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Catherine, of Siena, Saint / Letters of Catherine Benincasa
Anne Soulard, Charles Franks, Robert Shimmin, and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team


[Illustration: _The Ecstasy of St. Catherine
Detail from Bazzis Fresco_]




Table of Persons Addressed
St. Catherine of Siena as seen in her letters
Chief Events in the life of St. Catherine
Brief Outline of Contemporary Public Events
To Monna Alessa dei Saracini
To Benincasa her brother, when he was in Florence
To the Venerable Religious, Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Monna Agnese, who was the wife of Messer Orso Malavolti
To Sister Eugenia, her niece at the Convent of St. Agnes of Montepulciano
To Nanna, daughter of Benincasa, a little maid, her niece
Letters on the Consecrated Life
To Brother William of England
To Daniella of Orvieto, clothed with the Habit of St. Dominic
To Monna Agnese, wife of Francesco, a tailor of Florence
Letters in response to certain criticisms
To Monna Orsa, wife of Bartolo Usimbardi, and to Monna Agnese
To a Religious man in Florence, who was shocked at her Ascetic
To Brother Bartolomeo Dominici
To Brother Matteo di Francesco Tolomei
To a Mantellata of Saint Dominic, called Catarina di Scetto
To Neri di Landoccio dei Pagliaresi
To Monna Giovanna and her other daughters in Siena
To Messer John, the Soldier of Fortune
To Monna Colomba in Lucca
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, of the Order of the Preachers
To Gregory XI
To Gregory XI
To Gregory XI
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, at Avignon
To Catarina of the Hospital, and Giovanna di Capo
To Sister Daniella of Orvieto
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, and to Master John III
To Sister Bartolomea della Seta
To Gregory XI
To the King of France
Letters to Florence
To the Eight of War chosen by the Commune of Florence
To Buonaccorso di Lapo: written when the Saint was at Avignon
To Gregory XI
To Monna Lapa, her mother, before she returned from Avignon
To Monna Giovanna di Corrado Maconi
To Messer Ristoro Canigiani
To the Anziani and Consuls and Gonfalonieri of Bologna
To Nicholas of Osimo
To Misser Lorenzo del Pino of Bologna, Doctor in Decretals
Letters written from Rocca D'Orcia
To Monna Lapa, her mother, and to Monna Cecca
To Monna Catarina of the Hospital, and to Giovanna di Capo
To Monna Alessa, clothed with the Habit of Saint Dominic
To Gregory XI
To Raimondo of Capua
To Urban VI
To her spiritual children in Siena
To Brother William and to Messer Matteo of the Misericordia
To Sano di Maco, and to all her other sons in Siena
To Brother Raimondo of Capua
To Urban VI
To Don Giovanni of the Cells of Vallombrosa
Letters announcing peace
To Monna Alessa, when the Saint was at Florence
To Sano di Maco, and to the other sons in Christ
To three Italian Cardinals
To Giovanna, Queen of Naples
To Sister Daniella of Orvieto
To Stefano Maconi
To certain holy hermits who had been invited to Rome by the Pope
To Brother William of England, and to Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Brother Andrea of Lucca, Brother Baldo, and Brother Lando
To Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Queen Giovanna of Naples
To Brother Raimondo of the Preaching Order, when he was in Genoa
To Urban VI
Letters describing the experience preceding death
To Master Raimondo of Capua
To Master Raimondo of Capua, of the Order of the Preachers


Agnese, Monna, di Francesco
Andrea, Brother, of Lucca
Antonio, Brother, of Nizza

Baldo, Brother
Bartolomea, Sister, della Seta
Bartolomeo, Brother, Dominici
Benincasa, Benincasa
Benincasa, Eugenia
Benincasa, Monna Lapa
Benincasa, Nanna
Bologna, Anziani of

Capo, Giovanna di
Canigiani, Ristoro
Cardinals, Three Italian
Catarina, of the Hospital
Cecca, Monna
Colomba, Monna, of Lucca

Daniella, Sister, of Orvieto

France, the King of
Florence, Letters to

Giovanna, Queen of Naples
Giovanni, Don, of the Cells of Vallombrosa
Gregory XI.

