URC Daily Devotion Tuesday 11 April 2023 St Catherine of Siena
Tuesday 11 April 2023 St Catherine of Siena (25 March 1347 – 29 April 1380)
painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank.
Catherine of Siena was born to middle class parents – her father had his own cloth dying business and her mother was the daughter of a local poet. Lapa, Catherine’s mother, already had 22 children when Catherine and her twin were born; sadly her twin died. Following a vision of Christ Catherine vowed, aged just 7 years old, to devote her life to God. When Catherine was 16 her older sister, Bonaventura, died in childbirth and her parents wished her to marry Bonaventura’s widower. Catherine opposed this and following her sister’s example went on a strict fast as a protest to her parents’ plans. She also cut her long hair short as a protest against her mother’s chiding to improve her appearance so as to find a husband. Although opposed to marriage Catherine did not want to enter a convent and, instead, became a lay member of the Dominican order – though feigned illness was used to persuade her mother to let her join. This lay movement, the Mantallate, taught Catherine to read and write; she lived in near total solitude and prayer in her home and refused most of the food provided for her. Her visions continued and, encouraged by her confessor, she entered public life and soon drew a following urging for reform of the Church and a more godly clergy. She tried to convince the last Avignon based pope, Gregory XI to return to Rome and she was used by a new pope, Urban VI to bolster his legitimacy. Her life was considered holy as her limited diet meant she ceased to menstruate (and so was seen to have escaped the ‘limitations’ of her sex) and her visions were orthodox comprising Christ and the saints.) Her fasting, now we’d call it anorexia, led to her premature death at the age of just 33. She was declared a saint in 1461.
2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 4
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
Catherine used fasting and refusing to be attractive to men as ways to find autonomy in a patriarchal world. The visions of this deeply religious woman increased her reputation for sanctity. Making the most of the opportunities provided to her, she ended up goading one pope to return to Rome and bolstered the contested claims of his successor. Sadly, the source of her authority – her ability to fast – led to her premature death. Now we’d say she suffered from anorexia; even then her friends implored her to eat.
I wonder if she:
realised the link between her lack of nutrition and the visions she had.
understood that the visions gave her authority.
deliberately used these things to gain power and authority in a patriarchal world.
comprehended that these things which gave her power also made her ill.
Of course opportunities for women in mediaeval Europe weren’t plentiful. Thankfully we all have many more choices now. Different ways of being women, and men, allow for greater freedom, yet I wonder if we fall into the same trap of using our power to dominate and our weakness to manipulate. I wonder if we use inappropriate tools to gain power and influence and find that those very same tools consume us just as they consumed Catherine.
Catherine, like St Paul, was a mystic at heart. Inspired visions changed her, and the Church; just as Paul’s vision of the Risen Christ changed him and the Church. In faith Catherine found resources to sustain and give her an alternative to a life of child rearing or the confines of the convent. Yet finding her freedom came at a terrible cost. Her mysticism coupled with a justifiable reluctance to follow a vocation as either nun or mother led to powerful choices, visions, and consequences. Intense love of God came at a dreadful cost.
Pray today for women who have few choices now – that we may work towards an ever freer world.
Eternal God, eternal Trinity… …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 ever-greater hunger, and I grow more famished for Your light. I desire above all to see You, the true light, as you really are. Amen.
Catherine of Siena
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the Minister of Digital Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney