Sheltered by the Mercy:
St. Catherine's Gentle Way
by Sheila Galligan
Spring 1990, Vol.42 No.1, pp. 15-36
Sister Sheila Galligan, I.H.M., who teaches in Philadelphia, holds a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome. In 1987 she was awarded special recognition for this essay by the Italian National Center for studies of St. Catherine, Cardinal Luigi Ciappi, President.
Despite the adamant quality of her witness to Christ, gentleness is a key motif in the teaching of St. Catherine of Siena, its character grounded in her obsession with truth, unwavering humility, and generous love of others.
BY any standards, the vivacious and affectionate Catherine of Siena was a remarkable woman. The fourteenth century produced few other writers whose works resonate with such compelling intensity; few, too, whose unflinching quest for truth was matched with an ability to proclaim it with courage and conviction.
With a dash of determination and daring, Catherine begins more than 360 of her extant letters with the direct and incisive: "I, Catherine write to you with desire."(1) Clearly, this is the voice of a woman whose vision of herself and her authority was positive and compelling. Catherine makes strong assertive statements which sweep aside any tendencies to smudge and blur the Gospel call to discipleship.
Yet, she is full of surprises. For essential to Catherine is a buoyant sense of humility which springs from a simple, yet richly significant theological perspective. Marvelously concrete, Catherine herself records the famous principle which sharply defined her understanding of the nature of God and the human person. Etched with laser-like intensity into her being is God's revelation: "I am He who is. You are she who is not" (cf. The Dialogue 18,54,134).(2) The immediate implication for the person, of course, is the mystery of creaturehood. Human identity rests in creaturehood and thus in a posture of childlike receptivity. This implies a humble dependency upon God for everything. According to Catherine, to sense our childlikeness is to sense what is dear to God.
Central, too, to her appeal and to the special attractiveness of her person and work, is the invincible impression that here was a woman passionately in love with God! She sets the tone, and more importantly, states the theme of her spiritual masterpiece, The Dialogue, in the Prologue:A soul rises up, restless with tremendous desire for God's honor and the salvation of souls. She has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God's goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it.In this statement the thread that became the dominant quality of her life work comes to the fore -- her commitment to the value of truth. For Catherine, God is at once "gentle first Truth" and "Love itself." This is the springboard for her fiercely persistent desire to come to "love through knowing."(3) Truth, then, lies at the heart of her work. Not surprisingly, the geography of The Dialogue is the inscape of the human heart, the fascinating interplay of the memory, understanding, and will.
THE GENTLE WAY: A THEME
Having sounded the major theme of the symphony to come in the Prologue, Catherine proceeds to orchestrate her loving pursuit of truth in a marvelous network of themes and constellation of images. Dotting The Dialogue with near-bewildering frequency, the word "gentle" seems to be a uniquely persistent and pervasive element of Catherine's spiritual idiom.(4) Indeed, this endearing quality gives an inner consistency and integrity to her message. It is first and most frequently associated with God the Father, whom Catherine affectionately addresses as "the gentle first Truth." But the way of truth is none other than Truth become Incarnate Way. Therefore, Catherine often applies the word to Jesus who is the "gentle loving Word." Finally she envisages the Holy Spirit as the "gentle waiter" who tenderly attends to the spiritual needs of God's children.
A special insistent rhythm in Catherine's sensibility is manifested in her consistent use of this word "gentle." The pervasive notion of God's providence is given a particular thrust: it is "gentle loving providence" (cf D 135, 141 passim). It is in the "gentle mirror of God" (D 13) that Christians see their dignity. Grounded in God's "gentle will" (D 68), human persons revel in knowing themselves as the beloved of the Lord. Love and the choice to obey are inextricably intertwined. Therefore, "gentle obedience" Q 163), springs from the "gentle loving fire of God" (D 157). It transmutes love into action. Catherine encouragingly notes that Christians who humbly recognize their sinfulness will find themselves "gently understood" (D 102) by the God who knows how they are made. They will rejoice in experiencing his goodness in "gentle unitive love" (D 4). She deftly draws attention to the pivotal position of the virtue "gentle patience" (D 89) and to the beauty of the "gentle queen, poverty" whose realm is "always peaceful and calm" (D 151).
