Mystical spirituality & holiness

Catherine’s mystical spirituality and holiness: Fresh interpretation

Catherine of Siena has caught the imagination of many over the centuries. Her spirituality and life have been interpreted most often in light of her exceptional mystical experiences and the way her engagement in papal politics has been understood.

I want to show here that what makes Catherine a remarkable holy person is the wholeheartedness with which she lived Jesus’ call to transformation, the related experience of closeness to God and the absolute commitment to following God’s will in service to others.

When I refer to her spirituality, I mean the way she lived this journey of relationship to God; or put another way, her response to grace.  By her spirituality, I also mean the wisdom she left us about how to live such a journey.

For Catherine’s life and her wisdom were not just about her relationship with God; rather, this relationship impelled her to serve others. Thus, her involvement in papal politics witnessed to the way in which someone can be empowered by God when that person devotes her life to a transforming relationship with God.  Her experience of listening to God and following God’s guidance led to the remarkable reality of an uneducated young laywoman becoming involved in the political life of the church in a prophetic [1] manner.  See Spirituality & Political Engagement.

    [1] Prophetic here does not refer to forecasting future events. Prophetic here refers to the vocation of emissary of God.  Catherine was prophetic as were the Old Testament prophets, emissaries from God to challenge and guide God’s people, confronting them with God’s values, desires and truth.


      What makes someone holy?

      Jesus’ central teaching is in the first commandment: love God and your neighbor as yourself.  We have all heard this many times, but what does it mean in terms of a spiritual journey, in terms of living this out as committed Christians?

      God is love and truth. We are created in the image of God, which means we are created with the capacity for love and truth.  To the extent that we actualize this created capacity we will love our neighbor as ourselves.  As well, to the extent that we actualize this created capacity we will be fulfilled as human persons, and in that sense, happy.  Exceptional actualization of these capacities makes us holy.

      Put another way, what makes us holy is the extent to which we allow ourselves to be transformed into the image of God and live out of that transformation.  This is what Catherine accomplished in an extraordinary way, as I will show in this website.

      Love, in Gospel terms, means being capable of recognizing and acting on what is good, healthy, ordered and just towards those to whom we are related, those to whom we have commitments, those who come into our lives.  These “others” in our lives are our families, our friends, our co-workers, our community, our country, and, yes, the natural world—our common house—as Pope Francis has said.

      Truth refers to viewing and accepting reality honestly and realistically. Truth involves recognizing what is just. Truth about ourselves involves knowing about and acknowledging both the positive as well as the sinful and wounded reality of who we are. Certainly, for a Christian, beliefs and moral values are part of truth. [See Knowledge of God and Self]

      Holiness involves commitment to an unswerving response to God’s free gift inviting us to an ongoing transforming relationship. For, unlike Jesus, the rest of us require constant conversion and transformation in order to actualize our capacity for love and truth. This commitment means one’s life energies and priorities focus on developing and nurturing a relationship with God, through which God can shape us into God’s image.  This commitment involves taking conscious charge of our freedom—our free will—to prioritize a way of life that allows space for a relationship with God.

      The degree of commitment and unreserved priority with which we seek God’s transformation and the extent to which—out of this transformed place—we seek God’s will and try to carry it out are significant measures of holiness.  We will see Catherine was exceptional in this wholehearted commitment.

      God’s will

      The degree of dedication with which one seeks God’s will is a dimension by which holiness can be determined.  In Jesus’ case, pursuing God’s will in his public life involved a mission of preaching and healing no matter what the personal cost.

      Each of us is called to sort out our calling and then seek to live that calling with as much love and truth as possible.  In these terms, holiness would be measured by the extent to which one is able to imitate Jesus in following the will of God no matter what the cost.  We will see that Catherine was exceptional in devoting all her life energy and time to carrying out what she discerned God wanted of her for the good of God’s people.

        Catherine’s holiness

        Commitment to knowledge of God and self

        Catherine of Siena wholeheartedly wanted to love God and be consumed by his love. She was passionately attracted to giving herself to the God of love whom she first experienced as a child. This experience of God was so profound, captivating and clear to her that it attracted her to pursuing an unswerving commitment to this relationship for her whole life.

