Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back against the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as we do, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht


>On Hoarding

>My reaction last evening to the first episode of TLC’s new documentary series “Hoarders: Buried Alive” was one of pity, followed by an immediate urge to clean. I am generally tidy in my habits, though admittedly a lady might find that there is room for improvement (as is usually the case with bachelors.) Having until comparatively recently moved about a great deal, I am usually unsentimental and fairly good at going through a quarterly clear-out, in which vast quantities of unnecessary items find their way either to donation sites or the garbage bin.

Watching the two individuals featured on the program, I was stunned how both had allowed their personal relationships to suffer so gravely as a result of the disorder, and both seemed powerless to prevent the people who cared about them from turning away. Fortunately, over the course of the film both were able to obtain professional help, as I observed while bagging up unwanted articles of clothing for the Georgetown Ministry Center for the homeless that had been sitting in my closets for awhile. There is nothing like the example of someone else’s problems to set yourself to rights in your own life, if you decide to take the hint.

The problem of hoarding seems to be the new “it” issue taken up by television, as TLC is not the only media outlet featuring this topic. It is now to stand alongside other unusual situations featured by media such as parents with large numbers of children resulting from in-vitro fertilization (or by ignoring rational, natural family planning); tales of so-called “gender reassignment” and excessive plastic surgery; body dismorphic disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or bigorexia; and unbelievably sad examples of morbid obesity. Although last evening’s program was not in any way sensationalized in its presentation, by the end I did feel as though I had been duped once again by human curiosity into watching another’s struggles as a sort of sideshow event.

Each of us in our way, by our very nature as fallen creatures, is broken. This person suffers from feelings of envy or jealousy from never having had a sense of belonging to a group. That person struggles with rage and anger at how their life has developed. Still another person is sad and depressed because they lack warmth and affection in their life. The lengths to which a human being will go, if given the tools and resources, to worsen their suffering can be incredibly frightening.

While I will not be watching another of these programs on hoarding, there is a good lesson to be drawn from this particular disorder: possessions do not make us safe. In St. Luke’s Gospel, Christ provides us with a powerful lesson about this, and one which has always struck me as an almost universal experience. How often have we found ourselves in bed at night, awaiting the arrival of sleep, while in our brains we make plans for our upcoming vacation, or some purchase/project we are going to get to in the next few days?

Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”
But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”
– St. Luke 12: 15-21

It is a small thing, to be sure, but perhaps tonight, gentle reader, when you head home, you could take a few moments in this season of Lenten sacrifice to gather up some things you no longer use or need, which would be of great comfort to someone else. Chances are that neither you nor I suffer from the neurosis which leads to hoarding, but the sufferings of these people show us how our possessions can paralyze our actions. Giving away things to others allows us to take greater possession of ourselves.

Death and the Miser, Hieronymous Bosch
National Gallery of Art – Washington D.C.

>A Man for the Times

>Last week was the Feast of St. Augustine, and of course the day before it was the Feast of his long-suffering mother, St. Monica. As I saw it approaching on the liturgical calendar, I decided to attempt re-tackling his spiritual autobiography “The Confessions”, a book I had read in my 20’s but which, at the time, I did not get much out of. Now that I am in my 30’s, I thought it was worth approaching again.

For those not familiar with it, “The Confessions” is a spiritual classic, written around 397-398 AD. In this book, St. Augustine combines his autobiography up to the time of his conversion to Christianity with his views on theology and philosophy. It is not a straight-forward autobiography and therefore, not always the easiest of volumes to read. St. Augustine will tell part of his story for example, and then digress into a psalm of meditation.

As of this writing, I am half-way through the book, and find that I am understanding it far better than when I attempted it ten or fifteen years ago. I believe this is due, in part, to the fact that society today is, if possible, even more debased and unbalanced now than it was then. We may not have actual Manicheans wandering around these days, but we are certainly living in far more of a pagan culture which is at direct loggerheads with the Church. In the course of a decade what has become acceptable or permissible in culture, be it in music, television, art, or the like, has hit a new low, and it is unfortunately reflective of the creation of a false culture, one in which human beings are packaged and objectified for our consumption.

It was therefore especially fortuitous that at mass on Sunday, our celebrant Father Greg Shaffer, the newly-arrived Newman Center Chaplain for GW (who has an excellent blog which you should bookmark and visit) gave an excellent homily on St. Augustine. Fr. Shaffer has a very direct and immediate style of preaching, well-suited to the numerous young people to whom he ministers. In the text of this Sunday’s homily, which you may read here, I was particularly struck by the following:

How freeing it is to see others as persons and not just objects of our desire. How freeing it is to look at others and see their souls in addition to their bodies. How freeing it is to appreciate the internal gifts of someone as much as their external gifts.

Arguably, the society in which we dwell today has not been so objectified since the days of the Roman Empire, and regrettably it is the elites of this society who have let this come to pass. A lowering of acceptable standards by the educated, from public behavior, to language, to content of that behavior and language, combined with an overwhelming obsession among all, it seems, with becoming famous or at least infamous, has its consequences. Those who are in positions of influence have a great deal to answer for in this regard, for as St. Augustine notes in “The Confessions”, they have forgotten that they should elevate, inspire, and fortify the human condition, not debase mankind in the pursuit of personal, material enjoyment: “My education enabled me to seek to please men, not to impart to them any instruction, but merely to purvey pleasure.” One suspects that St. Augustine would, regrettably, very much recognize our present day as a fall backwards by human society into the errors of his own day.