John, Messer, Soldier of Fortune
John III., Master

Lando, Brother
Lapo, Buonaccorso di

Maco, Sano di
Maconi, Monna Giovanna di Corrado
Maconi, Stefano
Malavolti, Monna Agnese
Matteo, Messer, of the Misericordia

Osimo, Nicholas of

Pagliaresi, Neri di Landoccio dei
Pino, Lorenzo del

Raimondo, Brother, of Capua
Religious, A, in Florence

Saracini, Monna Alessa dei
Scetto, Catarina di

Tolomei, Brother Matteo di

Urban VI., Pope
Usimbardi, Monna Orsa

War, the Eight of
William, Brother, of England




The letters of Catherine Benincasa, commonly known as St. Catherine of
Siena, have become an Italian classic; yet perhaps the first thing in them
to strike a reader is their unliterary character. He only will value them
who cares to overhear the impetuous outpourings of the heart and mind of
an unlettered daughter of the people, who was also, as it happened, a
genius and a saint. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, the other great writers of
the Trecento, are all in one way or another intent on choice expression;
Catherine is intent solely on driving home what she has to say. Her
letters were talked rather than written. She learned to write only three
years before her death, and even after this time was in the habit of
dictating her correspondence, sometimes two or three letters at a time, to
the noble youths who served her as secretaries.

The modern listener to this eager talk may perhaps at first feel wearied.
Suffocated by words, repelled by frequent crudity and confusion of
metaphor, he may even be inclined to call the thought childish and the
tone overwrought. But let him persevere. Let him read these letters as
chapters in an autobiography, noting purpose and circumstance, and reading
between the lines, as he may easily do, the experience of the writer.
Before long the very accents of a living woman will reach his ears. He
will hear her voice, now eagerly pleading with friend or wrong-doer, now
brooding tender as a mother-bird over some fledgling soul, now broken with
sobs as she mourns over the sins of Church and world, and again chanting
high prophecy of restoration and renewal, or telling in awestruck
undertone sacred mysteries of the interior life. Dante's Angel of Purity
welcomes wayfarers upon the Pilgrim Mount "in voce assai pił che la
nostra, viva." The saintly voice, like the angelic, is more living than
our own. These letters are charged with a vitality so intense that across
the centuries it draws us into the author's presence.

Imagination is inclined to see the canonized saints as a row of solemn
figures, standing in dull monotony of worshipful gesture, like Virgins and
Confessors in an early mosaic. Yet, as a matter of fact, people who have
been canonized were to their contemporaries the most striking
personalities among men and women striving for righteousness. They were
all, to be sure, very good; but goodness, despite a curious prejudice to
the contrary, admits more variety in type than wickedness, and produces
more interesting characters. Catherine Benincasa was probably the most
remarkable woman of the fourteenth century, and her letters are the
precious personal record of her inner as of her outer life. With all their
transparent simplicity and mediaeval quaintness, with all the occasional
plebeian crudity of their phrasing, they reveal a nature at once so many-
sided and so exalted that the sensitive reader can but echo the judgment
of her countrymen, who see in the dyer's daughter of Siena one of the most
significant authors of a great age.


As is the case with many great letter-writers, though not with all,
Catherine reveals herself largely through her relations with others. Some
of her letters, indeed, are elaborate religious or political treatises,
and seem at first sight to have little personal colouring; yet even these
yield their full content of spiritual beauty and wisdom only when one
knows the circumstances that called them forth and the persons to whom
they were addressed. A mere glance at the index to her correspondence
shows how widely she was in touch with her time. She was a woman of
personal charm and of sympathies passionately wide, and she gathered
around her friends and disciples from every social group in Italy, not to
speak of many connections formed with people in other lands. She wrote to
prisoners and outcasts; to great nobles and plain business men; to
physicians, lawyers, soldiers of fortune; to kings and queens and
cardinals and popes; to recluses pursuing the Beatific Vision, and to men
and women of the world plunged in the lusts of the flesh and governed by
the pride of life. The society of the fourteenth century passes in review
as we turn the pages.