Catherine envisions herself as affectionately addressed as "gentle daughter" (D 96, 125) or "dearest gentlest daughter" (D 4, 146, 154). Mary is the Son's "most gentle mother" (D 139) and (perhaps there is a touch of irony here) St. Paul is described as a "gentle apostle" (D 145).
Such texts suggest that Catherine situates growth in spiritual maturity in a "gentle" milieu. Indeed it is a texture and tone that pulses in the depths as well as on the surface of The Dialogue. In what follows we will explore the way this distinctive "gentle" spirit surrounds and sustains Catherine's vision of the nature of God and God's relationship with the human person.
GENTLENESS: GOD'S EXPRESSION OF MERCY
The very attempt to define abstracts a word from its perceived completeness and from its contextual setting. Perhaps, then, it would help to note that the word "gentle" refers to being rather than doing. It denotes a quality of relatedness. Gentleness is constructive and creative; it is integrative, part of the therapy of redemptive grace. In its most fundamental sense, gentleness traces its deepest root to a thoroughly, theological word: "mercy." Biblical texts disclose an inner intensity and consistency of focus in two Hebrew expressions for "mercy," each having its own semantic nuance. First, the richly comprehensive word hesed highlights the mark and manifestation of covenant loyalty, a love characterized by rock-like fidelity. God's parental creation of and faithfulness to a fickle and faltering people is his hesed, steadfast love or mercy. Hesed is a potent word -- usually referring to the almost passionate pledge of God's faithfully loyal love.
The second word is the Hebrew rahamim, which in its root denotes the intimate love of a mother for her child (rehem -- mother's womb). This manifestation of love is an exigency of the heart. Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Dives in Misericordia alerts us to the marvelous fact that the whole range of affectivity associated with rahamim is, as it were, a feminine variation of the more masculine notion of fidelity expressed by
hesed.(5) Zechariah speaks of the "tender mercy of our God" (cf. Luke 1:78, JB) which clearly expresses the meaning of rahamim and links God's mercy with a mother's love.(6)
Thus the presupposition of the Biblical witness is that mercy is pervasively and powerfully operative as a manifestation of the maternal tenderness and the paternal fidelity of God. Two-fold in its meaning, the word "mercy" is immensely revelatory, embracing and summarizing whole worlds of complex thought.(7) Mercy is a determining characteristic of the nature of God.
The specific manner in which mercy manifests itself is beautifully conveyed in the word "gentle." As a dimension of mercy, gentleness is indispensable in defining its personal, interior density. There is no insight into the meaning of mercy without the promise of God's gratuitous love and the premise of its gentle expression. Jesus' invitation exemplifies this: "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart" (Matt. 11:28-29). St. Paul advises sincere Christians to "seek after integrity, piety, faith, love, steadfastness and a gentle spirit" (1 Tim. 6:11, emphasis added).
Against this background it is not surprising to see how the biblical notion of mercy resonates deeply in Catherine. She is ever amazed at the utter gratuity of the gift of healing and redemption. She values the gift of redemptive reconciliation so highly that she alludes to its "gentle" manifestation in countless ways. She describes at length the mystery of how God, who is "rich in mercy" (Eph. 2:4) pierces the prism of human experience through Jesus the "gentle spotless Lamb" (D 77) who poured out his blood for us. Over and over again we find Christ's "blood" underpinning Catherine's theological reflection on the manner or mode of God's expression of mercy. God continues to restore human nature to its intrinsic value through the action of mercy, the bleeding charity of God. Through, with, and in Christ we are gently "sheltered by the mercy" (D 21) of God. God's gracious covenant of comfort and gentleness is beautifully imaged in chapter 27 of The Dialogue. The nuances of being "sheltered by the mercy" become even richer when Catherine links them with the idea of providence.
