St. Catherine of Sienna

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St. Catherine of Sienna, Virgin

Sienna, in the Tuscan district, is the favored place where, in 1347, St. Catherine first saw the light of this world. Her life from her childhood, was a continual exercise of the choicest virtues, but at the same time, a perpetual communication of divine grace. When scarcely five years of age she was called “the little Saint” on account of her quietness and her love of prayer. Already at that time she greeted the Virgin Mother upon every step of the staircase with the words of the Angels: “Ave Maria!” When six years old, our Lord appeared to her with the Apostles Peter, Paul and John, together with St. Dominic, looked tenderly at her and gave His blessing. This was the beginning of many and extraordinary visions with which the holy virgin was graced until her death. Her heart from this time was filled with intense love of God. She read most carefully the lives of the Saints, and endeavored to follow their example. In her seventh year she consecrated her virginity to God. Her only pleasure was solitude, prayer, work and self-immolation. Persuaded by her sister, she once began to pay more attention to her dresses and to curl her hair after the prevailing fashion of the world. This lasted, however, only a short while, for she became aware during her prayers how much God was displeased with such vanities and how long her pious sister would have to suffer on account of it in purgatory: hence she refrained from it and repented of her folly as long as she lived. Her parents desired her to marry; but she replied: “I am already wedded to a most noble spouse and shall never bestow my love on a human being;” and cutting off her hair she covered her head with a veil. To drive all thoughts of entering a convent out of her mind, her parents burdened her with the entire care of the house, as well as the hardest work, so that no leisure was left her, either for prayer, or devotional reading. This was at first a sore trial to her, but she was told by Christ to build a cell in her heart, where, in the midst of her employments she might pray, namely, by offering her work to God and by pious ejaculations. Following these directions of Christ, her soul became filled with sweet consolation, and she manifested, under the greatest drudgery, a most extraordinary happiness. This caused her parents to change their resolution, and they permitted her to live according to her vocation. Hence, she now began to live in a more retired manner, and with more austerity than before. 

Bread, herbs and water were her only nourishment, two bare boards her bed. She was girded by a pointed chain which she Continued to wear until a few hours before her death, when at the instance of her confessor, she laid it aside. She only allowed herself one or two hours of sleep during the night; the remainder she employed in prayer or in the contemplation of the divine mysteries. She scourged herself three times daily, sometimes until she drew blood. These austerities she observed from her eighteenth year until her death. After she had been received into the third order of St. Dominic, she aspired most fervently after sanctification, but Satan endeavored with the most loathsome imaginings and temptations, to trouble the repose of her soul and pervert her thoughts; Catherine, however, increasing her penance and her prayers, withstood him bravely, but still without feeling more relieved or more quiet. At length, when, one day, Christ appeared to her, she said: “O Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” “I was in thy heart,” answered the Saviour. “What;” said she, “hast Thou been in my heart which was filled with such abominable thoughts?”; “Hast thou then consented to them? Hast thou been pleased with them?” asked Christ. “Oh, no!” replied Catherine, “it was most painful to me to be afflicted with them.” “And this was thy merit,” said Christ; “I have seen how thou hast battled, and I have assisted thee.” Thus ended her temptations, which were succeeded by the most comforting visions of our Lord, His Blessed Mother and other Saints, the number of which is known only to God. She frequently saw Christ as a lovely little child in the holy Sacrament, for which divine mystery she entertained the most fervent devotion. She partook of it almost daily, but always with renewed piety and shedding a flood of tears. It was very remarkable that the receiving of it preserved also her temporal life, for it is a fact that one year she partook of nothing else but the Blessed Eucharist from Ash-Wednesday until Ascension-day. When she was required, as an act of obedience, to take some food, she suffered so greatly by so doing, that the request was not repeated. After some time, Christ commanded her to be kind and charitable to her neighbors, and she began to nurse the sick with an indescribable loving care. Among others, she attended to two women, of whom one was afflicted with leprosy, the other with cancer. In nursing them she evinced the most perfect self-control.

She pressed the offensive matter out of the sores and cleansed them with water. Feeling disgust, she drank the purulent matter which she had kept in a vessel mixed with water, saying to her confessor that she had never tasted anything more agreeable. Christ appeared to her on the following night, praised her self-mortification and rewarded her with great interior peace and tranquillity. It was hard for her to bear when this very woman, whom she had so tenderly nursed, instigated by Satan, not only complained of her, but slandered her in the whole city. But Christ visited her and presenting to her two crowns, one of gold, the other of thorns, said: “Which of these two do you desire?” Catherine answered: “Lord, I desire to resemble Thee in this life, and it is a joy to me to suffer as Thou didst:” and with these words she took the crown of thorns and pressed it upon her head. Christ, upon this, commanded her to continue her charity towards the sick, which she did with unprecedented patience and kindness. Her love towards those whose souls were diseased, was still more tender, and she offered for such her prayers and many penances, through which means she obtained from God the conversion of many sinners, who otherwise would have gone to destruction. She prayed three whole days for a certain woman who was dangerously sick, and who hated the Saint most bitterly. At last, she said to Christ: “I will not move from this place until Thou givest me this soul.” He graciously complied with her request by converting the woman and giving her a happy death.