Catherine wrote to all these people in the same simple spirit. With one
and all she was at home, for all were to her, by no merely formal phrase,
"dearest brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus." One knows not whether to
be more struck by the outspoken fearlessness of the woman or by her great
adaptability. She could handle with plain directness the crudest sins of
her age; she could also treat with subtle insight the most elusive phases
of spiritual experience. No greater distance can be imagined than that
which separates the young Dominican with her eyes full of visions from a
man like Sir John Hawkwood, reckless free-lance, selling his sword with
light-hearted zeal to the highest bidder, and battening on the disorder of
the times. Catherine writes to him with gentlest assumption of fellowship,
seizes on his natural passions and tastes, and seeks to sanctify the
military life of his affections. With her sister nuns the method changes.
She gives free play to her delicate fancy, drawing her metaphors from the
beauty of nature, from tender, homely things, from the gentle arts and
instincts of womanhood. Does she speak to Pope Gregory, the timid? Her
words are a trumpet-call. To the harsh Urban, his successor? With finest
tact she urges self-restraint and a policy of moderation. Temperaments of
every type are to be met in her pages--a sensitive poet, troubled by
"confusion of thought" deepening into melancholia; a harum-scarum boy, in
whose sunny joyousness she discerns the germ of supernatural grace;
vehement sinners, fearful saints, religious recluses deceived by self-
righteousness, and men of affairs devoutly faithful to sober duty.
Catherine enters into every consciousness. As a rule we associate with
very pure and spiritual women, even if not cloistered, a certain deficient
sense of reality. We cherish them, and shield them from harsh contact with
the world, lest the fine flower of their delicacy be withered. But no one
seems to have felt in this way about Catherine. Her "love for souls" was
no cold electric illumination such as we sometimes feel the phrase to
imply, but a warm understanding tenderness for actual men and women. It
would be hard to exaggerate her knowledge of the world and of human

Yet sometimes Catherine appears to us austere and exacting; unsparing in
condemnation, and unrelenting in her demands on those she loves. Many of
her letters are in a strain of exhortation that rises into rebuke. The
impression at first is unpleasant. We are tempted to feel this unfailing
candour captious; to resent the note of authority, equally clear whether
she write to Pope or Cardinal; to suspect Catherine, in a word, of
assuming that very judicial attitude which she constantly deprecates as
unbecoming to us poor mortals. And perhaps the very frequency of her plea
for tolerance and forbearance suggests a conscious weakness. Like most
brilliant and ardent people, she was probably by nature of a critical and
impatient disposition; she was, moreover, a plebeian. At times, when she
is quite sure that men are on the side of the devil, she allows her
instinctive frankness full scope; it must be allowed that the result is
astounding. Yet even as we catch our breath we realise that her remarks
were probably justified. It is hard for us moderns to remember how crudely
hideous were the sins which she faced. In these days, when we are all
reduced to one apparent level of moral respectability, and great
saintliness and dramatic guilt are alike seldom conspicuous, we forget the
violent contrasts of the middle ages. Pure "Religious," striving after the
exalted perfection enjoined by the Counsels, moved habitually among moral
atrocities, and bold vigour of speech was a practical duty. Catherine
handled without evasion the grossest evils of her time, and the spell
which she exercised by simple force of direct dealing was nothing less
than extraordinary.

It is easy to see why Catherine's plain speaking was not resented. She
rarely begins with rebuke. The note of humility is first struck; she is
always "servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ." Thence she
frequently passes into fervent meditation on some special theme: the
exceeding wonder of the Divine Love, the duty of prayer, the nature of
obedience. We are lifted above the world into a region of heavenly light
and sweetness, when suddenly--a blow from the shoulder!--a startling sense
of return to earth. From the contemplation of the beauty of holiness,
Catherine has swiftly turned us to face the opposing sin. "Thou art the
man!" A few trenchant sentences, charged with pain, and the soul which has
been raised to celestial places awakes to see in itself the contradiction
of all that is so lovely. Into the region of darkness Catherine goes with
it. It is not "thou" but "we" who have sinned. She holds that sinful heart
so near her own that the beatings are confounded; her words now and again
express a shuddering personal remorse for sins of which she could have had
no personal knowledge. Her sense of unity with her fellow-men lies deeper
than any theory of brotherhood; she feels herself in sober truth guilty of
the sins of her brothers: her experience illustrates the profound truth
that only purity can know perfect penitence.

