Two Books for the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena

Nearly a decade ago, I wanted to pick a saint for myself whose life I could study and be inspired by. I ended up (accidentally) choosing Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century mystic, theologian, political activist, and (I’d say) preacher of the faith. She was the perfect choice, and today is the day set aside to meditate on her life and works.

Of all the saints I know, I resonate with Catherine’s energy the most. I really connect with the theology of some (Origen, most the Gregories, Augustine), the social and practical emphasis of others (Francis, Clare, Ignatius, Theresa of Calcutta), and the mysticism of still others (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian). But only Catherine embodies for me all of these dimensions and the brashness and angst I carry with me regularly.

Catherine says and does some weird things. She overstates, goes too far, and is counter-productive in a lot of what she does. But she comes by it honestly and is clearly doing the best she can with what she knows and believes. She sharply argued with and called out Popes, rejected the leadership of church hierarchy, and followed her theology to its end, even when many called her a heretic (she has since been canonized as a theological Doctor of the Church).

And yet, with the world and people around her, and in her spirituality, she is so tender, sensitive, and romantic. There is a passion and ecstasy to her spirituality that can seem weird from the outside but so beautiful and inviting from within.

I resonate with all this. Bucking against authority to unhelpful (and often wrong) degrees, feeling misunderstood and unseen even while trying my best, phrasing things in ways that make sense to me while others stare at me in confusion, the tenderness and desire to sit with people in their pain, and the deep desire for ecstatic union and communion with God. These are all my vibe, and Catherine’s.

A decade on, I still wear my Catherine pendant daily, in order to carry her with me and keep her close. If you are interested in knowing more about Catherine’s life and spirituality, here were two of the books that helped me get to know and be inspired by her.

The Road to Siena: The Essential Biography of St. Catherine
Edmund Gardner & Jon Sweeney

This is a great little biography. It’s an updated and annotated edition of a biography written in the early 20th-century. I mention that because this is not your typical modern history or biography. It is very casual, less scholarly, and more conversational, while not skimping on the substance of her life.

This also means that the book accepts the worldview of its subject. The authors speak of Catherine’s ecstasies, miracles, visions, spiritual “eating disorder”, and other aspects of her life in a very matter-of-fact way. They don’t engage in critical analysis or debate around these incidents, nor do they clearly say they believe they were genuine spiritual manifestations. Catherine (and others) said these things happened, and so the book writes that they said it happened. No judgment. No analysis. Just telling the story as neither hagiography nor as suspicious modernist treatise.

The annotations from the editor of this new edition are genuinely insightful. He offers little nuggets that modern readers would likely appreciate. Whenever an unfamiliar name pops up, a note tells us who it is. There are asides about Catherine’s unhealthy eating habits, views on the Crusades, gender issues, and theological insights.

Ultimately, Catherine’s is a fascinating life that was cut too short (likely due to her own behaviors). I can’t say that I would have bought wholeheartedly into her theology and actions at the time, but in hindsight, if one can look past just how odd her mysticism was, and take from it what they can, they can learn so much about this remarkable woman–one of only two women that the Catholic Church has named a “Doctor of the Church”. She deserves it.

The Prayers of Catherine of Siena
Suzanne Noffke, OP (Translator & Editor)

Reading this alongside the biography was incredibly helpful and illuminating.In the biography, you get editorial asides, context, and quotes from Catherine’s writings, but to read them in full, in a beautiful translation, gives all the more depth and insight to the experience of learning this woman.

Catherine has a much longer and more well-known writing called “The Dialogue”, which recounts a specific mystical encounter she had with Jesus. This book, on the other hand, are more like her “prayer journal”: little spontaneous prayers she wrote over the course of years.

Noffke, acting as compiler and translator, adds line breaks in these prayers in such a way that helps the reader engage them meditatively and prayerfully. She also offers helpful notes and context along the way which help deepen our understanding and appreciation of the prayers.

What an amazing soul these prayers come from. They are remarkable in both both their simplicity and profundity, and they have drawn me closer to God while also cementing Catherine of Siena’s place as my favorite saint. I hope she can become yours as well.

“Eternal God, eternal Trinity, you have made the blood of Christ so precious through his sharing in your divine nature. You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an even greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are.”

–St Catherine of Siena

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