On April 29, The Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century mystic and spiritual writer.
Born in 1347, Caterina Benincasa was the youngest of 25 children born to a wealthy cloth dyer of Siena. According to Holy Women, Holy Men (Church Publishing, 2010), at six years old, she had a vision that would determine her life’s work. While walking along a road to her home, she looked upward and “beheld our Lord seated in glory with St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John.” In this vision, she would later report, Jesus blessed her.
After this vision, Catherine committed herself to a life of prayer, meditation, writing, and worship. Her family, desiring her to behave like her contemporaries, attempted to have her married to her sister’s widower. Refusing, she cut off her hair (according to Holy Women, Holy Men, this was the chief symbol of her beauty) and instead joined the Third Order of the Dominicans. Here, she would be afforded the opportunity to serve the poor and convert sinners, without living in a monastery (An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians, 2000).
Throughout her career, Catherine was closely associated with serving those on the fringes of society: those afflicted with the Black Plague, prisoners condemned to death, and the desperately poor of Siena and Rome. At the same time, and possibly because of this work, she was well-regarded by the elite of her time, arbitrating feuds and attempting to end the church schism caused by the dueling popes at Rome and Avignon.
A prolific writer, Catherine’s greatest work is undoubtedly The Dialogue of Divine Providence, based on her vision of a soul rising up to meet God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Trinity, she wrote, “You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea. The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you” (Dialogue 167). She would go on to say to her readers, “You are rewarded not according to your work or your time, but according to the measure of your love” (Dialogue 165). One of her best-known quotations, as translated by the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, Bishop Emeritus of London, is remembered as “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”
Catherine died in Rome on April 29, 1380, at the age of 33. She was canonized in 1461.
Collect for Catherine of Siena
“Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen” (“Holy Women, Holy Men,” p. 351).
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