Note: this weekend, I wrote a post collecting all of my responses to people’s Protestant concerns with praying (or “talking”) to saints. Before you express your disagreement to this present post, I’d ask you at least read some of that.
Well, my previous post on praying to saints caused a lot of conversation on my social media. Slightly more than half of people disagreed with it (strongly), and the rest seemed to appreciate it. So before I begin today, I want to make something clear: this blog’s purpose is not to start flame wars or disagreements among friends. I genuinely want to be helpful to people–even when that means challenging and stretching them, and even when they strongly disagree with me. One need not be convinced of a position to be helped by reading about it.
With that being said, let me tell you my experience of finding a saint to pray (or “talk”) to, and then let me tell you a little bit about her.
Throughout history, there have been saints to whom God has given unique grace in certain areas of life. When the Church knew of and could recognize such saints, it declared them “patron saints” of those things they seemed to have special, almost unparalleled grace for.
In times of need in a specific aspect of life, much of the Church throughout history has felt comfortable praying to those earlier saints that seemed especially graced for those kinds of situations.
So…here’s my funny story.
Early this year, I felt moved to find a saint to pray to–or at least a saint whose life I could meditate and model my life on. I was moving into church leadership and seminary (again) and had begun my series on women leaders in the church, so I decided to pick a female saint. I landed on St. Catherine of Alexandria, a patron saint of philosophers and theologians, who was burned at the stake for having converted all of a town’s philosophers to Christ. I would try praying to her while in seminary and see how it went.
I went to the only Catholic gift shop I knew of in Philly and found the necklace you can see below. As you can see, I messed up. I grabbed this out of the “Catherine” bin, not thinking there was more than one Saint Catherine—but there is. Later, I realized I had picked up the wrong saint but figired this was Providence at work. So I decided to stick with this saint and only then did I start googling to find out who my new patron saint was.
The first thing I learned was that Catherine of Siena is a patron saint of lots of things, but primarily against chronic diseases and sexual temptation. That…. was not quite what I was looking for originally. I wanted a thinker, a theologian, a philosopher!
But then I quickly realized she was the saint for me.
Born in the 14th-century, she grew up in a really difficult household. At age 5 or 6, she started having ecstatic visions of Christ, and so devoted herself to celibacy to focus on serving him alone. Yet, even in her painful home life, she tried to love and serve her family relentlessly.
She decided to neither get married nor become a secluded nun, and instead stay within society and devote herself to learning and teaching about Christ. She became a lower level member of the Dominican Order, a layperson in the service of the Church.
At 21, she experienced the event that most defines artistic representations of her: a massive ecstatic vision of Jesus, where she experienced a “Mystical Marriage to Christ”. It was here she felt Jesus tell her to no longer live a quiet, withdrawn life, but to go headlong into the public sphere.
She became a traveling teacher and got involved in the politics of the day. She gathered male and female disciples (yes, women can do that in the Catholic Church), began her prolific writing career, and became a de facto diplomat of sorts, traveling place to place, trying to make peace among warring political factions. She was almost assassinated on a couple of occasions for her political work.
At 30, she wrote her most famous work, The Dialogue, about a conversation between a Soul and God that delves into the depths of the human spiritual experience and God’s relation to it. It’s believed to be a transcript of her own ecstatic experience.
Ever since being a teenager, she had been ill most of her life. As she got older, she could eat less and less until, eventually, the only thing she could keep down was Communion, which she took daily. At the age of 33, she lost the use of her legs, had a stroke, and a week later died.
Now, I don’t mean to exalt her or make her super-human. Some of her ecstatic and charismatic experiences are incredibly odd. Her political work involved a brief stint getting a crusade underway to fight Muslims. She didn’t really seem to be within any consistent community or accountability structure and largely spent her ministry as a lone wolf—experiencing, writing, and teaching things on her own with little input from others (as far as I can tell).
And yet, I feel a certain kinship with her. She is one of only two women that are “Doctors of the Church“, meaning she is one of the most respected theological minds in the Catholic Church. And yet she is also considered one of the most important mystical writers in all of Christianity.
So…a mystical charismatic with a mind and ear for theology, writing, and politics, who comes from a difficult church background and childhood? Sound familiar? I certainly feel like I see that person in the mirror each day.
