Affetto and understanding
The following paragraph emphasizes that affetto is a deep-seated drive rooted in the transcendent capacity of the person as capable of love.
The soul cannot live without love; she always seeks to love, because she is made of love as I created her for love. And so I told you that affetto moves understanding; it’s as if understanding could speak and say, “I want to love, for the food that nourishes me is love.” Then, understanding finding itself awakened by affetto, arises and if it could speak would say, “If you want to love, I will give you that which you can love.” And so affetto is nourished by love opening the mouth of holy desire. . . On the other hand, if affetto is self-centered and wishes to love what is disordered, then the eye of understanding moves into action with self-centered love, bringing up as objects to love only that which is transitory; this implies aversion to virtue and preference for vice, pride and impatience. Memory is only filled with that which affetto brings before it. (Dialogue 51) [DLV translation]
First, Catherine asserts her foundational conviction about the person. We are created with capacity for love and so there is an inherent drive in our deepest selves that seeks love and to love. This drive is affetto moving our understanding or “awakening” our understanding. That is, the dynamism of love rooted in our being infuses our capacity to comprehend love; we are able to comprehend that God is love and that we have a capacity for love. This comprehension then leads us to desire ordered objects to love. Catherine further tells us “Affetto is nourished by love, opening the mouth of holy desire.” Here, somewhat nuancing the use of the word affetto, Catherine suggests that when ordered, our motivational drive surfacing from our spiritual/transcendent self, moves us to desire that which is good, that which is congruent with God’s love and truth. However, when this same motivational drive is self-centered, then the objects of our desire are likely to be disordered. Transformation, therefore, involves conversion of those desires moved by the depth of our motivation; which means that the depth of our motivation, affetto, must be converted and transformed.
This passage is profound and invites us to a meditative appropriation of this wisdom. For it is through meditation and use of our imagination that we can best internalize this wisdom which is not expressed in sequential logic and the meaning of key words such as affetto are not consistent.
Knowledge of self and God, and affetto and desire
Catherine’s use of affetto and desire are connected to her wisdom about knowledge of God and self, as she explains to Bartolomea, a nun.
And so it is necessary that we fill our affetto and desire with true knowledge of ourselves; and that we open the eye of understanding to know within ourselves the goodness of God and the ineffable love that he has for us. For the understanding grasping and seeing [God’s love] cannot keep affetto from loving her benefactor, or memory from staying present to him. And so love draws love to itself. [And later in the letter] She demonstrates yearning desire for God’s honor in her concern for the salvation of others and in bearing with their failings; she cries with the sinner who repents and shows remorse . . . She is willing to pass through any suffering to help sinners become persons who rejoice and are in love with true, sweet virtues. (Letter 182, October 1377)
Affetto, or the depth of our motivational drive must be nurtured with knowledge of God’s love through relationship with God (not knowledge about God), and as a result of knowledge of God’s merciful, unconditional love. The latter is learned through knowledge of ourselves as in need of God. For it is such heartfelt knowledge (understanding), such deeply held conviction, that informs and energizes affetto and therefore moves our desires and actions. Catherine expresses the power of this dynamic by stating that we will inevitably love God if we know God (understanding cannot keep affetto from loving…). Accordingly, we are called to know God and ourselves so that our desires and affetto are directed towards God; and so that our capacity for presence to God (memory) will increase as we are more and more present to God.
At the same time, as our capacity to consciously experience the presence to God increases, our desire for God will become more present to our consciousness in a way that drives our actions (our memory of God is perfected). And this dynamic implies a deeper felt experience of God’s love and the transformation that follows. Such transformation will impel us, will motivate and move us towards love of our fellow human beings, towards becoming involved in mediating their knowledge of God’s love and towards laboring for their transformation (here the will, which executes our desires, comes into play).
Our affetto united to that of God
Catherine offers additional nuances about the dynamic of transformation of affetto as a result of knowledge of God in a letter to one of her noble, lay followers.
When she comes to know herself as a being with reason, created in the image and likeness of God, and created anew in the blood of God’s son, then her affetto becomes one with the affetto of Christ crucified. With love she attracts love. This means that her love is ordered, having risen above self-centered love, and so draws the overwhelming love of Christ crucified. For when our heart is in love with divine love, it acts as a sponge that draws water into itself. Of course, if the sponge is not in the water, it would not draw in or absorb water, even though made for this purpose. And so I tell you that our heart, though made for love, will never become filled with grace if the light of understanding and the hand of free will do not elevate and unite our heart to the fire of divine charity. (Letter 113, end 1377)
When knowledge of self has led to transformation such that we have internalized that we are created in the image of God and that Jesus gave his life for us, then our affetto becomes one with the affetto of Christ crucified. What does Catherine mean by this remarkable assertion? She means, I believe, that as consciousness about God’s care for us becomes clearly and consciously rooted in us, then what we desire, what draws us most deeply and the way we perceive reality, become more and more like Christ, which also means we become less and less self-centered. Paul asserted something similar when he stated, “I live now not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)
Catherine then uses the metaphor of a sponge to further describe this dynamic of being increasingly filled by God’s love. She tells her follower: as our affetto attracts us to spending more and more time connecting to God’s love; as we become increasingly open to conscious infilling and transformation through God’s love (being in love with God), we are like a sponge placed in water. God’s love is the water, we are the sponge. As a sponge absorbs more and more water, God’s love becomes more and more a part of who we are, transforming our perceptions and actions. This is the case when as a sponge is soaked in water we are immersed in connection with God. However, if we do not spend time connecting to God and God’s love, then we are like a sponge out of water, we cannot absorb God’s transforming love. Even though we are made for love as a sponge is made to absorb water, we will not live out of that capacity if we do not immerse ourselves in the experience of God’s love; immersing ourselves in this experience involves our choosing to do so with our will. And this involves spending time in quiet inward attention to God’s presence.