        Already as a child and adolescent Catherine learned that a relationship of love with God required time devoted to consciously connecting with the presence of God. All her writings are filled with advice to spend time in the inner cell, by which she meant, turning one’s attention to one’s inner consciousness, where God’s love transforms, where we learn who we are before God, and where the guidance of God is discerned.  Spending time in the inner cell was a call to be constantly attuned to the inner presence of the Spirit. [See Spending time in cell]

        Catherine recognized early in her journey that transformation was at the heart of giving herself to God.  She learned the basic Christian truth that we are created in the image of God, out of love and for love; she was drawn to this formulation of the goal of transformation.  Indeed, she used this language repeatedly throughout her letters and in The Dialogue. (See for instance letters 21, 29, 226, 263, 374). [See theological anthropology]

        To be transformed in capacity for love, persons must recognize their woundedness, sinfulness and basic need for God, as well as intentionally offering these needs to God to be healed and converted. Catherine’s foundational teaching about knowledge of self is the fruit of this experience. [See Time in cell; Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Self]

        Catherine’s holiness lies in that she devoted her life to living out these truths about relationship with God and was therefore transformed into an exceptional follower of Jesus.

        Commitment to seeking and accomplishing God’s will

        Catherine’s passion to be in a relationship of love with God and allow herself to be transformed resulted in a concurrent passion to do God’s will.  She was exceptional in the attention she paid to God’s guidance and the faithfulness with which she followed that guidance.  She was remarkable in her ability to let go of her ideas about serving God, allowing herself to be guided to a public role she would never have imagined or chosen.

        At first, she interpreted her call as one to intercession through prayer, fasting and contemplation. In a second stage of her life, she recognized an inner call to service to the sick in her community.  As spiritual directors and others invited her to further involvement, she responded to this.  When asked to travel, and to speak and write to the most powerful persons in the church and in civil society, a far cry from her initial desire to be a hermit in her home, she responded to this guidance because her relationship with God affirmed this was God’s will.
        The wholeheartedness of her connection to God empowered the courage and lack of self-consciousness to speak and write to the highest authorities, challenging them to conversion and just action.

        Another sign of Catherine’s transformation into someone capable of love and truth is the profound wisdom she left us in her letters and The Dialogue. For such penetrating interpretation of the Gospel message, valid and fresh centuries later, was made possible precisely through a depth of connection to God that worked with all of who she was.  The profound connection to God allowed the power of the Spirit to form in Catherine’s consciousness—out of her oral formation—wisdom valid through the centuries.

        Experience of God

        Becoming an exemplary, holy Christian like Catherine, then, involves a transformative relationship with God.  And a transformative relationship with God implies experience of the presence of God. The concept of experience of God or of the presence of God will link our conversation so far to the concept of mysticism.  This concept is important in understanding Catherine’s spirituality as she is known as a great mystic.

        As in reflecting about holiness, I start with a discussion of Jesus’ own experience of the presence of God, for Jesus is the model for Christians, and experience of the presence of God is a defining factor in mysticism.

        Jesus and the presence of God

        In the Gospel stories we are told that Jesus was one with God. As a part of the Trinity, as part of that mystery of connectedness of separate persons, Jesus lived with consciousness of God’s presence in exemplary fashion.  That is, Jesus was always present to the divine Wisdom, which was part of him as member of the Trinity, even as he went about his life as fully human. Put another way, as part of the Trinity Jesus lived constantly connected to the Spirit.  As human person, he lived in constant awareness of the presence of God.

        As member of the Trinity, Jesus was clearly unique in his experience of the presence of God, yet he sought connection to God the Father in ordinary ways.  Despite his union with God as member of the Trinity, Jesus as human person took time to pray, to focus on connecting with God through times of silence and solitude.  As the Gospels tell us, Jesus took time off to pray alone, to commune with God (the Father).

        Jesus’ experience of constant presence to God and the Spirit is not reflected in extraordinary spiritual experiences.  At least the Gospels do not tell us about extraordinary spiritual experiences on the part of Jesus.  Except for the story about the transfiguration, we are told no stories about Jesus being absorbed into spiritual reality so that he was not present to those around him.  There are no gospel stories about Jesus spending time in ecstasy or descriptions about his levitating.  The Gospels do not focus on Jesus having revelatory visions.  Being in communion with God as member of the Trinity his actions were an expression of God’s will.  The extraordinary dimension of Jesus’ life lies in the power of his ministry, namely the transforming power of his teaching, his forgiveness of sin, his healing ministry, and his willingness to give his life for this mission.

