St Catherine of Siena
What a 14th century mystic can teach Christians amidst COVID-19
written by Lauren England
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to its knees in a way that feels unprecedented compared to previous generations. Without minimizing or avoiding the pain and anxiety that this induces, history shows us that our world has experienced times of crisis and disorientation similar to our current situation. Now more than ever, we are looking for guidance, and as Christians, we look to the stories of women and men who have led through similar times and events. I invite you to lean into the story of a young woman named Catherine Benencasa who lived in 14th Century Siena during the period of the second Bubonic Plague [also known as Black Death].
Throughout history there have been recordings of plague epidemics that have wiped out significant portions of the population. Plagues began when rats (diseased with the bacterium yersinia pestis) through proximity and the movement of fleas, infected humans. In the year 1346, a strand of the bubonic plague, known as Black Death, broke out after an infected ship of merchants travelled to Europe. After the bite, came the swelling of lymph nodes and the person would then exhibit signs of fever, delirium and internal bleeding that would cause black bruising around the body. Within days, the person would, more often than not, die. This particular strand reportedly killed 60% of Europe’s population throughout its spread and became one of the greatest human tragedies in history.
In 1347, Catherine Benencasa was born in Siena (one of the most affected areas) at the early stages of the plague. Seemingly destined for mysticism, at the age of six, Catherine had a vision of Jesus, Peter, Paul and John and was drawn to the life of the Desert Fathers’ contemplative, meditative practices. Eventually, she took the vows of the order of St Dominic and entered a life of solitude, following in the footsteps of many other Christian mystics of her time.  After three years of solitude, Catherine felt God telling her to “open the door… of other souls” and re-enter society. It was during this time that Catherine regularly sought out the most infected parts of Siena and entered the homes of the sick praying for healing, laying hands on the afflicted and burying the dead. Catherine was relentlessly involved in civil, political and church life during her short thirty-three years and has left a legacy that we can learn from in light of this current pandemic.
While many were fleeing the city of Siena (including priests and religious leaders), Catherine was one of a few mystics and monks who stayed to care for the sick. What would have seemed reckless to some, was necessary for Catherine, as she was moved at a practical level to have compassion on her neighbors. For Catherine, the more one knew God, the more one would feel the pain and sorrow that was felt by a neighbor.  Catherine was not naive to the risk and the sacrifices she would have to make, but her writings suggest that her intense devotion to God and her identification with the suffering Christ meant that her heart would bleed for her brothers and sisters. 
In a time of intense suffering and unprecedented access to this suffering, how do we responsibly allow our hearts to bleed for our brothers and sisters in a way that moves us to sacrifice?
For some of us, the sacrifice is staying home and self-isolating, cancelling our plans and missing social gatherings out of care for the more vulnerable among us. For others, it could be a financial sacrifice, giving generously to those who have lost their income or giving up our need to be productive to simply be with those that need us.
In one of her more extreme acts of self-sacrifice Catherine entered the home of a woman severely affected with the plague. The woman had completely isolated herself because of her wounds which had festered and become infected. After cleaning the wounds with a cloth, Catherine drank the contents of the cleaning bowl, thus tethering herself to the suffering woman and therefore the suffering Christ.  Catherine was convinced that the welfare of her neighbor was deeply connected to her own and that something mysteriously beautiful would happen when she literally drank in the suffering of others. In a time when we are caring for others by isolating, Christians mustn’t forget our deep interconnectedness. Yes, we are connected through technology, but we must be aware that our lives are wrapped up in the lives of our neighbors. This is a radical change of perspective and should lead us to relentless acts of charity toward our neighbor.
Power of Prayer
As a mystic, one of the biggest lessons that Catherine teaches us is the beauty of prayer. Of her many inspirational teachings, one of Catherine’s most influential doctrines is her metaphor of the Inner Cell or Cell of Knowledge. In her final work, The Dialogue, Catherine’s beginning words are:
“A soul rises up, restless with tremendous desire for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. She has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it.” 
This inner cell is the soul perfectly united to God: the core of the self, and helps center one's desire upon God and the Spirit’s work in the world.  Her inner cell was once the room she was in for three years of solitude, where she developed a deep and profound desire for God. However, in her later writings, this literal cell translated to one that she carried with her wherever she would go. Speaking to her disciples, she once said:
“Make two homes for thyself, my daughter. One actual home… and the other a spiritual home, which thou are to carry with thee always.” 
