*Excerpts*, Volume 9

Shelley Emling – Setting the World on Fire [Excerpt]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”113727980X” locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/51IN8NU0sL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”221″]An excerpt from the excellent new book:
 

Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena
Shelley Emling

Hardback: St. Martins, 2016
Buy now: [ [easyazon_link identifier=”113727980X” locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Amazon[/easyazon_link] ]  [ [easyazon_link identifier=”B015CLZ6QE” locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Kindle[/easyazon_link]  ]

 
*** Read a brief review
by ERB Editor Chris Smith

 
 

In the fourteenth century, Catherine’s public persona as a strong-willed woman   who never backed down was extraordinary to the point of being   freakish. At the time, women were so subservient to men that they   didn’t speak unless spoken to. And when they were spoken to, they   kept their eyes lowered. Legally, women were not allowed to appear in court. They weren’t allowed to hold any public, political or   professional office or to become a member of any of Italy’s influential guilds, such as the dyers’ guild Catherine’s father belonged to.   And they weren’t allowed to wear anything that was not of their   husband’s choosing. Women without brothers were able to inherit   land from their fathers, but they were forced to surrender it to   their husbands as soon as they married. Always, the law excluded   women as second-class citizens. “The good woman was invisible.   She wasn’t supposed to leave the house. She wasn’t even supposed   to be seen standing at the window of the house,” said Elizabeth   Petroff, a professor of comparative literature at the University of   Massachusetts, Amherst. “Yes, people looked askance [at Catherine], but she won them over, many times. She must have been just   what the times needed.”

While in the public eye, Catherine was surrounded by a  growing army of disciples who doggedly trailed her through the   streets of Siena. The group included her adored sister-in-law Lisa   Colombini, whose husband was Catherine’s brother Bartolomeo, a   woman Catherine called “my sister-in-law according to the flesh,   but my sister in Christ.” Catherine’s own sister Lisa also followed   her, as did many young Dominican friars. Members of the group   were nearly inseparable, attending Mass together once or twice a   day and confession at least once a week. So great was the affection   of these followers that they began to call her “Mamma,” as Pope   Benedict XVI reminded an audience in 2010. He said they did   so because, as her children, they looked to her for spiritual nourishment. He said, “Today, too, the Church receives great benefit   from the exercise of spiritual motherhood by so many women, lay   and consecrated, who nourish souls with thoughts of God, who   strengthen the people’s faith and direct Christian life towards ever   loftier peaks. ‘Son, I say to you and call you’, Catherine wrote to   one of her spiritual sons, Giovanni Sabbatini, ‘inasmuch as I give birth to you in continuous prayers and desire in the presence of   God, just as a mother gives birth to a son.’”

As she went forth into the world, away from her cell, Catherine wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or lecture even the most   powerful of men if she thought they would benefit from it. But   before taking on her new role, she experienced two tragic episodes   in 1368, when she was 21. First, the health of her beloved father   deteriorated rapidly during this period. We’re not sure what might   have been wrong with Giacomo, only that he suddenly took to   his bed, quite ill. Catherine stayed glued to his side, certain the   end was near, praying for his soul. According to Raymond’s account, she begged God to show mercy on her father so that he   might not suffer in purgatory. God apparently argued against the idea—although it’s not clear why—but Catherine negotiated a   plea bargain by imploring God to permit her to suffer any punishments due her father in his place. A severe pain then shot like   lightning into Catherine’s side before wandering all over her body,   and she was barely able to move. She later revealed that remnants   of this pain stayed with her the rest of her life. And yet she accepted it not with resentment, but with gratitude, telling her father that he was now free to die in peace. Giacomo passed away   on August 22, at which point Catherine became the primary care- giver for her mother, Lapa, who by then was around 60.

The momentous year 1368 also saw the complete collapse   of Siena’s government and a subsequent wave of riots, revolts and   slaughter. Between September 1368 and January 1369, no less than six governments were toppled and supplanted. The city of Florence   tried to step in and arbitrate an end to the chaos, but to no avail.

Catherine couldn’t help but become drawn into the quagmire. In the years following the plague, her family had shown a   keener interest in city politics and how they impact the economy.   Being dyers, they belonged to a coalition of tradesmen that supported the ruling faction of twelve people from the citizens’ party   known as “le Dodici.” This is the group that had seized power in   1355. More than a decade later, though, the nobles began turning   against the Dodici, and, on September 2, 1368, a group of them   broke into the Palazzo Pubblico, the imposing Gothic town hall   building on the south side of the Piazza del Campo, and threw out   the sitting twelve.

The nobles quickly ushered in a new government—the Government of Nine—that lasted all of three weeks. On September 24, members of the powerful Salimbeni family—made up of   wealthy tax collectors—rushed fully armed out into the streets.   There they joined members from the old party of the Dodici and threw open the city gates to soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire.   The tenacious group fought its way, alleyway by alleyway, to the   front door of the Palazzo Pubblico, and the building was taken   over yet again. They then set up a new Government of Twelve,   Difensori del Popolo Sienese, or the defenders of the people. After   only a few weeks of relative calm, they, too, were ousted. This time,   fifteen Defenders, or Reformers as they called themselves, stood   at the helm. In the months that followed, more battles raged, between all sorts of factions, and Catherine’s hometown was racked   with revolution and anarchy. It wasn’t until the following summer   that some semblance of peace was restored. The banished nobles   returned, joining forces with yet another group of fifteen Reformers, and they somehow managed to hold the reins until 1385. But   sparring among the various parties—and among the families of   vengeful men loyal to these parties—went on in spite of the relatively stable government. This constant unrest kept everyone in   the city on edge—and the hospitals packed with the wounded.

Despite her family’s involvement in local politics, Catherine’s   unwavering belief in a universal common good that recognizes   the worthiness and voices of all people—no matter what their   background, affiliation or social status—made her a powerful advocate for peace. The outspoken young woman had, through her   confident and heartfelt oratory, become quite adept at calming   troubled waters—able to persuade the haughtiest of nobles and   the most pompous of citizens to take a more passive, conciliatory   approach. Although Giacomo had been spared the sight of wanton   violence, Catherine and the rest of the family were in the thick of it, unable to avoid the clash of weapons that so often erupted   right outside their doorsteps. According to nineteenth-century biographer Josephine Butler, who wrote Life of St. Catherine of Siena, “All that Catherine saw and heard contributed to encourage in the   young girl the strong republican love of liberty, and to confirm   in her the conviction that human life is no holiday pastime, but a   prolonged struggle between opposing elements, for nations as well   as for the individual.”

 

 



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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


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