St. Catherine of Siena and Me



I’m sure you were all waiting with baited breath to see when I would *finnnnnnalllly* finish the “Dialogue” by Catherine of Siena and…

…oh. You weren’t? Okay. Well, that’s fine, too.

I started reading this book way back in January, at the recommendation of my formation director.

You can get the full text here

At first I was really excited. I think the thought process was: “Catherine is a Dominican. I love Dominicans. She’s a Doctor of the Church. I like Doctors of the Church. This is a dialogue. I’ve read Plato’s dialogues and liked most of them…ergo, this should be great!”

It was not like Plato’s dialogues. 
It was like slogging through mud.
At times, it didn’t even “feel” like it was written by* a Dominican. 
Obviously, I am not a holy enough person to read this book. 
Much to my chagrin, I found the text to be incredibly similar in voice and style to The Story of a Soul, the great spiritual work by Therese of Lisieux.    

I had tried reading “Story of a Soul” last year (coincidentally, at the very same time both of my sisters had also picked it up), but again, it was like slogging through really dense, poorly organized, saccharine mud. I actually had to force myself to read it as a discipline, thinking that at least the seeds would be planted and maybe they’d bear fruit later.
Again: I am clearly not holy enough to read these books. 
What the astute blog-follower may notice, however, is that I have also just finished reading “Lay Siege to Heaven,” an historical novel about St. Catherine of Siena by the incredibly talented Louis de Wohl.  
I could  should write an entire post about the great craftsmanship of Mr. de Wohl, but I haven’t the time here.  Suffice it to say that the book was excellent– so excellent in fact that after finishing it, I found it much easier to pick up the “Dialogue” and I even somewhat enjoyed it.  
Why am I writing all this? 
Because I realized something: I may not be spiritually ready to read Catherine or Therese in their own words and really get much out of it. Their personalities are obviously too different from mine. St. Thomas Aquinas may be a dense read– but by golly he’s organized and logical and I loved his stuff the first time I read it. Coming to know who these women are, though, to think about their lives, their historical situations, their families and their friends is a very good way to begin accessing a little bit of their particular expression of “holiness” without being blinded by it. Coming to love St. Catherine through de Wohl, I found myself capable of imagining a person speaking to me through those dense, mud-like pages.  If I was going to find her unintelligible anyway, I might as well picture her as an unintelligible sister. Or a friend. Or a mother.
It made me realize the great value of literature like de Wohl’s– to excite imagination in the way we read and understand the saints so that we can gradually come to imagine the strangest of all phenomena: holiness. God. Christ. The Sacraments. Faith…
This is no new idea– Chesterton, Tolkien, de Saint-Exupery and every hagiographer of any Irish saint EVER knows this. I have been writing some children’s books based on this idea**– but this was the first time I felt the tangible results of what has up until now been just a theory in my heart.  
So thank you, Louis de Wohl. Thank you for introducing me to the great personalities behind some of our greatest saints so that I could hear their words more clearly. I pray that you are already in their ranks. I hope that you’ve had many great conversations with them about your books. 
What are your favorite books about/by saints? Have you ever had trouble learning to love a particular saint? Who resonates with you?
*Okay, so technically, the “Dialogue” was dictated by Catherine while she was in ecstasy, so she didn’t write it. Nor were the words necessarily hers because the claim is that God spoke through her during His part of the Dialogue. But I hope you get what I mean. 
** I’ve already submitted one to publishers– PLEASE pray for me as I continue to pursue this!!

One comment

  1. I like what you said: “If I was going to find her unintelligible anyway, I might as well picture her as an unintelligible sister. Or a friend. Or a mother.” This is a really good way to think about it!

    I haven't read either Ss. Therese or Catherine book, but I did read a little bit of the Summa and felt like you felt about these two. I love his prayers (Adoro Te Devote and Pange Lingua, the St. Thomas student prayer –are there more?), and reading Chesterton's somewhat whimsical biography of him, but actually reading his major work was tough. I think I love St. Thomas much more than I love reading St. Thomas.

    In college we celebrate the Feast of St. Thomas at the Catholic Center. At the weekly undergrad dinner we'd bring down his statue and pray the student's prayer and make a St. Thomas Cake. We'd also have non-official events. The “old guard” threw a fancy dinner where we read interesting excerpts of his work. When Phil and I took over, we threw a St. Thomas Pancake Breakfast. St. Thomas would have approved.

    What a shame we stopped doing that! Things just crept up on us these past two years. Maybe next year…


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