A profound lesson we can learn from Catherine of Siena is in learning to develop this inner cell.
As many of us are literally confined to a cell of some sorts in the coming days, may I offer you this benediction:
God of close comfort,
May we draw near to your mercy and be embraced by Love
May we drink from the Source of living water and be sustained
May we bring our fear and be enveloped in your peace
May we come to you restless and find home in your presence
May our time with you be sweet
May a deepening of our faith bring forth a reckless love of our neighbor.
- Does learning about Catherine's unity with God and alignment with the suffering of Christ encourage you or cause another emotion to surface?
- Catherine was a woman who was able to discipline herself to an extreme extent despite circumstances of turmoil. As Christians, in what small ways can we align ourselves to her thinking?
- Catherine was not afraid of suffering but embraced it as it drew her closer to God. How does this challenge our ideas of self sufficiency in modern society?
- How can learning about women from the past who endured suffering encourage us to find greater peace at times of uncertainty?
About the Author
Lauren is an Aussie living in LA, having just completed her Masters of Arts in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. She has been in church ministry for nearly 10 years and hopes to venture into church planting upon her return back to Australia. She deeply loves the Church and longs to see it live into God’s ongoing story of restoration. She also has a long-time obsession with sloths and spends way too much money on coffee, used books and music!
About the Art
Catherine is shown here as a strong and courageous woman, with a confrontational stare that echoes the way she lived her life as a woman passionately involved in the church’s politics and as an advisor to popes. Although we know in reality she was quite frail as she went to extreme lengths fasting, she intentionally put her body at risk to align herself with the suffering of Christ and those who suffered in her midst. She also put her life at risk by her care and dedication to the sick and dying and although she contracted the plague herself, she did not die from it. Catherine expressed her spirituality through her famous writings. A crown of thorns is in the background here representing one of her visions where Jesus offered her a choice between an earthly crown and a crown of thorns where she chose the crown of thorns. She repeatedly chose suffering with the world over a life of security and comfort echoing her commitment to a life of following Jesus.
Blessed Raymond of Capua. Life of Saint Catherine of Sienna. Translated by Ladies of the Sacred Heart. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1862.
Catherine of Siena, Wright, Darrell. The Letters of Saint Catherine of Siena. Translator Vida. D Scudder. (Kindle Edition), 2016.
Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue. Translated by Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
Catherine, and Noffke, Suzanne. “The Letters of St. Catherine of Siena.” Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, V. 52. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1988.
Forbes, F. A. St. Catherine of Siena. 2nd ed. Standard-Bearers of the Faith : A Series of Lives of the Saints for Children. London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1919.
Graef, H.C.. “On the Mystic Life of St Catherine of Siena”. Life of the Spirit. 1(10). 1947. 318-324. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/45148769#metadata_info_tab_contents.
Truitt, Elly. ‘What was the Black Death?” Calliope. Vol. 11(7). 2001. 12-13 Retrieved from https://web-b-ebscohost-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=520cfcea-47ad-4fa7-b450-24801f3549f7%40pdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=4154836&db=ulh
Villegas, Diana L. “Continuous prayer in Catherine of Siena”. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies. 73(3). 2017. 1-8. Doi: https://doi.org/ 10.4102/hts.v73i3.4611.
 Elly Truitt, ‘What was the Black Death?” Calliope, Vol. 11(7), (2001), 12-13, retrieved from https://web-b-ebscohost-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=520cfcea-47ad-4fa7-b450-24801f3549f7%40pdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=4154836&db=ul; Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue, Trans by Suzanne Noffke, (New York: Paulist Press, 1980. 13.)
 Raymond of Capua, “The Life of St. Catherine of Siena” Tr. George Lamb, (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 2003.), 26-27;48
 Capua, The life of, 78.
 F.A. Forbes, St. Catherine of Siena, 2nd ed, Standard-Bearers of the Faith : A Series of Lives of the Saints for Children, (London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1919).
 Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 33.
 Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 35.
 H.C. Graef, “On the Mystic Life of St Catherine of Siena”, Life of the Spirit, (10), (1947), 318-324, Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/45148769#metadata_info_tab_contents, 325.
 Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 25.
Diana L. Villegas, “Continuous prayer in Catherine of Siena”, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 73(3), (2017), 1-8, Doi: https://doi.org/ 10.4102/hts.v73i3.4611, 3. 4; Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 25.