LETTER OF ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA
HER DIALOGUE IS BASED
The following is a translation by Fr. Bertrand Mahoney, O.P. of Letter CCLXXII from the ed. of P.M. Lodovico Ferretti, O.P., Lettere di S. Caterina Siena, 1927, vol. iv. (Letter T 272)
Probable date: c. October 10, 1377
To Friar Raymond of Capua, of the Order of Preachers (1)
In the name of Jesus crucified and the benign Virgin Mary:
Most beloved and kindest father in our sweet Jesus Christ, I Catherine, handmaid and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, am writing to you in His precious blood, yearning to see you a follower and lover of the truth, so that you might be a true child of Christ crucified, who is that Truth, and a fragrant flower in the Order and in the mystical Body of the holy Church. And such you ought to be. You should not wish to turn your head because of the thorns of so many persecutions, for his is indeed mad who would abandon the rose for fear of its thorns. I would see you heroic, fearing no creature. I am sure that God, in his infinite mercy, will grant my wish.
Be comforted, my dear Father, in the sweet bride of Christ, for the more you suffer tribulation and bitterness, so much the more divine truth promises that you will enjoy sweet consolations.(2) This will be your sweetness: the reformation of good and holy shepherds who are the flower of glory, that is, who give forth a sweet odor and the glory of virtue to God. Such a flower is the reformation of the ministers. But the fruit of the bride of Christ does not need to be reformed, for it is neither diminished nor destroyed by the defects of her ministers.(3) Rejoice, then, in the present bitterness, for the Truth has promised us refreshment after it.... Such has been the consolation I had (4) on receiving dear Daddy's (5)letter and yours. I had tasted bitterness both for the injury done to the Church and for your bitterness, which I had felt in the depths of my being on the feast of S. Francis. (6) And I rejoiced as well, for your thoughts brought us close. So, when I had read and understood the letters, I besought a servant of God (7) to offer tears and sweat before God for the Church and for Daddy's weakness.(8)
By divine grace, there suddenly swelled in me a desire and an extraordinary joy. I awaited the morning and the Mass (which was that of Our Lady on Saturday.(9) At Mass I went to my place with full self-awareness, abasing myself before God by reason of my imperfections. Ecstatic with anxious desires, gazing with the eye of the mind on eternal
Truth, I made four petitions then and there, placing myself and the Holy Father (10) before the Bride of Truth.(11)
First, the reformation of the holy Church.
Thereupon God, letting himself be constrained by my tears and bound by the cord of my desire(12) , said: "Dearest daughter, I have seen how stained is her face with uncleanness and self-love and how swollen with pride and avarice are those who are suckled at her breast. Dry your tears and your sweat. Draw from (13) the spring of my divine charity and wash her face.(14) For I promise you that her beauty is not to be restored by the knife, nor with cruelty, nor by war, but by peace, by humble and constant prayers, by sweat and tears, poured out with the anxious desires of my servants. Thus will I fulfill that desire which you have cherished so long,(15) and you will lack my providence in nothing."
Even if we suppose that the salvation of all the world is contained in this answer, nevertheless my prayer extended itself even more particularly, precisely for the salvation of all the world.(16) Then God showed with how much love he had created man and said: "Now you see that everyone assaults me. You see, daughter, with how many different sorts of sins they assail me, and especially with that miserable, abominable self-love, whence all evil comes, with which they have poisoned the whole world. Therefore you, my servants, must first prepare yourselves by many prayers. Thus you will mitigate the wrath of the divine judgment. You know that no one can escape my hands.(17) Open the eye of your mind and look at my hand." Raising my eyes, I saw the whole universe grasped in his hand."
Then he said: "I want you to know that no one can be taken from me; for all remain, either by justice or mercy, and thus all are mine. Because they have all gone forth from me, I will show them mercy by means of my servants.
As the flame of my desire increased, I was joyous and sad at once and gave thanks to the divine goodness, recognizing that God had shown me the defects of his creatures that I might be constrained to more solicitude and a greater desire.
