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.

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.

Image licence:


Betrayal | Spy Wednesday 2014

Judas Receiving the Thirty Pieces of Silver; by Simon Bening, Flemish, about 1483 – 1561; Bruges; painted c. 1525–1530;
Judas Receiving the Thirty Pieces of Silver; by Simon Bening, Flemish, about 1483 – 1561; Bruges; painted c. 1525–1530

Spy Wednesday is sometimes treated with an almost frivolous disregard of the betrayal it signifies. We don’t like remembering that Judas played an essential part in our redemption, that sin and betrayal are at the heart of the Christian story every bit as much as grace and forgiveness. We should think again, for we all have something of Judas in us. We all share in his shabbiness — or rather, we all share in his capacity for getting things wrong.

One of the striking things about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is that I think he thought he was doing the right thing. He was hoping for a Messiah who would free Israel from Rome and usher in a Jewish kingdom of righteousness and peace. He wanted to force the issue and make Jesus take a stand. We know he was wrong, but good people are often seduced by apparently good things. Judas failed to take account of the fact that Jesus wasn’t interested in political power, and therein lies his tragedy. Catherine of Siena worried about Judas’s fate but was reassured by the Lord that there was the prospect of mercy even for him. Perhaps today we might pray for all who have betrayed or been betrayed, for ourselves and for others. We might pray also for Judas, and for mercy on his soul.


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.