GOD'S GENTLE PRESENCE: PROVIDENCE
Catherine's markedly complex spiritual vision springs from an essential simplicity. At the heart of reality she encountered an infinite love providing and caring for her. "Fall in love, daughter, with my providence," (D 143, cf. 149) God, the revealer in The Dialogue, tells her. Thus her vision of existence is suffused throughout with a penetrating sense of God's promise to be "with" her. She rests in the blessed assurance of word: "No matter where they turn, spiritually and materially they will find nothing but my deep burning charity and the greatest, gentle, true, perfect providence" (D 141).(8) Catherine vehemently affirms that God's merciful presence is woven into the rough and tumble texture of everyday life in "providential action." Nowhere is her attention to the notion of "gentleness" more impressive than when she launches into her favorite providence theme. (9)
Catherine notes that God's providential action in our lives is defined by his will for our salvation, our ultimate goal: "This is the gift of my providence, which has seen to your need for salvation in so many different ways from the beginning of the world until today, and will continue to do so right up to the end" (D 136). A key text in Scripture sums up the idea: "We know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his decrees" (Rom 8:28). Thus, providence and eschatology are mutually implicative. Providence is the means in time for the eventual fulfillment of God's eternal plan. This boundless mystery is concretized in time and place:Ah, dearest daughter, how can they believe that I, supreme eternal Goodness, could want anything but their good in the small things I permit day by day for their salvation, after they have experienced in great things how I want nothing other than their sanctification? (D 136)Life is often bitter and hard. The jagged texture of the never-ending struggle with sinfulness and evil can be disconcerting and discouraging. Convinced that God invites us to discover his "immeasurable tenderness" (D 44), Catherine prompts us to recognize his "gentle, wonderful providence," his "tender providence" (D 148).It was with providence that I created you, and when I contemplated my creature in myself I fell in love with the beauty of my creation. It pleased me to create you in my image and likeness with great providence.... All this my gentle providence did, only that you might be capable of understanding and enjoying me and rejoicing in my goodness by seeing me eternally (D 135).Here we sense a movement of the heart which moves beyond mere intellectual insight or theological reflection. God's providence, Catherine reflects with joy, "seasons everything" (D 137). God asks only that we "cast our cares on Him" by entrusting ourselves unreservedly to His care (cf 1 Pet. 5:7). The experienced love of God, manifested in his "gentle providence," gives strength for and significance to the journey. This enveloping and cherishing care for us is depicted quite often in the affectively charged imagery of "mothering" and "fathering" love. The focus of God's providential care is thus doubly two-fold: to protect and provide, and to nourish and comfort.
UNFURLING THE GENTLE IMAGE
The sheer power of Catherine's imagery delights the attentive reader. One marvelous example is the way God's love is manifested through the Holy Spirit. She calls the Holy Spirit God's "mercy' who is given as "servant" and also as a "gentle waiter" (cf D 143, 149). God tells her that "This gentle waiter carried to me their tender loving desires" (D 78). To signify God's fostering and nourishing love, Catherine instinctively turns to the arresting image of mother and nursling:Such a soul has the Holy Spirit as a mother who nurses her at the breast of divine charity.... This servant, the Holy Spirit, whom I in my providence have given her, clothes her, nurtures her, inebriates her with tenderness and the greatest wealth (D 141).The striking tactile quality and emotional intensity of imaging the Spirit as a mothering agency is both psychologically and theologically sound.
In yet another splendid fusion of thought and feeling Catherine writes:I hold them to my breast and give them the milk of great consolation... The Holy Spirit becomes the nurse of their souls and their little bodies in every situation. (D 151)In linking the concept of gentleness with the action of the Spirit in such an intriguing way Catherine seems to have tapped a source of imaginative truth. Although it surely corresponds to modes of perception and feeling in all people, its mystery and meaning is not often imaged in such a beautiful way. (10)
The context of the Dialogue, especially in the section on Providence, is saturated with maternal themes. Perhaps looming behind the images at work here are a series of maternal images in the Isaian prophecies.Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her, rejoice with her in joy, all you that mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied with her consoling breasts;... and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts so I will comfort you (Is. 66: 10-13).The maternally affective tonality and the remarkably suggestive setting of a gentle milieu are illuminating.
Naturally associated with maternal images, the notion of "childlikeness" is also notably present in Catherine's writing. The business of living is to become a child again, a child of God. We must consciously depend upon the God who reveals 'herself' as "the one who nourishes them spiritually and physically, and without whom they can have nothing" (D 138). We must learn to stop murmuring and complaining, contending with God. We must let go of self-reliance, selfish sensuality, and self-complacency (cf. D 137-139; 147), and confidently trust this God who provides and nourishes. Those who are genuinely childlike have no fear of hunger or want, because their faith sees and trusts God, the Creator and the source of all wealth and providence, who will always "feed and nurture" them (D 151).
