Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena, a mystic who was the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church.
When I give programs the center on Christian mystics, Catherine is often included. (She was one of those we included this year in the monthly “Deepening” series Christine Luna Munger and I have been presenting at St. Catherine’s University this year.
It is said that at age seven, Catherine had a vision of her spiritual marriage to Christ. She records that Jesus told her that he had “determined to celebrate the wedding feast of [her] soul and to espouse [her to him] in faith.” In her vision, Catherine saw Mary placing her (Catherine’s) hand in the hand of Jesus and sealing the marriage with a brilliant ring that only Catherine could see. This was one of Catherine’s key mystical experiences, one that shaped the course of her life. It was a most joyous event and one she considered as a sign that she should consecrate herself solely to Jesus.
Catherine’s visions, many of which are recorded in her Dialogue, affected her deeply. One particular vision that was instrumental in how Catherine viewed her vocation occurred after she had spent three years in prayerful solitude in a room in her father’s house. In the vision, Jesus reminded her of his response when asked what is the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus then told Catherine: “I want you to fulfill both of these commandments. I want you to walk in the way with both your feet. I want you to fly to heaven on two wings.” Jesus assured Catherine that far from her actions in the world taking her away from time with Jesus, they would bring her closer. He told her, “I have no intention whatever of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer, by the bond of your love for your neighbor.”
Catherine took Jesus’ words to heart. As one scholar described, “Catherine was a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society.” She offered her services in a local hospital caring for lepars and victims of the plague, baked bread for the poor of Siena, she served as a mediator between feuding families and helped broker a peace agreement between the city of Florence and the government of the papal states. People flocked to her wherever she went. (It is reported that wherever she went, a dozen priests accompanied her to hear the confessions of those whose faith in God she helped reawaken.) Catherine was truly faithful to the command that Jesus had given her.
Catherine is a wonderful model for us, for surely we are also meant to “fly to heaven on two wings.” For all of us who are Christians, love of God and love of neighbor are bound tightly, two wings of the same bird.