From The Way of Mystics
Giacomo Benicasa was a practical, hard-working man who made his living as a wool dyer in Siena’s bustling textile market. His wife, Lapa, was a simple woman who was well acquainted with heartbreak. She gave birth to twenty-five children, only twelve of whom survived infancy. All Lapa wanted for Catherine – her next-to-last child – was a normal childhood, an early marriage to a good husband, and a happy, predictable life.
But Catherine had other plans, none of them “normal” (for example, she lavished care on lepers and plague victims) or predictable (for example, after sensing God wanted her to live a more simple life, she began giving away her family’s possessions). Her life was punctuated by a series of powerful supernatural encounters that left her caught midway between Heaven and Earth, and although few people would have called her happy, those who knew her most intimately said she possessed a profound joy.
Many Spanish mystics of the Middle Ages embraced an ascetic lifestyle of physical suffering and torturous self-discipline. But Catherine embraced this lifestyle more fanatically than any other mystic in this book, and her self-punishment left her body covered with gaping wounds, which she blithely referred to as her “flowers” and which undoubtedly contributed to her death in 1380 at the age of thirty-three.
Jesus died at thirty-three as well, and some say Catherine’s early death was the fitting culmination of a life defined by an unusually close communion with Jesus. Walking home with her old brother one day, she looked across the Italian countryside to the massive cathedral of San Domenico. There in the sky was Jesus looking right back at her. He smiled gently into her eyes and blessed her with the sign of the cross.
Her brother couldn’t figure out why Catherine had stopped dead in her tracks, and he tried to get her moving again by threatening that mother would be angry if they didn’t return home soon. “If you could see what I see you would never try to disturb me,” she told him.
She didn’t speak about her vision but began playing “nun,” building little convents in the family garden and trying to instruct other neighborhood children in the ways of God. She also began spending hours alone praying to God and punishing her body by imitating the tortures she learned about from the often-gruesome legends of saints and martyrs. Raymond of Capua, who would later become her confessor and biographer, said such self-discipline was unusual in one so young. “The little disciple of Christ began to fight against the flesh before the flesh had begun to rebel.”
Her mother began working overtime to point Catherine toward a normal childhood, but everything she attempted backfired. When she bought Catherine fancy clothes and tried to introduce her to prospective male suitors, Catherine shaved off her hair and hid in her room. When Lapa took her daughter to an upscale spa in hopes she would develop an appetite for the finer things in life, Catherine exposed herself to the hottest geothermal vents, scalding her skin as she meditated on the torments of hell. “She allowed herself not one mortal pleasure,” writes Kathryn Harrison, author of a recent biography of the saint.
After Catherine refused to leave the house, Lapa came down hard, firing the household servants and forcing the frail Catherine to do all the cleaning, cooking, and sewing for a small army of family members, spouses, and textile workers. Catherine embraced this latest misfortune as she did the rest of life’s problems, welcoming it as a blessing from God and determining to do the best she could.
If things hadn’t changed, Catherine might have died anonymously, perhaps as she scrubbed a bathroom floor on her hands and knees. After all, most of the world’s mystics have been unknown and unheralded. But once again, it was supernatural intervention that changed the course of her life. This time, Giacomo saw a dove hovering over Catherine’s head as she attended to her household chores. Interpreting the dove as a sign of divine blessing, Giacomo relieved his daughter of her domestic tasks, allowed her to transform one of the house’s small rooms into her own private monastic cell, and made Lapa promise to be more tolerant. Now Catherine was free to explore her unique mystical gifts more deeply.
The reclusive Catherine was overjoyed to have her own little room, which featured a simple crucifix hanging on the wall, a wooden table with an oil lamp that illuminated the crucifix, and a couch, which she covered with wooden planks so it wouldn’t be too comfortable.
Raymond of Capua would later write that Catherine’s access to her own private room was less important than her access to God through an “inner cell” deep within her soul that was with her no matter where she was. “Now, having made herself an inner cell which no one could take away from her, she had no need ever to come out of it again,” wrote Raymond.
Soon this little room became the regular meeting place for a small circle of disciples and priests who gathered for cozy but intense evenings of sharing that focused on times of prayer and conversations about the ways of God. Those talks and mystical encounters that Catherine experienced in her room would eventually propel her out into the larger world, where she would be hailed as a loving healer, a peacemaker between warring cities, a confidante of troubled popes – in other words, a key player in one of the darkest periods of Roman Catholic history.
“She was a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society,” wrote one scholar. Other writers have called Catherine a social mystic or a mystic activist.
She died in 1380 and was canonized by the church within a century. Then in 1970, at a time of growing calls for women’s rights, she was named a Doctor of the Church, signifying that she was an eminent teacher of the faith. She was the first of only three women ever to receive this high honor (the others are Teresa of Ávila and Thérèse of Lisieux).
The other twenty-seven Doctors of the Church are men, and nearly all are well-educated theologians, ordained priests, or high-church officials. But not our simple Catherine, who would hear God speak these comforting words in her ear: “It is far better to walk by the spiritual counsel of a humble and unschooled person with a holy and upright conscience than by that of a well-read but proud scholar with great knowledge.”
Catherine’s saving grace was not her wisdom or learning but her intimate friendship with God. “She takes her rest then in me, the peaceful sea,” says the voice of God in one of the many visions collected in Catherine’s magnum opus, The Dialogue.
When she feels the presence of my eternal Godhead she begins to shed sweet tears that are truly a milk that nourishes the soul in true patience. These tears are a fragrant ointment that sends forth a most delicate perfume.