Benedict M. Ashley O.P


An article which appeared in exCHANGE, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter, 1979.
Sinsinawa Publications, Sinsinawa WI.

These days we are experiencing a revival of interest in the spiritual classics, but the writings of St. Catherine of Siena have not attracted much attention, even among Dominicans. The directed retreat movement has stimulated interest in Ignatian spirituality. People interested in Zen are discovering Meister Eckhart. The Jungians are promoting The Cloud of Unknowing; while feminists are attracted to Juliana of Norwich who addressed God as "Mother." But Catherine's long doctrinal instructions, her use of involved allegories, her stress on obedience to ecclesiastical superiors, and above all her physiological language -- her "sweat, blood, and tears" (especially "blood") -- turn off many readers.

However, we are now in a better position to understand and appreciate Catherine and her message. As a result of some rather heated scholarly controversies over the authenticity of her writings and the details of her biography, we now have solid historical information on Catherine, especially in the excellent biography by Levasti.(1) A considerable part, but not all, of her letters have been critically edited.(2) A reliable edition of her Dialogue has been published in beautiful format by Sister Guiliana Cavallini, O.P.,(3) which has been translated into attractive English with introduction and notes by Sister Suzanne Noffke, O.P.(4) A complete translation of the letters and prayers is being prepared by a team of Dominican sisters and is promised publication in two or three years. Undoubtedly Catherine's sixth centenary in 1980 will see the publication of many studies of her life, writings, and significance for today.

What are some of the results of this research for an understanding of Catherine's spiritually? First, I would note that critical studies have assured us that we have a substantially correct view of the facts of Catherine's life and of the authenticity of her letters and the Dialogue, although it is likely that the Dialogue is a composite work and that it underwent some editorial revision by Catherine's priestly advisers.

Second, it is now clear that while Catherine's spirituality is authentically Dominican, it belongs to that older and broader tradition of Dominican life which was not specifically or exclusively Thomistic. While Catherine's thought is essentially in harmony with that of Thomas, it is rooted in popular Dominican preaching, and such vernacular writers as Dominic Cavalca, O.P.,(5) and was also influenced by non-Dominicans, particularly William of Flete, the English Augustinian hermit who was a member of her circle.(6) However, the Franciscan influences, which some have claimed, have not yet been proved.(7)

This broader Dominican tradition was itself "Augustinian" in the sense that it was patristic, rather than scholastic and it was framed largely in the categories of St. Augustine's mysticism. What makes St. Catherine very clearly Dominican, and thus brings her into harmony with Thomas, is her constant emphasis on the necessity of rooting authentic love of God in the truth of Gospel revelation. Hers is very much a spirituality of the Word appropriate to the Order of Preachers of the Word. At the very beginning of the Dialogue God says to her, "You have prayed for the will to know and to love me, the Supreme Truth" (c. iv) and it is as "Truth" that Catherine constantly calls on God. In this Catherine was in opposition to much of late medieval spirituality which was strongly anti-intellectual.

Third, it seems clear to me that Catherine's spirituality differs markedly from that of the great Dominican mystics of the same period, Mechtilde of Magdebourg, Bl. Margaret Ebner, Meister Eckhart, Bl. Henry Suso, and John Tauler. Her German sisters and brothers cultivated a profound but very introverted, and somewhat withdrawn, antiinstitutional, and anti-secular type of spirituality, while Catherine's spirituality is intensely apostolic, directed toward ministry, and very much concerned with the reform of the Church and of secular society, a spirit later manifested in Savonarola.

