April 29: Catherine of Siena, 1380

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Catherine Benincasa was the youngest of twenty-five children of a wealthy dyer of Siena. At six years of age, she had a remarkable vision that probably decided her life’s vocation. Walking home from a visit, she stopped on the road and gazed upward, oblivious to everything around her. “I beheld our Lord seated in glory with St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John.” She went on to say, later, that the Savior smiled on her and blessed her.

From then on, Catherine spent most of her time in prayer and meditation, despite her mother’s attempts to force her to be like other girls. To settle matters, Catherine cut off her hair, her chief beauty. The family harassed her continually; but in the end, convinced that she was deaf to all opposition, her father let her do as she would: close herself away in a darkened room, fast, and sleep on boards. Eventually, she was accepted as a Dominican postulant.

Catherine had numerous visions, and was also tried most severely by loathsome temptations and degrading images. Frequently, she felt totally abandoned by the Lord. At last, in 1366, the Savior appeared with Mary and the Heavenly Host, and espoused her to himself, so ending her years of lonely prayer and struggle. She became a nurse, as Dominicans regularly did, caring for patients with leprosy and cancer whom other nurses disliked to treat.

Opinion in Siena was sharply divided about whether she was a saint or a fanatic, but when the Bishop of Capua was appointed her confessor, he helped her to win full support from the Dominican Mother House. Catherine was a courageous worker in time of severe plague; she visited prisoners condemned to death; she constantly was called upon to arbitrate feuds and to prepare troubled sinners for confession.

During the great schism of the papacy, with rival popes in Rome and Avignon, Catherine wrote tirelessly to princes, kings, and popes, urging them to restore the unity of the Church. She even went to Rome to press further for the cause.

Besides her many letters to all manner of people, Catherine wrote a Dialogue, a mystical work dictated in ecstasy. Exhausted and paralyzed, she died at the age of thirty-three.


I  Everlasting God, who didst so kindle the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of thy Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II  Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Lamentations 3:31–33

1 John 1:5–2:2

Luke 12:22–24,29–31

Psalm 119:73-80

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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16 thoughts on “April 29: Catherine of Siena, 1380

  1. New Hebrew reading. Three quick verses is all she gets. They are short and sweet … perhaps too short and too sweet, IMHO.

  2. “loathsome temptations and degrading images”

    This phrasing sounds like something out of a cheesy devotional pamphlet, with a touch of a “wink wink, nod nod, you know what KIND of images and temptations.” Can this be revised to something accurate but less creepy?

  3. Oh, and we need a date of birth, rather than be left to figure it out from the data given. But we don’t need her birth certificate!

  4. The biography for Catherine of Siena seems to be based on Vida Dutton Scudder’s biography, and was written some years ago. It would appear that the biography may need some “fact checking” or at the very least a review based on more modern scholarship. Other scholars state that Catherine Benincasa was the 23rd of 25 children born to Jacopo Benincasa and his wife Lapa. Apparently Catherine has a twin sister who died shortly after birth or in early infancy. One more daughter was born after Catherine who died when Catherine was a young woman. Catherine was born about 1347, though some authors are more specific saying that Catherine was born on March 25th. This exact date suggests a later “guess” for the sake of hagiography.

    As has been already said, the phrase “tried most severely with loathsome temptations and degrading images” needs a rewrite!!! I am far from certain what is meant by the phrase and my imagination could easily come up with ideas which might be far afield of what Catherine experienced. Though I would guess that this phrase was meant to apply to her sexual being, it certainly might not. Catherine practiced severe fasting even to the point of death, now called anorexia mirabilis but which was probably a form anorexia nervosa, though the fasting was not to improve body image but sanctity. To such a person, dreaming of food might well be described as a “loathsome temptation.” If Catherine is explicit in her letters about what is meant, then this phrase should describe that accurately. If she used a veiled reference and it is not obvious, then the sentence should be left out.

    Would it hurt to say that the popes ruled from Avignon from 1309-1377 except for three years, and only returned to Rome in 1377 under Pope Gregory IX? This move back to Rome was facilitated by Catherine’s lobbying and letter writing. But with the election of Gregory’s successor, Urban VI, there began the Western Schism (sometimes also called the Great Schism of the Papacy) with rival popes and anti-popes ruling from Rome and Avignon and other places which did not end until 1417, long after Catherine’s death though she did go to Rome to try to end this rivalry which seemed far more political in origin than religious.. The use of the word “great” before schism implies to me as a non-historian the split between the Roman Catholic church (Latin) of the west and the Orthodox churches (Greek) of the east in 1054.

    There is another phrase in the last paragraph which is problematic: “Exhausted and paralyzed.” It is not clear to me what is meant. Catherine died on 29 April 1380 at Rome. Sometimes there is a reference to suffering. But given her inadequate died of herbs, bread and water, she may have died of starvation or malnutrition or infection, etc. Perhaps there was another physiological reason that Catherine could not eat and which contributed to her anorexia. Perhaps, it would be better to say nothing other than her death date unless there is evidence for something more specific.