Catherine is then saved from any touch of Pharisaism by her remarkable
identification of herself with the person to whom she writes. But to
understand her attitude we must go further. For she never pauses in
reprobation of evil. Full of conviction that the soul needs only to
recognise its sin to hate and escape it for ever, she passes swiftly on to
impassioned appeal. Her words breathe a confidence in men that never fails
even when she is writing to the most hardened. She succeeded to a rare
degree in the difficult conciliation of uncompromising hatred toward sin
with unstrained fellowship with the sinner, and invincible trust in his
responsiveness to the appeal of virtue. When we consider the times in
which she lived, this large and touching trustfulness becomes to our eyes
a victory of faith. That it was no mere instinct, but an attitude
resolutely adopted and maintained, is evident from her frequent
discussions of charity and tolerance, some of which will be found in these
selections. She constantly urges her disciples to put the highest possible
construction on their neighbours' actions; nor is any phase of her
teaching more constantly repeated than the beautiful application of the
text: "In My Father's House are many mansions," to enjoin recognition of
the varieties in temperament and character and practice which may coexist
in the House of God.

Catherine had learned a hard lesson. She saw in human beings not their
achievements, but their possibilities. Therefore she quickened repentance
by a positive method, not by morbid analysis of evil, not by lurid
pictures of the consequences of sin, but by filling the soul with glowing
visions of that holiness which to see is to long for. She never despaired
of quickening in even the most degraded that flame of "holy desire" which
is the earnest of true holiness to be. We find her impatient of mint and
cummin, of over-anxious self-scrutiny. "Strive that your holy desires
increase," she writes to a correspondent; "and let all these other things
alone." "I, Catherine--write to you--with desire": so open all her
letters. Holy Desire! It is not only the watchword of her teaching: it is
also the true key to her personality.


We have dwelt on Catherine, the friend and guide of souls; but it is
Catherine the mystic, Catherine the friend of God, before whom the ages
bend in reverence. The final value of her letters lies in their
revelation, not of her dealings with other souls, but of God's dealings
with her own.

But in presence of the record of these deep experiences, silence is better
than words: is, indeed, for most of us the only possible attitude. The
letters that follow must speak for themselves. The clarity of mind which
Catherine always preserved, even in moments of highest exaltation, and her
loving eagerness to share her most sacred experiences with those dear to
her, have given her a power of expression that has produced pages of
unsurpassed interest and value, alike for the psychologist and for the
believer. Moreover--and this we well may note--her letters enable us to
apprehend with singularly happy intimacy, the natural character and
disposition of her whom these high things befell. In the very cadence of
their impetuous phrasing, in their swift dramatic changes, in their
marvellous blending of sweetness and virility, they show us the woman.
Some of them, especially those to her family and friends, are of almost
childlike simplicity and homely charm; others, among the most famous of
their kind, deal with mystical, or if we choose so to put it, with
supernatural experience: in all alike, we feel a heart akin to our own,
though larger and more tender.

The central fact in Catherine's nature was her rapt and absolute
perception of the Love of God, as the supreme reality in the universe.
This Love, as manifested in creation, in redemption, and in the sacrament
of the Altar, is the theme of her constant meditations. One little phrase,
charged with a lyric poignancy, sings itself again and again, enlightening
her more sober prose: "For nails would not have held God-and-Man fast to
the Cross, had love not held Him there." Her conceptions are positive, not
negative, and joyous adoration is the substance of her faith.

But the letters show us that this faith was not won nor kept without sharp
struggle. We have in them no presentation of a calm spirit, established on
tranquil heights of unchanging vision, above our "mortal moral strife."
Catherine is, as we can see, a woman of many moods--very sensitive, very
loving. She shows a touching dependence on those she loves, and an
inveterate habit of idealising them, which leads to frequent disillusion.
She is extremely eager and intense about little things as well as great;
hers is a truly feminine seriousness over the detail of living. She is
keenly and humanly interested in life on this earth, differing in this
respect from some canonized persons who seem always to be enduring it
_faute de mieux_. And, as happens to all sensitive people who refuse to
seclude themselves in dreams, life went hard with her. Hers was a frail
and suffering body, and a tossed and troubled spirit; wounded in the house
of her friends, beset by problem, shaken with doubt and fear by the
spectacle presented to her by the world and the Church of Christ. The
letters tell us how these, her sorrows and temptations, were not separated
from the life of faith, but a true portion of it: how she carried them
into the Divine Presence, and what high reassurance awaited her there.
Ordinary mortals are inclined to think that supernatural experience
removes the saints to a perplexing distance. In Catherine's case, however,
we become aware as we study the record that it brings her nearer us. For
these experiences, far from being independent of her outer life, are in
closest relation with it; even the highest and most mysterious, even those
in which the symbolism seems most remote from the modern mind, can be
translated by the psychologist without difficulty into modern terms. They
spring from the problems of her active life; they bring her renewed
strength and wisdom for her practical duties. An age, which like our own
places peculiar emphasis and value on the type of sanctity which promptly
expresses itself through the deed, should feel for Catherine Benincasa an
especial honour. She is one of the purest of Contemplatives; she knows,
what we to-day too often forget, that the task is impossible without the
vision. But it follows directly upon the vision, and this great mediaeval
mystic is one of the most efficient characters of her age.