        In short, when we examine Jesus’ life, we see that it was grounded in his Trinitarian life of constant connection to God. Exceptional spiritual experiences are not a feature of the story we have about him.  These two facts are important when we discuss mysticism.

        The presence of God and mysticism

        From a Christian perspective, mysticism refers most essentially to experience of God that is lived in a felt, personal way, and that is transformative in terms of the ideals of the Gospels.  The concept of mysticism[1] emphasizes the experience of God’s presence, while underlining that such experience is authentically Christian when it is transforming.

        While this has been the essential definition of Christian mysticism, this concept has—over the centuries—come to be associated with out of the ordinary experiences of God.  Many important Christian authors wrote about direct experience of God, highlighting the experience of union which is considered an exceptional peak experience of God’s presence. After the 17th century in the Catholic tradition there emerged an academic discipline called mystical theology. Through these writings and the influence of this discipline, mysticism came to be associated with out of the ordinary experiences of God including visions, ecstasies, and revelations, considered indicative of exceptional closeness to God.

        A Biblically based contemporary Christian spirituality highlights that experience of God is not meant to be an extraordinary reality for a follower of Jesus, for all are called to some form of transformative relationship with God.  Inherent in any relationship with God is an experience of the reality of God, of the Spirit’s action in our lives, in other words, of the presence of God.  From this perspective, connection to the presence of God, the most authentic element of Christian mysticism, is a basic Gospel invitation.

        A contemporary Biblically based perspective on Christian spirituality, one based on post Vatican II theology such as that of Karl Rahner[2], highlights that experience of God is not a prize to be won, a reward for holiness, but that which God desires for all of us.
        Indeed, he wrote, “the devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.” [3] That is, God wants to communicate with us; God created us capable of this communication. It is my experience as spiritual director that all persons who seek to tune in to God’s presence, and who obtain some guidance to understand how to recognize the presence of God are able to have some sense of this presence.

        Catherine’s mystical spirituality

        When Catherine is named a mystic, most have in mind the narrative about her exceptional experiences, and her reputation for holiness is associated with these experiences.  However, what makes her a holy Christian mystic is her transformative experience through the presence of God rather than her visions and ecstasies.  Catherine was an exceptional Christian mystic because she imitated Jesus in that she eventually lived her life able to be constantly, or almost constantly aware of the presence of God, and out of this closeness to God, she was transformed into the holy person she became.  As already described Catherine’s closeness to God resulted in her ministry and her writings through which her ministry has continued through the centuries.

        Catherine herself does not refer to mysticism. However, her concept of continuous prayer correlates with the definition of mysticism. Continuous prayer was for her both an almost constant consciousness of the presence of God and a way of being in life that allows God’s presence to transform in an ongoing way.  Foundational to continuous prayer is knowledge of God and self, for such knowledge transforms the capacity for love and truth, and this transformation further nurtures and actualizes living life in continuous prayer.  These are foundational themes in Catherine’s spirituality. They are discussed in detail in spiritual developments: key elements. In other words, for Catherine, what resulted in continuous prayer, and therefore consciousness of the presence of God, was the transformative journey of knowledge of God and self, lived by spending time in the inner cell, that is in quiet listening for the movements of God within.

        [1] I use mysticism here as does Bernard McGinn, the great expert on mysticism: mysticism is “a direct, immediate, and transformative encounter with the presence of God.” See Bernard McGinn and Patricia Ferris McGinn, 2003, Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of the Spiritual Masters. New York, NY: Crossroad Herder. p.10. Please note that in the Catholic tradition there are a plurality of emphases regarding mysticism and mystical experiences, some still influenced by the academic discipline of Mystical & Ascetical Theology.

        [2] Karl Rahner is one of the great post Vatican II Catholic theologians who grounds his understanding of God’s relationship to persons in the concept of God’s self-communication.  A foundational work on this is, Karl Rahner, 1978, Foundations of Christian Faith. New York: Seabury.

        [3] Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” in Theological investigations vol VII, p. 5., Limerick, Ireland: Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick Centre for Culture, Technology and Values. Electronic Centenary Edition.

        Visions and experience of God through images[1]

        I now turn to the experience of God through visions and hearing God’s voice since Catherine is known for her visions. Hagiographies and legends as well as contemporary studies of Catherine’s life have highlighted the visions that guided her life.  As a child she saw a vision of Christ that made God real and attractive; the legends suggest this vision led to her lifelong quest to give her life to God.  All accounts of her life highlight foundational visions of a “marriage” to Christ and a few years later a vision of an exchange of hearts with Jesus; as well there are accounts of several other visions. I propose that many of Catherine’s visions fall into the ordinary category as described below, though she also had visions that were out of the ordinary, as we shall see.

