A Review of
Setting the World on Fire:
The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena
Reviewed by Christiana N. Peterson
A few nights ago, before I turned off my lamp to go to sleep, my iPhone screen lit up to the news of another mass killing. In Nice, France, a man used his truck as a weapon to murder over 80 people who were celebrating Bastille Day. The next morning, there was news of a military coup in Turkey.
My heart dropped, my anxiety rose, the tears flowed. I turned to my husband and asked him, “Is this it? Is this the end?”
Many of us who are Christians, even if we aren’t apocalyptic leaning, find ourselves wondering–in the rising grief of the last few months of mass shootings, unarmed black men killed by police, the killing of policemen, and political strife–if the end is nigh. In our terror, we even seem to long for it, calling, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Lately, when I am torn up with grief, when I wonder when God will make all things new, I have been reaching for the Christian mystics, who have been able to offer me a little humility, solace, and perspective.
Shelley Emling’s book Setting the World on Fire: the Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena, is a highly readable introduction to the life and times of the saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, whose Medieval world was as turbulent (if not more than) ours. Emling carefully weaves together a narrative of this complex patron saint of Italy along with details about the political and social contexts that shaped and moved her.
Catherine was born just after the first Black Death. Most of her family miraculously escaped the plague the first time but when she was a young woman, the plague returned to her village. Several of her family members and friends died, not just from the plague, but from the various ailments and violences that might kill a person in Medieval Europe: war, childbirth, sickness, execution.
Catherine began to see visions of Jesus at a very young age. She took a vow of celibacy early and her fight against her family’s wishes for her marriage was consistent with her dedication to following the will of Jesus despite all obstacles. Catherine subverted the normal roles for women, and around the age of 20, she entered into a mystical marriage with Christ, taking for her wedding ring his circumcised foreskin.
This is one of Emling’s most interesting and substantial themes throughout the book: that Catherine’s insistence on celibacy subverted the social norms for women. Indeed, being the bride of Christ actually placed her above men because men were not able to marry Jesus.
Catherine was a master at using her authority for what she believed were God’s purposes. Long insistent letters to kingdom and church leaders berating them for their weak and sinful ways ended in pious reminders that she was just a mere woman, but a mouthpiece of God.
She berated these leaders because she was desperate. Her times were times of turmoil.
Catherine approached each tragedy of her time with fierce and often radical convictions. She nursed a woman suffering from the Black Death by placing her mouth upon the woman’s open sore. When she was called to the prison cell of a condemned man, Catherine–who was well-known for her ability to change people’s hearts and minds with her words–prayed over him and offered him words of salvation and comfort. Upon his request, she agreed to stand with him at his execution. The story goes that she met him beside the chopping block, comforted him, and knelt down to catch his decapitated head, praying him into glory.
But disease and death were not the only troubles in Catherine’s world. During Catherine’s lifetime, the Catholic church underwent the Great Schism, in which the papacy was split, three men claiming to be pope at the same time.
Catherine’s dearest hope was that the Catholic church would be unified again in Rome under one pope. In her battle to bring unity to the increasing schisms, the generally peaceful Catherine involved herself in politics and war, voraciously arguing with church authorities, political leaders, and even a mercenary because she believed God wanted them to unite around the Holy Crusades, to kill infidels who might harm the Catholic church.
So great was her power of persuasion that some of them actually listened to this young, illiterate woman from Siena.
But the healing of the papacy was not to happen in her tragically short lifetime.
Emling’s narration of the book left me the space to be both inspired and unsettled. While I am troubled by some of her radical behavior and convictions, I’m also in awe of Catherine’s faith. Catherine’s deep faith led her to humility and radical service. Her selflessness inspired many followers and she wasn’t afraid of death because it meant she would be totally united with her husband Christ. She was always aware, especially in her moments of great accomplishment, that she was sinful and broken.
In response to the tragedy in Nice, the author Anne Lamott wrote a Facebook post that ended this way, “What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.”
Lamott’s words are an echo of many of the Christian mystics, who focused on God’s grace in the midst of human sin and tragedy. This was Catherine’s desperate desire: to share the news of God’s love with every person, regardless of their economic status, education, gender or sinfulness.
In her wild prayers, she described God as intoxicated with love for His creation:
“What drove you?
Nothing but your charity,
Mad with love as you are.”
As we lament our turbulent times, we would do well to read Emling’s book and learn to hope and pray as Catherine did. For Catherine believed in the love and overwhelming grace of God, even in the midst of the blackest death.
Christiana N. Peterson lives with her family and a bunch of Mennonite misfits in intentional community in the rural Midwest. She is a regular contributor to Good Letters-an Image Journal blog and has a forthcoming book about the Christian mystics and community (Herald Press). You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.