My holy, loving flame grew so warm that I despised the watery sweat which broke out, for I greatly desired to sweat blood. I said to myself: "My soul, you have wasted your whole life. Therefore many evils have come into the world and into the holy Church, in general and in particular. I want you to heal (18) them by a bloody sweat.."
Whereupon my soul, spurred (19) on by holy desire, stirred herself and opened the eyes of her understanding and looked at herself in the divine intellect. She saw and tasted how we are cherished and how we ought to seek the glory and praise of the name of God in the salvation of souls.
To this task Eternal Truth called, indeed, compelled you in answering my third petition, (20) that is, my hunger for-your salvation, when he said: "Daughter, I will that you seek this for him with all solicitude. But not you, nor he, nor anyone else could achieve this without many persecutions, as I will send them to you.
"Tell him: If anyone desires to honor me in the holy Church, let him beget (21) a love for patient long-suffering. This will show me that he and my other servants are truly seeking to honor me. Thus he will be my dearly-beloved child and will rest on the bosom of my only-begotten Son, whom I have made a bridge (22) so that all may come together to
taste the fruit of your labors. Know, my children that the way was destroyed by the sin of Adam so that no one man could reach his goal. My truth was not fulfilled: that truth which had created him in my image and likeness (23) so that he might have eternal life to share and taste and enjoy me, who am the eternal Goodness.
"That sin sowed the thorns and nettle of many tribulations and produced a river that batters the desolate land with its waves. (24) Therefore I have given my Son as a bridge so that you will not be drowned in crossing the stream. Open the eye of your understanding and see that it reaches (25) from heaven to earth, because, indeed, (26) from earth no bridge could be constructed great enough to span the river and give you life. This bridge unites the height of heaven, that is, the divine nature, with the earth of your humanity. (27)
It behooves you, therefore to keep (28) to the way of the bridge, seeking the glory of my name in the salvation of souls, bearing with patience the many wearying steps, following in the footsteps of that kind and loving Lord. You are my workers whom I have sent to toil in the vineyard of my Church, for I wish to show mercy to the world.
"But heed that you take not the path beneath (29) the bridge, for it is not the way of truth. Those who pass beneath the bridge are the wicked sinners for whom I ask you to pray to me and for whom I demand your sweat and tears, for they languish in the darkness of mortal sin.
"These go by the way of the torrent and are swept to eternal damnation if they do not take up my yoke and place it on their necks. Some there are who draw back from the bank from fear of punishment and withdraw from mortal sin; they feel the thorns of many tribulations and therefore escape from the river.
If they do not into negligence nor fall asleep in self-love they attain the bridge and begin to mount on high through love of virtue. But if they persist in self-love and negligence, every occasion turns against them and at the breath of a contrary wind they return to their vomit." (30)
When I had seen in how many ways a soul might drown, a voice said to me: "Behold those who cross by the bridge of Christ crucified." I saw many of them who ran free-footed because they did not bear the weight of self-will. These were the true children who, abandoning themselves, went forward with anxious desire seeking only the honor of God and the salvation of souls.
Beneath the feet of the desire which they cherished for Christ crucified (who was the bridge), the water ran The thorns were trampled under foot and harmed them not,(31) that is, in their well-ordered love they did not consider the thorns of many persecutions but bore with patience the prosperity of the world which is made up of those thorns which bring death to the soul that embraces the world (32) with disordinate love.(33) These despised the thorns as though they were so much poison and desired(34) nothing else than to delight in the cross with Christ, for he was their object.
Others were who went slowly. Why did they go slowly? Because they placed before the mind's eye not Christ crucified but the consolations they derive from Christ crucified which gives (35) them an imperfect love. They frequently dawdle on their journey as Peter did before the Passion, when he had considered only the delights of conversation with Christ and therefore advanced less since the object of his consolation had been taken away. (36) But when he was stronger, after that consolation had been lost, he neither wished to know nor sought anything other than Christ crucified.