Catherine's soaring imagination lifted her above the circle of purely
personal interests, and made her a force of which history is cognisant in
the public affairs of her day. She is one of a very small number of women
who have exerted the influence of a statesman by virtue, not of feminine
attractions, but of conviction and intellectual power. It is impossible to
understand her letters without some recognition of the public drama of the

Two great ideals of unity--one Roman, one Christian in origin--had
possessed the middle ages. In the strength of them the wandering barbaric
hordes had been reduced to order, and Western Europe had been trained into
some perception of human fellowship. Of these two unifying forces, the
imperialistic ideal was moribund in Catherine's time: not even a Dante,
born fifty years after his true date, could have held to it. Remained the
ideal of the Church universal, and to this last hope of a peaceful
commonwealth that should include all humanity, the idealists clung in

But alas for the faith of idealists when fact gives theory the lie! What
at this time was the unity of mankind in the Church but a formal
hypothesis? The keystone of her all-embracing arch was the Papacy. But the
Pope no longer sat heir of the Caesars in the seat of the Apostles; for
seventy years he had been a practical dependant of the French king, living
in pleasant Provence. Neither the scorn of Dante, nor the eloquence of
Petrarch, nor the warnings of holy men, had prevailed on the popes to
return to Italy, and make an end of the crying scandal which was the
evident contradiction of the Christian dream. Meantime, the city of the
Caesars lay waste and wild; the clergy was corrupt almost past belief; the
dreaded Turk was gathering his forces, a menace to Christendom itself. The
times were indeed evil, and the "servants of God," of whom then, as now,
there were no inconsiderable number, withdrew for the most part into
spiritual or literal seclusion, and in the quietude of cloister or forest
cell busied themselves with the concerns of their own souls.

Not so Catherine Benincasa. She had known that temptation and conquered
it. After her reception as a Dominican Tertiary, she had possessed the
extraordinary resolution to live for three years the recluse life, not in
the guarded peace of a convent, but in her own room at home, in the noisy
and overcrowded house where a goodly number of her twenty-four brothers
and sisters were apparently still living. And these had been years of
inestimable preciousness; but they came to an end at the command of God,
speaking through the constraining impulse of her love for men. From the
mystical retirement in which she had long lived alone with her Beloved,
she emerged into the world. And the remarkable fact is that in no respect
did she blench from the situation as she found it. She "faced life
steadily and faced it whole." A Europe ravaged by dissensions lay before
her; a Church which gave the lie to its lofty theories, no less by the
hateful worldliness of its prelates than by its indifferent abandonment of
the Seat of Peter. Above this sorry spectacle the mind of Catherine soared
straight into an upper region, where only the greatest minds of the day
were her comrades. Her fellow-citizens were unable to entertain the idea
even of civic peace within the limits of their own town; but patriotic
devotion to all Italy fired her great heart. More than this--her instinct
for solidarity forced her to dwell in the thought of a world-embracing
brotherhood. Her hopes were centred, not like Dante's in the Emperor the
heir of the Caesars, but in the Pope the heir of Christ. Despite the
corruption from which she recoiled with horror, despite the Babylonian
captivity at Avignon, she saw in the Catholic Church that image of a pure
universal fellowship which the noblest Catholics of all ages have
cherished. To the service of the Church, therefore, her life was
dedicated; it was to her the Holy House of Reconciliation, wherein all
nations should dwell in unity; and only by submission to its authority
could the woes of Italy be healed.