Fourth, it is very interesting to observe how Catherine transcended the narrow roles in which medieval society and even our own, until recently, confined the members of the Church, dividing the clergy from the laity, religious from non-religious, and women religious from men religious, limiting religious life for women to the cloister. Catherine was a Dominican, but a laywoman, and her circle of disciples included in one family persons of all these neatly demarcated categories. Though a woman she was a powerful leader, who in effect preached to her followers, and guided them spiritually both by personal counseling and through her letters. This did not imply that she had any intention of undermining the ecclesiastical establishment to which she constantly urged obedience, but that in working for a revitalization of the organized Church she was ready to make use of every road open to her, without thought of the risks or criticisms this might entail. For her Church reform did not mean a new set of structures, rather it meant inspiring all the members of the Church in their respective roles to work together as the one living body of Christ. Her spirituality is intensely ecclesial, constantly occupied with the renewal of the Church and of the Dominican Order in the service of the Church and the world.

Fifth, we should note the wonderful union between the contemplative and active life which Catherine achieved. She never had any illusions that she could accomplish anything by her own busy-ness. All her immense activity flowed from her deep, prayerful union with God, for which she had been freed by a rigorous, ascetic discipline. To enter into her prayer life we must understand her symbols. While Catherine often speaks in very clear, theological (but non-technical) language, the depth of her experience is to be found in the symbols which she uses. At first sight these may seem like rather far-fetched allegories in which medievals delighted but which we moderns find puzzling, boring, and often in bad taste.

On closer examination, however, these symbols turn out to be for the most part biblical, and when we relate them to their biblical use we discover that her language is essentially sacramental. Perhaps the most unpleasant to moderns is her constant dwelling on "the Blood." However, for Catherine "the Blood" is a concrete, physical, symbolic way of making real the abstract notion of "Grace." The Blood of Christ flows from His heart, that is, from the very depths of His inner life, and flows out into His Body the Church to give life and healing to every one of his members -- to each of us. "I am the vine, you are the branches," and it is this Blood of Christ (His grace His Spirit) which alone can renew the Church. Here again Catherine draws from St. Augustine, as Thomas did, for a profound theology of grace, based on the words, "Without me you can do nothing."

Undoubtedly it was because Catherine felt this Blood of life beating in her own heart (as expressed in her vision of the exchange of hearts with Jesus, and her experience of being crucified with Him), that gave Catherine that wonderful courage which is perhaps her chief personal characteristic. In her letters to Raymond of Capua (her spiritual director and then the Master General who undertook the reform of the Order which had declined from its practice of poverty and its zeal for preaching) Catherine again and again urges him to put away his excessive timidity and fear of risks. She says to him "Be a man!" by which she really meant, I believe, "Be a woman like me, by the power of the Spirit unafraid."


1 Arrigo Levasti, My Servant Catherine, London, Blackfriars, 1954, unfortunately out of print, but to be found in many Dominican libraries.

2 Eugenio Dupre-Theseider, Epistolario da Santa Caterina da Siena, Rome, 1940, vol.1; the editor did not live to complete this important work. A selection of the letters is available in Vida D. Scudder, Saint Catherine as Seen in Her Letters, N. Y., 1940.

3 Rome, 1968.

4 Published by the Paulist Press in their notable series Classics of Western Spirituality.

5 Dominic Cavalca O.P. (c. 1270-1342) was a famous preacher at Pisa, a city not far from Catherine's Siena. He was one of the first spiritual writers in Italian, and his The Mirror of the Cross was probably well known to Catherine.

6 Cf. the article "Guillaume de Flete" in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité by M. Benedict Hackett, t. 6, colt 1204-1208 which tends to exaggerate this influence, neglecting the fact that Catherine had been raised in a Dominican parish where she had heard Dominican preaching from her earliest years.

7 Fr. Alvaro Grion, O.P. in his Santa Caterina da Siena: Dottrina e Fonti, Cremona, 1953 attempted to trace the influence on Catherine of the Franciscan Spiritual Ubertinus de Casali, but this was well answered by Fr. H. D'Urso, O.P., 4411 pensiero di S. Caterina et le sue font)," Sapienza 7 (1954) pp. 335-88, who showed that the influence of Dominic Cavalca is much more evident.

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