Like I said in the first post, I take seriously the sainthood of all believers. If you take on praying to saints, I genuinely think that you should feel free to talk to any saint that has gone before us, not just those canonized by Catholics or the Orthodox. And I think you should feel free to talk to many of them at once if you want. For me, though, I just needed to pick one as I tried this practice on for size. And I’m glad it was Catherine. I’m still planning on delving into her writing here soon as part of this practice, and I’ll be sure to tell you about it when I do.
[image credit: “Catherine of Sienna” by Theophilia on DeviantArt]
Again, if you’re still really having some problems with all of this or think I’m way out of line, I’d encourage you to read some of my clarification and response post, especially the first little section. Here’s that pic of Catherine I mentioned earlier:
11 thoughts on “Meet Catherine of Siena, the Saint I Pray To.”
She was an amazingly strong and wise woman. Even if someone disagrees with her, one must admit that she was far ahead of her times in certain ways.
I don’t get theologically outraged in hearing that people pray to the saints. I am a PCA ruling elder (a conservative Reformed denomination) who was raised Catholic. I have a laissez faire attitude about it, even though I don’t see where it fits with Scripture. I do believe that God is incredibly ingenious with the various ways He reaches out to His people. Ecstatic visions, prayer, reading Scripture, dreams, etc., all are ways that God can speak to us. But I don’t see visions or dreams or charismatic gifts as more profound communication methods from God than the others.
In my opinion, a mystical experience mixed in with the communication from God can limit the application of the “message” to a wider audience. If you are not willing to accept the reliability of the mystical experience, the message holds no special significance; and may even be viewed with skepticism. Contact with God that is discursive, like prayer (excluding praying in tongues, which is non-discursive) and Scripture reading, gives us a conscious, clear understanding of the communication process. It that sense, I believe it can have a wider application and acceptance with others. The initial ecstatic experience doesn’t make the message any more spiritual.
Nevertheless, soon after my own “born again” experience, I was in church with my father at the Catholic church in which I made my confirmation. While following a still familiar liturgy, I had the clear thought: “You could have done that here too.” I’m not saying I see myself in the same league as Catherine of Siena, but I had a sense that was God speaking to me.
I recently read “When God Talks Back,” by T. M. Luhrann and found it a very principled study and discussion of God speaking to members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Luhrmann is an anthropologist on faculty at Stanford. I’d recommend her book to anyone with an interest in the subject. Follow her on Facebook too. She continues to interact with the topic in social media and on the web.
Thank you so much for the balanced and gracious comment! I went to Westminster Theological Seminary, and so i know how many of us reformed folks can respond to ideas like this, and though you were clear this won’t necessarily find itself in your own spiritual repertoire, i appreciate the grace you offered. I especially loved your story about your post-regeneration visit to Mass. Thank you so much again for the comment.
Hi Paul. I am also a WTS grad; an MAR in 1994. I wanted some graduate theological training before I went on to write a dissertation on the spiritual, religious distinction in A.A. and its Twelve Steps. I wasn’t Reformed then, but after reading some of Van Til’s thought, WTS was the only seminary I seriously considered.
Oh wow. I’m currently in social work in Philadelphia, working at an agency with a harm reduction model, so a lot of our clients are still in their addictions and/or go to twelve step programs. can you offer a summary statement of your dissertation conclusions? I’d love to hear them. If it can’t really be boiled down, I’d even be happy to look at the dissertation itself if you’re open to it. Those questions are on my mind often.
As a side note, i only did one year of WTS before having to stop for money issues. This fall i just restarted seminary through a blended distance/face-to-face program through Western Theological Seminary (another WTS, haha) to finish my MDiv. I’m also Deacon in that school’s denomination, the Reformed Church in America. Where do you hail from now?
I’m in the Pittsburgh area.
Look at my current website: anselm-ministries.us. There are some papers there I’ve written on addiction and recovery, counseling, and theological issues from an evangelical point of view (Thinking God’s Thoughts). I’m not a fan of some harm reduction methods, especially opioid maintenance. I see it as primarily a method of social control, rather than helping “the still sick and suffering addict” as Twelve Step recovery says. I’ll send you a copy of an article I wrote for the “Journal of Biblical Counseling” a few years ago.
I’m in the process of having my website redone, using WordPress. I’ll blog on the same issues of addiction and recovery, counseling, and thinking God’s thoughts.
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