Catherine of Siena and The Eschatology of Suffering

by M. Starr Costello 1

The term “penitence,” notes Richard Kieckhefer in his study of fourteenth-century saints, was commonly used as a synonym for “asceticism,” that way of life in which one abstained from worldly pleasures and imposed rigours upon oneself in an effort to subdue the wages of the world and the flesh. The path of sanctification was a path of glorified agony glorified by the paradigmatic sufferings of Christ and by the subjugation of the body for an end more dignified than the natural striving for human comfort. It is Kieckhefer's conclusion that the penitential attitude of the period betrays an implicit or explicit dualism: “the world and the flesh were seriously liable to corruption, and if not kept under constant guard could be sources of the gravest temptations.”2

Presenting a markedly different interpretation of mediæval penitential attitudes-specifically in the context of women's spirituality-is Caroline Bynum's recent study of the religious significance of food to women. Examining women's penitential work within the general context of women's religious culture, Bynum concludes that women's own view of physicality was not, most basically, dualistic. Women's bodies, says Bynum, were redeemed by devotion to Christ's humanity, a devotion which imitated Christ through abstinence, eucharistic ecstasy, and the curing of others through food. Women's spirituality sought, according to Bynum, not the eradication of the body but the union of their own flesh with “that flesh whose agony was salvation.”3

In an effort to test Bynum's view of female penitence and her challenge to the more traditional interpretation of mediaeval attitudes towards physicality, I would like to draw some observations from the works of the greatest female penitent of the period, Catherine of Siena.

Catherine is known to us as an ascetic of heroic proportion. Indeed, she has become a symbol of the excesses of asceticism in the fourteenth century. The portrait of Catherine which we have inherited is drawn from the observations of her contemporaries, particularly her confessor Raymond of Capua, author of her Legenda Maior.4

Since it is our task to discover the assumptions underlying such heroic asceticism, we will confine our analysis to Catherine's own book, the Dialogo. 5

Here we are given explicit clues to the theological premises underlying the late mediæval quest for sanctification through suffering. And while Bynum suggests the many ways by which devotion to Christ's humanity undercuts the dualism inherent in the Christian tradition, we will see that Catherine's devotion to the human Christ clearly reinforces the dualism she inherits rather than undercuts it.

I would like to examine Catherine's attitude towards penitence as imitation of Christ by discussing her view of 1) suffering as penitential atonement; 2) suffering as a means of overcoming self-love; and 3) suffering as it relates to mystical union. As we explore these three aspects of the penitential life, we will see that suffering derives its ultimate meaning from the eschatological dimension of Catherine's thought.

Catherine opens her discussion of suffering by reminding us that divine justice demands suffering in atonement for sin. In true Anselmian fashion she notes how “all sufferings the soul bears in life are not enough to punish one smallest sin.” Inasmuch as general atonement was made by Christ's sufferings on behalf of humankind, personalised atonement is derived through a burning recollection of Christ's pain undertaken in the spirit of charity and true contrition. Indeed, contrition, the desire to uphold God's honour, “makes every suffering of infinite worth” (Ibid., p. 28). Catherine's emphasis upon the spirit rather than the actual fact of suffering may lead us to conceive suffering as a matter of conscience, an attitude which need not be accompanied by mental and physical pain to effect its intended end. But this is not the case. As God tells her,

I am speaking of sacrifice both in act and in spirit joined together as the vessel is joined with the water offered to one's lord. For the water cannot be presented without the vessel and the lord would not be pleased to be offered the vessel without the water (Ibid., p. 46).

Conveyed through the metaphor of the vessel are two principles of salvation. Explicitly, the metaphor demonstrates that the water of contrition can only reach God, its intended end, when offered up through the vessel of literal mental and physical pain. Implicitly, Catherine denounces the kind of religiosity which seeks direct union with the Godhead and disregards devotion to Christ as a vehicle of that union. By necessity, true charity leads one to God by way of the Bridge, that is, through the body of Christ crucified. True charity is born in response to Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. The natural consequence of such a love is empathy for the beloved. In manifesting that love in act and spirit, the powers of the soul are united to the fact and to the moment of the Atonement. Suffering then is more than a fact of life; it is sought as a vehicle for the expression of love.

If imitation of Christ's agony is a prerequisite to personal atonement, we might infer a distinction in Catherine's thought between the effects of passive and active suffering. In passive suffering those discomforts imposed by God or by the world the penitent most fully identifies with the crucified Christ. Patient acceptance of trial by illness and persecution are, of course, central themes in the religious literature of the period. This kind of suffering opens up the possibility of imitation of Christ in his passive acceptance of persecution and death. Passive acceptance of suffering, therefore, purges the penitent of both sin and its effects because it re-enacts Christ's sacrifice of himself. Catherine conveys this through an appropriate metaphor, that of the vessel which is offered up sacrificially to God. God says to her:

So I tell you, you must offer me the vessel of all your actual sufferings, however I may send them to you for the place and the time and the sort of suffering are not your to choose, but mine (Ibid., p. 46).

We may detect in this assertion a subtle warning against the excesses of self-imposed suffering. Clearly, if it is not the penitent's place to choose the circumstances under which suffering is experienced, the merits wrought by asceticism (which is the active pursuit of suffering) are limited.

The limited worth of active suffering is, indeed, a recurring theme in the Dialogo. Heroic acts of penance are juxtaposed against this portrait of patient (passive) suffering. At times, the heroic pursuit of penance can even impede one's progress in the spiritual journey:

It would not be right [says Catherine] to make penance or bodily works either your motivation or your goal. It would offend [God] if you continued in these works when circumstances or obedience to authority made it impossible to do what you had undertaken. Let no one, therefore, make the judgement of considering those great penitents who put much effort into killing their bodies more perfect than those who do less (Ibid., p. 43).

Thus far, we emerge from the Dialogo with a very different picture of Catherine than that which is portrayed in her vita. It is difficult to reconcile the teaching of the Dialogo on moderation with Raymond's depiction of Catherine, the radical penitent who basically took her own life by denying herself food and water. As a case in point, we may recall that when Raymond advised Catherine to stop forcibly vomiting the food she was eating, she refused and insisted that the painful vomiting was penance for her sins and that she much preferred to receive her just punishment in this world rather than in the next.6

Catherine's penitential works may have been interpreted by her contemporaries as self-imposed punishment for sins committed; her writing, however, advances a fundamentally different motive underlying a self-imposed suffering. Were atonement the primary motive underlying asceticism, it would logically follow that the penitential life would have been replaced by the institutionalisation of confession during the High Middle Ages. Indeed, Catherine demonstrates much confidence in clerical absolution, noting that heartfelt contrition in the context of confession alleviates both sin and its effects. Excessive penitence, in fact, may be an indication of doubt in God's mercy and forgiveness. This leads to the sin of despair, the most despicable of transgressions against the honour of God. To this end, God warns of the soul

I do not want her to, nor should she, think about her sins either generally or specifically without calling to mind the blood and greatness of my mercy. I do not want her to think about her sins individually, lest her mind be contaminated by the remembrance of specific ugly sins (Ibid., p. 124).

The message here is clear. Turn your consciousness towards your sinfulness in general, not towards specific sins committed. The potential for sin, and not sin itself, becomes the preoccupation of the saint. As Catherine admits, “the soul in the purity of her own conscience sees guilt even where there is no guilt.” (Ibid., p. 136).7. Rather than resting in the comfort of her own spiritual accomplishments, she guards herself against the temptation to sin through continual penitence. Thus, when Satan tried to convince Catherine that the merits of her penance had absolved her of her sins, she reproved him and proclaimed, “John the Baptist never sinned. He was made holy in his mother's womb, yet he did such great penance” (Ibid., p. 125). So long as we are joined to our bodies, the struggle against the inclination to sin remains. The conscience, therefore, must “use holy hatred to pronounce judgement and not let any impulse pass uncorrected.” Mortification, therefore, is a disciplinary matter; it makes a powerful statement on human nature.