Catherine perceives the human person as "cold" and in need of God's warming action. The coldness, of course, is the frigidity of sinfulness. Yet, God hand is not repelled by the hardness of our sinful heart. God saw us "stripped of all virtue and perishing from hunger and dying from the cold in this life of pilgrimage" (D 135), The warming action, Catherine goes on to say, is exerted by God's action in clothing us anew in the person of the gentle, loving Word. This is accomplished through the power of the "gentleness of holy baptism" (D 135). She writes,I made you warm again when my only-begotten Son revealed to you through his pierced body the fire of my charity hidden under the ashes of your humanity. And would this not warm the frozen human heart? Yes, unless it is so obstinate and blinded by selfishness that it does not see how unspeakably much I love you. (D 135)Perhaps Catherine's imagination has been influenced here by Christ's own daring image of himself as a "hen, gathering her chicks under her wing" (Matt. 14 23:37).(11)
The maternal tone may be further underlined by noting the theme as it is linked with prayer. With disarming frankness Catherine states, "Courageously, then, should the soul spur herself on with prayer as her mother" (D 66). In the realm of The Dialogue, prayer gives birth to virtue within us. (12)
Catherine also delights in drawing attention to the varied ways in which God acts paternally: he provides, corrects and admonishes. She alludes to the unflagging tenderness of this paternal love when she writes of the soul: "She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her" (D 153). Resonances of hesed come to the fore: "Am I not faithful and loyal to you? Of course I am. And this is not hidden from you because you experience it continually" (D 140).
Liberation from sin is also a paternal action as Catherine imagines it, for it regularly comes accompanied by pain and suffering. If sin consists in putting a finite, flawed self at the center where God should be, then frustration and unhappiness are the consequences: "And you, as long as you are pilgrim travelers in this mortal life, cannot walk without suffering, for because of sin the earth has produced thorns" (D 53). However, within the climate of God's gentle providence, suffering is given a decisively positive direction. For our fickle and fallible nature God, as father and doctor, has provided suffering as a medicinal cure. Thus God, "the gentle first Truth," reveals himself in precisely this image: "I, the true and just doctor, give you whatever I see your weakness needs to make you perfectly healthy and to keep you healthy' (D 136).
Catherine traces the lines of God's action in and through suffering within the parameters of gentleness. Consider the rich nuances of the vocabulary in her prayer:O most gentle Father, when the human race lay sick with Adam's sin you sent as doctor the gentle loving Word, your Son. Now when I lie sick in the weakness of my foolish indifference, you, God eternal, most mild and gentle doctor, have given me a medicine at once mildly sweet and bitter so that I may be healed and rise up from my weakness... (D 134).In this marvelous description Catherine gives expression to the dramatic interplay between love and suffering. Suffering which is "at once mildly sweet and bitter" is experienced as a revelation of God's creative purpose.
Catherine teases our minds with paradoxes entailed in imagining the passionate presence of a God in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). She sustains a thoroughgoing but fruitful tension between God's paternal and maternal action. The same God who purifies, protects, and heals also wounds, warms, nourishes, and comforts. It is a subtle and delicate balance, not easily maintained. (13)
GENTLE VIRTUE: FRUIT OF DISCIPLINE
While Catherine is far from advocating an aridly rigorist approach to the life of the spirit , she valiantly affirms, the necessity of sapiential discipline. The core of this discipline consists in the practice of virtue "...since the soul has drawn love from him and in virtue follows his footsteps" (D 4). Not surprisingly, the summons to practice virtue becomes an insistent challenge of Catherine's work. Perhaps, like the "gentle apostle Paul" (D 145), Catherine envisaged herself as a "nurse, who cherishes her children" (cf. 1 Thess. 2:7) and encourages them to grow. She writes, "For as long as you are pilgrims in this life you are capable of growing and should grow" (D 99). The thought pattern is basically Pauline: "I want them not only to receive the milk of tenderness that I poured out before their souls, but so to attach themselves to the breast of my Truth that they may receive meat as well as milk" (cf. Heb. 5:11-14, D 70). A personal piety that is not nourished by a practice of virtue is fragile and lacks intensity. Catherine exhorts us to "follow the way courageously" (D 29) and with loving affection "exercise love" and furnish our house with virtue (cf. D 95). In another instance she writes "So the soul rests on the breast of Christ crucified who is my love, and so drinks in the milk of virtue" (D 96). (14)
At times there is a curious ambiguity in Catherine's imagery. She refers to the "milk of tenderness" and the "milk of virtue" and yet can also write: "I provide for them a kind compassionate father.... In everything they sweetly experience the depth of my providence, tasting in it the milk of divine tenderness" (D 151). Here the image of maternal nurture coalesces with that of paternal care.
