The Importance of Being Catherine

Bernardino Luini - Saint Catherine

Perhaps a little flight of fancy may be allowable on Black Friday, either to lighten the mood or distract from the serious business of spending money one doesn’t have on things one doesn’t need, or the even more serious business of spending money one needs on the things one doesn’t have.

Today is the feast of St Catherine of Alexandria. According to legend, she was both nobly born and a scholar, and probably beautiful as well. She was certainly brave. Having herself become a Christian at about the age of fourteen, she converted hundreds of others to follow suit and stood up to the Emperor Maxentius, rebuking him for his cruel persecution of her co-religionists. The emperor was a fair-minded man and arranged for a debate between Catherine and fifty of the best pagan philosophers he could find. Naturally, Catherine won the debate, convinced many of her hearers to become Christians (although the result was instant death) and was summarily imprisoned for her pains. While there she converted Maxentius’ wife to Christianity (not exactly a recipe for harmony in the imperial household), bore torture bravely, spurned Maxentius’ own proposal of marriage and finally died gloriously at the age of eighteen. Her last act of power was to shatter the spiked wheel (the so-called catherine wheel) on which Maxentius intended her to die, thus forcing him to have her beheaded instead (an allegedly kinder death).

It is a racy story, but behind the legend we glimpse something worth pondering: a brave woman, ready to defend her faith, whom no earthly power could crush or subdue; one who was valued by the early Church not only for her bravery but also for her gifts of scholarship and leadership. St Catherine of Siena lived a very different kind of life, one that is well documented so her story need not be repeated here, but there are important elements in common with her Alexandrian predecessor. Catherine of Siena had courage of a high order, taking popes to task and standing up for what she believed to be right. She was also, quite clearly, a person others instinctively trusted as leader and guide. One might think she was a little autocratic at times, but she worked well with Raymond of Capua, showing a talent for collaboration that suggests a much more complex personality than her admirers sometimes admit.

Finally, there is a third Catherine, D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai, whose stout defence of Fr Augustine Baker and his way of prayer led to some extraordinary tensions within the English Benedictine Congregation in the seventeenth century. D. Catherine steadfastly refused to yield when ordered to give up Fr Baker’s books. She and the community she served quietly clung to the old English mystical tradition, persevered with the ambitious study programme set by Fr Baker himself and demonstrated that it was possible to be both a loyal daughter of the Church and have a mind of one’s own where such intimate things as prayer were concerned.

The discerning reader will, of course, have caught my drift; and incidentally understood why I am named for the third Catherine and keep my feast-day on that of the second. These three remarkable Catherines demonstrate the steely grace of Christian womanhood — the determination to do what is right, come what may. Although none of them minced her words, I cannot think of anything attributed to them that smacks of unkindness or injustice; and that is hugely important. We know they had their faults or, shall we say, their trying side — Catherine of Siena, in particular, must have been hard to live with at times — but it is not that which we remember. Their zeal, their compassion, their sheer energy commands our respect and makes us want to emulate them. As you negotiate the rocks and shallows of Black Friday, spare a thought for the importance of being Catherine. Give thanks for these three great saints* who shine a bright and glorious light in the Church and on the world — and pray for all the other Catherines who have yet to achieve such sanctity.

  • D. Catherine Gascoigne has not been canonised but few who have studied her life and writings doubt her holiness.

An Idle Thought Before Trinity Sunday

This morning I was thinking about D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai*, and the courage with which she defended Fr Augustine Baker’s teaching on contemplative prayer in the face of disapproval (euphemism) from the monks of the English Benedictine Congregation. A little later I did a quick check of our Facebook pages and came across a series of photographs of Cardinal Burke in several varieties of ecclesiasatical costume (another euphemism) appended to an interview he has given about secularism. And there you have it, I said to myself, two quite different understandings of the Church, two different understandings of what really matters. For D. Catherine — quiet, resolute, determined to hold to the one thing necessary — a reluctant confrontation with Church authority; for Cardinal Burke — combative, fired with a zeal some of us see as not always wise — another instance of apportioning blame for the ills of the Church (remember his interview on the feminization of the Church?) which fails to take account of the responsibility of her priests and bishops for the same, and is not helped by the way he dresses.

This post isn’t about Cardinal Burke or D. Catherine as such. It is, as I said, about two different understandings of the Church, but they are useful illustrations of two tendencies the Church has within her. One early image of the Church is that of the vine — organic, growing, subject to dormant periods, in constant need of pruning, but essentially fruitful despite its vulnerability. Another is that of the Church built on rock — solid, unchanging, proof against all assaults. We actually need both understandings, but most of us have a tendency to prefer one or the other. The danger of thinking always in organic terms is that one can lose a sense of the objectivity of the Church, of the necessity of her institutional form. The danger of thinking always in institutional terms is that one can lose sight of the personal, the charismatic. And so to my point. As we approach Trinity Sunday with its powerful reminder of the transcendence of God, we need, more than ever, to remember the Incarnation. The great mystery of faith we call the Holy Trinity has a vulnerable, human face; and we worship both.

*Today is the anniversary of her death.


