Catherine’s life & spiritual writings

Outline of Catherine’s life

  • Born at home, a twin, the 24th child of the same parents. Her twin died as a baby.
  • At age 6, when out in the fields with her brother she had a vision of Christ; this vision marked the beginning of her desire for a relationship with the God of love she experienced in her vision.
  • Age 15. After her sister died in childbirth, Catherine cut off her hair to give a definitive message to her family that she would not marry; she wanted to be free to focus on a relationship with God.
  • Age 16. She persuaded her mother to support her joining the mantellate. This was a lay order of women, mostly widows, who committed themselves to lives of prayer and community service; they lived at home but gathered monthly for spiritual formation. Dominican friars were the spiritual directors of the mantellate; though these women were not an official Dominican third order, they were entitled to wear a Dominican habit. Some scholars believe Catherine may have connected provisionally with the mantellate at this time and become a full member after she began her public life at 19. [1]
  • Age 16-19 approximately. Lived about 3 years, mostly in solitude, in a small room of her family home. This was her time in what she called the inner cell; she meant by this a time of solitude and contemplation where she learned the foundational spiritual lessons of her life.  Her desire was to be a sort of hermit in her own home, and to devote herself to prayer and penance.
  • Around age 19 she begun to offer care to the sick at the hospital and elsewhere.
  • Age 20-21. Began to offer wisdom to other mantellate and people she knew around Siena.
  • Early 20’s. Catherine became involved in mediating conflicts among Sienese families and shared her wisdom with a few who followed her as she went about caring for the sick.
  • Age 25. She wrote the first letters to local lords and politicians.
  • Age 27. She was called to a meeting of the Dominican Order and assigned Raymond of Capua as a spiritual advisor. She was tasked through Raymond to advocate for papal policies.  This was the beginning of her more intense letter writing and travels to fulfill this assigned mission. See section on Catherine’s Political Engagement for the story of her involvement in papal politics, a topic on which there is much legend and historically invalid information.
  • Age 27-32. Active period of advocacy for papal policies. Catherine travelled to Pisa, Lucca and Florence to advocate for the crusade and to seek peace between the Tuscan City States and the papacy. She travelled to Avignon, France to meet with Pope Gregory XI to advocate for peace on behalf of one of the governing factions in Florence.
  • Age 27-32. She also continued to minister to persons in her community and to mediate between warring families in Tuscany. She wrote multiple letters offering advice regarding the spiritual journey. She founded a monastery of women, though she herself remained a lay mantellata until her death.
  • Age 30. Dictated The Dialogue, her book.
  • Age 32. Catherine moved to Rome; continued her letter writing and advocated for the papacy of Urban VI elected in 1378.
  • Died in Rome at 33.

[1] Thomas Luongo, 2006, The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, pp. 36-41.

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.

Recommended biography

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.

Catherine’s Works

Her main book, The Dialogue, and a collection of 26 prayers are translated into English and are available as reasonably priced books.  Important aspects of her wisdom and interesting examples of how she applied it are found in her 383 letters. The most accurate and modern English translation of these letters is in 4 volumes of expensive academic books and, therefore, not easily accessible.

Communication style: images and metaphors

Catherine’s works were written down by scribes, for she dictated all her works.  Just like her education came through oral means, her teaching is a form of oral communication.  Her works are more like extended sermons than books teaching a point with logical order.  She repeats herself for emphasis or in order to continue a dictation that had been paused. She expresses herself with images that can change in mid-stream and become intertwined with other images.  This can make her works difficult to follow.  One must learn to approach them as poetry or literature, opening one’s own imagination and heart to the meaning she wishes to communicate. To understand and be touched by Catherine’s thought we have to pause, to enter into her world of images and metaphors and gain perspective on her use of language, which is much more passionate and dramatic than customary today, especially in English speaking cultures.