  5. […] Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. — Collect for the Feast of Catherine of Siena, from the Episcopal Church’s Holy Women, Holy Men […]

  6. I had forgotten about the extreme fasting. Given what we now know about anorexia, should there be something in the write-up to either distinguish her fasting from anorexia or to say that akthough this was considered saintly behavior in her time, we now know that it was more likely an eating disorder which we would seek to treat rather than to honor. During my time as a college teacher, I had several students who were afflicted with anorexia, and it was heartbreaking to see them waste away, despite attempts at treatment.

    • Cynthia — I recently read “The Fat Jesus: Christianity and Body Image” by Lisa Isherwood, and it had some very interesting observations about fasting in past eras as a spiritual discipline and its relation to what might be considered eating disorders in today’s view. It’s not an automatic 1:1 kind of thing. As I think of it, there’s an anachronistic temptation to use the wrong frameworks in our assessments. To me it’s like a policeman writing a citation to someone for jaywalking where the road hasn’t been built yet, much less the crosswalk! (In this case I’d call that an “ex post fatso” law.) 🙂
      (As a lifelong member of the “Supersized Club” I get to use that line occasionally.)

  7. I suggest a subtitle: “Nurse and Mystic”, or “Mystic and Caregiver”.

    Line 1, first paragraph: add “born on March 25, 1347, in the city-state of Siena, now part of Italy,” after “Benincasa”.

    Line 3, sixth paragraph: add “in Rome on April 29, 1380,” after “died”.

  8. CatherineOfSiena
    Q:How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel, and how is she an inspiration today?
    A: Visionary sense of calling from God from an early age. Obsessed with prayer and meditation despite resistance and temptations. Struggle against authorities in defense of her integrity. Life and service as Dominican nun with ministry in nursing, spiritual direction, and church order. These same qualities are equally vital today as ways of serving like an inspired example of Christian living in anyone’s own circumstances.
    NARRATIVE: I found in Catherine a surprisingly strong reflection of the spirit of Christ, in holiness (her life of prayer more so than the visionary aspect) and in her service to others as nurse, director, and advocate for church order (which she undertook as a nun but which any Christian can undertake in their own life circumstances).
    Two aspects in the manner of presentation displease me (and I readily admit pleasing me is not an objective criterion of excellence). First is a melodramatic piety and fascination with oddness. Second is a predisposition to unspecified generalizations.
    Celinda used the phrase “de gustibus” some days ago without guile, and I know my way is not the only way. To me, the whole first paragraph, except for the opening sentence, is a melodramatic, stereotyped way of saying nothing more than that Catherine was drawn to a life of prayer and service even as a child, including passive visionary meditation. The second paragraph continues in the same vein with details too “precious” for my taste. It makes the important and legitimate point that she developed an intense practice of prayer and meditation while still very young, eventually becoming a Dominican nun. Most of the detail, in which the telling is couched, strikes me as overdrawn and – I don’t know the word — dripping with canned piety — schmaltzy kitsch.
    Elements of oddness or melodramatic spin include mother’s resistance; shorn hair; loathsome temptations and degrading images (too much unneeded description here – “sorely tempted” is probably enough – “tried most severely by loathsome temptations and degrading images” is just cluttered with pointless and wordy descriptors – as if she could be tried “conveniently” by “wholesome” temptations or “edifying” images!).

    Other bothersome details are her family’s harassment, father’s acquiescence, deafness to opposition, dark room, sleeping on boards, divided opinions about her, and more, all of which strikes me as eliciting the response of either “aw, the poor dear” or “wow, what an exceptional not-normal Christian she was.”
    The second objection (unspecified generalizations) are not very many. Mother’s forcing her to be like other girls, and father’s “letting her do as she would,” are vague. “Numerous visions” — what does “numerous” tell us? “She even went to Rome to press further for the cause” tells neither what she did nor what effect she had, if any. “Besides her many letters to all manner of people” is more of a tease than information given. “Exhausted and paralyzed, she died at the age of thirty-three” suggests that her Christian life killed her – prematurely, compulsively and heedless of the consequences! (It would definitely help to say more than this if “exhausted and paralyzed” is worth keeping.)
    Nobody wants to re-write this thing, and HWHM can get approved by GC without re-writing everything, (and maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t want to see the Catherine of Siena Show billed as a soap opera), but it’s not the most shining star in the sky at this point, in my gustibus.
    The OT lesson (all 3 verses) seemed a better reading for John of the Cross than Catherine – even though she went through her own “dark night” of desolation in prayer. (I went back and added that note to John’s page.) I’d love to suggest an OT passage about a strong, spiritual woman who did something outstandingly faithful in the context of Israel’s calling. The song of Miriam comes to mind (Exodus 15:11-21).
    The Psalm is fine. Good selection.
    The Epistle selection puzzles me, since there isn’t any penitential emphasis in the narrative, but it has a good message. It won’t hurt us to hear it.
    The Gospel is likewise a good passage, beneficial to hear, and it has the added advantage of not ending with everyone exhausted, paralyzed and dead. 😦
    My sense is that the collect would pray better if we eliminated “as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior” – for two reasons. First, the flame of holy love didn’t just burn when she was meditating (nor meditating on that one specific topic). Second, it would flow better — without two antecedent clauses prior to the consequent clause. Beyond that, (particularly given its proximity to the great 50 days) I would expand the narrow restriction of the petition from simply “Christ’s death” to “Christ’s death and resurrection.” Also, there is no “so that” clause, BUT the remainder of the petition sentence COULD conceivably be reworded (with some connection to the baptismal covenant) as a “so that” clause.
    NB: Many of Suzanne’s comments (above this one) are well worth incorporating, as well. As I indicated (and I can’t imagine it’s welcomed when the Commission is given so much to do on a daily basis!) my own “druthers” is that the narrative be presented in a less saccharine manner. (That’s not meant as an insult, it’s my knee-jerk-but-sincere reaction.)

