Saturday, April 29, 2006

Is there anything lovelier than peace?

Today is the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena. She carries the titles of both “virgin” and “doctor of the church.” While there are no doubt numerous virgins among the saints, there are only two other women saints considered worthy by the church to be called doctor: Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. St. Catherine has also been named patroness of Italy and co-patroness of Europe.

Born in Siena in 1347, she was the 24th of 25 children -- her twin died in childbirth – and she lived in very turbulent times. The Black Death was decimating Europe. There were armed conflicts between the city states of Italy, and Pope Gregory XI had fled from Rome to Avignon in France.

Dedicating her virginity to God at the age of seven, Catherine joined the Dominican Third Order as a teenager, and for three years she lived in seclusion in her own home, fasting and praying. But then she received a vision of Jesus in which he told her: “The service you cannot do me you must render your neighbor.” So she began to care for the poor, serve the sick, and comfort the dying. She also earned a reputation as a local peacemaker and in time gained the ears of the Pope and other powerful men of the late 14th century.

Catherine is exemplary for us because in her short lifetime of 33 years she was able to able to realize the life of a contemplative in the world. Contemporary writers have called her a “social mystic” or a “mystic activist.” She was not afraid to give blunt advice to Popes and Kings, as well as to the readers of her book of spiritual reflections, The Dialogue.

In one of her many letters (almost 400 of which have been found), Catherine wrote: "Even if it should cost you your life, never hold back from speaking the truth because of any fear." Her example of fearless discipleship should inspire us all.

Reflection for Prayer & Communion Service, April 29

Fearless Discipleship

When the disciples look out of their boat on the dark and stormy sea and see Jesus walking on the water toward them they are scared out of their wits. In Matthew’s version of the story, they think they see a ghost. And this can’t help but remind us, in this Easter season, of the account of the appearance of the risen Christ in Luke – which we will hear read tomorrow morning – when the disciples, who are “startled and terrified, “also think they are seeing a ghost.

In both cases, the response of Jesus is to try and calm their troubled waters. “Do not be afraid,” he says in this morning’s reading from John. “Peace be with you,” he says in the reading from Luke. Since Easter we have heard these phrases in several different Gospel readings. It is almost like a mantra, the sacred word or phrase used in different religious traditions to help still the mind during contemplative prayer or meditation. It also occurs in the beginning of the Gospels: “Do not fear,” Gabriel tells Mary at the Annunciation. “You have nothing to fear!” the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds. “I come to proclaim good news to you.”

Why, then, are Christians, and perhaps all human beings, so fearful? Can it be that Jesus intended to reverse this, and that his counsel to abandon fear is an indispensable part of discipleship?

Let’s talk of fearless discipleship by saying a little more about St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day we mark today.

A writer for the Dominican journal Spirituality Today described Catherine as “frightened by nothing…she was fearless in speaking [to religious leaders] the truth of the need for Church reform, for justice in their dealings with their people, for peace in their feuds and wars with secular governments.”

In her letters Catherine constantly exhorted her readers to be strong: “Bear God’s word with fire…pour out the truth…Even if it should cost you our life, never hold back from speaking the truth because of any fear”…“Cry out as if you have a million voices, for it is silence which kills the world.”

What gave Catherine this strength? During her contemplative period, Catherine underwent rigorous fasting and prayer, which ultimately allowed her to undergo a total kenosis, or emptying of the self. It is the protective self that feels fear, and that runs from pain toward pleasure. Catherine had abandoned her self. In a vision she said Jesus told her: “You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in your soul and the Enemy will never deceive you.” Her confessor and first biographer is certain that this is the foundation for all her work and teaching.

Catherine believed herself betrothed to Christ, and that his heart had been substituted for her own. Knowing that Christ was a part of her enabled her to serve others fully and without fear. Jesus promised her that her “weakness” as a woman would be full of the power of God, so that proud men who refused to listen to her because she was a woman would find themselves resisting God.

Surrounded by warfare and the poor who are its primary victims, Catherine became aware of the inseparable connection between justice and peace. She wrote to King Charles V of France that “when we see the great destruction that war causes, especially to women and children, how can we help wanting to sacrifice our own material possessions and even our life, if necessary, in the work of spreading God’s peace in the world?”

“It doesn’t seem to me that war is so lovely a thing,” she wrote, “that we should go running after it when we can prevent it…Is there anything lovelier than peace?…How stupidly blind we are not to see that with the sword of hatred for our neighbors we are killing ourselves. “

In many ways, Catherine’s life was a failure. She was illiterate and forced to dictate her writings to others. Despite her letters and exhortations to the powerful, she was unable to prevent the papal schism. Her body worn out from rigorous fasting, she died at a tragically young age.

Not long before her death she was in prayer at St. Peter’s in Rome and looked up to see a mosaic depicting the scene from the Gospels where a tiny ship carrying the apostles is buffeted by a terrible storm, and Christ is walking across the water. As she looked at the picture she suddenly felt that weight of the boat itself, the Holy Roman Church, had been lifted out of the picture and placed on her back. She sank to her knees and was carried home where she died. In icons of Catherine, she is often shown with the boat of the Church on her shoulder.

Nevertheless, this failure for Christ has been called “one of the most extraordinary women in European history, a spiritual teacher of tremendous magnetism who has also been a powerful advocate for peace and reconciliation.” She is for us the very model of contemplation in action, and of fearless discipleship.

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