By Elizabeth Prata
Julian of Norwich (1343 – after 1416) Book: The Showings of Divine Love
Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380). Book: The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179). Book: Scivias
Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303 – 1373) Book: Celestial Revelations
If you’re a woman in medieval times who wants to get people to listen to you and you want to accumulate some authority or even fame, how do you do it? You claim visions.
The issue of women who claim special revelation from Christ is not a new problem. Jesus wrote against the church at Thyatira because a woman metaphorically named Jezebel was prophesying things He didn’t say and teaching falsely (the two almost always go hand in hand). In current days we have a host of women running around with claims of hearing God audibly or of receiving special and personal revelations. They get famous. They write books. They are listened to.
But in between Bible times and now, there were women in the Middle Ages who claimed to be hearing from God, too. This week I’m giving a short bio of four of the most famous mystics, along with a look at their theology. Yesterday I wrote about Julian of Norwich (England). Today I’m looking at Catherine of Siena (Italy).
There were not a whole host of careers for women in the Middle Ages. Mainly it was motherhood. Catherine of Siena’s mom gave birth to 25 children. Catherine was a twin and her sister died soon after birth. Catherine grew to be healthy. Only eleven of her siblings survived.
The clergy was one profession where women had some options. They could not teach but if they’d had visions they would attain some form of notoriety and ecclesiastical authorities would pay attention. Women could become a nun, with potential for rising to level of Abbess (CEO of the cloister). They could become an anchoress, as described in the last essay, where they secluded themselves in a cell attached to a church for private contemplation and study and to occasionally dispense theological advice. Asceticism was the fastest route to fame. Catherine doubled her odds and became a visionary ascetic.
Catherine saw her first vision (allegedly) of Christ seated in glory with several of the Apostles. She was six years old. At age seven, she dedicated her life to Christ against her parents’ wishes. A rebel, now teenager Catherine refused her parents’ request to marry the widower of her sister, and she also cut off her long hair and wore ragged clothes so as to make her self less attractive as a mate. It was an ‘in your face’ move for a medieval gal. She also refused to eat. She lived in the family home, but refused to speak to them or eat at the family’s table, saying she’ll wait to eat at her real family’s table in heaven. Ouch.
Catherine experienced much grief. Her twin sister had died, her favorite older sister died in childbirth and soon she was deaf to her mother and father’s pleas to enjoy matrimony. She began a strict program of self-denial and asceticism. Catherine wore chain mail so tight it cut her hips. She refused food. She engaged in self flagellation with a whip three times a day. Giving up her bed, she traded it for a wooden bench and a stone pillow. She lost weight and became sickly. Her mother viewed it as a protracted suicide. Catherine viewed it as dedication to God.
Catherine’s refusal to eat was a medieval demonstration of holy asceticism, which some call a holy anorexia. (She did force a vomit after eating, before she quit eating altogether, except for the Eucharist). Many of the medieval mystics were “women who were both controversial and attention-grabbing in their day, and who for the most part demonstrated their holiness by fasting and starvation. In several cases, the extreme asceticism led to death” (as it did for Catherine at age 33).
She joined the Catholic order of the Third Order of St. Dominic, founded in 1216 with a purpose toward evangelism. This particular order had a level of commitment where the penitent is recognized as part of the order but they continue to function in the world. The emphasis was on ministering to the poor and the sick.
By 1300 the general altruistic fervor had dimmed and mysticism was preferred as a means of personal and theological transformation. We read that the women of the Order were at the forefront of this change. “In fact, it was often the female members of the order, such as Catherine of Siena, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Christine of Stommeln, Margaret Ebner, and Elsbet Stagl, that gained reputations for having mystical experiences.” (Source)
Catherine claimed that one of her visions was a mystical marriage to Christ. The wedding party included the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, Saint Dominic, and King David, who played his harp. She claimed that Jesus gave her her a ring that was invisible to others, but which she could see. It was supposedly part of his foreskin from his circumcision.
Her theology was strange in the extreme. She was hyper focused on suffering translated to joy, the Lord as Consoler, and of His blood. She dreamed of drinking His blood and fantasized over His wounds in an uncomfortably sensuous way. In another vision she ‘saw’ Christ cutting out His own heart and replacing hers with His. Pain and blood was everything to Catherine, it represented joy and health. Catherine was graphic and sensuous about these matters, but I’ll leave them here.
Her motivation was that she wanted to suffer on earth to burn off some time in the Catholic made-up location of Purgatory, and she wanted to suffer so that she could prove her loyalty to Christ, who also suffered.
At the end of her life, Catherine felt she wanted to do even more for Christ. She pleaded to Jesus to let her bear the punishment for all the sins of the world, something Christ alone accomplished and it was finished. In the end, she had a stroke, and said a short while later she felt possessed of an alien spirit not her own. Her last word was “blood!” She was 33. (b. 1347 – d. 1380).
Over her lifetime, Catherine of Siena wrote 400 letters, many of them political as she was a negotiator and an ambassador too. The Catholic Church made Catherine a Doctor of the Church, a title given by the Catholic Church to only 37 saints “recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing” as the Church explains. Catherine is one of four women to be so declared. Pope Pius IX made her a patron saint of Rome. She along with Francis of Assisi are patron saints of Italy. In 1999 Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a co-patron saint of Europe.
Catherine did much for the poor and the sick, notable since the Black Plague was once again raging. However her altruistic acts came at the severe cost to her family, because she gave away their clothes and money. Without their permission.
You might think to yourself, ‘Why on earth do people praise and accept these weird women with strange tales of Christ? And praise the strange things they do in His name?’ But today, don’t we accept similar? Beth Moore brushing a strange man’s hair? Of running across the city of Houston to meet an unknown lady and give her money? Of Jennie Allen starting a movement based on a ‘voice from the sky’? Of learning where to buy a turkey?
Catherine’s theatrics, her extreme asceticism, her visions and communications from an alleged God, her strange fixation on illness and blood, her mystical marriage, were all accepted by the Catholic Church but should be rejected by right-thinking Protestants today.
Tomorrow, the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen.