Catherine of Siena, a Dominican lay woman from the fourteenth century, was a mystic who had a deep sense of the presence of God in her life. In her early life she spent much time in solitude, praying and fasting.
This did not, however, keep her from responding to those in need. After an intense experience of what is described as espousal to Christ, she began to work in a hospital with the sick.
But she did not stop at charity – though this was very important for her. She was asked several times to work to bring about peace including in the midst of a conflict between the papacy and the city of Florence. She also was an advocate of the poor and a champion of peace to others. As she wrote to the King of France:
“Repent! Think of death and its uncertainty. Be a father to the poor, as the steward of what God has entrusted to you. Don’t you consider what great responsibility for evil falls upon you when you refuse to do what lies in your power? What a devilish botch in the eyes of God is this war between brothers. Cut out these stupidities.”
She also attracted many followers who came to listen to her speak of God. But that led her to be a strong advocate for reform in the Church.
She was particularly appalled at the lifestyles of the bishops and priests:
“They ought to be mirrors of freely chosen poverty, humble lambs, giving away the Church’s possession to the poor. Yet here they are, living in worldly luxury and ambition and pretentious vanity a thousand times worse than if they belonged to the world! In fact, many laypersons put them to shame by their good and holy lives.”
She was especially critical of the pope who was living in Avignon, France, a virtual tool of the French throne. She managed to get Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. In the face of his fear of being poisoned, she told him: “Be not a timorous child, but manly . . .” She was a supporter of his successor, Urban VI, in the face of an anti-pope. But though she considered him the “sweet Christ on earth,” she was not afraid to exhort him also to be courageous and not a coward.
We find in St. Catherine an incredible combination of ways of following Christ – prayer, fasting, asceticism, mysticism, preaching, care of the sick, peacemaking, and advocating for the reform of the church. I wonder how she kept all of them together.
Perhaps it was because she experienced heaven in her life. As Catherine noted in a phrase often quoted by Dorothy Day who also combined many ways of following Christ – and was also a trouble-maker:
“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”