St Catherine of Siena: Mistress of the Sound-Bite

Catherine of Siena: Photo by Jim Forest
Catherine of Siena: Photo by Jim Forest


















People often lament that no one really argues anything any more. They opt for the sound-bite instead: something short, snappy and hopefully memorable. You might think that I, as a Benedictine and therefore a proponent of the slow meditative reading we know as lectio divina, would be hostile to the whole idea of the sound-bite. Certainly, I am uneasy at the way in which politicians often try to simplify arguments, reducing them to absurdity, but today’s saint, Catherine of Siena, was very good at producing wise, pithy sayings one can spend the whole day thinking and praying about. Take, for example, her insight into the crucifixion: ‘All the nails in the world could not have held Christ to the cross had love not held him there.’ Isn’t that theology in a nutshell, and doesn’t it lead naturally to prayer— a perfect sound-bite, in fact?

If you know nothing about St Catherine, Dominican tertiary, mystic and doctor of the Church, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start: (or you could do a search of this blog, using the search box in the sidebar). I hope it will encourage you to read Raymond of Capua’s Life of the saint and then go on to read the saint’s own letters and important Dialogues.

Catherine played a major role in returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome and wasn’t afraid to say exactly what she thought — but always with courtesy, something today’s critics of Pope Francis might usefully dwell on. She had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, was given the gift of tears, and experienced a mystical marriage to Christ which was to dominate much of her subsequent thought and teaching. Yet she remained always firmly grounded in the realities of everyday life and was much sought out for her guidance and practical wisdom. It is not surprising that she was opposed by some of the authorities of her day and had to undergo interrogation by the Friars of her own Order six years before she died.

This morning, however, I am thinking chiefly of the wonderful way in which she expressed old truths as though new-minted. Take, for example, her image of Christ as a bridge flung between earth and heaven. This bridge consists of three great stairways constituted by the feet, the side, and the mouth of Jesus. Rising by these stairways the soul passes through the three stages of every path to sanctification: detachment from sin, the practice of the virtues, and of love, sweet and loving union with God. It is an image easy to grasp, easy to remember. Best of all, though, is her warning to perfectionists — those of us who never get anything done because we are always wanting to do things better: ‘God does not desire a perfect work but an infinite desire.’ There’s a sound-bite to take us through today and every day.

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6 thoughts on “St Catherine of Siena: Mistress of the Sound-Bite”

  1. Thank you, dearest Sister, for the restatement I’ve long waited to hear of what I believe has always been and is my true calling, “sweet and loving union with God.” I know that God gives us the enormous gift of accepting us as we are. Just because it feels as though I am off-track at times does not make it so.

    “April is the cruelest month” in my family. (T. S. Eliot) My brother Gregory died of AIDS in 1987 at age 27, my father was kidnapped on April 29, held for “his three days,” and then murdered in 1992 at age 57 in a most horrific way. My brother Christopher died of an accidental drug overdose in 2000 at age 40, not really having done the necessary therapy after the other traumas, on April 26.

    I had experienced much loving healing, but for some reason this year was very, very difficult, and I often felt and feel retraumatized and often very sad.

    My youngest sister, Renée also lost her husband Peter to an accidental drowning, leaving her a widow with two small toddlers to raise in 2001. My otherwise very healthy 76-year-old mother died fin 2011 rom a massive post-operative infection after a routine hernia surgery and twelve weeks in the Intensive Care Unit. And now, my other sister, Cyd, has decided for some crazy, New Age reason of her own, and under the guidance of some “guru” not to speak to me or to Renée any more!

    It has been a very difficult year so far, after so many years when I coped well with my losses. They seem to pile on at times, and they can shake my faith. Thank you for reminding me of my calling to” sweet and loving union with God,” known since my youth, and of Catherine of Siena’a beautiful, sweet, and strong way of being close to Christ. As a namesake, you do her great justice!

    • I’m very sorry, Robyn, that you are having such a tough time this year. I will cetainly keep praying that Cyd starts talking to you and Renée again! Faith is such a funny thing. We seem to have enough to move mountains at times; at others, none at all. However, the most important index of faith, I think, is getting out of bed every morning and being prepared to go on. God is in the midst of that somewhere. Exactly where we shall probably never know in this life. God bless you!

      • Thank you so much! Since I wrote my post I’ve been trying to remember and surround myself with the ineffable and unshakable love of God in each present moment. It is natural at times to be pulled into the past by past losses and traumas, but God’s love can only be experienced in the gift of the present.

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