"The Miraculous Communion of St. Catherine of Siena"
Domenico Beccafumi, Circa 1513-1515
St. Catherine of Siena was born on March 25, 1347, in Siena, Italy. She was a Christian mystic, theologian, spiritual mother, healer of spirit and body, Third Order Dominican, adviser of popes and other leaders, prolific writer, and excellent cook.
Her metaphysical visions and mystical relationship with God fed her fire of inner goodness and outer activism so well, the only food she hungered for was the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist.
She died, weak in body but vigorous in spirit, in Rome on April 29, 1380. She is honored on that day in the Roman Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal), and Lutheran Churches. She is a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church and the Patron Saint of Italy along with St. Francis of Assisi.
In understanding St. Catherine, it helps me to place her in a time line relationship with other saints I’ve studied. Catherine’s life span was from 1347 to 1380, at the beginning of the Late Middle Age.
Another mystical activist, St. Joan of Arc, lived from 1412 to 1431 before she was martyred at the stake. Mystic and anchoress, St. Julian of Norwich lived from 1342 to around 1416 and suffered through plagues in England while Catherine endured them in Italy.
Catherine had a deep love for the father of her order, St. Dominic of Osma who lived from 1170-1221, around the same time as St. Francis of Assisi, 1182-1226.
She also had a metaphysical connection, almost as strong as her connection to Jesus Christ, with St. Mary Magdalene and the Blessed Mother Mary who lived during the first century and whose souls are entwined with Jesus’s for all time. One can see how Catherine would become closer to them, too, as she grew ever closer to Jesus throughout her life. (For a deeper look at the metaphysical aspects of Christianity, see my post on St. Mary Magdalene.)
Another important European mystic is St. Bernadette of Lourdes who experienced 18 documented and verified visions of Our Lady, Blessed Mother Mary, in Lourdes, France. Bernadette lived from 1844 to 1879. The Roman Catholic Church is nothing if not thorough in its verification-of-miracles procedures and has validated the visions of St. Bernadette and the healing miracles of Lourdes.
In a similar way, the Church has verified and corroborated, through multiple witnesses, the miracles, influences, and theological concepts produced via the visions or ecstasies of St. Catherine of Siena.
Catherine was regarded as a saint during her lifetime, so her miracles and life story were meticulously recorded by her two first-source biographers. Catherine left about 400 letters and a book of her visions called DIALOGUE which she dictated while in ecstasy.
Her DIALOGUE and letters contain such profound theological concepts that she is honored as a Doctor of the Church.
Her first biographer was her second confessor, Master General of the Dominican Order, Raimondo of Capua, who is remembered as Blessed for his connection to Catherine and his meticulous record of her life. Another member of her spiritual circle was Tommaso Caffarini who also wrote a first-source biography of Catherine.
Out of all the biographies written from this original source material, I happened to choose the best one for my research. This is the first time I’ve run into a biography so well written it’s impossible for me to summarize or glean the best parts from it. CATHERINE OF SIENA by Sigrid Undset is not only the best biography of Catherine of Siena, but also the best biography I’ve ever read.
Sigrid Undset was a Norwegian writer who won the Noble Prize for Literature for her three-volume medieval novel, Kristin Lavransdatter in 1928.
She was born in 1882, only three years after the death of St. Bernadette of Lourdes and would have been culturally influenced by her life and visions, as were many people in Europe during that time. Sigrid was also heavily influenced by WWII, which she escaped via travel and returned home shortly after. References to the evil and devastation of the war appear throughout her biography of St. Catherine.
Sigrid was introduced to Catherine through the deep research of medieval history necessary for her expansive historical novel. She wrote the biography with a solid understanding of the history, Church, politics, and home life of the medieval period in which Catherine lived. Also, she was a novelist so she knew how to gather the many glimpses of Catherine’s life from varying sources into a complete and meaningful life story. Yet, and here’s the truly amazing part, she states her sources for each incident and even offers a secular explanation for some of Catherine’s abundant miracles. This shows that her point of view isn’t clouded by unquestioning adherence to saintly tradition and legends.
By now, I know you are dying of curiosity, so here’s a summary of Catherine’s life:
When she was six years old, God came to her in a vision (on the street in Siena while her brother yanked her arm) and blessed her as his Chosen.
The visions would continue for the rest of her life. While still a young girl, she dedicated her life and virginity to Jesus as if she were a nun.
Her parents were not amused nor impressed. They needed her to marry to form a stronger alliance with another family for protection from their enemies. Italy, not yet a unified country, was a collection of walled city-states that were seemingly always battling each other.