Catherine's letters on public affairs--historical documents of recognised
importance--give us her practical programme. It was formed in the light of
that faith which she always describes as "the eye of the mind." She was
called during her brief years of political activity to meet three chief
issues: the absence of the Pope from Italy; the rebellion of the Tuscan
cities, headed by Florence, against his authority; and at a later time the
great Schism, which broke forth under Urban VI. During her last five years
she was absorbed in ecclesiastical affairs. In certain of her immediate
aims she succeeded, in others she failed. It would be hard to say whether
her success or her failure involved the greater tragedy. For behind all
these aims was a larger ideal that was not to be realised--the dream,
entertained as passionately by Catherine Benincasa as by Savonarola or by
Luther, of thorough Church-reform. Catherine at Avignon, pleading this
great cause in the frivolous culture and dainty pomp of the place;
Catherine at Rome, defending to her last breath the legal rights of a Pope
whom she could hardly have honoured, and whose claims she saw defended by
extremely doubtful means--is a figure as pathetic as heroic. Few sorrows
are keener than to work with all one's energies to attain a visible end
for the sake of a spiritual result, and, attaining that end, to find the
result as far as ever. This sorrow was Catherine's. The external successes
which she won--considerable enough to secure her a place in history--
availed nothing to forward the greater aim for which she worked. Gregory
XI., under her magnetic inspiration, gathered strength, indeed, to make a
personal sacrifice and to return to Rome, but he was of no calibre to
attempt radical reform, and his residence in Italy did nothing to right
the crying abuses that were breaking Christian hearts. His successor, on
the other hand, did really initiate the reform of the clergy, but so
drastic and unwise were his methods that the result was terrible and
disconcerting--the development of a situation of which only the Catholic
idealist could discern the full irony; no less than Schism, the rending of
the Seamless Robe of Christ.

With failing hopes and increasing experience of the complexity of human
struggle, Catherine clung to her aim until the end. There was no touch of
pusillanimity in her heroic spirit. As with deep respect we follow the
Letters of the last two years, and note their unflagging alertness and
vigour, their steady tone of devotion and self-control, we realise that to
tragedy her spirit was dedicate. Her energy of mind was constantly on the
increase. Still, it is true, she wrote to disciples near and far long,
tender letters of spiritual counsel--analyses of the religious life
tranquilly penetrating as those of an earlier time. But her political
correspondence grew in bulk. It is tense, nervous, virile. It breathes a
vibrating passion, a solemn force, that are the index of a breaking heart.
Not for one moment did Catherine relax her energies. From 1376, when she
went to Avignon, she led, with one or two brief intermissions only, the
life of a busy woman of affairs. But within this outer life of strenuous
and, as a rule, thwarted activities, another life went on--a life in which
failure could not be, since through failure is wrought redemption.

From the days of her stigmatization, which occurred in 1375 at Pisa,
Catherine had been convinced that in some special sense she was to share
in the Passion of Christ, and offer herself a sacrifice for the sins of
Holy Church. Now this conception deepened till it became all-absorbing. In
full consciousness of failing vital powers, in expectation of her
approaching death, she offered her sufferings of mind and body as an
expiation for the sins around her. By word of mouth and by letters of
heartbroken intensity she summoned all dear to her to join in this holy
offering. Catherine's faith is alien to these latter days. Yet the
psychical unity of the race is becoming matter not only of emotional
intuition, but established scientific fact: and no modern sociologist, no
psychologist who realizes how unknown in origin and how intimate in
interpenetration are the forces that control our destiny, can afford to
scoff at her. She had longed inexpressibly for outward martyrdom. This was
not for her, yet none the less really did she lay down her life on the
Altar of Sacrifice. The evils of the time, and above all of the Church,
had generated a sense of unbearable sin in her pure spirit; her constant
instinct to identify herself with the guilt of others found in this final
offering an august climax and fulfilment.