St Catherine of Siena, Social Media and Prayer

When I was given the monastic name of Catherine, I was given a double inheritance: D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai, wise and valiant and, above all as Benedict would say, a true contemplative whose prayer was as large and generous as her vision for the nascent community entrusted to her care, and St Catherine of Siena (whose feast we celebrate today), another great contemplative, not afraid to ‘speak truth to power’ and challenge the ecclesiastical and political status quo. I wonder what they would have made of the world of social media and instant communication. They were great letter-writers and much in demand for their views on certain subjects, but both had their struggles and suffered put-downs and condescension from some of the very people they were trying to serve. Speculating on how they might have used Twitter or Facebook takes us into forbidden territory for a historian, alas, but one thing I think we can dare to assert. They would have found much to pray about.

We sometimes forget that social media is social. That is to say, the tools given us by Twitter, Facebook et al are merely tools, but they are used by people. It is we who determine whether they are used well or badly, to build up or tear down. A distressing aspect of social media today is the way in which some people are abusing the power social media gives them to wound and destroy. During the past week several people I admire in the Twittersphere have deleted their accounts or contemplated doing so because of some mean-spirited attacks they have received over a period of many months; others have given up their blogs because they have neither the time nor the energy to police the more extreme comments they attract.

I find that sad, but I don’t think we should just give up and abandon the world of social media altogether. Upholding decent standards of behaviour is something people of goodwill are always ready to do, whatever their faith or none, but I believe those of us who are Christians have a special duty of prayer and witness. We are called to be Christ in the world, and that holds good whether we are in the cloister or out and about among the teeming masses. So, I think we need both to pray (and pray hard!) and engage positively in social media. Sometimes, we may feel as though we are clinging on for dear life and receiving more of a battering than we are prepared to take, but if everyone who believes that we should be kind and courteous to one another goes from the social media scene, what will be left? Are we prepared to let the devil have not only the best tunes but also the best Twitter feeds?

There is a sentence from St Catherine I often think about whenever I look at a crucifix and which reminds me why we, as a community, continue to be in social media and the internet generally despite the knocks we sometimes receive. ‘All the nails in the world could not have held Christ to the cross had love not held him there.’ Along with the humour, the banter, the sharing of information and insights which make up ordinary human conversation online as well as off, there is that greater sharing of divine love we are called upon to make. It is a great trust placed in us.


D. Catherine Gascoigne

D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai
D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai

On 21 May 1676 died D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai, and a ‘doughty dame’ if ever there was one. She was the daughter of Sir John Gascoigne and his wife, Anne Ingleby. At the time she was born, Catholics in England were subject to severe legal penalties. Attendance at the services of the Church of England was required by the law. Failure to do so meant being listed as a Recusant; there were fines and often confiscation of property, along with tedious restrictions such as not being allowed to own a horse. Priests saying Mass could still be imprisoned, just as earlier they had risked being executed. To be a Catholic was to be under siege. The idea of living a monastic life in England was unthinkable, so when Catherine and a group of like-minded young women felt called to be Benedictine nuns they had no choice but to journey abroad. In 1623, under the auspices of the English Benedictine Congregation, they set up house in Cambrai, Flanders.

The early history of the community is stirring, especially to someone familiar with it as part of the living tradition of her monastery of formation, but this post is about D. Catherine herself and the part she played. The Cambrai community was initially helped by three nuns from Brussels, who were charged with teaching the novices and preparing them for profession of vows. Unfortunately, although diligent and generous, the Brussels nuns were very much influenced by the Jesuits and their way of systematic meditation, whereas D. Catherine and the nascent Cambrai community fell naturally into the older way of prayer taught by Fr Augustine Baker, the Benedictine Vicarius of the community (Fr Baker had revived the medieval English form of contemplative prayer which is very different from the formal meditative method then currently in vogue). It was, as you may imagine, an explosive situation and there was great relief when the Brussels nuns returned home and D. Catherine was elected abbess in 1629.

The problems were not at end, however. The community was poor, and Fr Baker and his teaching fell under suspicion . The orthodoxy of the Cambrai community was questioned and a committee of enquiry was set up by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation in 1633. D. Catherine was resolute and faced her opponents with quiet courage, giving an account of her prayer in such simple, moving terms that anyone reading it cannot but admit its truthfulness and power. ‘Goe on couragiously, you have choosen the best way: we beseech Allmighty God to accomplish that union which your hart desireth’ said the Fathers; but in 1655 D. Catherine was again facing ecclesiastical censure. She refused to give up Fr Baker’s treatises, arguing that they were entirely orthodox and of immense value to the community and the Church. She won, of course, but it was a close run thing.

In time, D. Catherine’s talents came to be recognized more widely. She was called upon to oversee the reform of another monastery in Flanders. When she was dying, she wrote to  the then President of the English Benedictine Congregation, Fr Benedict Stapylton, asking for ‘a new and very ample confirmation’ of Fr Baker’s writings, ‘as being the greatest treasure that belongs to this poor community’, for she saw clearly that the only true wealth of a monastic community is its holiness and prayerfulness.

What has D. Catherine Gascoigne to teach us today? Personally, I have always found her inspiring, more so than her more immediately attractive companion, D. Gertrude More. Her quietness, her firmness in the face of opposition from those who should have supported her, her fidelity to prayer and monastic observance, her care for the community committed to her are admirable qualities. I am also grateful for something very few know. She would never have been able to become a nun had she not suffered from smallpox. The Bishop of London refused her a licence to go abroad, saying she was too beautiful. She prayed for her beauty to be taken from her, and it was; so the licence was duly given. Chance, too, has its part to play in our history.