Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Mystical and the Practical in Sigrid Undset's St. Catherine of Siena

Sometimes saints are so strange and wonderful that we can’t wrap our minds around them. This is a marvelous expression of God’s unique creating power as well as His ability to love each of us in individual, and personal ways that may never be understandable to anyone else. If not for these strange saints we would expect that God could only love us in a few ways, and consequently that our lives could only be lived in a few ways. With a saint such as Catherine of Siena there is an intriguing mix of strange and yet very ordinary and it all comes to life in Sigrid Undset's remarkable biography.

Sigrid Undset is the author of the Nobel prize-winning trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, another work that focuses on a strong woman living in medieval times with skillful insight. I recently delved into Undset’s biography without many expectations of how Undset would approach this saint who at once was a remarkable mystic who experienced many visions of Christ, as well as a saint who was firmly entrenched in the daily political affairs of the Church at the time. What Undset brings in her biography is a seamless view of how the mystical and ordinary are more intertwined than we would presume.

St. Catherine’s staggering holiness was evidenced at a very young age. In her early teens she committed herself wholly to virginity and became a Third Order Dominican. Her mystical experiences also began at a young age and so Catherine desired to give all her time and energy to prayer and solitude so that she could experience these amazing visions and encounters with Christ as often as possible.

But these mystical experiences happened to her while she was dealing with very normal aspects of life; especially family life. Because she was a beautiful girl of a moderately wealthy cloth dyer the family expected her to make a prosperous marriage that would increase the family’s political and social clout in the city of Siena. Catherine however, stood strong against this wish of her family even to the point of her brothers and mother becoming furious with her determination to remain a virgin for God. Her mother would demand her to clean and cook for the entire household just to keep her from what she thought was too much time spent alone praying. Throughout Catherine’s life, even as she became somewhat famous for her holiness and developed a following of priests and other men and women, her mother continued to badger her with her own worries and desire to continually be with Catherine.

This reminded me of how often we encounter struggle within our own families to live our faith or vocations, and how we feel that our family life is burdensome and somehow keeping us from God and our earthly mission. St. Catherine never whined about her family, and as Undset is careful to document she did have to sometimes write pointed letters to her mother emphasizing her own duties and what God was calling her to do. Catherine seems so very practical and full of common sense when dealing with her overbearing mother, but she always did so with great love and respectful obedience to her.

The other aspect that surprised me between the mystical and the earthly in St. Catherine’s life was the popes Catherine advised and how they themselves were far from what we would consider saintly. Undset has a great gift for describing medieval life clearly for the modern reader which is so helpful since there are many layers of secular and Church politics that kept the papacy out of Rome at that time. Pope Gregory XI was securely installed in Avignon, his life was extravagant and luxurious, and he himself was used to bending to the political whims of both the Church and the French to remain in Avignon. Along came St. Catherine, an uneducated young woman who claimed to be a mystic, and after her many pleading letters and finally meeting with her in person he summoned what little courage he had and returned to Rome. But his successor who would become the true pope in a time of the Western Schism, Urban VI, was not at all likable, had no diplomatic skills, and was keen to use armies against his enemies within the Church. But even though this man may have been unliked, Catherine remained his staunch defender because of Christ’s instructions to him and for his possession of the chair of Peter.

While reading this episode in Catherine’s life I was struck with how straightforward Undset describes this time. Catherine was at once experiencing deeply intense and intimate encounters and visions of Christ, yet she was dealing with what amounted to very difficult and undeserving people on earth. Just because she was a mystic did not mean she avoided the difficult people of which life seems to be full. Just because she was literally hearing Christ call her his bride did not mean she didn’t have critics and detractors. Even though she was giving direct messages from Christ to the Pope, the Pope did not hold her in high esteem or even take her messages very seriously.

I don’t think this fact surprised Undset as she describes beautifully how Catherine never took her focus off of Christ and His mission for her. But it surprised me. In the back of my mind there is always this false suspicion that somehow saints don’t face the everyday, ordinary, and seemingly banal disagreeable aspects of life. I always assume that their holiness makes them impervious to annoyances, difficult people, and simple hardships. But as Sigrid Undset skillfully depicts her life, the brilliance of St. Catherine’s mysticism is seen alongside the dull and frustrating earthly difficulties. St. Catherine lived an extraordinary life and experienced mystical experiences we moderns see as very strange and incomprehensible, but she also dealt with practical, ordinary life with love and courage and sometimes it’s seeing the ordinary alongside the strange and wonderful that boosts our faith.  

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  1. I had vaguely wanted to read this book but now must! I love Kristin, like everyone does, and I really need to expand my Undset knowledge. Right after I read everything Marilynne Robinson so I can listen to that episode of FoC!

  2. Great review and I will definitely be reading this!

  3. That is now in my wishlist! Thank you for sharing!

  4. I never knew Catherine of Siena had troubles with her mom. Where did her mom find the time to be overbearing? She had 25 kids!!


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