But virtue is not born in ease and sloth. It is marrow from the bone; it "can be proved only by its opposite" (D 98, cf. 43). Catherine asks us to contemplate "the double-edged knife that is hatred of sin and love of virtue" (D 47). In another instance she calls the virtue of discernment a knife "that kills and cuts off all selfish love to its foundation in self-will" (cf. D 155, 156).
Gentleness is not compromise. Catherine never indulges in vague or vacillating language, never glosses over the reality of sin (cf. D 32-35). Strong invectives, denunciations, and pleadings are frequent as she vividly describes the "three pillars of vice -- impurity, bloated pride, and greed" (D 126). Gentleness is no soft option. It is not a matter of hiding from the truth or finding excuses. Quite to the contrary, Catherine repeatedly insists that sinfulness must be faced frankly and judged accurately for what it is. Again though, knowledge of sin is only a liminal step. Growth in virtue must follow: "What I want is many works of patient and courageous endurance and of the other virtues I have described to you -- interior virtues that are all active in bearing the fruit of grace" (D 11). Virtue is linked with the recognition of sin: "It is not enough for eternal life to sweep the house clean of deadly sin. One must fill it with virtue that is grounded in love, and not merely in fear" (D 49).
This blunt, practical realism is tempered by the spirit of gentleness. God asks, "Where are the offspring of the true gentle virtues you ought to have?" (D 127). In the matrix where reconciliation and healing are born, a note of compassionate tenderness, the aura of gentleness, is present. Having courageously decided to follow Christ crucified, we discover his "immeasurable tenderness" (D 44). Catherine reflects confidently on the "gentle unitive love born from the sweet knowledge of my goodness and from the bitterness and contrition the heart finds in the knowledge of itself and its own sins" (D 4). Passages such as the following demonstrate Catherine's conviction that to see the extent of our woundedness (always in the light of mercy) is also to know God's gentle care:Such a soul receives the fruit of spiritual calm, an emotional union with my gentle divine nature in which she tastes milk, just as an infant when quieted rests on its mother's breasts, takes her nipple, and drinks her milk through her flesh" (D 96).How "lovely, how lovely beyond all loveliness" (D 96) is this union with God. We are transformed when we are conformed. When the will is so lovingly united with God "She is another me, made so by the union of love" (D 96).
The marvelous Bridge, which Catherine states clearly is "the Word, my gentle Son," has "a roof of mercy" and walls of stone: "the stones of true solid virtues" (D 27). Catherine develops the image beautifully:I told you, if you recall, that on the bridge, 'that is, my Truth's teaching,' the stones of the virtues are built up with the strength of his blood, for it is by the strength of that blood that the virtues bring you life (D 64).Are not the "roof of mercy" and the "wall of virtue" other facets of that elusive quality of gentleness to which Catherine constantly directs our attention?
And there is more! God himself is our companion on the "gentle straight way" (D 104): "You discover the company of the virtues, and because I am in their midst you walk securely..." (D 54). God asserts, "So I can and want to and will help whoever wants my help" (D 36). The atmosphere of gentleness is even more palpable as Catherine threads her way with focused clarity in describing exactly how God provides help: "Lest the journeying pilgrim, my creature, grow weary and faint on the way" (D 27), the "food of the gentle loving Word" (D 95) is himself our nourishment. Further,I am their bed and table. This gentle loving Word is their food... established and given to you by my kindness while you are pilgrims and travelers, so that you may not slacken your pace because of weakness.... The Holy Spirit, my loving charity, is the water who serves them my gifts and graces (D 78).