Clearly, the impulse towards sin is a fact of human nature. But is the locus of that impulse specifically the human body? Often, Catherine uses the language of physicality to describe sinfulness. Words such as “sensual,” “earth,” “flesh,” “natural love” are uttered with disdain. They become synonyms of humanity's separation from God. For example, those who act out of self-love are equated with the earth: “they have in fact become earth, indeed, they are as passing as the wind.” Also, any act or impulse of the flesh will account for one's inability to pray, perpetuating the painful distance between oneself and God (Ibid., p. 98). Soul and body are spoken of as two distinct entities. The body, says Catherine, “covers the soul”; it is the “garment of selfish sensuality” (Ibid., p.141). On occasion, soul is juxtaposed against body, implying a tension between the physical and spiritual components of being. To this end, Catherine chastised her mother for complaining of her long absence in Rome saying,

you find the quest for eternal life so tiring that you say you will be reduced to nothingness if I do not answer your quickly. All of this happens to you because you love that part of me which comes from you, that is, your body from which you formed me, [rather] than the part I have taken from God.8

Though Catherine freely draws this distinction between what is of the flesh and what comes of the spirit, to proclaim her a metaphysical dualist would be to overlook the subtlety of her thought. In fact, she does not demonstrate that fear of wealth and riches which was characteristic of so many other mystics. She does not see property or worldly possession and position in the secular order as a bar or even a hindrance to salvation. Drawing upon Augustinian ontolgy, Catherine holds all things to be good and perfect because all being is taken from God. Nonetheless, whoever refuses to participate in God's goodness is deprived of being. As sin is nothing, so is the inclination to sin; it is death and we are dead so long as we succumb to the temptations of self love. Of utmost importance is that no matter what station one chooses, one be made acceptable to God by cultivating a “good and holy will.”

“Your chief desire,” reads the Dialogo, “ought to be to slay your selfish will, so that it neither seeks nor wants anything but to follow Christ.” The perfect soul

sets [her] mind more on slaying her selfish will than on mortifying her body [she] has used mortification as the instrument it is to help [her] slay her self-will (Ibid., p. 189).

Since mortification wages war specifically against self-will, we cannot speak of a causal relationship between Catherine's asceticism and her view of physicality. At most, the body is a battleground of the holy war of hatred because the will is the body's master. Self-imposed suffering is, therefore, a symbolic gesture. It literally demonstrates a spiritual transformation. In perfect suffering, the will of God predominates over self-will and self-love. Mortification acts out an ontological truth: I am nothing; God is everything.

Converging in Catherine's teaching is her unrelenting passion for the human, suffering Christ with the neo-platonic mystical tradition. Drawing upon intellectual mysticism, she depicts the soul's powers-memory, understanding, and will-ascending to God, rising up from the lower to the higher extremities of the body of Christ. The necessary corollary of ascent is the rank-ordering of realities. Soul is juxtaposed against body, divine love against self love. Representing the higher powers of the soul is Christ's sacrificial love, the imitation of which directs the soul upward. Suffering for the sake of others is revealed to be the most profound gesture of charity offered by our humanity. Pleasure taken in mental or physical comfort negates the ultimate expression of love taught by Christ's example. In true charity, even the pleasures of spiritual consolation are scorned. God tells her,

Of those who have united themselves to me suffering is a delight and pleasure is wearisome, as is every consolation or delight the world may offer them. And not only what the world gives them through my dispensation, but even the spiritual consolations they receive from me, the Eternal Father even this they scorn because of their humility and contempt for themselves (Ibid., p. 144).

In Catherine's concept of reality, therefore, self-hate is the necessary prerequisite to a genuine love of God. Suffering strengthens the spirit by the affirmation of right order.