        Ordinary visions

        Visions can be an ordinary way for persons to communicate with God, to have a felt experience of God.  In the sense of images that form in the mind’s eye (as opposed to seeing an apparition such as Mary appearing to Bernadette at Lourdes), visions are a form of connection to God that is not uncommon.

        When I direct weeklong retreats, I repeatedly hear from my retreatants’ experiences of God “speaking” to them through images that form in their mind’s eye, a form of intuitive “seeing.”  Someone looks at a picture of Jesus and feels as though they see themselves with Jesus and hear him speaking to them.  Or someone contemplates a statue of Mary with the infant Jesus, then feels her love for her and “sees” in her mind’s eye Mary reaching out to hold and comfort her.  Or someone watches a sunrise, a sunset, a view of the ocean or a bird in a tree and they have an inner sense, an intuitive knowing that God is speaking to them through nature about a topic related to their ongoing prayer.  Or someone intentionally uses their imagination to picture themselves in a Gospel story, and then experiences Jesus communicating a personal message to them through this imagery.

        Visions, then, that are not literal apparitions, are not uncommon when persons are in silence, seeking God, and trying to connect with God’s love, wisdom and guidance.  I suggest that many of Catherine’s visions fall into this category.  (See also “Caution about visions”)

        Extraordinary visions

        Exceptional visions involve an extraordinary experience of consolation[2] and mediate out of the ordinary gifts of wisdom. Saints, including Catherine, have described experiences of being so absorbed in the presence of God—an extraordinary experience of consolation—such that they suddenly see truth and connected truths about God and about human reality from the perspective of God.  They report acquiring new understanding that is beyond words and beyond usual human comprehension. For instance, Thomas Aquinas towards the end of his life described seeing truth in a way that far surpassed all his former learning. Ignatius of Loyola described a vision towards the beginning of his spiritual journey where he was illuminated about God and reality in a manner beyond words; this knowledge guided the rest of his life.  Catherine described such experiences as well. (For instance, see excerpt Letter 272a)

        Examples of Catherine’s visions

        Catherine describes in her letters many experiences that I would classify as ordinary visions and some that were out of the ordinary; in either case, the manner in which she received and acted upon her visions and communications from God was exceptional.  For Catherine lived as though on a permanent retreat and was so close to God, that she experienced communications from God on a frequent if not daily basis.  She was also exceptional in the fidelity and steadfastness with which she applied to her life and taught others with authority and power the wisdom she received through her visions and other experiences of God’s communication.  These experiences were transformative for her and resulted in her work towards the transformation of others and the good of the church. I highlight that for a Christian, the significance of any experience of God is its transformative power.

        Let me offer instances of some of Catherine’s “ordinary” visions. In a Letter to Raymond (Letter 226)—at the time in another city—she describes desiring to receive absolution from him.  Filled with that desire, Catherine experienced an inner sense, a vision in her mind’s eye, that Christ himself gave her absolution. (Letter 226)   In the same letter Catherine describes an image that formed in her mind’s eye of walking along the road talking to Jesus, having a sense of God’s indescribable goodness and love, while she imagined God telling her: “my daughter, I am not one who does not value holy, true desires; on the contrary, I know how to fulfill these. Be comforted and be a courageous voice for the truth, I will always be with you.” (Letter 226)

        While in these examples Catherine describes experiences of God’s love—consolation—and asserts they are hard to describe in words, I suggest these fall into the ordinary vision category. In my experience as spiritual director, when persons have a deeply felt sense of God’s love, it is always difficult to fully describe; it is in some ultimate way an experience that cannot be fully captured into words.  Precisely because many people have experiences of God’s love and cannot find the right words to describe that love, difficulty in describing the experience of God’s love is not an indication of an extraordinary experience. 

        Similarly, when Catherine describes being absolved of her sins by Christ and of walking along the road with him, the context of the account does not suggest an experience of ecstasy or of receiving knowledge and wisdom of an extraordinary nature as will be described below.  Rather it is an image in her mind’s eye that mediates a communication from Christ.  To my practiced ears as spiritual director for over two decades, this intuitive knowing and these images seem comparable to those described by ordinary persons in moments of closeness to God.  These types of experiences are not out of the ordinary in a retreat context or in the prayer lives of persons who have committed, regular times of silence and solitude.