During the last months of her life--months of excruciating physical
sufferings, vividly described for us by her contemporaries--the woman's
rectitude and wisdom, her swift tender sympathies, were still, as ever, at
the disposal of all who sought them. With unswerving energy she still
laboured for the cause of truth. When we consider the conditions,
spiritual and physical, of those last months, we read with amazement the
able, clearly conceived, practical letters which she was despatching to
the many European potentates whom she was endeavouring to hold true to the
cause of Urban. But her spirit in the meantime dwelt in the region of the
Eternal, where the dolorous struggle of the times appeared, indeed, but
appeared in its essential significance as seen by angelic intelligences.
The awe-struck letters to Fra Raimondo, her Confessor, with which this
selection closes, are an accurate transcript of her inner experience. They
constitute, surely, a precious heritage of the Church for which her life
was given. Catherine Benincasa died heartbroken; yet in the depths of her
consciousness was joy, for God had revealed to her that His Bride the
Church, "which brings life to men," "holds in herself such life that no
man can kill her." "Sweetest My daughter, thou seest how she has soiled
her face with impurity and self-love, and grown puffed up by the pride and
avarice of those who feed at her bosom. But take thy tears and sweats,
drawing them from the fountain of My divine charity, and cleanse her face.
For I promise thee that her beauty shall not be restored to her by the
sword, nor by cruelty nor war, but by peace, and by humble continual
prayer, tears, and sweats poured forth from the grieving desires of My
servants. So thy desire shall be fulfilled in long abiding, and My
Providence shall in no wise fail."


Psychologically, as in point of time, St. Catherine stands between St.
Francis and St. Teresa. Her writings are of the middle ages, not of the
renascence, but they express the twilight of the mediaeval day. They
reveal the struggles and the spiritual achievement of a woman who lived in
the last age of an undivided Christendom, and whose whole life was
absorbed in the special problems of her time. These problems, however, are
in the deepest sense perpetual, and her attitude toward them is suggestive

It has been claimed that Catherine, a century and a half later, would have
been a Protestant. Such hypotheses are always futile to discuss; but the
view hardly commends itself to the careful student of her writings. It is
suggested, naturally enough, by her denunciations of the corruptions of
the Church, denunciations as sweeping and penetrating as were ever uttered
by Luther; by her amazingly sharp and outspoken criticism of the popes;
and by her constant plea for reform. The pungency of all these elements in
her writings is felt by the most casual reader. But it must never be
forgotten that honest and vigorous criticism of the Church Visible is, in
the mind of the Catholic philosopher, entirely consistent with loyalty to
the sacerdotal theory. There is a noble idealism that breaks in fine
impatience with tradition, and audaciously seeks new symbols wherein to
suggest for a season the eternal and imageless truth. But perhaps yet
nobler in the sight of God--surely more conformed to His methods in nature
and history--is that other idealism which patiently bows to the yoke of
the actual, and endures the agony of keeping true at once to the heavenly
vision and to the imperfect earthly form. Iconoclastic zeal against
outworn or corrupt institutions fires our facile enthusiasm. Let us
recognize also the spiritual passion that suffers unflinchingly the
disparity between the sign and the thing signified, and devotes its
energies, not to discarding, but to restoring and purifying that sign.
Such passion was Catherine's. The most distinctive trait in the woman's
character was her power to cling to an ideal verity with unfaltering
faithfulness, even when the whole aspect of life and society around her
seemed to give that verity the lie. To imagine her without faith in the
visible Church and the God-given authority of the Vicar of Christ is to
imagine another woman. Catherine of Siena's place in the history of minds
is with Savonarola, not with Luther.

Catherine confronted a humanity at enmity with itself, a Church conformed
to the image of this world. Her external policy proved helpless to right
these evils. The return of the Popes from Avignon resulted neither in the
pacification of Christendom nor in the reform of the Church. The Great
Schism, of which she saw the beginning, undermined the idea of Christian
unity till the thought of the Saint of Siena was in natural sequence
followed by the thought of Luther. Outwardly her life was spent in
labouring for a hopeless cause, discredited by the subsequent movement of
history. But the material tragedy was a spiritual triumph, not only
through the victory of faith in her own soul, but through the value of the
witness which she bore. Neither of the great conceptions of unity which
possessed the middle ages was identical with the modern democratic
conception; yet both, and in particular that of the Church, pointed in
this direction. That ideal of world-embracing brotherhood to which men
have been slowly awakening throughout the Christian centuries was the
dominant ideal of Catherine's mind. She hoped for the attainment of such a
brotherhood through the instrument of an organized Christendom, reduced to
peace and unity under one God-appointed Head. History, as some of us
think, has rejected the noble dream. We seem to see that the undying hope
of the human spirit--a society shaped by justice and love--is never likely
to be gained along the lines of the centralization of ecclesiastical
power. But if our idea of the means has changed, the same end still shines
before us. The vision of human fellowship in the Name of Christ, for which
Catherine lived and died, remains the one hope for the healing of the


[Processor's note: this timeline and the one that follows appeared in the
opposite order in the 1905 edition on which this etext is based. Their
order has been reversed to correctly reflect the order in which they
appear in the table of contents.]