FOLLOWING THE WAY: THE GENTLE VIRTUE OF HUMILITY
Basic dispositions of soul other than faith obstruct or facilitate a life of virtue. Texts of Scripture and early Christian authors are unanimous in identifying the fundamental Christian disposition simply as "humility." Repeatedly, they characterize humility as the foundational element for authentic spiritual growth. In humility we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. Conversely, a blind self-reliance makes the practice of virtue difficult or even unlikely. Consequently, the areas of the spiritual life within which the practice of humility is crucial are numerous. (15)
Catherine, too, illustrated the meaning and operation of this particular virtue. An explicit symbol that figures prominently in The Dialogue is that of the tree of charity planted in the soil of humility -- a buoyant, life-giving humility which springs from the creative and dynamic growth in knowledge of self and knowledge of God. (16)
In Catherine's vision the truly humble person is grounded in reality.(17) God tells her, humility is "found in knowing yourself and me" (D 24). Seized by the overwhelming spell of her dignity, she rejoices in prayerful reflection:O mad Lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself , and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made (D 153).What a marvelous insight! Our dignity resides in the fact that we are loved. Our dignity is grounded in divine concern; it is anchored in a relationship of Creator-creature, Lover-beloved. Humility bows before this truth, as it were, in reverence and obedience. In this sense this disposition appropriately catches some of the semantic nuances of lowliness or childlikeness.
Genuine humility results in a delightful acceptance of one's neediness, a joy in total dependence. Catherine's thrust is unambiguously positive. It is not surprising to find her musing on the "pleasant fruit of true humility" (D 95). Our dignity, however, needs nourishment and protection. According to Catherine, prayer enables us to sustain an authentic vision of what that dignity is. And it is discernment, she insists, which is at the very heart of this prayer. Discernment enables us to make choices congruent with our identity. It guides our surrender in love. In one instance Catherine writes, "So the tree of charity is nurtured in humility and branches out in true discernment" (D 10).
Furthermore, Catherine claims, we cannot see and understand aright unless we become humble enough to accept these days on earth as the arena of growth in the humility that inverts the primal sin, pride. Pride seeks to corrupt and destroy in indirect ways. It deludes, tempts, enslaves and betrays. Sometimes the poison of pride is invisible -- but enervating. More often the agenda of power, sensuality and possession asserts pride's presence. Catherine insists on the need to conquer illusion, to see the self as it is in its poverty, weakness and confusion. Finally, one must humbly embrace that reality.
Catherine places the virtue of humility within the framework of God's redemptive act in Jesus. Her perspective is consistently Christocentric. Thus she directs us to the humility of the Incarnation: "...in whom will you find all this?... in the gentle Christ Jesus, my only begotten Son, who has ever been more humble than he?" (D 154). The humility of God was such that he took on our humanity. Here we touch the very essence of the redemption. Humility is the locus of genuinely Christlike love.
Catherine's conviction is univocal: "So she should remain humble. This is the way to avoid delusion and to receive all things in love from me, for I am their end and they are grounded in my gentle will" (D 68).
After describing the passions and weaknesses that are obstacles to genuine spiritual growth, Catherine offers the antidote of "gentle patience" (D 93). Although she speaks frequently of the complex constellation of the "three glorious virtues -- patience, courage and perseverance" (D 77) and often relates them to one another, patience, "humility's sister," (D 165) is pivotal: "if this gentle patience, the very heart of charity, is present in the soul, she shows that all the virtues are alive and perfect. But if she is absent, it is clear that all the virtues are imperfect and have not yet arrived at the table of the most holy cross" (D 95). In yet another instance she writes:So you see, most beloved daughter, what are the gentle signs, (the most preeminent is the virtue of patience) by which the soul shows that she has in truth risen from imperfect love and come to the perfect and is following the gentle spotless Lamb, my only-begotten Son (D 77).Patience is imaged as a "queen who stands guard upon the rock of courage" and "the very heart of charity" (D 95). "The marrow of the tree (that is, loving charity within the soul) is patience, a sure sign that I am in her and that she is united with me" (D 10, cf 128). In one particularly lovely passage patience thus manifests union with God's "gentle will":O mildest of fruits! How sweet you are to those who taste you, and how pleasing to me! For in the midst of bitterness you are sweet. You give peace when the soul is assaulted. When her little boat is on the stormy sea and perilous winds lash against her with great waves, you remain peaceful and calm and wholly without malice, covering the little boat with God's gentle will (D 95).Convinced that God was actively involved in every event of her life, Catherine assigned the highest priority to God's "gentle will." Thus the image of the boat covered by God's will emphasizes on the distinguishing quality of patience: its relationship to humble obedience. According to Catherine, an experiential grasp of dwelling in the truth (humility) generates the will to do God's will! This is not an emotional outpouring, but a theological statement of depth and seriousness: patience is the principle of identity that marks union with the will of God. It renders visible, tangible, and operative the paschal duality that lies at the heart of Christian discipleship.
