Today, April 29, we observe the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena, great mystic and visionary, stigmatist, incorruptible saint, Dominican tertiary, and Doctor of the Church.
St. Catherine was born in 1347 into a very large family; she was the 24th of 25 children, in Tuscany in the city of Siena. She experienced her first vision at the age of 6 while on an errand. While walking along a lane, commonly called Valle Piatta, she paused for a moment and saw a great vision of Heaven; Jesus, with Peter, Paul and John the evangelist, smiled on her and the Lord made the sign of the cross over her head. In the midst of the road, crowded with men and animals, she gazed up unblinking and motionless, until her brother disturbed her and urged her along. Of the effect this vision had on young Catherine, her spiritual advisor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, wrote:
"From that moment on it became clear from Catherine's virtues, the gravity of her behavior, and her extraordinary wisdom, that under her girlish appearance there was hidden a fully formed woman. Her actions, indeed, had nothing childish, nothing girlish, about them, but showed all the signs of a most venerable maturity. From now onwards, the fire of Divine Love burned within her, enlightening her mind, kindling her will, strengthening her power of thought and enabling her external acts to conform to the will of God."
- From The Life of Catherine of Siena by Blessed Raymond of Capua
St. Catherine of Siena - DVD
This vision, and others that followed, led Catherine to choose to devote herself to God as a virgin. She made her promise when she was very young - though it was no whim or fickle declaration - that she would never wed a mortal and corruptible man, but be devoted only to her eternal bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Her parents weren't initially pleased with this and at one point planned to have her married off, as this would be beneficial to the family financially. Catherine responded by cutting off her hair, a suggestion from a friend of the family, one of the Order of Preaching Friars, who could see her true intention to serve the Lord. Catherine was punished for this by being put in charge of all the housework so she would be too busy to sit alone to pray.
This did not daunt Catherine, however, who made her heart an internal cell (since she could no longer shut herself in her room) and constantly thought about Our Lord as she worked, contentedly serving her family as though serving Him. Eventually her parents recognized the depths of her devotion to the Lord and stopped opposing her Holy intentions and at 16 she became a tertiary in the Dominican order. During this time she experienced a series of mystical visions, known as the 'Spiritual Espousals,' in which she experienced a mystical marriage with Christ.
At the age of 21, Catherine was moved by Our Lord to go out into the world to carry out God's will. By this time, she was unable to eat much food and was sustained primarily by the Blessed Sacrament, but was always happy. Initially, much of her time was spent ministering to the sick, especially plague victims, and to criminals. She also became an ambassador, writing letters to princes and republics of Italy and was consulted by papal legates. In 1378, at the time of the Papal Schism, she went to Rome to help Pope Urban and prayed unceasingly for church unity and spent her days speaking to the Pope and to the cardinals. She also is well known for writing the locutions of the Lord to her - the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, a collection of her petitions to God and His responses. She died in 1380 of a mysterious, painful illness that was never properly diagnosed. She was canonized in 1461 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
St. Catherine of Siena's Prayer to the Holy Spirit -
"Holy Spirit, come into my heart; draw it to Thee by Thy power, O my God, and grant me charity with filial fear. Preserve me, O ineffable Love, from every evil thought; warm me, inflame me with Thy dear love, and every pain will seem light to me. My Father, my sweet Lord, help me in all my actions. Jesus, love, Jesus, love."
This article has been adapted from The Patron Saint Index Entry on St. Catherine of Siena, the Treasury of Women Saints by Ronda De Sola Chervin and The Life of Catherine of Siena by Blessed Raymond of Capua (sku 1316)