Page 3 – Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life
One issue that confuses most modern people is the concept of virginity sworn by a child or even a grown woman. Brophy explains that it has less to do with the body and everything to do with keeping one’s eyes always on Christ. For Catherine, this focuson Christ was her sole purpose in life. A very telling vignette explains this. Her mother, Lupa, wanted Catherine to stop wearing the plain and ugly dresses and urged her to wear new and attractive dresses. Catherine flat out refused. So, Lupa had Catherine’s sister approach her and gently convinced her to wear a near dress and to enjoy for a time what society had to offer. This backfired after a short while.
For years afterward Catherine would blame herself for her weakness during this time. When she reflected back on it she would weep and accuse herself of wickedness. Confessors would argue with her, pointing out that she had gone back on her promise and that no harm had been caused by it. Yet Catherine would not be consoled. She did not blame herself for being “worldly” as much as blame herself for loving Bonaevntura [her sister] more than God. It was another instance of turning her gaze away from Christ.
How many people do any of us know that have such a steadfast gaze on Christ? This alone is a profound understanding for a girl that wasn’t even twenty years old. To hold one’s gaze always on Christ is a duty for all Christians, yet most of us find that nearly impossible to do, it was not so for Catherine. Some might say she was obsessed, but is it possible to be obsessed with Christ? Are we not called to this same obsession to always keep Christ in our sight and constantly remember him? Catherine did, and in spades!
Penitential practices of the medieval world still shock us today. They inhabited a world of mystery which threatened them on every level. The Black Death came without warning and was invariably seen as a judgment of God upon them. Can we then doubt their tendency to severe penance? Another controversial issue when discussing medieval women is their place in society. Brophy explains this rather well.
They accepted suffering as a vocation—not in a masochistic way but as a means of uniting themselves with a savior who made suffering purposeful. It was a woman’s work. . . . They identified with the Godhead through their bodies. To us, many centuries later, it is essential to keep this social context in mind (39).
For much of her young adulthood Catherine lived as a hermit in her parents’ house, in a very small room. As she matured she began to see that the fruits of her prayer in the hermitage were not enough to keep for her own, that the world outside was in need, and she rose to meet that need.
This book is so full of fine examples of Catherine’s life, piety, good works, letters, teachings, and even the chastising of a Pope, that it would run this review into the thousands of words just to cover all the aspects that Brophy so beautifully gives us. His style is engaging, the organization of this book is flawless, there is an Epilogue and an Authors note.
This review cannot be complete with an excerpt from the most audacious letter any woman ever wrote to a Pope.
My dear Father! I am begging you, I am telling you: come . . . In the name of Christ crucified I am telling you! Don’t choose to listen to the devil’s advisors. They would like to block your holy and good resolution. Be a courageous man for me, not a coward. Respond to God, who is calling you to come and take possession of the place of the glorious shepherd, Saint Peter, whose vicar you are.
I ask you, would any man or woman dare to write such a letter to a Pope, or anyone in a similar position of power, and not fear for their lives? Catherine of Siena did, and didn’t care one whit what anyone thought. She served Christ. Don Brophy in writing this marvelous book has served Catherine, pulling her out of pious legends and into the light of full reality, and we should be grateful for his excellent work!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com