Almost exactly three years ago, at the end of April 2018, a group of us from St Bride’s, on a parish pilgrimage to Italy, visited Siena. A wonderful, fascinating, historic place – and we had an absolutely marvellous time there. And as chance would have it, this Thursday just past, 29th April, was the day on which the Church of England calendar commemorated that town’s most famous saint, Catherine of Siena.
Catherine was born in the year 1347, apparently the second youngest of a family of twenty-five children. (I shall leave you to reflect upon that thought! Possibly it was enough to drive anyone into a convent!) Anyway, despite considerable opposition from her family, she entered a Dominican convent at the age of eighteen. Her life as a religious was profoundly contemplative and marked by mystical experience; yet far from being introspective, she lived out her faith in the world very actively, through her dedicated service to the poor, the sick and the needy. Her reputation as a woman of immense wisdom and discernment grew, in the political as well as the religious sphere, and it is said that she had considerable influence over the Pope of her day.
And I myself have been touched by her wisdom. Over my desk I have a card that bears a quotation from St Catherine of Siena, which reads simply: ‘Be who you were created to be and you will set the world on fire.’ For me, those words mean this: do not allow yourself to be shaped by the expectations of others, or the assumptions of the world around you; do not be seduced by the allure of success. But, rather, discover who you truly are; the person whom God created to be, and strive to do that to the very best of your ability. Because nobody else is involved in the competition to be you.
But so many of her sayings and phrases are worthy of note, because she has a remarkable gift to communicate great wisdom in so very few words.
Some more examples from her:
‘Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.’
There are some variations on this same theme elsewhere in her writing: ‘Speak the truth in a million voices. It is silence that kills.’ Perhaps more powerfully still: ‘We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues – I see the world is rotten because of silence.’ I wonder how many of us find ourselves challenged by those words?
Or what about this?:
‘Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.’
As one might expect, Catherine of Siena is fascinating on the life of discipleship. Here is an example:
‘All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the way.”’
Or what about this?
‘Turn over the rudder in God’s name, and sail with the wind heaven sends us.’
Another watery/salty metaphor:
‘The soul is in God and God in the soul, just as the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish.’
She writes elsewhere on the subject of fear, a theme we have already touched upon:
‘The soul always fears until she arrives at true love.’
And on a similar theme, one profoundly interesting observation she makes is the simple statement:
‘Love follows knowledge.’
What about this?:
‘It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.’
I am also very touched by the fact that her reverence for the natural world is integral to her life of faith. Just one small example:
‘These tiny ants have proceeded from His thought just as much as I, it caused Him just as much trouble to create the angels as these animals and the flowers on the trees.’
The wonderful thing about the Christian tradition, and the mystics within it, like Catherine of Siena, is that their wisdom really does transcend space and time.
But I shall leave the final word with her once again, as she addresses Almighty God, her maker, to whom she dedicated her life with such wholehearted passion:
You, eternal Trinity, are the craftsman. And I, your handiwork, have come to know that you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son. O abyss; O eternal Godhead! O deep sea! What more could you have given me than the gift of your very self?