Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: Catherine of Siena

Catherine of SienaCatherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset

I've read a bit by Sigrid Undset (and recommend the Master of Hestviken series especially) and read on various blogs that this book was wonderful so I requested it from inter-library loan. Most of Ms. Undset's books are historical fiction; this one is non-fiction.

The book follows Catherine's life very closely, building on the plethora of sources that exist. Apparently, many of Catherine's followers were devoted enough to her to record almost every encounter. I enjoyed reading about her youth and getting such a wonderful feel for her Siena. Her early life as a saint (after convincing her family to allow her to remain unmarried) was marked by near-constant prayer and elective deprivation. After a few years, Christ commanded her to begin spending more of her time serving her family and her community, sending her out on his missions of compassion and conversion.

To be honest, I found this section of the book the least interesting. It's not that Catherine's devotion to God or her struggles to pray for the conversions of others were not amazing. They were! It's just that there were so many of them, so well recorded! After a while, all the names seemed to run together a bit. I'm sure that says more about my dearth of spiritual strength than what I could have learned from Catherine's example.

I did think this quote interesting:
The intense remorse which Catherine always felt for her sins came of her knowledge of what complete Purity, complete Love, really is. When she accused herself passionately for having slighted God because she let herself be distracted for a moment to see a brother go past in the church; when she reproached herself bitterly for her untruthfulness because she had politely said Yes to some Dominicans who invited her to come and see a monastery, when she had no intention of doing so--then the sensitiveness of her conscience may seem exaggerated, so that one can scarcely help wondering, was Catherine really quite sincere when she sometimes called herself the worst of all sinners? Even Raimondo of Capua had to confess that he had on occasion been doubtful. But in the end he learned to understand that Catherine measured perfection and imperfection with a yardstick which ordinary people do not know. Only God is perfect--this she had been allowed to see in her visions--and everything which is not God is imperfection. When she spoke as though she believed that her sins were the cause of the misery of the Holy Church and the whole world, she meant it with deadly seriousness. Obviously she knew that hundreds of thousands of other souls were also sufficiently sinful to bring the same miseries over the whole world and the Church. But it was not for her to judge them--she could only judge herself.
I think this is a point well-made about the saints. While some saints have obvious times of sinfulness and conversion, most seem to live in a closeness to Christ that the rest of us dare not hope to attain, yet they claim to be the greatest sinners of all (starting with St. Paul). It's easy for us to dismiss their claims, but here Ms. Undset has explained it rather well. The closer we are to Christ, the more easily we can see the great distance that still divides us from the perfection of God. We can never be perfect and the smallest sin is still enough to separate us eternally from God if he would not breach the divide himself.

Eventually, the book moved on to chapters that focused on her work in the international world, writing to and visiting the Pope and other leaders, learning about Italy's history. During Catherine's lifetime, the Pope was living in Avignon instead of Rome (which caused great trouble in his relationship with the people of Italy). She struggled constantly to convince him to return, knowing (because Christ had revealed to her) that a great schism was developing. She constantly encouraged those in Siena and other cities of Italy to stay true to the Church despite their distress with the Pope himself.
For her it was no contradiction, beyond the fact that all human relationships are full of contradictions, that Christ had set a vicar over His faithful as long as they live on earth, and that He demands we should show His vicar honour and obedience, even though the vicar may be unworthy to fulfil his mission. No one can know whether the Holy Father has been a holy man until his death--and as it has been put in the hands of men to appoint a man as the Vicar of Christ, it is only to be expected that the voters will all too often vote from impure, mean or cunning motives, for a man who will become an evil to the Church of God on earth. God will nevertheless watch over His Church, raise and restore again what mankind may ruin or soil; it is necessary, for mystical reasons which the saints have partly seen and understood, that the offence should occur. But woe to that person through home the offence comes...
It seems like wise council for the Church today as well.

She did finally convince Pope Gregory that he must leave Avignon and return to Rome, despite all the powers and advice that denied it (even his own father).

Ms. Undset quotes and paraphrases the writings of St. Catherine in the last few chapters of the book. I haven't read her The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (Tan Classics) so I can't say how well they are represented. I feel like the book was a good introduction to the life of St. Catherine, though. She certainly was one of the more astounding saints (though I suppose they are all astounding in their own way).
God speaks to His daughter of the presumption of judging one's neighbour, and explains to her how it is possible to work for the conversion of sinners, calling evil by its rightful name, but yet leave the judgment of them to God. He particularly warns Catherine against judging unworthy priests and monks. To wage war on the Church because its bad servants sin is itself a great sin. God who raised up His priests and clothed them in power and dignity will judge them Himself, and however wretched they may be they are still the ministers of the sacraments which nourish the life of grace in us.

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