MYSTICISM: Letter 55, by Catherine of Siena

To: Catella, Monna Cecia Planula and Monna Caterina Dentice, of Naples

Date: May/June 1379

I say then that when a soul has tasted this angelic food it sees by the light [of holy faith] that to love and associate with creatures apart from the Creator is to put an obstacle between itself and this food.  So it makes every effort to avoid them, and also to love and pursue anything that will make it grow and abide in virtue.  Realizing, too, that this food is best savored through prayer based on self-knowledge, it practices this continually, as it practices all other ways of drawing closer to God.

There are three ways of praying.  The first is that abiding holy desire which prays to God in everything we creatures do, for it directs all our spiritual and bodily actions in his honor, and so is called continuous.  The glorious Saint Paul seems to have meant this kind of prayer when he said: “Pray without ceasing.”  Then there is vocal prayer, as when the tongue is used in reciting the Office or other vocal prayers.  This is a preparation for the third kind of prayer, namely mental, which the soul comes to when it practices vocal prayer prudently and humbly; that is when, as the tongue prays, the heart is not far from God.

But one must endeavor to establish the heart firmly in a love for divine Charity.  And whenever one feels God visiting one’s mind, drawing it in some way to think of the Creator, one should stop praying vocally and rest lovingly in whatever one feels this visitation to be.  If there is still time when this has passed, the soul should resume its vocal prayer so that the mind will always be full and not empty.  And even if the prayer abounds in battles of all kinds, in darkness and great confusion of mind, with the devil suggesting that our prayer is not pleasing to God, we must not give up prayer on this account, but persist with fortitude and unfailing perseverance, realizing that this is the devil’s way of enticing us away from our mother, prayer; and that God permits this to test in us our fortitude and constancy and also so that, in the struggles and darkness, we may know our own nothingness, while in the good will [that we perceive in ourselves] we know the goodness of God, who gives and upholds our good and holy desires, and will not refuse this gift to those who ask him.

The soul thus comes to the third and last kind of [fully] mental prayer, in which it receives the fruit of the efforts it has put into the less perfect vocal prayer, for it now savors the milk of fidelity to prayer.  It lifts itself above the crude level of feeling and with the mind as of an angel is made one with God by love; by the light of its understanding it sees, knows, and is clothed with the Truth.  Made now sister to the angels, seated with the Bridegroom at the table of crucified desire, it delights in seeking God’s honor and the salvation of souls for which, it now sees clearly, the eternal Bridegroom ran to meet the shameful death of the cross and, in so doing, obeyed his Father’s will and achieved our salvation.  Such prayer is indeed a mother, conceiving her children, the virtues, in God’s love, and giving birth to them in love for others.  Where do you find the light that guides you in the way of truth?  In prayer.  And where do you display love, faith, hope, and humility?  Again, in prayer.  You would not be doing these things unless you loved them, and it is because a creature loves that it seeks to be one with the thing it loves, [that is, with God].  By prayer you ask him for what you need.  Knowing yourself – and true prayer is founded on this knowledge – you see you are in great need and feel surrounded by your enemies; the world, with its hurts; the devil, with all his temptations; and the flesh, ever warring against the spirit by rebelling against reason.  You see, too, that of yourself you are not; and since you are not, you cannot help yourself; so you turn, with faith, to him who IS; who knows your needs and can and will help you in them.  You ask with hope, then wait for his help.  This is how we must pray if we are to get what we desire.  No right thing will ever be denied us if we ask the divine Goodness for it in this way, but we would get very little benefit from praying in any other.

Where shall we sense the fragrance of obedience, if not in prayer?  Where strip ourselves of the self-love that makes us impatient when insulted or made to suffer?  Or put on a divine love that will make us patient, and ready to glory in the cross of Christ crucified?  In prayer.  And where shall we sense the sweet perfume of virginity for the honor of God and the salvation of souls?  In this sweet mother, prayer.  She will make us obey God’s holy commandments, and seal her counsels into our hearts and minds by imprinting on us the desire to keep them until death.  She withdraws the vessel of our heart with the blood of the humble spotless Lamb and clothes it in Fire, for by the fire of Love was it shed.

A soul will of course receive and savor this mother, prayer, more or less perfectly according as it feeds on the angelic food of true and holy desire for God, raising itself up, as I said, to take it from the table of the most sweet cross.  And that is why I said I wanted to see each of you partaking of this angelic food, for you could not have the life of grace or be true servants of Christ crucified in any other way.  I will say no more.  Abide in the sweet and holy love of God.

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