Education and formation
I summarize here important aspects about Catherine’s education, formation and culture. These are important in understanding and interpreting her 14th century experience which was so different from our own.
Learning to read and write
Unless they belonged to the nobility or became abbesses in a monastery, girls and women in the Tuscany of 1350 did not learn to read and write. Being from a merchant family, Catherine had no education—in the sense we think about today. She spent her childhood and early adolescence among her many family members, playing and as she grew up, contributing to the tasks necessary to run a large extended family and business. Education was a family-based sort of apprenticeship on how to live life according to a child’s expected role.
Catherine learned to read probably around 19 or 20. We do not know for sure how she learned. Perhaps she was aided by a fellow mantellata, a member of the nobility who could read, or by one of the friars she knew. The legends about Catherine suggest she learned to read miraculously through empowerment by the Holy Spirit; this is likely one of the many legends to make Catherine seem holy. See section on Holiness in “holiness and mysticism.”
She learned to write late in her life, around the age of 30. She wrote to Raymond of Capua stating that this was miraculous; she reported, God infused her with this knowledge from one day to the next. See letter-272b.
Learning about her faith
As most in her day, she learned about her faith in her family where beliefs, devotions and prayers were orally passed down. She was also formed by the readings and preaching she heard during the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass.
Beginning with the 3 years spent in solitude after about age 16, she would have gone at least once a day to San Domenico, the Dominican church close to her home. She is said to have loved listening to the psalms and gospel readings not only at Mass but during the public recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, a regular service in a medieval Dominican church. With her fellow mantellate she would have attended monthly gatherings where a spiritual director would help them learn more about the faith and the spiritual life, and where popular texts about the saints were read out loud.
Catherine’s eventual theological knowledge came through dialogue with learned priests who became part of her life. Early on she learned from her cousin, the Dominican friar Tommaso dalla Fonte, who had grown up in her parents’ home and would have visited her family as a friar and ordained priest. After she was nineteen or twenty and started her more public life, she had contact with other Dominican friars and priests.
We know she loved the Word of God memorizing psalms and passages [from listening to readings]; she meditated on these and internally “chewed” on what she heard during her long periods of silence. She is unlikely to have read the Bible, which only existed in Latin at the time.
Once Catherine started to become involved in mediating between families and advocating for political causes, she interacted with several learned friars and monks, also learning from them.
Learning about church politics
Her knowledge about church politics came in great part from Raymond of Capua, as well as from politically important community leaders she met. This knowledge would have been oral, learned in conversation and occasionally from letters or other texts read to her. Catherine did not have educational tools to analyze politics. She almost certainly accepted the biases of Raymond and the Tuscan authorities who were in favor of the political policies of the pope.
Holy Spirit formation
All her human learning was enhanced, deepened and multiplied by the formation Catherine received from the Holy Spirit. The most remarkable spiritual gift Catherine had was her utter and complete dedication to being in connection with the presence of God within, and her wholehearted receptivity to God’s action within her.
This gift made possible “formation” by the Spirit, or the development of wisdom which was forged through her contemplation, her time of silence and connection to God; Spirit formation (my word) can be imagined as an infusion of grace creating deepened understanding about what she learned and lived. It was through this inspired understanding and deepening of what she learned that Catherine could write wisdom about the spiritual journey that remains relevant and sought after now, 800 years later.
The wisdom for which Catherine was eventually named Doctor of the Church undoubtedly came through this process of contemplative assimilation. (Catherine is one of only four women named Doctor of the Church).
Catherine’s formation by the Spirit offers a lesson for today. It is in silence, in contemplation, in meditation—when we shut down the stimuli of everyday life—that we gain awareness of God’s work through the Spirit in our minds and hearts to help us integrate what we, today, learn about Scripture and about the spiritual life. The work of the Spirit is most often invisible and unfelt in any explicit way. Simply, as one practices silence and centering, and as one becomes more connected to God, truths come together within us, new insights and depth of understanding emerge due to the work of the Spirit within us.
Don Brophy, 2010, Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life. BlueBridge.
This is the only contemporary biography of those I am aware of in English that is based on an updated history of Catherine’s life and presents a balanced understanding about Catherine’s extraordinary spiritual experience, her fasting and penances. Brophy’s biography is a well written popular account.
Raymond of Capua, 1980, The Life of Catherine of Siena. Translated by Conleth Kearns. Wilmington: Glazier.
This hagiography written by Raymond until recently has provided the most significant storyline about Catherine’s life and spiritual journey.
A hagiography is an autobiography the goal of which is to present the person as holy. Much of what we know about Catherine has come down through legend and hagiography, so it is important to understand this form of writing.