Her family berated her constantly and made her the only servant in the large household. Catherine adapted to the workload by imagining that her family members were the Holy Family. Eventually, they relented and allowed Catherine to take vows as a Third Order Dominican who lived secular lives and were active in charity works, particularly nursing.
She spent the next three years praying in a small room in her family’s home. She ate just small meals of vegetables that were brought to her room which she didn't leave except to attend Mass.
Every time Catherine received Communion, she fell into an ecstasy in which she was aware only of her spiritual surroundings with the saints and Jesus Christ.
Back in her room, as well as at other times in her life, she battled demons who constantly tormented her about her dedication to God and the Church.
At the end of this three-year-period, after winning a particularly difficult demonic battle by demonstrating her true and deep devotion to God, Jesus and Mother Mary appeared to her and formed a mystical marriage ceremony in which Jesus placed a wedding ring on Catherine’s finger. Its exquisite beauty was visible only to Catherine, and she was aware of its presence for the rest of her life.
Then she began her activism in which, with her father’s permission, she gave alms (including her brothers' clothing) to the poor, nursed the most belligerent of patients (some with leprosy), continued to experience visions, and attract followers she called her spiritual children. She also did the family’s cooking and prayed throughout the night.
Her mother, Lapa, alternated between trying to forbid Catherine to do her dangerous works and doting on her with a fierce affection. I’m pretty sure this relationship is where the cliché “patience of a saint” originated.
Then God told Catherine it was time to get involved with the doings of the Church and use her words and prayers to influence the Pope, who had planted himself in the comfortable palace in Avignon, on the boarder of France, surrounded by French Cardinals (most of whom were his family members) instead of the more tumultuous location of the Vatican in Rome.
She worked for years writing letters and traveling on behalf of the Church dealing with three popes and many problems. Meanwhile, the visions continued and she ate less and less food other than Communion bread and wine.
She continued with her unrelenting activism for Christ and works with the poor. She nursed and restored the sick to bodily health, banished demons on behalf of the possessed, and prepared many an unbeliever for Confession and renewed dedication to God. The overwork and lack of food and sleep caused her to suffer bouts of illness and weakness. But when God assigned her each mission, He provided also the strength to get her through.
Here is a snippet from Sigrid Undset's biography that takes place when Catherine and her group traveled back to Siena from Rome, during the height of the plague. Raimondo, Catherine’s confessor and biographer, worked alongside Catherine while many healthy people, including clergy, fled the city:
But one night when he wanted to get up and say his breviary after a few hours’ sleep, Raimondo felt a stinging pain in his groin. When he touched the place, he felt a boil—the sure symptom of the plague. Horror-stricken he sank back on his bed and lay longing for the dawn so that he could go to his “mamma” for help. He became feverish and had a terrible headache, but he tried to say the Divine Office in spite of it.
At last it was morning, and he called one of the friars, and with his help, managed to drag himself to Catherine’s house. She was not at home, and Raimondo, who could not go another step, was led to a bed where he lay asking the people of the house to go find Catherine.
As soon as she came in, she fell on her knees, covered his forehead with her hand and began to pray silently. Raimondo lay and looked at the ecstatic woman and thought, “She will succeed in healing either my body or my soul.” He felt terribly ill, and thought that the moment was coming when terrible vomiting warned the victim of approaching death. But instead it seemed after a while as though something was dragged with force out of his body; the pains became less and shortly afterwards disappeared altogether. Even before Catherine had regained consciousness, Raimondo felt quite well and strong. When she awoke from her ecstasy, she told him to lie and rest while she went out and prepared some food for him.
She returned and waited on him during the meal, and before leaving said seriously, “Go now and work for the salvation of souls, and thank the Almighty who has saved you from this danger.” And Raimondo went back to his work as usual, while he praised God who “had given such power to a virgin, a daughter of man.”
He was to be an eye-witness of many miraculous happenings which Catherine achieved though her prayers, both while the plague raged in Siena and in the years which followed.
After a while the terrible disease began to disappear, but it was followed by famine. In Alessia Saracini’s house, Catherine baked bread which Alessia divided among the poor. But some of the flour was so mouldy and smelled so unpleasant that Alessia wanted to throw it away; when she gave to the poor she was used to giving the best the house could produce. Catherine protested: it was a sin, maintained the true daughter of Lapa, to throw away God’s gifts.
She began to bake with the mouldy flour, and made five times as many loaves as could reasonably be expected from the amount of flour—and it was delicious, fragrant bread. But later she admitted that while she was working in the kitchen, Our Lady appeared and helped her with the work—kneading the dough and formed it into loaves which Catherine put in the oven. Pieces of this miraculous bread were later kept as relics by several of Catherine’s spiritual children.
Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena, pages 168-169
This passage makes me want to hug and kiss the book. Catherine of Siena is my spiritual hero and I find within her life story actual and metaphorical recipes for saintly living. The level of metaphysical entwinement Catherine shared with Jesus is impossible for mere mortals to achieve during our lives on earth. She was especially special. She was an extreme Saint. And yet.
Even though we'll never catch up to Catherine, Jesus encourages us to take those baby steps ever closer to Him.
A baby step instruction I find in the description of her healing prayers is the motivation to ratchet up my own efforts in healing prayer, via the renewal of my Reiki practice and the study of Angelic Guidance.
The next part about the miraculous bread – wow! I bake homemade whole wheat bread for the Eucharist services at my church twice a month. Now the fact that I can set aside my differences with my adversary known as the life form “yeast,” is miraculous enough. But what touches me deep in the heart of my spirit is that I invite Mother Mary into my kitchen every time I bake for my church.
I ask her to pray with me for everyone who will consume the bread that I'll turn over for consecration and sharing on Sunday morning.
It’s almost too much of a connection for me to handle. But, I have faith that it’s good to open myself up to angelic and saintly connections and communications possibly delivered to me via the Holy Spirit. I don’t really know how it works, and sometimes I worry I’m imagining this connection and it appears unorthodox and weird. But when I allow myself to relax into its reality, I know it’s an entirely wholesome and natural state of human being.
Catherine of Siena was the brightest of lives flashing a divine warmth of love and dedication to Jesus Christ, her spiritual children, and her beloved Church. Surrounded by prayerful friends and embraced by her mother, she left her depleted body in Rome on April, 30, 1380, at the age of 33.
Her body rests in Rome in the Basilica di Santa Maria Sora Minerva, a Dominican Church built over the ruins of an ancient temple. Her head, encased in bronze, is on display in the Basilica di San Dominico in Siena.
Catherine was canonized on June 29, 1461.
On June 18, 1939 (the year of my dad’s birth), Catherine was named Patron Saint of Italy along with St. Francis of Assisi (my birthday patron).
On October 3, 1970 (as I was celebrating my fourth birthday), Catherine was named Doctor of the Church along with St. Teresa of Avila.
On October, 1, 1999 (three days before the birth of my daughter and St. Francis’s feast day), Catherine of Siena was named one of Europe’s six Patron Saints.
I highly recommend CATHERINE OF SIENA by Sigrid Undset. Perhaps you’ll discover your own connection to Catherine’s mystical life and metaphysical relationship with Jesus Christ. Or maybe her divinely-inspired quest to create lasting improvements in the leadership of her day may encourage you to pray for, correspond, and visit leaders throughout our own land.
And so, we pray:
Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church; Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
– Collect, Holy Women, Holy Men, Celebrating the Saints
Right, so I have the perfect recipe for St. Catherine. It’s almost too perfect. Again, I’m learning to accept these coincidences on faith.
St. Catherine lost her appetite for meat at a young age. She then subsisted on a diet of raw vegetables and water. But what gave her the strength to do all her good works was the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Eucharist.
Ironically, even though food did not tempt her, she was an excellent cook and enjoyed caring for people in this way.
Bread soup is a common peasant meal served in Italy for generations. It’s meatless and contains vegetables, water, a splash of wine, and small pieces of bread.
I mean, I can’t top the perfection of this recipe in its match to St. Catherine of Siena.
Except, miraculously, I CAN!
In June, 2008, my family went on a tour of Italy. Here I am with my father and daughter in Siena:
And here, (get ready for it) is a photo of my son eating a bowl of bread soup in Siena. Siena, Italy!
In honor of the passionately miraculous St. Catherine of Siena, I offer:
La Zupe di Pane (Bread Soup)
1 large onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
3 carrots, sliced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large tomato, chopped
1 bunch kale leaves, removed from stem and torn into bite-sized pieces
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
32-ounces vegetable broth
½ cup red wine, or 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried sage
Salt and pepper to taste
1 15.8 can cannellini or Great Northern Beans, drained and rinsed
1 loaf Italian bread, sliced thin
1. Sauté vegetables, in batches, over medium heat until golden brown.
2. Place in large soup pot.
3. Add broth, wine or vinegar, and water.
4. Simmer over low heat for about 2 hours.
5. Add beans, heat through.
6. Layer slices of bread on bottom of soup bowl. Ladle soup over slices. Once the bread is saturated with broth, serve hot.