        Exceptional experiences

        Catherine also had visions that were much less ordinary.  These were accompanied by exceptional experiences of consolation –times of being so absorbed in spiritual reality that she lost touch with material reality (ecstasy).  For instance, in a letter to Raymond and some of her followers (Letter 219), she describes being in prayer one evening when she was suffused with such joy and fullness of peace that she felt she was no longer present to her physical surroundings.  In this state of consolation, she had a number of powerful insights and a vision.  She had the insight that the struggles of the church served to purify the institution; she heard in her mind’s eye Jesus’ words from the Gospels when he chased out the money lenders, chastising those misusing God’s house; she sensed these words applied to some of the events going on in the church at that time.  Absorbing this wisdom from Scripture, she felt an increased urge to greater love for God.  While this urge grasped her consciousness, a vision came to her mind’s eye.  She imaged the wound on the side of Christ, through which entered both Christians and non-Christians. Catherine saw herself entering this wound together with all these persons as well as St. Dominic and St John; as she entered, Jesus offered her the cross to carry and an olive branch to hold.  She felt a sense of invitation to carry both cross [salvation] and olive branch [peace] between Christians and non-Christians.  Her consolation increased sensing that the love of God she was experiencing revealed the essence of who God is.

        This vision is clearly out of the ordinary in the depth of the experience of consolation and the degree to which Catherine describes having her consciousness absorbed into spiritual reality; as well she describes an out of the ordinary knowing about the essence of God.  The consolation experienced drew her into God’s love and totally out of consciousness of ordinary material reality.  At the same time, she received prophetic[3]revelations about the church and that which God wanted for the church, including the call to make peace with non-Christians and to offer them salvation.  Such concern for non-Christians would have been quite prophetic and out of the ordinary in Catherine’s day.

        Further, this vision infused in Catherine an exceptional understanding of Christ’s redemption and how God’s goodness and desire to transform was so much greater than all the offenses against the church.  This inner knowing left Catherine feeling an overwhelming sense of hope for the future of the church.  (Though hope, a gift of grace, is not an out of the ordinary experience as a result of connection to God).

        Prophetic experiences and charism of wisdom

        The forgoing vision is also an example of the charism of wisdom, that is, of a gift of knowledge or understanding imparted through the Holy Spirit for communication to others for the good of God’s beloved people.  I note that reception of the charism of wisdom does not require such an exceptional mystical experience.

        Many of Catherine’s visions reflected this charism and were also prophetic (see note 1).  As did the prophets of the Old Testament, Catherine had insights, revelations, intuitions and visions that taught her wisdom meant to challenge and guide God’s people; these became exhortations directed to those in leadership of both church and the state.  The vision just described above is an example of the prophetic dimension of her visions, especially in the challenge to bring salvation and peace to all, including the “enemy,” the Turks occupying the Holy Land.  Of course, her wisdom certainly also benefitted her followers and her own growth and transformation.

        Visions and culture

        In understanding and interpreting Catherine’s spirituality, we must put her images into historical and cultural perspective.  For what to our contemporary ears might seem an extraordinary image, may have been common in Catherine’s times.  The images that come to the mind’s eye in prayer most often come from our cultural context or personal experience.  God uses what is familiar to the particular individual in order to communicate. For instance, I mentioned someone on retreat in a beautiful location will experience God speaking through that beauty.  Someone on retreat where there is a particularly evocative image of Mary with Jesus as baby will imagine themselves pulled into that image.  This is not too different from Jesus’ use of ordinary images of daily life in Palestine to teach through parables.

        In terms of Catherine’s experience, her images and the flowery, dramatic language she used to describe them, were part of her cultural context.  For instance, in my decades of offering retreats and spiritual accompaniment, I have never had someone relate an experience of being “married” to Jesus.  This imagery, however, was common during several centuries particularly among women who chose a celibate lifestyle.  Catherine was formed through stories of the lives of saints and holy persons, such that she undoubtedly had heard about this type of experience, one that was congruent with her desire to give herself completely to God.

        Because God uses images, realities, memories and other factors from our experience in order to call us, inspire us and heal us, it is important to note that many images are symbolic rather than literal.  Images are thus instruments for the experience of God’s communication.  Thus, the imagery of espousal with Christ that Catherine experienced, conveyed a call to a life of closeness to God and dedicated service.  Today such a call would probably be mediated by a different type of imagery.

        [1] In this website I present a gospel-based theology of holiness and an understanding of visions based on a post-Vatican II theology and anthropology (the understanding of the person based on Christian faith), as well as on reflection about the spiritual experience of ordinary persons who participate in retreats and in prayer groups.  Much has been written about visions from multiple perspectives and it is beyond the scope of this reflection to describe these.

        [2] Consolation is a word used in spirituality to refer to an inner experience of God’s love and presence that creates inner peace, joy and exceptional inner clarity.

        [3] Meaning the words of an emissary from God, not forecasts about the future.

        Summary about experience of God, holiness and mysticism:

        I wish to make two important points here:

        1. Catherine’s exceptional visions or ecstasies are not the indicators of her holiness; what made her holy was her commitment to a relationship with God which led to a capacity to be conscious of God’s transforming and guiding presence during most of her waking life. And this consciousness of God’s presence was, indeed, transforming and led to an extraordinary commitment to doing God’s will and being an instrument of God for the good of others.  Her visions, gifts of wisdom and guiding images were a fruit of the closeness of her relationship with God and served to help her be an instrument of God’s wisdom and grace.
        2. Experiencing God in visions in the sense of images in the mind’s eye, or the intuitive sense in the mind’s eye that God is speaking to us is not extraordinary. These are authentic, ordinary ways in which any Christian committed to tuning in to the presence of God can experience God’s communication with them. While Catherine had a number of out of the ordinary experiences of consolation and revelation, she had many that ordinary Christians can have in the context of times dedicated to listening to God.

        Fasting and Penance

        Much has been said about Catherine’s fasting, a practice which is said to have started from the time she was an adolescent.  Legend and hagiography tell us that she ate little, that eventually she was unable to eat without great pain, and that she was nourished through reception of the Eucharist.  She clearly suffered physically from lack of nourishment, and this was most likely the cause of her early death.  However, we simply cannot know to what extent her fasting harmed her health and to what extent she may have additionally suffered from some form of disease.

        By 1378, two years before her death, Catherine had come to balanced wisdom about fasting and penance. We see this in a long letter [No. 213] she wrote in that year to Daniella, a fellow Mantellata.  Catherine asserts that discernment is essential for determining the timing and degree of fasting and prayer.  Otherwise, these practices become a form of pride, in that the person believes she is accomplishing a feat that should win her salvation, instead of trusting in God’s unconditional love, true source of salvation.  In other words, fasting and penance, Catherine tells Daniella, can become goals in themselves and leave the practitioner self- satisfied.  Therefore, these practices must be pursued as a result of discernment, fruit of deep connection with God through knowledge of God and self.  Fasting and penance must be expressions of prayer and submission to God and tools for personal conversion. Indeed, Catherine confesses to Daniella that she herself did not always practice this wisdom. See excerpts of Letter 213.

        Medieval fasting piety

        Catherine fasted as a form of piety popular in the Middle Ages, especially among women who devoted themselves to prayer and the service of God.  Beginning at least 300 years before Catherine there are stories about women known for their devout lives who are said to have eaten nothing but the Eucharist for long periods, even years.  Fasting in this tradition was in part related to doing penance, but in large part it expressed a devotion to the Eucharist, expressing faith that the Eucharist, Jesus’ very body and blood, was enough nourishment.

        Scholars of medieval history have studied this piety and offered many interpretations as to its source and purpose.  My own scholarly bias is that the important point from the perspective of spirituality is the intention the women had in fasting (penance and intercession), and the meaning this devotion had for them (faith that the Eucharist as Jesus body and blood was enough nourishment).

        For Catherine, fasting was a way of giving herself to God, of surrendering human desire and pleasure for the sake of God and in intercession for sinners.  Her desire and intent were to serve God interceding and sacrificing herself for the salvation of others; this desire and intent are, in her case, the remarkable, holy dimension of this practice.

