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Sarah Lindsay

Women in Christianity: Catherine of Siena

This post is the first in a recurring series on women in Christianity. My goal in this series is not highlight exceptional women but instead to look at the many contributions of women, some well known and others that frequently go unremarked or overlooked.

Catherine of Siena
Saint Catherine of Siena, 19th century | via Wikimedia Commons

It comes as a surprise to many that medieval women made substantial contributions to theology. Our popular image of the middle ages emphasizes its darkness and ignorance, which surely (we assume) includes the oppression of women. But medieval women did have avenues of influence in the church, and even the briefest survey of Catherine of Siena’s life shows both her political and her theological influence.

Born in 1347, the year the plague swept into Europe, middle-class Catherine grew up to become an important figure in Italian politics and a mystic theologian. Accounts of her life report that she began having mystic visions as a child of 5 or 6, visions that continued throughout her life. But Catherine hardly secluded herself in order to experience these visions; she lived an active life both within her community and beyond it, in the realm of Italian politics.

When Catherine was 16, she refused a marriage her parents had attempted to arrange and instead became a tertiary in the Dominican order. A tertiary in a monastic order lives a life in accordance with the vows of monasticism (poverty, chastity, obedience) but does not actually take those vows. Catherine was probably attracted to living a monastic life without being secluded in a cloister, as she would have been were she a Dominican nun. She did, however, spend the next three years praying and fasting before she reemerged into public life.

From the time she was 19 until her early death at 33 (in 1380), Catherine served her community in a variety of ways. She worked with the poor and the sick, giving away her own food and tending plague victims. In her mid-20s, Catherine began to travel in Italy and to write letters to a variety of important Italians, offering advice and urging peace between warring Italian cities. Nearly 400 of these letters still survive. Even as she became involved in politics, however, her role was primarily that of a spiritual advisor, encouraging repentance and renewal.

As her influence in Italian politics grew, Catherine became involved in the complex politics around the Avignon Papacy. In 1309, long before Catherine’s birth, the papacy had relocated from Rome to Avignon, France under pressure from French rulers. This move caused significant distress in the church, and Catherine’s voice joined a chorus begging the pope to return to Rome. She herself travelled to Avignon in 1376 and met with Pope Gregory XI, where she urged him to return to Rome. Catherine was not the only influence in his decision, but Gregory XI did indeed return to Rome in 1377 — although much to Catherine’s dismay, within a year this move precipitated a schism in the church, with one pope in Rome and another in Avignon.

In the brief period between the return of Gregory XI and the schism, Catherine produced her treatise, The Dialogue. She seems to have dictated much of it while having visions, but she likely learned to write in order to edit her own text. Reading and writing were distinct skills in the middle ages, and Catherine seems to have relied on scribes to write while she dictated her letters. But she evidently wanted a greater degree of control over the text of The Dialogue, which points to its importance as a record of her mystical experiences.

Like most medieval mystic theology, The Dialogue both records Catherine’s mystical visions and reflects theologically on them. Particularly striking imagery fills the conclusion, as Catherine uses an almost dizzying array of images and metaphors to describe God. In just a few paragraphs, God is the deep sea, a burning fire, the abyss, a craftsman, light, a mirror, and a garment. Through these images, Catherine attempts to describe her understanding of God in a spirit of humble awe at the revelations she has received. Her images pile up, overlap, some harmonious, some discordant — but all point towards the depth of God’s love for humanity and the overwhelming but good nature of God.

Catherine died in 1380, physically worn down by years of fasting and deeply disappointed by the emerging schism in the church. Her life was short but full: in her brief 33 years, she meet with rulers and popes, persuading them to restore peace and return the papacy to its rightful home. But above all this, she frequently experienced the direct presence of God. Her Dialogue meditates on these experiences, attempting to explain the magnitude of God’s love and the necessity of responding to it, despite our inability to ever reflect God.

Catherine was revered immediately upon her death, and sainted in 1461. And her legacy has continued: in 1970, Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church, an honor given to 36 men and women (currently) who made significant contributions to theology. Also, in 1999, Pope John Paul II named Catherine one of the six patron saints of Europe.

Despite her brief life, Catherine brilliantly exemplifies how we can combine the active and contemplative lives. Her involvement in both charity work close to home and Italian politics reflect her rich direct experiences with God as she strove to bring the peace and love of God to those around her, while urging them to respond to that peace and love with repentance and renewal.