She was also gifted by God with the grace of reading the inmost thoughts of those who approached her: hence her exhortations were always addressed to their weakest spot. If a lascivious person came near her, she always perceived so terrible an odor that she had to cover her nose and mouth. Many other graces God had bestowed upon her, to relate all of which would take too much space. One of the most remarkable of these was, that Christ had impressed the marks of his five holy wounds upon her, but in such a manner that, exteriorly, nothing was to be seen, while she suffered all their pains. She had prayed to Christ for this grace in order that it might remain unknown to the world. The many miracles which she performed on the sick and possessed, and the heavenly wisdom with which she was filled, secured her not only the highest regard of the people, but also of the prelates of the Church, as well as of worldly princes. She was even sent in times of strife and contention, as a messenger of peace, and the effect of her wonderful talents more than surpassed all expectations. At Rome, whither she had been called by the Pope, she became dangerously sick, and during four months she suffered excruciating pain: she ceased not, however, praising and giving thanks to God. The Almighty, whose judgment, though inscrutable, is always just, sent her a last bitter trial after she had received the holy Sacrament; Satan reproached her that in her actions and ecstasies, she had only sought her own aggrandizement. But she overcame the enemy of her peace, and after this anguish of soul, she had a most consoling and tender discourse with Christ, who visibly appeared to her, and into whose hands she breathed her chaste soul in the thirty-third year of her life. Her last words were: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Practical Considerations

I. St. Catherine, during her whole life, repented of the folly she had committed in following her sister’s advice, and vainly adorning her person. Oh! how much more reason to repent have many children of the world who by indecorously arraying themselves, not only give occasion for scandal, but often effect the ruin of others. With what bitter tears ought they to weep over the loss of so many precious hours they have so idly spent in adorning themselves! Catherine came to the knowledge that God is displeased with the vanity of dress. How much more, then, must He be displeased with indecorous and frivolous adornments, the only motive of which is to please the eyes of others. The sister of St. Catherine had much and long to suffer in the other world on account of her vanity; but how much more will those affected dolls of our day suffer in consequence of their levity! Catherine reformed as soon as she came to the knowledge of her fault. Pray to God that He may enlighten you, in case you have done wrong, in regard to this point: and earnestly avoid a repetition of it in future. Be assured that simplicity, both in dress, manner and conduct is the most beautiful ornament of a Christian, as Tertullian writes. The frivolous, demoralizing way of dressing, the too great care for beauty, marks those persons who think little of the salvation of their souls, or who at least are more concerned for their mortal bodies. St. Chrysostom writes: “It is a sign that the mind addicted to vanity is already corrupt, or will soon become so.” “If you dress yourself with immoderate vanity,” says St. Cyprian, “to please others, do not say that your mind is chaste and pure: for your appearance convicts you of falsehood.” “Your exterior ornaments are a sign of the abomination of your interior,” says St. Bernard.

II. St. Catherine performed her work joyfully, and made it meritorious by frequent pious ejaculations. Against the temptations of Satan she combatted bravely, and bore, with patience and meekness, the heaviest calumnies and the bitterest pain. Learn from this, how to conduct yourself, under temptations calumny and pain: and be ashamed of your past actions. “How is it possible,” writes St. Bernard, “that we do not feel ashamed when we contemplate the splendid examples of the Saints, and compare with them our own way of living?” Impress deeply on your heart the words that Christ spoke to St. Catherine, in regard to her loathsome imaginations and temptations. To suffer such? temptations is in itself no sin, how long soever they may last; only do not occasion them, and when you perceive them, call God to your aid to combat them valiantly from the beginning. If you are not released from them, which seldom happens, do not become disheartened. God will not forsake you: He watches your fight, will give you grace and strength, and prepare your reward in heaven. If you take this three-fold truth to heart, despondency will never overcome you in the hour of temptation. “God watches us when we fight,” says St. Cyprian; “the Angels watch us: Christ watches us. What an honor, what a happiness to combat in the presence of the Most High, and to be crowned by Christ!” How God looks down upon those who battle, St. Augustine explains in these words: “God does not look upon them as a man watching those who combat; because such a man can cry, but cannot assist and impart strength, being only a human being, and not God. The Almighty, however, watching a combatant, helps and gives him strength if he has prayed for it.”

III. St. Catherine was commanded by Christ to be kind and charitable to her neighbors. Have you read with what zeal she fulfilled the command? She nursed the sick who were infected with the most loathsome diseases, with heroic self-abnegation. Yes, she did not even become less loving in her care when the sick person–the woman with the cancer–whom she had always nursed with the tenderest kindness, and whose offensive sores she had dressed with utter disregard to her own feelings, slandered and defamed her through the whole city, as a wicked woman, instigated by Satan. The salvation of her neighbors caused her great solicitude: in cases where her sweet mild persuasion effected nothing, she offered to the Almighty her prayers, her penances, to obtain the conversion of the hardened sinner. Christian reader, has not God our Lord given you also the command to be kind and charitable to your neighbor? Or can you obey Christ’s command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” if you do not manifest it in works? Oh! how many opportunities are offered to you every day to do acts of kindness! The will only is wanting to improve these occasions, and thus to fulfil God’s command. “I will not move from this place until thou hast given me this soul,” said Catherine, after having prayed for three days for the conversion of a woman hardened in sin. How often have you prayed for sinners? What mortifications and penances have you offered for them? Dear reader, follow in future the example of St. Catherine in these acts of charity and be assured that the souls which are thus saved by you will one day be your intercessors at the throne of the Almighty.

Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.

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