So, too, these travelers are weak and they slow down in their journey when they center their attention on the object of delight and their own consolations. Hence when the prickings of temptations arise from the devil, or creatures, or within themselves from a spiritual tenderness they have, they see themselves deprived of that which they love, walk more slowly and grow weak and faint on the way of Christ crucified.
The reason is that they willed to seek the Father and to taste the delights of his many consolations, for no suffering falls to the Father, but does indeed to the Son. Therefore they said that they were following the Father.(37) It was obvious that they could not remedy their weakness if they did not follow the Son.
The Eternal Truth said: "I say that no one can come to me if not through the means of my only-begotten Son,(38) for he it is who has made the path which you must follow. He is Way, the Truth and the Life.(39) Those who hold to this way taste and know the truth and taste the ineffable love that I have shown for them in the sufferings that he has borne for them.(40) Know well that if I had not loved you, I would not have given such a redeemer. But because I love you eternally, I gave over to the opprobrious death of the Cross my only begotten Son who by his obedience and death overcame the disobedience of Adam and the death of mankind.
"Thus they know my truth and, knowing it, follow it and so attain enduring life, for they have held (41) to the way of Christ crucified. They have passed through the portal of truth and find themselves in the placid sea with those who share true delight. You see, my daughter, that they cannot be made strong in any other way. They (42) could not unite themselves with the spouse of my Truth nor attain to the perfection which I have chosen for them if not by this path. Any path other than this is imperfect and beset with pain, for pain, spiritual or temporal, arises only from self-will. He who has no self-will is freed of every pain afflicting him. Only the intolerable pain of the offense against me remains but it is a tempered (43) pain, for it is seasoned with the flavor of charity which makes the soul prudent and which no pain can sever (44) from my benign will."
There were others who had begun to ascend (those who had begun to know their faults only through fear of the suffering which purused them after the offence, thus they were raised from sin by fear of pain, the sort of fear that is imperfect) but I saw many of them turn from that servile fear to the perfect sort. These advanced with care to the second and to the final stage. But there are many marked by that servile fear who sat down at the entrance to the bridge. These have been overtaken by weariness (45) and react so tepidly that they do not attain to the spark of self-knowledge and of the goodness of God in them. Thus they remain in their tepidity.
Of this sort of person, the divine Truth said: "See, daughter, how impossible it would be for those who do not go forward not to turn back. And this is the cause: the soul cannot live without love. What the soul loves, it strives to know and serve. If it does not strive to know itself, where will it know better the generosity and abundance of my charity? Who knows not, loves not;(46) and who knows me not, serves not. By the very fact that a soul is deprived of me, it remains without love and returns to the worst and vilest in itself.(47)
"These are like the dog who, when it has eaten, vomits. Then, casting its eye on its vomit, seeks it and so feeds itself in a filthy way. So, too, these negligent one, mired in such tepidity, out of a fear of punishment have vomited forth the rottenness of sin by a holy confession, thus beginning to will to follow the way of truth.(48) Whence, by not going forward, it is inevitable that they turn back. The mind's eye is caught by their vomit. They are drawn away from the consideration(49) of pain and turn to gazing at sensual delights, and so lose their fear. They seek again their vomit and feed their affections and desires on their own filth. They are much more reprehensible and worthy of punishment than the others.
"I am offended, then, (50) so wickedly by my creatures. So, my children, I will that you do not slacken in you desires, but rather that you increase them by feeding at the table of holy desire. May my true servants rouse themselves and learn of me, the Word, to put the stray sheep on their shoulders, (51) carrying them with care and with many vigils and prayers. Thus you cross over through me, the bridge. You will be true spouses and children of my Truth, and I will pour my wisdom into you together with the light of faith. This will give you perfect knowledge of the faith and you will acquire every perfection."