        Modern interpretations of Catherine’s fasting

        Scholars, mostly medieval historians, have studied Catherine’s ascetical practices in the context of female piety in the Middle Ages.  Some have interpreted her fasting in terms of modern medical/psychological categories such as anorexia, or a female need for control at a historical time when women generally had little power.  My scholarly perspective is that these diagnoses and categories can be misleading in understanding Catherine’s spirituality—though they are valid historical analyses—because they ascribe motivations to Catherine that do not apply to her cultural context and obscure her faith-based motivation.  Catherine was attracted to offering God heroic acts as an expression of love, and she found expression of this desire in practices congruent with her medieval culture and piety.  From her writings, it seems straight forward that she fasted and did penance out of love for God and desire for the salvation of others, where fasting was a form of prayer.  Catherine may have suffered from the medical condition, anorexia, but her motivation for limiting her food intake was qualitatively different from that of an anorexic person today.


        Catherine also did penance according to devotional practices of her day, namely seeking physical discomfort and even scourging herself.  Scourging was a common medieval penitential practice intended as a form of intercessory prayer and imitation of Jesus in his suffering.  However, in themselves, such practices are not evidence of holiness.  Indeed, Catherine herself taught that penance done as a feat is a self-centered behavior focused on one’s own glory.

        Jesus and ascetical practices

        In terms of application of Catherine’s fasting and penance to contemporary spiritual practices, it is helpful to again look at the evidence regarding Jesus and these practices.

        Jesus was not known for fasting or for causing himself pain through penances. The Gospels tell us about the fast prior to the baptism by John.  This is only one very particular occasion, whereas there are many descriptions of Jesus’s participation in celebrations that involved sharing a meal: the wedding at Cana, the many visits where he was invited to dine, the celebration with his disciples before his death, the meal he prepared for his disciples in the resurrection accounts.

        There are no accounts of Jesus practicing the sort of penances common in medieval times that involved causing oneself physical pain. Jesus suffered for us, but this suffering was caused to him by others in reaction to his preaching and healing, in reaction to his acts for the wellbeing of others in defiance of existing rules and the views of the authorities.  In other words, suffering came as a result of his following God’s will.  It was not self-inflicted.

        Fasting as a form of spiritual discipline exists in many religions and spiritual traditions.  Accordingly, fasting can have a place in Christian spiritual journeys when it is a form of prayer.  However, fasting, in itself, is not a sign of holiness and is never a healthy spiritual practice when the focus is a spiritual athletic achievement rather than a form of prayer.


        In the Middle Ages the emphasis on the miraculous and extraordinary was considered a significant indication of holiness. Accordingly, extraordinary ascetical feats, miracles and any experience or behavior deemed “supernatural” were highlighted, whether based on legend or not. If the hagiography was written to contribute to a process of canonization, the extraordinary was highlighted as evidence the Holy Spirit was especially at work in the person. Thus, Raymond of Capua focused in his hagiography on the extraordinary about Catherine especially since he wrote this work with the goal of creating evidence for her canonization.  For example, if Catherine learned to read from one day to the next, it would be a sign that she was especially blessed by God and, therefore, holy.  If she could go on functioning while eating only the Eucharist, she must be out of the ordinary and especially blessed by God. If someone could stick a pin in her foot when she was praying and she did not feel it, this too made her blessed by God in an extraordinary manner.  Whether these accounts were literally true was not the important point.  The important point was showing Catherine was extraordinary.

        Because even learned theologians like Raymond focused on the extraordinary, and undoubtedly exaggerated some facts in order to show holiness, we cannot be certain about the full reality of some of the extraordinary experiences reported about Catherine. For instance, we know today that Raymond exaggerated Catherine’s influence on Pope Gregory XI, and highlighted legends about her ability to live only on the Eucharist, though this is highly unlikely.  Thus, we cannot read Raymond’s hagiography as a carefully researched 21st century biography. It must be interpreted and confronted with the historical record.

        I will describe significant stories about Catherine reported in Raymond’s hagiography that are not historically accurate and have led to inaccurate perceptions of Catherine’s involvement in papal politics. (See “Crusade & Catherine’s spirituality”). The hagiographical focus on the extraordinary has, in my view, obscured other, much more significant dimensions of Catherine’s holiness, when holiness is measured against Jesus’ gospel teaching.