Affetto of the soul: Grasping that God is “crazy” about us
This passage of The Dialogue is in the voice of Catherine, responding to God.
And why are you so driven (literally “crazy”)? Because you fell in love with the work of your hands; you were pleased with and delighted in her; you act as one drunk with desire for her salvation. She flees from you and you go after her; she distances herself and you draw close; indeed you could not have come closer than to have taken on her humanity. What can I say? . . . for my finite tongue cannot express the affetto of the soul which infinitely desires you. (Dialogue 153) [DLV translation]
Here affetto—paired with soul—is used to mean the depth and breadth of affectivity that moves Catherine towards God. Catherine starts by using metaphors to express the intensity and magnitude with which God loves us. God is crazy about us; God acts as someone drunk with desire for our transformation. God chases after us, despite our running from him. Such an experience of the magnitude of God’s love, elicits in Catherine a depth and breadth of response that is beyond comprehension. This response that is beyond words, she describes as affetto of the soul. In other words, here affetto refers to the depth of feeling, desire, attraction, and movement coming from the core of her transcendent self.
The cross and transformation of affetto
This passage of The Dialogue is presented in the voice of God speaking to Catherine. Knowledge of God’s love also means understanding that at times the cross must be taken up (i.e., be drowned in the blood).
Those who are willing to take up the cross are submerged and drowned in the blood where they find my overwhelming charity. This charity is a fire that arises from me and consumes their heart and mind, accepting the sacrifice of their desires. And so the eye of understanding arises, seeing itself in the mirror of my Godliness, where affetto is nourished and becomes united to me, bringing with it understanding. (Dialogue 84) [DLV translation]
By taking up the cross Catherine means living with and not running from difficulties that may arise from following God’s will; it means learning how to live with the sorrows that life may bring in union with transforming grace. That is, the transforming power of God’s life within us (the blood) empowers us to accept difficulties and sorrows and can bring new life from suffering. Catherine then mixes her metaphors to emphasize the same point: God’s love is not only the salvific blood of Christ; it is also like a fire that consumes. Both metaphors imply that God’s love obliterates that which is not of God; when the person is so committed to seeking God that she is “drowned in the blood” and “consumed in the fire” of God’s love, she is willing to imitate Jesus in taking up the cross. She has learned to live through suffering necessary to follow God’s will and give of herself for the good of others.
This knowledge of God’s salvific love involves the transformation of affetto in a manner that unites this deepest motivational drive with God. That is, the person whose consciousness has been grasped by God’s salvific love comes to desire what God desires with ability to imitate God in giving of herself and going through suffering in order to carry out God’s will.
Self-centeredness rots affetto and desire
In this passage to a priest, Catherine warns of the effects of self-centeredness on affetto. If the soul (the person) is self-centered, she is like a tree whose root is rotten. If the person is the tree, the root that nourishes the tree is the core motivational drive of the person. If this root is poisoned by self-centeredness, then the tree is sickened with rot, that is the person is self-centered in her behavior.
Those who carry the tree of death in their soul, that is self-centered love, do the opposite. That is, their whole life is corrupt because the main root of the affetto of the soul is rotten. [This is seen in the injustices committed] (Letter 2, October 1378)
Affetto: learning what and whom to love
The following passage presents a similar dynamic, with other nuances. Here Catherine highlights that learning what and whom to love is a central dynamic of the spiritual journey. She explains this in terms of affetto, our deepest motivational drive. We will learn what and whom to love when our affetto is converted away from self-centered concerns to understanding/knowing what is included in love for the good of the other and love for God. “The more she knows the more she will love,” Catherine tells us. This wisdom ties back to Catherine’s foundational teaching about knowledge of God and self.
The more the soul becomes engaged in loosening her affetto from her herself [i.e., letting go of that which is self-centered] and instead binding it to me with the light of understanding, the more she will know what should be loved. The more she knows this, the more she will love. (Dialogue 66) [DLV translation]
Transformation of affetto and desire, and family commitments
In this passage Catherine clarifies for a married noblewoman, that directing her affetto and desire to Christ is fully congruent with devoting her love and energy to her family. The implication is that as her affetto and desire are ordered through knowledge of God’s love in Christ and as she grows in reliance on God, she can live her vocation as wife and mother in a more ordered manner. This is one of many passages written to married lay persons whom Catherine encouraged to develop time for a relationship with God, learning to know God’s love and recognizing their need for God.
Raise, raise your affetto and desire from what is worldly and place that affetto on Christ crucified; he who is firm and solid, who never fails you and cannot be taken from you unless you so desire. I am not suggesting that you remove yourself from what is of this world related to your married state, or that you not be engaged in caring for your children and family according to your vocation. Rather, I mean that you should live in an ordered manner rather that in a disordered way. (Letter 116, end 1377)