Learn from the Master of truth, who preached virtue only after he had practiced it. In this way you will produce fruit and will be channels through whom God will offer his grace within the hearts of those who hear you. . . . [Paul] even said, ‘I refuse to glory except in the cross of Christ crucified.’. . . He knew it so thoroughly that he became like a sponge absorbing water, so that as he traveled along the way of humiliation he absorbed the boundless charity and goodness with which God supremely loves his creatures. . . [H]e became a vessel of love filled with fire, to carry and preach God’s Word. . . . For those who see themselves not selfishly but for God, and who see God for God. . .[w]hen they contemplate God in blazing, consumed love discover the image of the human person in God. . . . For when they look at their reflection in the fountain, the sea of the divine Being, they feel at once compelled to love their neighbors as they love themselves. . . . [J]ust as we look into a fountain and see our image, take pleasure in it and love ourselves. But if we are wise, we are moved to love the fountain before we love ourselves. . . . So think, my dearest sons. There is no other way we can see either our dignity or the faults that mar our soul’s beauty, except by going to look into the quiet sea of the divine Being. . . . [W]ith bold and blazing heart stretch your sweet loving desires to go and give honor to God and your best efforts to your neighbors, never losing sight of your goal, Christ crucified.
Joan Patterson Del Pozzo, Speaking In Imagery, Speaking In Ecstasy, a discussion of St. Catherine of Siena’s language and style, included this in her dissertation: Huizinga sees the late medieval era as characterized by an extreme saturation of the religious atmosphere, and a marked tendency of thought to embody itself in
images. . . As indicated by Dante’s letter to Can Grande Della Scala, texts other than the Bible were intended by their medieval authors to be read as if they were scripture. . . The human author, from the Dantean vantage point, would interpret God’s work, enunciate His Word, and comment on the divine texts of Creation and Scripture. Inspired writers would speak in words as God spoke in things; their writings would reflect both scriptural truths and the material world. Human creativity would be analogous to divine creativity, but would operate in reverse, for God’s materialization of the spiritual would tend downwards, toward humanity while human works would tend upwards, toward God. A process of human to divine and divine to human communication is implied by this medieval view of the religious writers function, and a conception of such a two-way exchange was basic to Saint Catherine’s poetics and spirituality (Del Pozzo 60-62).
In Suzanne Noffke’s essay The Physical in the Mystical Writings of Catherine of Siena, she states that Catherine’s theology rests in the crucified Christ. His blood is identified as water and fire. Noffke sees Catherine pointing us to “incarnation and redemption, two mysteries which . . . are really one.” This single mystery, which integrates the physical with the spiritual is given to us in the picture of an embrace: the divine embracing the human with the human embracing the divine (Noffke 112-114). Catherine stirs the imaginative waters of the soul to life. It is as if her words break away layers of lime encrusted within us, preparing our souls for the fullness of God.
In this medieval tradition, Catherine points us to the fountain as an image of Christ. If Christ is the fountain at the crossroads, Catherine can stand at any point around the perimeter of the fountain directing our gaze to those living waters, flowing with the blood of Christ. Catherine asks the reader to drink, bathe or drown in those living waters. She would have us drown our selfish, frightened selves and be turned to fire, ready to be poured out for others. That, she instructs, is the invitation the cross of Christ brings to the world.
Her gaze was always resting upon Christ. So, whether it is water or fire or bride or any other image Catherine is always bringing us to join her at what is central and life-giving. This faith within her is alive and as vibrant as if we were literally standing in the pool of the fountain itself with her, feeling its sprays of cool water on our skin. When she spoke these heart-felt words, something came to life and that life still awakens a sleeping faith within the reader.
As Suzanne Noffke, the leading Catherine scholar says, For Catherine, the reason for every recounting of a physically vivid experience, for every image introduced and woven into the fabric, is to clarity for her readers a view of God and human spirituality which both incorporates and transcends the physical.
I argued that faith requires imagination, quoting Carol Lee Flinders, in her essay on Catherine in Enduring Grace, Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, by involving the power of her own imagination, Catherine was doing what human beings have regularly done when confronted by forces they cannot control, forces that would crush them or stunt them or strip them bare. Imagination seems to be a vital component of genuine nonviolent resistance, for it allows us to hold on to a positive view of ourselves no matter what the world tells us we are.
Catherine’s passion was for unity, within oneself, one’s community, the church and the world. She saw how the sins of the shepherds of the church zapped their vitality to shepherd, to keep their sheep well.
The Gospel of John was one of her favorite books in the Bible to draw on for her spontaneous use of images. In the fourth chapter, we read the familiar words Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well:
If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water. . . . Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I give them will never be thirsty. The water I give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. . . . (John 4:10-14)
As we listen to John the Baptist, we can hear Catherine’s voice also. It is as if she has joined John when he says, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord” or let the spring within you be opened. Resist it no more. (John 1:23 ).
In Catherine’s writing, as in all wisdom literature there is an unrelenting call to be made whole, to experience the mercy and love of God embracing our utter poverty. Then we are to serve in humility, as Christ did for us. It is necessary for us to stop being offended by sin in a personal way. We leave that to the completed work of Christ on the cross and find we are free to love. Catherine’s fervent writing has increased our capacity for that task.