Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena


Opening Passage:

In the city-states of Tuscany the citizens--Popolani--businessmen, master craftsmen and the professional class had already in the Middle Ages demanded and won the right to take part in the government of the republic side by side with the nobles--the Gentiluomini. In Siena they ahd obtained a third of the seats in the high Council as early as the twelfth century. In spite of the fact that the different parties and rival groups within the parties were in constant and often violent disagreement, and in spite of the frequent wars with Florence, Siena's neighbour and most powerful competitor, prosperity reigned within the city walls.

Summary: Fourteenth-century Italy is a world falling apart, splitting Italian against Italian and both against the French, and, eventually, splitting even the Church against the Church. It is not a period in which one would expect a single woman, neither a queen nor a wealthy woman, to have a profound impact; and yet Catherine Benincasa, neither royal nor wealthy, had just such a profound impact on the day, slowing the decline, moderating the violence, setting up the first definite steps toward peace. Undset's biography gives us this story, heavily saturated with Catherine's own words, but also with a sympathetic sense of her motives and a recognition that a world which had undergone two world wars and myriad smaller ones might perhaps need to learn something from a woman who knew how to face a world falling apart. And this last is true however strange we may find facets of Catherine's life; after all, as Undset notes, her contemporaries found her difficult to understand for many of the same reasons people in our age would say they find her difficult to understand.

Catherine's life essentially consists of four things, the Eucharist, religious experiences, correspondence with others, and the politics of the day, and for her they are all interconnected. Political division arises from a failure to express the love found in the Eucharist; her many religious experiences are all connected to the Eucharist as their root; her correspondence with others, guided by her religious experiences, is an extension of the love and the strength she derives from the Eucharist; and by her correspondence she begins to reknit what politics has torn apart. In all these things she displays a perceptive intelligence and an indomitable will; one of the things I like about the book is that it shows how an extremely stubborn Italian girl could become the saint she became, with the extreme stubbornness not vanishing but being transformed into something different. Grace perfects nature not just in general ways, but by turning our quirks and even in our failings into something beneficial. Outside of occasional exceptions, an excitable sinner becomes an excitable saint, a choleric sinner a choleric saint, a stubborn sinner a stubborn saint, a scheming sinner a scheming saint -- but although we can use the same adjective on both sides, there is something fundamentally different in its meaning, a change in the very structure and form of its expression.

One of the things that is difficult to wrap one's mind around is how much Catherine accomplished in her short life. She died at the age of thirty-three. While there was a great deal to her life before she was twenty-three, for practical purposes this can be seen as the start of her full mission. It is difficult to avoid the impression that from this point onward the clock was ticking. Ten years. But in that period she saved souls gone astray, protected Siena from sack, reconciled warring princes, shifted the views of Popes, and changed countless lives for the better.

And it did not end there, for she became a teacher for the ages. St. Catherine of Siena was given the title, Doctor of the Church, by Paul VI in 1970, years after the book was written and Undset's death. But it could come as no surprise to anyone who read Undset's account of her life. It is very difficult to write about incalculable good; that is why most hagiographies seem somewhat flat in comparison with other kinds of biographical writing, however good they may be on their own terms. But Undset manages it extraordinarily well. If St. Catherine is a Teacher of the Church, Undset is a worthy teaching assistant.

Giovanni di Paolo The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena,

MrsDarwin has a good reflection on the book over at her blog.

Favorite Passage: There are a number that are good. Here is one:

There is nothing in the experience of man which shows that the raw material of human nature has ever changed. It is eternally dragged down by our desire for the things which escape our grasp, or if we manage to grasp some of them we find that we are still not satisfied. Satisfied desire produces new desire until old age puts a stop to the chase, and death ends all. We are shown frequent glimpses of our nature which remind us of our origin, and in whose image we are created. From the image of God in us we have creative energy, the spring of unselfish love--unselfish in spite of the shadow of egoism which is inseparable from all our impulses; the longing to create our world to an ordered pattern, to live according to the law, and to see our ideals of justice realised. (p. 332)

Recommendation: It's a fairly straightfoward biography-hagiography, told well, making St. Catherine, not the most obviously accessible saint, vivid and approachable. Highly recommended.


  1. Timotheos12:01 AM

    As a cook, one of my favorite verses has always been Matthew 5:13, "You are the salt of the earth", etc.

    I've always loved it because it exactly depicts how grace transforms the lives of the saints. Salt does not flavor food by making it taste more like itself; it flavors it by enhancing the good flavors already there, thus making foods taste more like themselves.

    And many times, adding salt actually makes food that is completely unpalatable delicious; try out some unsalted bread some time and you'll know what I mean!

    This is a metaphor that we often miss nowadays because most of our food has already been salted before we ever even touch it, but salt was not always so plentiful; in fact, Roman soldiers at the time were often paid in salt! (that's where we get the word salary by the way...)

  2. I was looking for this post, as I did not bookmark it when I read it, for your remark:

    "Grace perfects nature not just in general ways, but by turning our quirks and even in our failings into something beneficial", which is a thought I have returned to as an answer to hamartia. I wonder if a character, despite its flaws, forgives whatever it has righteous indignation about; themselves; circumstance, it can find grace. This was a relevant thought because I have spent the past few days editing a paper that claims that various modern interpretations of Romeo and Juliet prove that because of the dynamics of power and "impossibility" of love, love can only exist in dreams (the paper will be published in the coming months; I hope I am vague enough as to not compromise it, this is one disadvantage of the blog post comment). So I was wondering, in response, about the place for grace, which can exist even if it is not dramatised...


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.