Saint’s day

Saint Catherine of Siena and I share a birthday, as I like to mention at least once a year. In my own case it was a birth into creaturedom, in hers the heavenly natale. We may lack much else in common — I fear the admiration goes only one way — but at a crude level we are both scrappers, and both on record for criticizing popes. Her own remarks were more excoriating; she had a gift for getting right to the point, which one reads not only in her hundreds of dictated letters, but also in her spiritual masterpiece, The Dialogue of Divine Providence, and in the Prayers transcribed at the end of her relatively short earthly life. (About as long as that of Jesus.)

But the “heat” from Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa (as she was known at the start) was a blaze of love I find unimaginable, though I have tried to imagine. Her relationship with Jesus Christ was extremely intimate: read her account of His foreskin as her “wedding ring”; or rather, don’t read it until you have thrown off the cloak of post-modern priggishness.

Her way of living, including the disconcerting habit of taking Christ’s commands as given, was a scandal sometimes even to her own generation, consisting as it did of humans like us who like to avoid directness, and would rather delegate their acts of mercy.

“The admonishment of sinners” is the act of mercy least appreciated in our age; and probably, too, in Catherine’s. In my own condition, I would shudder to receive a letter from her. In her own time, Princes of the Church shuddered to receive her letters. (She also went to Avignon herself.) As I said, she gets right to the point.

I like to beat around it for a while. I like to avoid direct confrontation. I would rather take a walk — go shadow-boxing — and remember eventually that I am in no position to mount a high horse.

But Saint Catherine of Siena was a knight in this respect; and put the fear of God into the Devil’s yes men. It is to the credit of her age that so many recognized the authority with which this frail young woman was speaking; who, after their initial shock, were inclined simply to obey, and thus change history. Who understood she was speaking for her Husband.

May she from Heaven pray for me, on my little birthday; and pray for all of us worldlings, so easily lost and confused.