Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life By Don Brophy [Featured Review]

Page 2 – Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life

At the age of eight, Catherine had a vision of Christ in the sky while doing an errand with her brother.  She was transfixed by this image and did not look away until her brother yelled at her, she looked at him briefly then back to the vision, but the vision was gone.  That had profound impact on her, which lead her to make an inward vow of perpetual virginity.

Now we must not confuse an eight year olds vow of virginity with a sexual understanding that we have today.  For Catherine she had decided to take Christ as her spouse, and would never give herself to another.  This caused a great deal of trouble in her family, but from an early age Catherine showed herself to be a person of iron will.  At age 12 when her parents were actively shopping for a husband, Catherine let them know of her marriage to Christ and could not be swayed in the least from her conviction.

She wrote letters to the pope that most people would be far too afraid to write. In one letter, she all but calls him a coward for not coming back to Rome!  The fact that the pope didn’t punish her is a sign of the esteem that not only he, but much of the people of Italy had for her.  Brophy goes to great lengths to provide all the evidence available (in those copious Notes at the end), and relies almost solely upon scholarly evidence and less so on the pious legends.  He investigates the legends, but gives his opinion on what is spurious and what is likely true.

In each chapter Brophy presents some aspect of Catherine’s life and explores it fully.  While the book is chronological it is arranged in chapters the open our understanding of various aspects of Catherine’s personality: for instance, her legendary fasting.  The legends of fasting, especially of medieval saints, are often magnified beyond reality.  However, Brophy points out that:

Seven centuries later we have a more precise name for Catherine’s condition.  Most people looking at her case today would agree Catherine suffered from an eating disorder.  It has been charged that she and other medieval women who undertook extreme fasts suffered from a form of anorexia nervosa (51).

That explanation goes a long way in explaining how Catherine pulled off those fasts.  There are records of her trying to eat but simply unable to hold it down.  Over time she was able to begin eating small amounts, but she never was able to truly eat like everyone else.  The severe fasting she had taken on herself simply ruined her digestive processes.  That is one reason the Church currently imposes strict limitations on fasting.


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