Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Road to Siena: The Essential Biography of St. Catherine

By Edmund G. Gardner, 205 pages, Paraclete Press.

"In [Pope] Clement VI, the corruption of this era of the papacy was personified. Learned, eloquent, and magnanimous, his private life was scandalous. The luxury and prodigality of his court was so extreme that he would have taxed all Christendom if he had been able to," writes Gardner in his often spell-binding journey through the life of Catherine of Siena and the disastrous fourteenth century during which she lived.

With the papacy in Avignon, France, and a political vacuum in Rome, Italy had reached a crisis point, with constant fighting among the city states, and a war of words between the papacy and various states, including powerful Florence. Catherine's mysticism called her out of herself and her comfortable middle class family. Her journey paralleled aspects of Francis of Assisi's: Her business-oriented family didn't understand, and therefore opposed, her vocation. Yet God had called her to heal Church corruption. Her inner relationship with God gave her a power over other people, which led to countless conversions. She remained ever faithful to the Church and the papacy in a time of great heresies.

The Road to Siena gives the reader a deep, almost personal understanding of Saint Catherine by painting the political and social fabric in which she lived. Gardner helps us see the great obstacles and challenges she faced as a woman and a lay, third-order Dominican mystic.

Her power and worldly spiritual success came from her spiritual strength, according to one medieval writing noted by Gardner: "She made herself in her mind by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a secret cell, out of which she resolved never to go by reason of any external occupation." Modern therapists might say that she was, in other words, incredibly self-possessed.

She developed a powerful entourage and network of family, confessors, and those she had converted, including many priests and theologians. In 1366 she left her cell and entered public life, Gardner notes. Until her death in 1380, she traveled around Italy and up to Avignon, rarely enjoying peace in her quiet Siena. Yet not all her work was exotic: she did menial household work, visited the sick in hospitals, and even caught leprosy from lepers to whom she was ministering, until she was miraculously cured.

Catherine greatly influenced Pope Gregory XI, a "gentle, scholarly, sickly, well-meaning, but also weak and irresolute" leader. Here Gardner gives an excellent account of her mysticism as a source for her political work: "All through the summer of 1370, Catherine's soul was overwhelmed with visions of divine mysticism."

Siena's constantly quarreling leaders, as well as the pope in Avignon, waited curiously for the words of Christ coming from Catherine. She dreamed of a reform of the Church, and of a papacy that was materially poor and spiritually powerful. She called for strong measures against wicked clergymen, and the end to nepotism within the hierarchy. Gardner describes how low religious life had gone: every convent "was divided against itself and the same thing was going on outside the convents."

Under Catherine's influence not only did countless clergy convert and end their wicked ways, but the pope moved back to Rome and peace was made between Florence and the papacy. Catherine showed the political power of mysticism. Like Bernard of Clairvaux centuries earlier, she gave a religious view to politics.

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