A medieval woman of the 14th century who speaks with eloquence and compelling authority to 21st century modernists, a mystic with feet on the ground, an apostle not an intellectual, a preacher not a scholar, a gifted, charming, graciousness, affable master of human affairs, a stupefyingly free spirit, and possessive of an explosive personality. Saint Catherine of Siena is a voice to be reckoned with. She’s like certain book– not attractive at first glimpse, but once you start to read her, she becomes contagiously adventurous.
Every worthy influencer has master ideas that constitute the fabric of her life. In the case of Catherine, it is freedom, self-knowledge, and shadow. I intend to summarize what she meant by these 3 terms.
If St. Francis of Assisi was married to Lady Poverty, Catherine’s spouse is Lady Freedom. her primary concern was people’s liberation. As an acutely student of human nature, most people are in bondage due to the evil of corruption, vices, pride, envy; they are addicted to success, honor, debauchery, power, ideologies etc. the principal reason for these bondages is fear: fear of what others might think, fear of ourselves, fear of being judged, rejection, fear of suffering, spiritual and moral failures. As she sees it, when these winds gather strength and start attacking us from within, we become trees of death rather than trees of life.
The power of free will
We must understand that the greatest gift given to humanity is freedom to choose. No one and nothing can take our freedom from us if we don’t allow them. no one can force us to commit the slightest sin. Our free will is like a pickaxe. It can overcome any difficulty. We have no excuse to sin. This godlike power was lost at the fall of Adam and eve, but wonderfully restored by Christ. By this power, we are masters of ourselves and the world. We are kings and queens, lords and ladies, a little less than God himself. Our freedom was given to lead to human flourishing. Its purpose is to empower us to choose the good and the true, a window of unity to God, and to serve others. But unfortunately, freedom is in chains/ bondage.
How to regain our freedom? She suggests something similar to St. Paul in Roman 7. It’s only the tender, pure, straightforward love of God revealed in Christ that can rescue us from the slavery of sins. We need to be a manly man who advances courageously to the battlefield. We must run to Christ crucified like a fearful child running to his mother’s arm. If we run our life on the grace of God, then we will become truly free. In her words, “if you want to be relieved of your burdens and infirmities, keep your eyes on the slain lamb so that the fire of his charity may warm your heart and soul”.
Catherine’s second master idea is self-knowledge. There are 2 sides in the journey to self-discovery. On one hand, we are made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ. This is our grandeur and dignity. This makes us a little less than the angels. On the other hand, she discovers there is an ugly, stubborn, weak, stunted, and wretched side to us. we come to this clear-eyed discovery only by gazing both within ourselves and above and beyond ourselves i.e. into “the gentle mirror of God”. so, we are the middle between greatness and nothingness, earthly and heavenly, light and darkness, the angels and the beasts. Catherine understands this perfectly when God spoke to her thus, “do you know who you are and who I am?… You are she who is not and I am He who is”. This is true for all of us. That means just like “a nothing” cannot achieve anything, we – a nothing—cannot accomplish without utterly depending on God. as Catherine puts it,
“I am a foolish and wretched creature while you are supreme goodness. I am death and you are life. I am darkness and you are light. I am ignorance and you are wisdom. You are infinite and I am finite. I am sick and you are the doctor. I am a weak sinner who has never loved you [as you deserve].”
Without this “night of self-knowledge”, without the constant back and forth between knowledge of God and self-knowledge, there’s only confusion, and real freedom remains impossible. Also, the reality of our lives must be envisioned not within the lens of self, but within the infinite power, goodness, and love of God for we are dirty, but he is the ocean. The measure of greatness is the capacity to see ourselves in that mirror.
The third master idea from Catherine is “don’t be afraid to face your shadow”. Face your shadows, or else they will hunt you later. By shadows, she meant facing our past hurts and wounds, hidden faults, garbage and package we carry within from our childhood, breakups, divorces, abuse etc. When we fail to acknowledge our shadowy self, we project them on others without being aware of it. i.e. we overreact, we get angry for little to nothing, we think less of ourselves, we remain closed in, etc because deep down we are hurt. The reality is– hurt people hurt people. Catherine urges us to deal with them because they will emerge when we are least ready for them such as in marriages, jobs, ministry, relationships, etc.
How to deal with them
Bring them to Jesus in prayer i.e. revisit that situation and explain it in details to Jesus. Do it at least 3 times and let it soak in into the unconditional love and mercy of Jesus the physician. Second, bring them to spiritual direction. Sometimes, we need an experienced, well-versed person to open our eyes to what life can be. Third, bring it to counseling. A good counselor helps to name the problem and compartmentalize it, which makes it easily to deal with it.
Lest we forgot how difficult it could be to revisit past hurts, Catherine reminds us that to successfully confront the shadowy self is an achievement of its own.
Lovely article, Father Brice. You bring to life the amazing thinking of Saint Catherine of Siena. There is so much food for thought here! Thank you.