Catherine never permits us to wallow in sentimental illusion about God's love nor take refuge in delusions of our own spiritual strength. Her understanding is radically incompatible with any kind of complacency. To follow the "gentle spotless Lamb" (D 77) is a costly endeavor. It demands an inherent asceticism, selflessness: "Your chief desire ought to be to slay your selfish will so that it neither seeks nor wants anything but to follow my gentle Truth, Christ crucified.... Those who live in this gentle light do just this" (D 100). Her comments are detailed and perceptive: this must be done and that avoided -and only in this manner does life take the shape of the "gentle Way" and the "gentle loving Word."
Catherine is never otherworldly. Consonant with her affirmation of the blessedly two-edged character of Christianity, she is careful to point out that "Patience is not proved except in suffering" (the word patience is derived from the Latin patior -- "to suffer") and to exhort us to "endure courageously" (D 95). It is in and through suffering, or as more expressively distilled in Catherine's own phrase "at the table of the most holy cross" (D 100), that patience proves transformative. It is in suffering that "patience was conceived in knowledge of self and of my goodness and brought to birth through holy contempt, and anointed with true humility" (D 95).
Well aware of the heart's dreary stratagems, the haggling compromises, and versatile techniques at self-deception, Catherine recognizes the difficulties involved in the struggle to remain rooted in God's "gentle will." The restlessness that she calls "impatience" is an experiential datum for everyone. In fact, she even states bluntly that the core of pride is impatience (cf. D 31). Time inevitably exposes absence of interior peace, the fruit of loving union with the will of God. To seek one's own glory is to "step outside obedience" (D 21). To support and sustain such an existentially false stance is to support and sustain an illusion. And since it is basically "self-will" which leads to impatience, Catherine sees this as the existential untruth (cf. D 161).
Catherine points out the fact that true patience "kills every fear and selfishness" (D 95). Although this might seem austere, Catherine refuses to allow half-tones. But she softens the edge of the knife by pointing out that the suffering involved in being patient is not a "distressing pain" but a "consoling pain grounded in charity" (D 95):So [the soul] travels calmly over the bridge, following the teaching of my gentle Truth. She passes through this Word, enduring with true gentle patience every pain and trouble that I permit for her own good. She accepts it courageously, choosing my way over her own. And she suffers not only patiently, but gladly (D 89).When the alchemy of genuine humility and heartfelt patience go secretly about their mysterious business the twin defects of fear and overconfidence are dispelled. For Catherine this unity disallows complacency and despair.
Another sphere of mercy's manifestation of gentleness, one particularly important to Catherine, is that of mutual correction. There is in the Dialogue a faithful commitment to Scriptural formulations that affirm the need to correct within the context of gentleness: "My brothers, if someone is detected in sin, you who live by the spirit should gently set him right, each of you trying to avoid falling into temptation himself (Gal. 6:1). (18) Jeremiah's heartfelt plea is similarly contextualized: "Correct us, Yahweh, gently, not in your anger, or you will reduce us to nothing" (Jer. 10:24, JB). Catherine suggests that we correct in a gentle manner "acting always with true humility" (D 100).
Gentleness, according to Catherine, generates conversion: "Then, if the vice is truly there such people will change their ways all the sooner, seeing themselves so gently understood" (D 102). Essential to the contour of the Christian journey then, is the special form of truly kenotic love which is traditionally known as fraternal correction. This is a straightforward text. It bears the mark of a reverential reserve. justice and merciful love together make up an ascesis which generates progressive purification.