    • Our narrative says she became an O.P. postulant, but other sources say she was a tertiary. Was she a nun (I would think that entailed living in a convent with a communal schedule of life) or was she a tertiary member (living in the secular setting)? Does anyone know?

  9. The biographical material that I read stated that Catherine never became a nun. She wore the habit of a Dominican nun and lived a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to her confessor. From the material I read, the confessor assigned to Catherine soon began to take direction from her not his providing direction to her. In any case, she was a “tertiary” and not a nun.

    Catherine’s life was a melodrama and seems more than a bit bizarre by today’s standards. She was born during the time the Black Death or Plague (Yersinia pestis) was spreading across Europe. As a teenager she began to practice severe forms of penitance such as self-starvation, self-scourging, extreme sleep deprivation, sleeping on a board, and social isolation. The last she was finally persuaded to give up in one of her visions. Given the sleep deprivation, I suppose it is not at all unusual to learn she experienced visions. She spend hours in solitary prayer. After her teenage years, she goes into the world to care for the sick and dying including condemned prisoners. There is a very strange letter about her holding the newly severed head of a man. She takes up the cause of peace because the city-states of 14th century Italy were always at war among themselves. The reason for preaching for a crucade against the Muslims of the Holy Lands was to find something for soldiers to do besides attack neighboring cities. Catherine saw the evil of the corrupt church administration and argued for reformation of the church governance, especially the rule of the Papal States. Finally, she took up the cause of re-establishing Rome as the seat for the western church and not Avignon. Though illiterate, Catherine took to dictating letters to popes, queen, and all sorts of persons in authoriy telling them what to do and how to behave. Thus trying to write a biography that somehow speaks to matters that inform my faith and practice seems amost impossible to me.

    • Thank you for the clarifications, Suzanne. I’m “with you” on almost everything except where the “weird” comes from — Catherine, or the medieval “gothic” (in the derogatory sense). I BEAMED with Cynthia’s wording when she concluded a comment with, “Can this be revised to something accurate but less creepy?” She’s right on with that question . She was focusing on the temptations and images, but I think her wording applies more generally here, but I believe you apply it more to Catherine while I’m looking more at the style of the write-up — but also thinking the zeitgeist has a lot to do with it. What seems far removed from the spirit of Jesus to me was just par for the course in some modes of spirituality — not that Catherine did them all, but flea infested hair garments, self-flagellation, immersion in icy waters, etc., just doesn’t strike me a good answer to WWJD! Other things, which ARE mentioned, might conceivably not be far from the everyday norm in medieval life — sleeping on boards seems like no big deal when buggy hay was so common. The supply of food had to be iffy at best, especially if a calamity like plague were complicating “normal” domestic workings. The amount of sleep is probably not even an issue where everything had to be done the hard way (what “easy” ways even existed?). Long hours of solitude, prayer, and meditation could easily be an attractive alternative to a lot of the other choices of life in a dangerous, brutal, and servile milieu. Just having all those family members is a trauma, in my opinion — I think I’d go looking for a relationship that meant as much as being espoused to the Lord, too.

      This is not meant as an argument — I’m thanking you for filling in some of the gaps and unspecified generalizations, and then just trying to clarify how I’m valuing and interpreting them in a slightly different configuration than seeing HER as weird. It’s hard to decide what’s “normal” in a weird context. Thanks, again!

      • She was a Dominican Third order, as I have been told: She wore the habit of a woman of that Order – which was identical in almost all regards to the Nuns at the time.

  10. This was indeed a desperate time in the church. This story reminds me of the other mystic who said to God “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.” She was clearly picked at a tender age to allow her to prove herself by resisting both family and demonic pressure and temptation in youth, so that she could nurse the ill and write before suffering an early and tragic death.

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