Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Santa Caterina da Siena: The Mad Lover

For most of her 33 years Caterina Benincasa, a native of the Fontebranda district of Siena in Tuscany, was considered...well...kookie, pazzo, folle, a religious fanatic, somewhat mad.  

It's hard to deny the image, given everything which made Caterina who she was.  Born in 1347 of Giacomo di Benincasa, a prosperous wool dyer and Monna Lapa Piagenti, said to be daughter of a local poet, she grew up in a large house, still preserved today, though greatly altered through the centuries, the youngest of 25 children.  Yep, 25!  Although not all of them survived, including a twin with whom she was born.  (It boggles the mind to even imagine what if the twin had survived and followed in her sister's footsteps!!) Apparently Caterina was quite a normal, happy child, even tagged with the nickname, "Euphrosyne" = mirth, merriment: one of the Three Graces of Greek mythology.  Then she became a teenager, and the madness really took over!  While other girls were beginning to notice boys and daydreaming about future married bliss, Caterina became fascinated with prayer and solitude.  Obviously, God would have been a priority for any good Catholic Italian girl of her time; it'd been drummed into them.  But for Caterina her relationship with the Divine wasn't just some shallow cultural thing.  She was one of those rare people who actually responded to the urgings of divine grace with every fiber of her being.

Nevertheless, in typical teenage fashion, maybe with hormones-in-overdrive, she went over the top, secluding herself from everyone and vigorous punishing her body with all sorts of austerities.  Monna Lapa went nuts as Caterina, none too politely, resisted her mother's every direction and/or suggestion re: dress, amusements, and all the other "normal" stuff with which young girls of that age should've been busy.  Caterina adamantly refused to even listen to any talk of possible marriage, and also any consideration of becoming a nun.  What's the mother of a saint to do??

It seems that at age 16, Caterina and Lapa called something of a truce, although Caterina continued her, to the rest of her family and friends, "strange" way of life for the next five years.  During this time the Third Order of St. Dominic, consisting of lay women with a connection to the Order, was flourishing in places like Siena.  Caterina was accepted by the group and, under the rule's provisions, was allowed to wear the distinctive black and white Dominican habit.  She generally only went out of the house for Mass and confession, and limited her conversation to her confessor, who admitted that he didn't know what to do with her! She trained herself to exist on a spoonful of herbs a day, and to get by on a few hours' sleep at night.  Delusion?? Anorexia??  Possibly, but not necessarily.  Here's what she wrote to Daniella, a Dominican lay tertiary from Orvieto in 1378, when she was 31:  "There are some who devote themselves entirely to chastising their body by performing severe and enormous penances.  To keep their sensuality from rebelling against reason, they have set their whole desire more on mortifying their body than by killing their selfish will...[U]nless they are very humble and find their strength in judging not by human standards but by God's, they will often sin against their perfection by setting themselves up as judges of those who do not follow the same as they...Wretch that I am, I regret that I have never followed this true teaching.  I have, in fact, done the opposite.  And this, I believe, is why I've so often fallen into unhappiness and into passing judgment on my neighbors..."   Caterina paid the price for her youthful excesses by finding it difficult all through her life to eat normally.  In a letter to Augustinian Friar Felice a Massa, in 1377, who'd suggested that she ask God for the ability to eat, she wrote:  "I tell you, my father -- and I say it in the sight of God -- that in every way I have been able to manage I have forced myself to take food once or twice a day. Over and over I have prayed and do pray and will continue to pray God for the grace to live as other people do in this matter of eating..."

By her early 20's Caterina was having visionary experiences.  Who would've been surprised!? One of these led her to finally leave her seclusion in order to minister in the town to the needs of the poor and victims of plague and famine, which she continued from 1368 to 1374.  Despite her earlier misplaced religious zeal, apparently God's continual presence in Caterina's life eventually brought her to a greater balance and maturity.  It wasn't long before people began to recognize her depth of discernment when it came to people and their problems, and a motley band of all ages and ranks, including wealthy folks from prominent Sienese families, men of fashion, clergy and religious, soldiers, artists, merchants, lawyers, and politicians, began to approach this simple, unlettered woman and confide in her their problems.  The locals, the plain people of Siena, however, were less than enthusiastic over this holy mad woman, derisively referring to her as "the Queen of Fontebranda" and calling her friends the "caterinati".  Caterina was never one to let sticks and stones break her bones; she and her friends pushed back by tagging themselves as the "bella brigata", a beautiful brigade which maintained its "happy holiness" and serenity, despite the namecalling.  In the end, they had the last laugh because ecclesiastical historians of later centuries gave them the title "School of the Mystics". Not bad for a hometown girl whom everyone thought was mad! Perhaps she was, but apparently God thought otherwise.  On the 4th Sunday of Lent, 1375, while Caterina was in Pisa crusading for peace, she was graced with the five wounds of Christ, the stigmata, though the marks remained invisible until after her death.