It pleased the benign loving-kindness of God to manifest himself and his secrets. (Before such things, dearest father, the tongue is tied, the intellect is obscured its vision is so weakened.(52)) Desire suffers agonies in that all the powers of the soul cry out with one voice, (53) wishing to leave the earth with its manifold imperfections. The soul wishes to turn towards and to achieve its goal, to enjoy with the inhabitants of the Heavenly City the supreme eternal Trinity, where one sees praise and glory given to God. In that city shine forth the virtue, the ardent hunger and desire of true ministers and perfect religious, who will take their place in that life as a burning light placed on the (54) lampstand of
the Church to illumine the world.
Alas, dear Father, what a difference between these and the ones we see today' He lamented the latter, Saying: "They are like the floy, who is such an ugly creature that after he has fed on sweet and delightful viands takes no care of himself but goes on to wallow in disgusting and unclean things. So, too, these wicked men have sat down to taste the sweetness of my blood and heedlessly rise up from the table of the altar. From preaching and administering my body and the other sacraments (which are redolent with sweet and gentle delight, inasmuch as my body gives life(55) to him who tastes it in truth, and without which man cannot live); these, I say wallow in uncleanness of body and soul. This iniquity stinks in my nostrils and even the devils are disgusted at so miserable a sin."
Dearest father, after the divine Goodness had answered the three petitions, as has been said, he responded to the fourth, which asked special providence with regard to something that had happened to a certain creature.(56) I cannot write of this to you but will speak to you of it, if God has not shown me the mercy to take my soul from my body before I see you. The body has a law unto itself (57) which wars against the spirit. You know well that I speak the truth: It would be a boon for me to be separated from the body.
As I was saying, eternal Truth deigned to grant the fourth petition and to calm the anxious desire which prompted it: "Daughter, my providence will never be lacking to one who wishes it. There are those who have perfect hope in me. They call on me in truth, not merely with their lips but with true attachment and with the light of holy faith. Those who cry out to me "Lord! Lord!"(58) merely in words will enjoy neither me nor my providence. If they do not seek me by the exercise of other virtues, I shall not know them. They will be acknowledged by me not with mercy but with justice.
1"I tell you that my providence shall not be lacking if they will hope in me. I wish you to come to me with patience. It pleases me to carry them as the eagle carries her young (59) as well as the other creatures whom I made with such tender love in my own image and likeness."
As I opened my mind's eye in obedience to the command given from the depths of his charity, behold! he appeared as the highest eternal truth and as the One who had created and redeemed by the blood of his Son all rational creatures. With that same love he had given them all things. Tribulation and consolation alike -- everything was given through love and to provide for the salvation of men and for no other purpose.
He said: "The blood shed for you shows that this is the truth, but those blinded by self-love are burning with great impatience, judging badly in hate and to their own destruction that which I do through love and for their own good and to save them from eternal punishment and to give them the fruit of eternal life. (60)
"Why do they resent me and hate that which they should revere? Why do they wish to criticize my hidden judgments, which are all correct? These act like a blind man who would judge well or badly following his small, feeble sources of information from the senses of touch, taste and hearing, and will not listen to him who has the light. They will go on stupidly trusting (61)to the sense of touch, deceived as it is, since it does not have the light to discern color. Taste is deceived as well, for the blinded one does not see the filthy insects which infest his food. The ear is deceived by the pleasure of the sound, for the blind one does not guard himself and can be lured to his death. Such is the course of those who, blinded by the loss of the light of reason and knowing only the sensible delights of the world, pay dearly for it.(62)
"Because such persons are blind they are not aware (63) that they are donning a shirt of cloth bristling (64) with the thorns and nettles of suffocating misery, so much so that the heart afflicted by them is intolerable to itself. Thus into the maw (65)of a desire which loves inordinately they toss tidbits (66) for it to consume, and this is a beast filthy with
mortal sins which make the soul unclean. Whence, if they do not walk with the light of faith to purify their souls (67) in the blood, they will thereby have eternal death.
