The great mystic and visionary, St. Catherine of Siena, “Sometimes saw the holy angels serving around the altar at which the Mass was celebrated, holding in their hands a golden veil, or in company with the saints, praising and blessing God. Sometimes she saw three Faces in one substance, or the altar and the priest wrapt in a flame of fire. At other times a great and marvelous splendour seemed to shine forth from the altar; or again, when the priest divided the sacred Host, it was manifestly shown how all was in each part; and often she beheld the Holy Trinity under various appearances and signs. Sometimes the sacred Host was transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ Himself, at various ages, or she beheld It consecrated under the appearances of fire, flesh, or blood. Often also she saw above the altar the Queen of Heaven who reverently adored the Blessed Sacrament; besides which, on many occasions, she discerned a consecrated from an unconsecrated Host.” (Drane, A.T., 1899. The History of St. Catherine of Siena and Her Companions: With a Translation of Her Treatise on Consummate Perfection, Third Edition, Vol. 2, pp. 39–40. London; New York; Bombay: Longmans, Green & Co.)
In her Dialogue, Catherine also spoke of a bridge that may be arrived at after ascending three stairs. The first stair, the feet, symbolize the soul’s affections. On the second stair, we are invited to peer into the very side of Christ and provided a vision of His inmost heart. Upon reaching the third stair, the soul is able to see into the very mouth of Christ—which is Truth. As Catherine puts it: “On the first stair, the soul strips herself of sin. On the second, she dresses herself in virtue. On the third stair, she tastes peace.” (pp. 65) Hence, the Lord is found by way of a bridge “built of stone that has opened the heavens for us with the key of His blood. At the end of the bridge is a gate, which is the only way you can enter.” (pp. 66-67)
“Now for those who find the gate, they will have traveled the way of Truth. For these fortunate souls, who have trod upon rock and stripped themselves of selfish love, they forever thirst for the living water.” (pp. 68 and 109) But what of the unfortunate souls who have not kept the way of the stone and have not traveled upon the bridge? Having built their lives upon falsehood, they are led to drowning and eternal death. For these, St. Catherine images the horrendous. “They who want to rule the world find themselves ruled by nothingness. This is, by sin, for sin is the opposite of being, and they have become servants and slaves of sin. Their tree of death is ultimately rooted in pride and nourished by sensual selfishness.” (pp. 73) Catherine mentions these trees as having similar roots although bearing different death-dealing fruits. “Some people live indecently, using their bodies and minds like pigs rolling in the mud, for that is how they roll about in the mind of lust. O brutish souls, what have you done with your dignity! For others, their fruits are like clay. They are greedy misers, usurers, and cruel robbers—taking pride in what is not their own. For others, their hands are so bloated with power, the standard they carry is injustice- not only to others, but also to themselves.” (pp. 74-76) Ultimately, their selfishness leads them to “persecute and crucify the Eternal Truth in their midst.” (pp. 76)
In describing St. Catherine’s spirituality, we might say that it is “all encompassing” given that she presents the Holy Trinity as playing an active role in our lives. That is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are constantly challenging, giving, and hoping for our love and conversion. She unabashedly presents a “way” for us involving themes such as: sin and virtue, person, journey, suffering, body and sexuality, discernment, and self knowledge. “Through self knowledge, the soul learns contempt for her selfish sensual passion and for pleasure in her own consolation. If difficulties make her selfish sensuality want to rise up against reason, her conscience must use holy hatred to pronounce judgment and not let any impulse pass uncorrected. From contempt grounded in humility, she draws patience.” (pp. 135) Her rich spirituality, therefore, provides us with an enlightened reason for not just entering onto the bridge, but also for walking and remaining upon it so that we might receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.
During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged us to receive and reflect upon God’s mercy and forgiveness, but also upon how we might re-focus our lives to be instruments of mercy and forgiveness for others, as well. But for those who refuse or scorn God’s mercy, these words spoken by Jesus to Catherine are very powerful: “They are being unjust in this because they are not giving me what is mine, nor taking for themselves what belongs to them.” (pp. 79)
Now after receiving God’s forgiveness and mercy—and extending the same to others, to paraphrase James Brown: “We feel good!” We are able to “begin again” because a tremendous weight has been lifted from us. But then, in short order, our humanity weighs us down and our love seems to weaken. A friend recently emailed me that during a recent confession, an old priest told him that “Christ expects the most out of the ones He loves the most.” Yes—you and me! Again, ponder the words of Jesus spoken to Catherine (and us): “Sometimes, to exercise them in virtue and to lift them up out of their imperfection, I take back my spiritual comfort and let them experience struggles and vexations. I want them, in time of conflict, to take refuge in me by seeking me and knowing me as their benefactor, in true humility seeking me alone. This is why I give them troubles. And though I may take away their comfort, I do not take away their grace.” (pp. 113)
Today, St. Catherine of Siena challenges us to wake up, for life as we know it is fleeting. While our earthly waters appear to provide solace, happiness, and fruitfulness, it is only through unending connectedness to Truth that we will find our ultimate comfort. “For He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!” Jesus is the Bridge that leads us to heaven.