Reflective reading of Catherine's Dialogue brings us squarely before the mystery of God's gracious covenant of mercy, manifested in the mode of gentleness. Her teaching is full of unexpected insights and daring assertions. It is unified by common strands of themes and imagery which add new depth to the meaning and mystery of our being "sheltered by the mercy" (D 27). There is ample evidence throughout her work of God's patient and nurturing love, his steadfast fidelity to the promise of mercy. Clearly, the only appropriate response is loving praise for being so passionately loved by the "gentle first Truth." Twofold is the way in which the response is concretized: in the ongoing and fruitful tension of self-knowledge and the knowledge of God, in constant growth in the practice of virtue. These ways Catherine suggests, are interwoven.
Throughout the Dialogue the word "gentle" is theologically freighted. In and through it Catherine denotes the fundamental attitude and disposition which defines the manner of God's relationship with his people. The term is also theologically and psychologically decisive. It captures a unique quality of God's self-revelation. It projects an aura of associations in which the maternal and paternal aspects of the divine nature coalesce into coherence. With unwaning delight, Catherine bids us to be amazed:It is as if this gentle loving Word, my Son, were saying to you: Look, I have made the road and opened the gate for you with my blood. Do not fail, then, to follow it. Do not sit down to rest out of selfish concern for yourself, foolishly saying you do not know the way. Get up, then, and follow him.... He is the way, and the gate through whom you must enter into me, the sea of peace (D 100).
1. See Vida D. Scudder, St. Catherine of Siena as Seen in Her Letters (New York: Dutton and Dutton, 1927) and R.K. Foster, O.P, and Mary John Ranayne, O.P., trans., I, Catherine (London: Collins, 1980).
2. Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, translation and introduction by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), cf. chapters 18, 54, 134. Other references to this work will be noted within the text by the letter D and the chapter number. Texts from Scripture will be taken from the New American Bible unless otherwise noted by JB (Jerusalem Bible).
3. Catherine writes: "For love follows upon understanding. The more they know, the more they love, and the more they love, the more they know. Thus each nourishes the other" (D 85). Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: "Nothing is loved except it be first known" (I-II, 3, 4, ad 4).
4. The word "dolce" escapes precise definition and can be given a number of meanings. In the light of saccharine connotations and nuances of the more literal translation "sweet," Suzanne Noffke has used the more appropriate "gentle," which is adopted here.
5. Pope John Paul 11, Dives in Misericordia (English translation, Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1981), Note 52.
6. Ibid., Footnote 61.
7. John Paul II writes in Dives in Misericordia 3, "It is precisely the manner and sphere in which love manifests itself that in Biblical language is called mercy. Thus mercy's mode of being differs from the modes of being of other manifestations of love.
8. Chapters 135-153 of The Dialogue are devoted to the notion of Providence. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III.
9. The word "gentle" is used explicitly in connection with Providence in The Dialogue in chapters 135, 137, 141, 142, 149 (passim).
10. Other spiritual writers have praised the motherly love of God. Cf. St. Anselm, St. Mechtild of Hackeborn, and Julian of Norwich.
11. The Psalmist's frequent reference to God as protecting us beneath the shadow of his wings similarly conjures up the image of a mother hen.
12. Prayer is imaged as a mother in various places in Catherine's writings. In letter 353, to three women of Naples, 1379, she writes: "Truly, prayer is a mother. It is she who conceives virtues as her children in love for God, and gives them birth in love for our neighbors."
13. Pope John Paul II emphasized this mystery when he suggested that we "call upon the God who cannot despise anything he has made, the God who is faithful to himself, to his fatherhood and his love. And, like the prophets, let us appeal to that love which has maternal characteristics and which, like a mother, follows each of her children, each lost sheep, even if they should number millions...." Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 15.
14. In Letter 356, to three women of Naples, Catherine writes: "We will never be able to nourish our neighbors unless we first feed our own souls with true solid virtues. And we cannot be nourished with virtue unless we cling to the breast of divine charity from which we draw the milk of divine tenderness."
15. See St. Augustine's Letter 118 to Dioscorus, trans. Sister Wilfred Parsons, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 18 (New York: The Fathers of the Church, 1953), p. 282.
16. The tree image is most fully developed in Chapters 9 and 10 of The Dialogue.
17. Thomas Aquinas teaches that humility is essentially related to truth and realism about ourselves. Cf. Summa Theologiae, II-II, 161, 1 and 3.
18. The Jerusalem Bible translation reads: "Brothers, if one of you misbehaves, the more spiritual of you who set him right should do so in a spirit of gentleness, not forgetting that you may be tempted yourselves."
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