The political scene in Italy, particularly the Papal States by 1376, was one of enormous turmoil and intrigue.  Caterina, at age 29, had reached such notoriety in Tuscan society that she was now drawn into a ministry far beyond anything she could ever have anticipated.  Perhaps because many ecclesiastical and civil leaders had lost their moral backbone and authority during this time, marginal figures, such as Caterina, were seen as useful in getting a hearing for various agendas.  The current Pope, Gregory XI, had fled to Avignon from Rome.  In 1376 Florence, in dispute with Gregory at that time, enlisted Caterina to travel to Avignon and convince the Pope to return to Rome.  Accompanied by Raimondo della Vigne of Capua, a Dominican priest, later a saint, who had been appointed as Caterina's confessor two years before, Caterina devoted the next four years, largely unsuccessfully, to convincing the Pope to return to Rome and to completely overhaul the whole church system which she saw as detrimental to the spiritual well-being of the Catholic people.  Oh, yes -- there was also the little glitch of the Great Western Schism caused by a gang of French cardinals who, themselves mad as hatters because of Gregory's move back to Rome and quickly disenchanted with the new Pope, Urban, elected an alternate Avignon "Pope", Clement VII, throwing the Church into a mell-of-a-hess! 

Caterina, fearless and bold, yet always respectful and humble, went where angels feared to tread in dealing with both Gregory XI and Urban VI.  A sampling -- to Gregory XI she wrote: "If till now you haven't been very firm in truth, I want you, I beg be so -- courageously and like a brave man -- following Christ, whose vicar you are...Just attend to spiritual affairs, to appointing good pastors and administratorsin your cities...Do something about it! And take heart in Christ Jesus and don't be afraid...Up, father! No more irresponsibility!...Forgive me, father, for talking to you like this. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks, you know..."   In another place, referring to the Pope with the familiar term "babbo = father", she urges him "not to be a timid child but a courageous man". Popular legend has it that Gregory XI died, in 1378, regretting having listened to "meddling women"! 

Though she remained in the lay Third Order of the Dominicans, Caterina founded a monastery for nuns. Her writing, given the few years she lived and her lack of education, was prolific and was usually dictated.  On one occasion, however, she wrote to Raymond of Capua: "This letter and another I sent you I've written with my own hand...[God] provided for my refreshment by giving me the ability to write -- a consolation I've never known because of my ignorance -- so that when I come down from the heights I might have a little something to vent my heart, lest it burst." She corresponded widely, again with all sorts of people, notable and unknown, and we're the beneficiaries of nearly 400 of her letters.  Though she didn't write them down, friends of hers recollected a number of prayers she composed, and some 26, from the last four years of her life, have been published.  She began to write her Libro della divina dottrina or Dialogo, her spiritual doctrine expressed in a dialogue between her and God, and there are several translations of this.

Those who take the time to get to know Caterina Benincasa cannot help but be impressed by the extraordinary life she led.  She died, far too early, at age 33 on April 29, 1380.  One evening in January, 1380, while dictating a letter to Urban VI, she had a stroke, from which she partially recovered, only to have a second stroke in April while at prayer in St. Peter's Basilica.  She died three weeks later.  Her followers, among whom she lived in Rome, remained ever loyal to her.  In the end, however, her goals, spiritual and political, of bringing the Church to reunion and reconciliation, under the leadership of the Holy Father, were frustrated.  Despite all her pleading and cajoling, Pope Urban, a weak and flawed man, ignored her, allowing arrogance and violence to continue sabotaging any real reform. Biographer Susan Noffke observes: "She had, above all, apparently only aggravated the schism she had given every drop of her energy trying to prevent and then to end."

In one of her prayers, Santa Caterina da Siena writes:

"O eternal, infinite Good! 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...

Why then are you so mad?
Because you have fallen in love with what you have made!...
She runs away from you and you go looking for her.
She strays and you draw closer to her:
You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that
you could not have come."

There is a favorite scene of mine in the movie Zorba the Greek where Zorba tells the young teacher who seems reluctant to engage life:  "You're a great man and I love you.  But there's still one thing you need to do to cut the bonds and set you free -- a touch of madness."  Thank God for life of Caterina Benincasa who had that "touch of madness" -- the madness of the God who is unending Love!

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This is a photo of the tomb of Santa Catarina da Siena
which I took in 1998 at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
After her original burial, it seems that the folks in Siena wanted at least
part of her back home, so Caterina's head and one of her thumbs 
were removed and enshrined in the Dominican church back in Siena!
Why am I not surprised?!

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