"Hearing is self-love, which makes so sweet a sound that the soul rushes straight to the love of its own sensuality. Because it cannot see, it is deceived by the sound and the person is pushed into the ditch,(68) bound by the fetters of sin and in the hands of his enemies. Since such persons are blinded by their own self-love, with the confidence they have placed in their self-centered love and knowledge, they do not attain to me who am their way and their guide, their life and light. Who walks with me and through me can neither be deceived nor walk in darkness.(69)
"They do not trust me -- who wish nothing other than their sanctification, and who give and permit everything through love. They are continually scandalized in me -- and I bear it with patience, for I love them without being loved in return. They persecute me with great impatience, hatred, murmurings and many infidelities. Blind though they be, they set themselves to pry into my hidden judgments which are rendered justly and lovingly.
"They do not know even themselves, and therefore maintain a false vigilance. For he who knows not himself cannot truly know me and my justice. Would you have me show you how much the world is in error concerning my mysteries? Then open the eye of your understanding and look at me."
While I looked at him(70) with anxious desire, he showed me the damnation of one whose case was known to me and for whom I had prayed. He said: "I would have you know that to free him from the eternal damnation in which he was languishing, I permitted this event so that he might have life with his blood in my blood, for I had not forgotten the reverent love he showed toward my most gentle mother Mary.(71) I have shown him mercy, which the ignorant hold to be cruelty.(72)
All this befalls them because of their self-love, which has taken away their light so that they do not know the truth. If they would lift the cloud, let them know and love. Thus
they will hold all things in reverence and in the time of harvest they will garner the fruit.
But in everything, in this matter and in all else, my children, I will fulfill your desire with long-suffering patience.(73) My providence will be with them in lesser or greater measure to the extent that they confide in me. The fact that I give in overflowing measure does not bind them. I shall do this to fulfill the desire of my servants who beseech me for their sakes. For this reason I do not depreciate those who humbly petition me for their sakes or for others. I invite you to seek mercy for them and for all the world. Conceive, my children, and bring forth the child of the human race with hatred and displeasure of sin and with ardent and painful love."
Dearest and kindest father, as I saw and heard (74) so much from the benign First Truth, it seemed as though my heart had left my body. I groan and cannot die.
Have pity for your miserable daughter who lives in so much pain for so great an offense against God. I have nowhere to flee, were it not that the Holy Spirit has provided me interiorly with a route of escape through writing. All things in gentle Christ Jesus comfort us and our pains are eased. We accept with great solicitude and without negligence his gentle invitation.
Kind father, cheer up, for you have been called to him so sweetly. Persevere with joy and patience, without crippling pain. Will to wed yourself to Truth and to console my soul in yourself. Otherwise you could not have grace and you would bring great bitterness to me. Hence I would say that I desire to see you a seeker and lover of truth. I say no more. Persevere in the sweet, holy love of God.
Bless you, Friar Matthew, (75) in Christ sweet Jesus. This letter and I must send you I have written in my own hand on the Isle of the Rock (76) with many sighs and floods of tears, in as much as the eye, seeing, saw not.
I was full of wonder at myself and at the goodness of God as I considered his mercy towards men and his providence. That providence was poured out in abundance for my comfort. For, since I was deprived in my ignorance (77) of the consolation of being able to write, God gave me consolation and taught me.(78) In coming down from the height of contemplation I was like one whose heart labors as though it would burst. I no longer wished to live a life of darkness. In a wonderful way this ability caused me to stop (79) and consider just as a teacher who gives an example to his pupil. As soon as you had left with John the Evangelist and Thomas Aquinas,(80) I fell asleep and began to learn.
Forgive me for writing so much, but the hands and tongue are one with the heart.
SWEET JESUS, LOVING JESUS.
Translator's Note The annotation Textual means that the editor is paraphrasing C's words, or giving the modern form of her archaic expressions. I've incorporated these into the translation. The other notes may be of some help.
1 See letters C, CII, CCXIX, CCXXVI. Of this letter, the longest that Catherine ever wrote to her spiritual father and which is certainly one of the most beautiful she wrote, Tommaseao says: "A letter which is a tract, an ode and a drama. It is as exalted as Dante's Paradiso but exhibits a more ardent love."