1347. On March 25th, Catherine, and a twin-sister who dies at once, are
born in the Strada dell' Oca, near the fountain of Fontebranda, Siena. She
is the youngest of the twenty-five children of Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer,
and Lapa, his wife.

1353-4. As a child, Catherine is peculiarly joyous and charming. When six
years old she beholds the vision of Christ, arrayed in priestly robes,
above the Church of St. Dominic. She is inspired by a longing to imitate
the life of the Fathers of the desert, and begins to practise many
penances. At the age of seven she makes the vow of virginity. She is drawn
to the Order of St. Dominic by the zeal of its founder for the salvation
of souls.

1359-1363. Her ascetic practices meet with sharp opposition at home. She
is urged to array herself beautifully and to marry, is denied a private
chamber, and forced to perform the menial work of the household, etc. In
time, however, her perseverance wins the consent of her father and family
to her desires.

1363-1364. She is vested with the black and white habit of Saint Dominic,
becoming one of the Mantellate, or Dominican tertiaries, devout women who
lived under religious rule in their own homes.

1364-1367. She leads in her own room at home the life of a religious
recluse, speaking only to her Confessor. She is absorbed in mystical
experiences and religious meditation. During this time she learns to read.
The period closes with her espousals to Christ, on the last day of
Carnival, 1367.

1367-1370. In obedience to the commands of God, and impelled by her love
of men, she returns gradually to family and social life. From this time
dates her special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She joyfully devotes
herself to household labours, and to a life of ministration to the sick
and needy. In 1368 her father dies, and the Revolution puts an end to the
prosperity of the Benincasa family, which is now broken up. Catherine
seems to have retained to the end the care of Monna Lapa. In 1370 she dies
mystically and returns to life, having received the command to go abroad
into the world to save souls.

1370-1374. Her reputation and influence increase. A group of disciples
gathers around her. Her correspondence gradually becomes extensive, and
she becomes known as a peacemaker. At the same time, her ecstasies and
unusual mode of life excite criticism and suspicion. In May, 1374, she
visits Florence, perhaps summoned thither to answer charges made against
her by certain in the Order. She returns to Siena to minister to the
plague-stricken. She meets at this time Fra Raimondo of Capua, her
Confessor and biographer. Her gradual induction into public affairs is
accompanied by growing sorrow over the corruptions of the Church.

1375. At the invitation of Pietro Gambacorta, Catherine visits Pisa. Her
object is to prevent Pisa and Lucca from joining the League of Tuscan
cities against the Pope. She meets the Ambassador from the Queen of
Cyprus, and zealously undertakes to further the cause of a Crusade. On
April 1st she receives the Stigmata in the Church of Santa Cristina; but
the marks, at her request, remain invisible. She prophesies the Great
Schism. A brief visit to Lucca.

1376. Catherine receives Stefano Maconi as a disciple, and at his instance
reconciles the feud between the Maconi and the Tolomei. She attempts by
correspondence to reconcile Pope Gregory XI. and the Florentines. On April
1st the Divine Commission to bear the olive to both disputants is given
her in a vision. In May, at the request of the Florentines, she goes to
Florence. Sent as their representative to Avignon, she reaches that city
on June 18th. Gregory entrusts her with the negotiations for peace. The
Florentine ambassadors, however, delay their coming, and when they come
refuse to ratify her powers. Thwarted in this direction, she devotes all
her efforts to persuading the Pope to return to Rome, and triumphing over
all obstacles, succeeds. She leaves for home on September 13th, but is
retained for a month in Genoa, at the house of Madonna Orietta Scotta.
After a short visit at Pisa, she reaches Siena in December or January.

1377. Catherine converts the castle of Belcaro, conveyed to her by its
owner, into a monastery. She visits the Salimbeni in their feudal castle
at Rocca D'Orcia, for the purpose of healing their family feuds.

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