        This is an important form of spiritual experience, which can be ordinary or quite extraordinary. Consolation is a felt sense that one is fully in tune with God, with the Spirit.  Correctly understood, consolation is one of the clearest signs that a spiritual experience authentically comes from the Spirit and that one is moving according to inspiration from God. In Catherine’s experience described above, she expressed feeling joy, an overwhelming sense of fullness, certainty and hope in the future.  All of these can be part of consolation.  But the ultimate sign of the authentic presence of God in an experience is a profound sense of rightness and peace at a time when the person is seeking God and consciously attentive to that presence.  This sense of rightness and peace must be experienced at all levels of consciousness; it is not a superficial or fleeting experience.  The sense of rightness and peace that come from God, the “consolation” of being fully in tune with the Spirit, can be present even when someone has feelings of sadness or trepidation at a more superficial level.  For instance, on a long retreat, someone has come to sense that they must leave a favourite ministry and accept a call to a job that seems overwhelming or a change of location that implies a series of losses.  On some level, there would be sadness or trepidation, but once the new choice is experienced as coming from God, the person comes to a deep sense of peace and rightness.  In Catherine’s case, she described experiences of pain for the disorder going on in the church, even as she felt the consolation of God’s love reassuring her with hope.

        It is important to keep in mind that all of us are vulnerable to misinterpret the meaning of an inner experience.  Guidance or wisdom fruit of a sense of peace and rightness must be congruent with Christian values.   It is always wise to process one’s experiences of consolation with a trusted person who is spiritually wise—especially if these experiences guide our acts and choices.

        Exceptional experiences of consolation would be those that leave the person so absorbed in the love of God and spiritual reality, that consciousness of material reality falls away and in that absorption the person receives an out of the ordinary revelation, an exceptional understanding of the reality of God and/or human reality from the perspective of God.

        Caution about visions

        Visions and having a sense that God is speaking may not constitute authentic communications from the Spirit, from God dwelling within. Persons can have such experiences as a result of paranormal intuitive capacities that are not infused with the presence of the Spirit.  Some experiences may be triggered by licit or illicit drugs or by mental illness.

        Accordingly, from the perspective of Christian spirituality, mystical experiences and out of the ordinary phenomena should always be approached cautiously. It is essential to evaluate visions and mystical experiences in terms of their fruit in the person’s life.  Are these experiences mediating transformation in capacity for love and truth as indicated in the Gospels, and/or are they pointing others to these values?

        Mystical Theology

        In the Catholic tradition there was a period of almost three hundred years—1600’s until the 20th century—during which there was a theological specialty called, mystical theology, later called aesthetical and mystical theology.  Traditional interpretations of Catherine’s spirituality and mysticism from a Catholic perspective have been influenced by the language and logic of this Catholic historical discipline.  This specialty studied Christian perfection which was defined as union with God; mystical experiences were studied as warrants of one’s union with God, and therefore, of perfection.  In turn, perfection was studied in terms of the stages that led to this goal, and there were categorizations of the graces that corresponded to each stage.  A major question debated concerned a distinction between infused and acquired grace.  Acquired grace was the fruit of prayer and meditation practices initiated by the person, while infused grace was the fruit of God’s action in the person without the mediation of any structured exercise.  Infused grace was considered superior to acquired grace.  Visions were thought to be the fruit of infused grace. To summarize this logic: visions are due to infused grace, infused grace is the fruit of union with God, union with God is a measure of perfection, therefore visions are manifestations of perfection.  Though this logic evolved over the years as mystical theology became ascetical and mystical theology and eventually spiritual theology in the 20th century, concepts from traditional mystical theology have influenced some contemporary interpretations of Catherine’s mystical spirituality and holiness.
        (For a more detailed history of this disciplinary evolution and its influence on Christian spirituality see the extract from my book.)

        Presenting Catherine’s spirituality with a focus on her extraordinary visions and the reported miracles that occurred in her life has been in part a consequence of mystical theology and in part the legacy of hagiography.  This website seeks to show that such “extraordinary” experiences are not the signs of her holiness.  Rather her holiness is exemplified by her wholehearted commitment to a relationship with God, to allowing herself to be transformed by God, and then out of these experiences doing God’s will without reserve.

        Today Christian mystical theology or studies in mysticism is an ecumenical field of study.  The Christian version of this discipline studies mystical texts and the experience of the presence of God but does not follow the logic or methodology of traditional Catholic mystical theology[1].

        As well, mysticism is studied by non-Christian religious traditions and as a non-religious phenomenon.  In other words, the terms mysticism and mystical experience can have many different connotations and interpretations not covered in this website.

        [1] For a contemporary representation of this discipline see the web page of the Mystical Theology Network,  Or, Mark A. McIntosh, 1998. Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology: Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.