Endow Weekly

St. Catherine of Siena | Setting the World Ablaze – Week 2

Week Two: The Hidden Years

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” –St. John the Baptist, Matthew 3:11 

A little bit of history

Chapter Two begins: “In the Siena of Catherine’s day, as in most of Italy, freedom was something only little girls enjoyed.” For women past the age of 12, you were either confined to your parents’ house until you were married or until you entered a cloistered religious community. 

Marriage was difficult for women in a particular way in the 14th century. Statistics estimate that one in every five women died due to childbirth and that infant/child mortality rates ranged from 30-50 percent. Young widows had no rights to their children and were sent back to live in their father’s house while their late husbands’ relatives raised their children. 

On the other hand, during the 1200-1400s, there was a renaissance in women’s religious life: “cloistered women significantly outnumbering cloistered men by the time of Catherine’s death in 1380.” Certainly the difficulty of marriage and financial concerns contributed to the springtime in women’s religious communities. However, those reasons do not explain the incredible experiences of Christian mysticism that arose in these communities. An explanation for that phenomenon may be more closely found in the fact that women flocked to the cloisters because they desired a deep intellectual life and a profound space for worship.

A little bit of theology

This period marks the beginning of the “great age of women’s theology.” Religious women began to write about and document mystical experiences which had a uniquely feminine form. Mysticism was able to flourish because a Christian culture made its flourishing possible. In a culture which takes Christian values for granted, it is still difficult for man to be good because of the wound of Original Sin. But a culture which puts faith at the center of all human activity opens the door for the Holy Spirit to manifest in radical ways: ecstasies, stigmata, bilocation, etc. (For more explanation about Original Sin, please see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part I, Section 2, Chapter 1, Article 1) 

A little bit of spirituality

St. Catherine was certainly a mystic, but not a religious. Instead, she was a lay woman living and serving in the world as a Third Order Dominican. Despite the protestations and disappointment of her family, her father encouraged her to “live as the Holy Spirit tells you to live.” St. Catherine, although living with her family, was living a life of solitude, a “desert in the midst of her own home.” And like many before her who are called into the desert, she experienced severe spiritual warfare. Jesus Himself schooled her on identifying the difference between demonic and heavenly visions: “My visions are always accompanied at first by a certain amount of fear, but as they unfold they bring a growing feeling of security…the visions which come from the devil create at first a feeling of security and sweetness, but they end in terror and bitterness.” This method of judgment is very helpful to note as we discern the work of the Spirit in our own prayer lives. For an introduction to discernment of spirits based on St. Ignatius of Loyola, please click here.

Oremus pro invincem, (Let us pray for each other)
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.