Evangelical Calendar of Names on March 27.
The Friends of God (Gottesfreunde) was a lay movement centered in the Rhineland and Switzerland that sought to renew the languishing Church. In a time of earthquake, natural disaster, and black death, the movement drew upon the strong apocalyptic strain in the German visionaries of earlier centuries Hildegard (1098-1179; see September 17), Elizabeth of Schönau (d. 1164), and Mechtild of Magdeburg (see November 19). The movement was founded by Rulman Merswin (d. 1382), with whom were associated Margaret and Christina Ebner, Henry of Nördlingen, and the unknown author of the classic Theologica Germanica, praised by Luther as for him next in value to the Bible and the writings of St. Augustine.
Johannes Tauler, the “illuminated doctor,” and one of the noblest leaders of the Friends of God, was born in Strasbourg near the end of the thirteenth century and was ordained a priest of the Dominican Order. In 1339 he settled in Basel, returned to Strasbourg in 1352, and died there in 1361. In his teaching he insisted on a religion of experience “entering in and dwelling in the Inner Kingdom of God, where pure truth and the sweetness of God are found.” He is on the Evangelical Calendar of Names, June 16.
Blessed Henry Suso (originally Berg) was born ca. 1295 of a noble Swabian family. He, too, entered a Dominican monastery for five years of study. At the age of eighteen, he had a spiritual awakening, endured extreme ascetic penance, and at length found what he sought. He went through Swabia as an itinerant preacher, ca. 1335-1348 and then settled in Ulm. He died in 1366. He had all the characteristic marks of the Friends of God: spiritual visions, spiritual crises, austerities, ecstasies, consciousness of the immediate presence of God. His feast day is January 23.
In addition to these, another pre-Reformation movement toward renewal might also be remembered. Blessed John Ruysbroek, “the ecstatic Doctor,” who joined the Friends of God with the Brethren of the Common Life, was born in 1293, probably of German parents in the village of Ruysbroek between Brussels and Hal. He was ordained a priest about 1317. After a long and diligent pastorate, he retired at the age of fifty to the a hermitage at Grönendaal near Brussels and gave himself to meditation and writing. He died in 1381. He had influenced Tauler and later helped found the Brethren of the Common Life. He was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1908; his feast day is December 2, and he is listed on that date by the German Evangelical Calendar of Names.
Geert (Gerard) Groote, a Dutch reformer, was born at Deventer in the Netherlands in 1340. He excelled as a student, but after a spiritual experience, he went into retirement to prepare for a different life. In 1379 he was licensed as an itinerant lay preacher in the diocese of Brussels and was noted for the simplicity both of his dress and his message. He founded the Brethren of the Common Life, which emphasized reading the Bible and included both clerical and lay members, who cultivated a biblical piety, stressing the inner life and the practice of virtues. Their spirituality was known as the devotio moderna and was influential in both Catholic and Protestant traditions of prayer. Erasmus was one of their pupils. Groote died in 1384. He is remembered on the Evangelical Calendar of Names on August 21. See also Thomas à Kempis (July 24).
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
From Catherine of Siena, A Treatise on Divine Providence
[God is speaking.] Dearest daughter, the willing desire to bear every pain and fatigue, even unto death, for the salvation of souls is very pleasing to me. The more the soul endures, the more she shows that she loves me; loving me, she comes to know more of my truth, and the more she knows, the more pain and intolerable grief she feels at the offenses committed against me. You asked me to sustain you and to punish the faults of others in you, and you did not recognize that you were really asking for love, light, and knowledge of the truth, since I have already told you that with the increase of love, grief and pain increase; for whoever grows in love grows in grief. Therefore I say to you all, ask, and it will be given to you, for I deny nothing to anyone who asks of me in truth. Remember that the love of divine charity is in the soul so closely joined with perfect patience, that neither can leave the soul without the other. Therefore, if the soul choose to love me, she should choose to endure pains for me in whatever way or circumstance I may send them to her. Patience cannot be proved in any other way than by suffering, and patience is one with love. Therefore bear yourselves with courage, for, unless you do, you will not prove yourselves to be spouses of my truth and faithful children nor part of the company of those who relish the taste of my honor and the salvation of souls.
Trans. PHP, based on the translation of Algar Thorold, The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, Catherine of Siena…, new and abridged from the 1896 London edition (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1944); and reprinted in Late Medieval Mysticism, ed. Ray C. Petry, Library of Christian Classics 13 (Philadelphia: Westminster, n.d.), 277-78.
Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
RS, rev. LFF
Readings: Psalm 36:5-10 or 16:5-11; 1 John 1:5—2:2; Luke 10:38-42 (RC) or Luke 12:22-24,29-31
Hymn of the Day: “Love divine, all loves excelling” (H82 657, LBW 315, LSB 700, ELW 631)
Prayers: For a desire to imitate the love of Christ; For all women in the church and for their ministry; For regular and devout communicants; For a willingness to endure suffering with Christ; For social workers; For peace and reconciliation within families, neighborhoods, the nations.
Preface: A Saint (2) (BCP)