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: