On her feast day, we can learn from this Doctor of the Church who used her own hands and heart to care for victims of the Plague.
In 1374 plague lays waste to much of Italy. Catherine of Siena returned to her beloved Siena. She had been travelling, serving as a peacemaker (perhaps also defending her personal reputation in Florence). Upon her arrival in Siena she immediately begins to personally care for plague victims.
Catherine is not a stranger to the evils of illness. With her own hands she tended the sick and buried the dead. Some of the ill and fallen were even among her own family.
So what consolation does she offer us? How does the spiritual doctrine of Catherine of Siena speak to a world ravaged by disease, economic peril, and political unrest?
For Catherine, Christ is the Divine Physician. Spiritual evils are far worse than physical ones. And Christ has the power to cure even these. She writes in a letter to a layman,
I will, then, that your confusion be consumed and vanish in the hope of the Blood, and in the fire of the immeasurable Love of God; and that nothing remain but the true knowledge of yourself, in which you shall be humbled and grow, and nourish light in your soul. Is He not more ready to pardon than we to sin? And is not He the Physician and we the sick, the Bearer of our iniquities? And does not He hold confusion of mind as worse than all other faults? Yes, truly.
Even as the threats of sickness and temptation rage about us, Christ, the Divine Physician, is more ready to cure than we are to sin!
Catherine expresses Christ’s yearning for souls by appealing to his precious blood shed for us and the consuming fire of his charity. Catherine’s confidence in the love of Christ abounds.
Not only is Christ physician, but he is light. In fact, to follow Christ is to follow and live in the light. She writes,
And as this sweet loving Word, for our example and teaching, despised the world and all delights, and chose to endure hunger and thirst, shame and reproach, even to the shameful death on the Cross, for the honour of the Father and our salvation, so does he who is the lover of the truth which he knows in the light of most holy faith, follow this way and these footsteps. For without this light it could not be known; but when a man has the light, he knows it, and knowing it, loves it, and becomes a lover of what God loves, and hates what God hates.
The light of Christ shapes what we love. By enlightening our hearts, the light of Christ molds us to cherish the things of heaven and despise all else.
Light is fed by charity. Catherine writes, “Gloom is scattered and consumed by the impulse of charity and unity, for God is true charity and highest eternal light. He who has this true light for his guide, cannot miss the road. Therefore, dearest daughters, I want, since it is so necessary, that you should study to lose your own will and to gain this light.” It is in giving of ourselves that we embrace the truth of Christ, and the call to conformity to his heart.
Why is charity so effective? For Catherine it keeps the threat of selfishness at bay. She exhorts her sisters, saying, “Oh, how dangerous self-love is to our salvation! It deprives the soul of grace, for it takes from it the love of God and of its neighbour, which makes us live in grace. It deprives us of light, as we said, because it darkens the eye of the mind, and when the light is taken away we walk in darkness, and do not know what we need.”
By acquiring self-knowledge, a work only possible with Christ who reveals who we truly are to ourselves, we can find the contrition necessary to receive Christ’s mercy. That fuels charity, and keeps us in the light.
Again, self love turns us inward, when we need to be directed and focused outward. Catherine explains, “So you see, dearest brothers and lords, that self-love ruins the city of the soul, and ruins and overturns the cities of earth. I will that you know that nothing has so divided the world as self-love, from which injustice is forever born.”
Meekness, humility, simplicity of life, and every other Christian virtue combat this temptation to collapse inward, and focus only on one’s own needs and sorrows.
Catherine of Siena was an ardent proponent of reform in the city governance and in the Church alike. She was a champion of the poor and servant of the sick. Her life was consumed by her love of God. In the end, everything was given over to Christ, her beloved spouse.
May Catherine’s love of God pour into our hearts this day and inspire us to renew the face of the earth!
My Nature Is Fire
In your nature, eternal Godhead,
I shall come to know my nature.
And what is my nature, boundless love?
It is fire,
because you are nothing but a fire of love.
And you have given humankind
a share in this nature,
for by the fire of love you created us.
And so with all other people
and every created thing;
you made them out of love.
O ungrateful people!
What nature has your God given you?
His very own nature!
Are you not ashamed to cut yourself off from such a noble thing
through the guilt of deadly sin?
O eternal Trinity, my sweet love!
You, light, give us light.
You, wisdom, give us wisdom.
You, supreme strength, strengthen us.
Today, eternal God,
let our cloud be dissipated
so that we may perfectly know and follow your Truth in truth,
with a free and simple heart.
God, come to our assistance!
Lord, make haste to help us!