2 St. Paul's thought in II Cor., vii, 4.
3 The Saint carefully distinguishes the fruit and flower in the Church. The fruit has no need to be reformed: it is the faith with its essential attributes which she has from Jesus Christ; the flower can and ought to be reformed: it is the glory of good and holy pastors, which can be greater or less. This greater or lesser glory neither diminishes nor enhances the fruit.
4 Textual only.
5 The Pope.
6 On October 4, 1477 Catherine was in Siena and B. Raymond in Rome.
7 The Saint herself.
8 It is well known how weak of character was Gregory XI. This is the infirmity of which the Saint speaks and which she battled with divine force.
9 That is, Saturday, consecrated to the Blessed Virgin from the most remote ages.
10 The Pope.
11 Truth is called the bride of the human race in the same way as the Word of God is said to be the bridegroom of humanity which he has loved "until death." This revelation is treated at length in the Dialogue, Chaps. 1-23.
12 The desire of Catherine, which binds God in some way, is likened to a cord which constrains him.
14 The face of the Church which is soiled by the vices of wicked prelates.
16 The prayer which God wants from Catherine already contains the desire for the salvation of the whole world, but she wishes to extend it expressly to this end.
17 Tobias 13:2.
18-20 All three notes are textual.
22 Expression corresponding to the concept of mediator. The bridge replaced the highway broken by Adam's sin and becomes necessary to pass over the torrent of evils, as is treated more expressly below.
23 The image and likeness which have become darkened by sin.
24 "In the desolate land." Tommaseo.
27 The multiple figures and comparisons well express the impotence of mankind to provide a remedy by itself for its ills.
29 By leaving the bridge and journeying under it, with the peril of sinking in the torrent.
30 Here, too, the multiple comparisons express the peril of those who escape shipwreck, that is, who escape mortal sin, but only from fear of punishment.
33 Cf. the parable of the seed fallen among thorns. Mtt. 13:22, Lk. 8:14.
36 The Transfiguration and Peter's remark:"It is good for us to be (remain) here." Mtt. 18:2.
37 She puts it well in saying "they have wanted," but the act is impossible (as has been said above), since they cannot follow the Father if they do not follow the Son as well.
38 The sense of Christ's legion in Jn. 14:6.
39 John, ibid.
42 Can be referred to Friar Raymond or to man in general.
43 This pain is the sorrow for sin which arises from love. Such pain should be "ordered" as the true love of charity is "ordered."
46 Thus the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are the very basis of love.
48 In such persons the will is weak and repentance imperfect. Moved only by the fear of punishment, they fall back at the first temptation because, as they lose sight of the prospect of punishment, they follow the pleasure which draws them.
51 Cf. Lk. 15:5.
54 Cf. Mt. 14:15.
57 Cf. Rom. 7:23.
58 Cf. Mt. 721.
59 "The providence of God is likened in the sacred books to the eagle which carries her young until they can fly themselves." (Tommaseo)
69 Cf. Jn. 8:12.
71 This alludes to a fact unknown to us from other sources of a damned soul freed from eternal death. Tommaseo says that perhaps it refers to the Man from Perugia, that is, Nicholas di Tuldo of whom Catharine wrote to Raymond (Lett. 272). She does not state expressly of him that he had reverence and love for the Virgin Mary.
73 This is attributed to God and signifies "to show patience, to tolerate, to absolve from punishment, etc."
75 Friar Matthew Tolomei, O.P., to whom were written Lett. 94 & 169. See Drane, p. 501, and Lett. 120, n.l, p. 274.
76 Della Rocca dei Salimbeni. See Lett. 119, note 1, p. 268.
77 (Textual), then: She was, as a matter of fact, illiterate.
78 Here the saint gives personal testimony of having miraculously acquired the grace of being able to write, while some time before she had learned to read in the same way. See Drane, p. 504.
80 In the vision described by Catharine there were present her spiritual father, St. John the Evangelist and St. Thomas Aquinas.