Examples of Catherine’s use of images and metaphors

  • Letter 363 In this letter to Vanni Catherine uses the metaphor of a tree in order to express her wisdom about the person as created out of love, and to highlight how much such love must be nurtured. The tree (person, soul) must be rooted well and deeply, as well as planted in the right location on the mountainside.
  • In Letter 206 to Pope Gregory XI , Catherine describes him as a gardener who must take care of the flowers in his garden. Those plants that rot must be removed and those that are flourishing must be tended so they do no die and rot.  The garden is the church and the flowers are bishops and pastors.
  • Letter 346 to Pope Urban VI offers an example of interlaced metaphors and images. There is the metaphor of being grafted onto Christ, the tree. There are the images of the flower, and its resulting fruit. And metaphorical language applied to the last two about conceiving and giving birth. And further wisdom is offered regarding transformation through the analogy of a bitter tasting fruit that changes into a sweet tasting fruit.

The works

Catherine’s works had to be studied by specialized scholars in order to come up with what is called a critical text.  That is, one text put together from a multiplicity of manuscripts where each has small and sometimes significant differences of wording and, therefore, meaning, as well as content.  This is the case because Catherine’s works were dictated and multiple copies made by hand over the years; also, there were multiple collections of her letters, so the authenticity of some had to be established through careful scholarship. Accordingly, it is important to try to find English translations based on the accepted critical texts.

The Dialogue
Catherine of Siena, 1980, The Dialogue, edited and translated by Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist.

The structure of this book is in the form of Catherine’s prayer requests and God’s response. She prays for herself, asks for reform of the church, for the world and for peace between the church and those rebelling against her. Finally, she prays for an unnamed cause. Most of this work then, is in the form of a dialogue, where nearly all of the content consists of God’s answers and is written as though God were speaking.

Catherine started dictating this work when she was 30 or 31. The details of how this book came together have been studied by many scholars and some details remain topics of debate.  Much was dictated while she was absorbed in spiritual reality (ecstasy), so that she felt the words forming within her, that is, coming directly from God.  Other parts were almost certainly dictated while reflecting out loud. Catherine pursued dictation on several occasions in different places and eventually reviewed and edited her work.

Because it was a dictated work, undoubtedly there were at least small editorial changes by scribes over the times the manuscript was copied by hand.  The authoritative edition of The Dialogue and the chapters into which it is now divided is due to the work of the Italian Dominican nun, Giuliana Cavallini. All good translations of The Dialogue are based on Cavallini’s final text from 1978 Note: translations prior to Cavallini’s first edited version in 1968 are not based on the most authoritative versions of Catherine’s Dialogue and may not reflect Cavallini’s chapter numbers which are those cited in this website.

The Prayers

Catherine of Siena, 2001, The Prayers of Catherine of Siena. 2nd edition. Translated and edited by Suzanne Noffke. USA: Authors Choice Press.  Originally published by Paulist Press, 1983.

Catherine wrote 26 prayers—which have been preserved—between 1376 and her death in 1380. The final version of various manuscripts was compiled and edited in 1978 by Giuliana Cavallini.  Translations of prior versions of the prayers will not be as accurate and complete.

The Letters

Catherine of Siena, 2000-2008, The Letters of Catherine of Siena, translated and edited by Suzanne Noffke. 4 vols. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

This is the best English translation of Catherine’s 383 letters and the first edition where the letters are published in historical rather than numerical order.  Dating is based on Noffke’s analysis using linguistic and historical tools, and is to date the most historically accurate dating of the letters.  Unfortunately, these volumes are expensive. While there are other collections of Catherine’s letters translated into English, these are not based on the most authoritative final version of her letters.  Dating will be lacking and/or may be inaccurate.

I include extensive excerpts or Catherine’s letters with my own translation so that I can make these available online. (See “letter excerpts.”)

Raymond of Capua

Dominican Friar well educated in cannon law and theology who was part of the leadership of the Dominican Order.  He was assigned by top church authorities as Catherine’s advisor and spiritual director in 1374; at that time church authorities chose Catherine to become an advocate for papal policies. Raymond, who was from Naples, lived in Tuscany and during a period of almost 4 years spent much of his time accompanying Catherine in her travels around Tuscany and on her trip to Avignon.  Catherine’s perspective on church politics and policy is almost certainly due in great part to what she learned from Raymond.  At the same time, Catherine and Raymond became friends, and she did not hesitate to exhort him about his own following of God’s will.