In the context of the whole work, the desire for union with God compels Catherine to actively and passively pursue suffering as the instrument and symbol of that union. But while holy love unites her to Christ's crucified flesh, ultimately it is the resurrected Christ, the Christ who returned to the Father in both his divinity and his humanity, whom she desires. “On the day of [Christ's] ascension,” God tells her, “the disciples were as good as dead, because their hearts had been lifted up to heaven along with my Son who is Wisdom.” The analogy of a holy desire for death appropriately conveys the depth of Catherine's own sense of spiritual union. Figurative self-annihilation, a paradoxical consequence of the life she has found through imitating the human Christ, gives way to a desire for actual, bodily death. She empathises with the apostles to whom the angel of the Lord proclaimed: “Do not stay here, for he is seated at the Father's right hand.”9The injunction “do not stay here” is Catherine's own supplement to Acts 1: 11. The proclamation of Christ's resurrection inspires her to that “crucifying desire” by which she longs for death. The movement of love is not complete until she luxuriates in eternal life. Of those who have attained perfect charity, we learn:

Death gives these souls no difficulty. They long for it. With perfect contempt they have done battle with their bodies. Therefore they have lost that natural tenderness which binds soul and body, having dealt the decisive blow to natural love. They long for death, and so they say “Who will free me from my body? I long to be set free from my body and to be with Christ” (Ibid., p.154).

In an important sense, Catherine defies her own humanity by desiring release from the limitations of bodily existence. Paraphrasing St. Paul, she laments that “the body's heaviness is a barrier to knowing the truth perfectly,” for the full vision of God is denied us so long as the body garments the soul.10

In the final analysis, Catherine's devotion to Christ's humanity has very little impact upon the moral dualism which she inherited from the western mystical tradition. Potentially, the focus upon Christ's human flesh could inspire a more positive view of physicality, one which celebrates the body's capability for good. We see the seeds of such an attitude in Catherine's positive outlook on the secular life. But while her spirituality celebrates Christ's bodily works, this celebration is focused primarily upon the transcendence of body achieved in His passive acceptance of suffering. In the paradigm of Christ's suffering humanity, physicality is both denied and affirmed. Her own physicality is affirmed, in the words of Caroline Bynum, by the “torrents of bodily energy” which she releases towards God through the agonies which she experiences in her flesh. But ultimately, the physical and psychic components of her own humanity are negated by the eschatological dimension of suffering. As God reminds her,

I send people troubles in this world so that they may know that their goal is not this life and that these things are imperfect and passing. I am their goal, and I want them to want me, and in this spirit they should accept such things (Ibid., p. 100).

The exploration of suffering in the context of personal atonement, the negation of self-will, and the consequent union of the penitent with Christ brings us to the fundamental premise behind the cause of suffering and its true meaning. Suffering is a fact of human existence and, whether it is brought upon us by our own imperfections (i.e. our senseless striving for earthly contentment) or by the “crucifying desire” to find a permanent vision of God, it is nonetheless the fundamental symbol of humanity's separation from God. With the angel of Acts 1: 11, suffering communicates the divine injunction: “Do not stay here, for Christ is seated at the Father's right hand.”


1 Paper presented at the 22nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo MI, May 1987.]

2Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984): p. 139.

3Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987): p. 246; see also pp. 6, 208-218.]

4The Latin text of the Legenda Maior is published in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum in three editions: Antwerp:  Aprilis Tomus 3 (1675): 835-959; Venice: Aprilis, Tomus 3 (173-177): 835-959; Paris: (1866): 862-967.

5The English translation of passages used in this paper are as rendered by Suzanne Nofke, Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue , Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).

6Legenda Maior, para. 176177.

7This represents Catherine's interpretation of St. Gregory's observation that a holy and pure conscience perceives sin even where there is no sin.

8Epistolario di Santa Caterina 1, a cura di Eugenio Dupre Theseider (Rome, 1940): no. 240. English translation as rendered by Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985): p. 49.

9Ibid, p. 91; cf. Romans 7: 23.

10Ibid., p. 91; cf. Romans 7: 23.