Spiritual development-essentials

Under this tab and its sub-tabs, I present key themes of Catherine’s wisdom regarding the spiritual journey by analyzing excerpts from her writings. I will also suggest ways in which Catherine’s wisdom can apply to a spiritual journey today.

As already mentioned, Catherine’s communications are more akin to sermons aimed to move and motivate, rather than essays systematically setting forth a topic.  She expresses her wisdom in a literary form, through images and metaphors.  One must use one’s imagination and affective response to the images in order to deepen understanding.  Further, Catherine repeats her wisdom in different contexts, at times with new analogies and images.  Similar wisdom may appear in different letters though with new metaphors which disclose nuances of her thought.  Accordingly, to glean the fullness and complexity of her teaching one has to unpack or exegete several texts.  Another way of thinking about Catherine’s wisdom is that it is like a crystal with different facets.  One gets a full picture of the crystal after examining all the different facets, even though these may resemble each other.

Accordingly, in the subsequent tabs on Catherine’s wisdom I will present texts that disclose significant themes of her teaching, and I will offer explanations of these texts.  This is not a linear presentation of her wisdom, but rather a layered presentation, that inevitably involves repetition but aims to offer depth and complexity, and an appreciation of the metaphors she uses to communicate about spiritual experience.

While this tab and its sub-tabs describe essential elements of Catherine’s wisdom regarding the spiritual journey, they do not include all the themes present in her wisdom.  For Catherine repeats the same insights using different metaphors, symbols and rhetorical formulations.  For instance, authors over the centuries have highlighted the theme of Jesus’ blood as a key to Catherine’s spirituality.  While this is a key metaphor, I do not emphasize this, as it requires a greater effort of interpretation and imagination shift for contemporary persons.  Other authors have examined her writings through the theme of truth.  My reading of Catherine is that truth is closely related to love and is not a concept significant to the spiritual journey apart from love.  Accordingly, I have discussed truth as part of Catherine’s teaching about love.  Almost all the themes or metaphors in Catherine’s wisdom eventually lead to teaching about the transformation in capacity to love, the main goal of the spiritual journey.

Theological anthropology

Catherine’s theological anthropology is key to understanding her spirituality, since all spirituality supposes a particular understanding of the human person, and theological anthropology is the specialty which reflects about who persons are in relationship to God.[1]

Catherine was not a theologian, but through her informal formation she absorbed a theological anthropology which was the ground and center of her wisdom about the spiritual journey.  Catherine believed persons are created by God out of love; that love holds them in being and that love is the most important reality about human existence.  Further, persons are created in the image of God, meaning persons are capable of love and truth (essential qualities of God);  realizing these potentials is the goal of life and the spiritual journey.  While created out of love and for love, persons are also sinful in their tendency to self-centeredness, the opposite of love.  Accordingly, Catherine articulates the central goal of the spiritual journey as becoming open to connect to God’s love through which we learn of our potential for love and consciously seek transformation into persons who act out of love. See examples of this wisdom in “Letter excerpts.”

The Spiritual Journey: overview of key themes developed in subsequent tabs

Time in the Cell

What do we need to do to become open to God’s love and allow transformation into our potential for love?  The first task is to learn how to enter into and spend time in the cell.  This is a metaphor for time spent in silence, solitude and prayer, as well as a metaphor for the experience of focusing on our inner consciousness where we connect with the transcendent within us.  Spending time in the cell implies finding ways of being quiet and attentive to our inner experience.  Since persons are created in the image of God and the Spirit is constituent of our being, we have the potential to turn our consciousness towards God, speak to God, and expect to learn how to distinguish the movements of God within.  Catherine’s wisdom assumes these realities and repeatedly returns to urging all her correspondents to spend time in the cell; that is, she urges all to use their free will to discipline themselves to focus inwardly and give time and attention to inner experience.

Knowledge of God and Self

Spending time in the cell is necessary for the next foundational step in the spiritual journey according to Catherine, namely knowledge of self and of God, which are only possible through time in the cell.  These two forms of knowledge, two sides of the same coin, represent the core of the spiritual journey.


Catherine repeatedly describes the transformation of the person as transformation of desire and of the related concept of affetto.  The latter, often translated as affection, does not mean this, and is used by Catherine with more than one meaning; I will return to this in detail in the tab on affetto and desire. Most centrally, affetto refers to the motivational drive emerging from the center of the person, a drive that encompasses emotion, values, thoughts and desires.  Desire has a similar meaning, namely that which most attracts or motivates a person.
In medieval times persons were concerned with the question of how the soul—the spiritual dimension of persons—related to God.  Since Augustin, one of the ways of thinking about that spiritual dimension was through the concept of the three powers of the soul, namely memory, understanding and will.  Catherine often referred to the transformation of the three powers of the soul in order to describe the spiritual journey.


Catherine offers significant wisdom about discernment, wisdom that complements the Ignatian tradition common today.  As we shall see, Catherine’s view of discernment is multifaceted, but in summary it is simple.  The capacity to sort out God’s will, to sort out what is congruent with God’s call, is a result of the ordering and transformation of our capacity for love and truth so that our perceptions, motivations and choices become congruent with God’s will rather than driven by the human tendency to self- centeredness.

Progression in the spiritual journey and continuous Prayer

Catherine offers a plurality of metaphors to describe progression on the spiritual journey, which is ultimately the movement away from self-centeredness to capacity for love and truth.  Catherine offers complex, deep wisdom regarding the journey entailed in such growth.
Continuous prayer is a fruit of this progression but is also a motor for this progression.

In addition to the detailed information in the next sub-tabs, there is also significant information on Catherine’s wisdom about the spiritual journey and her own living of this journey in the tabs on “Mystical spirituality & holiness” and “Spirituality & political engagement.”

[1] Theological anthropology is based on interpretation of Revelation and tradition and, therefore, presupposes belief. Catholic theological anthropology asserts that the human person has a capacity for transcendence.  This has several implications: 1) Persons have a capacity to relate to infinite spiritual reality, that is to God who is infinite and exists in spiritual reality.  2) A person’s identity is spiritual as well as material/historical.  This means that who I am, the person I have become through my history and passage through life, my identity, lives on into eternity with God [the traditional concept of soul]. 3)  The capacity for transcendence makes possible moving beyond self-centeredness, sinfulness and human weakness towards a capacity to give of self, for this capacity is inherent to each person as created in the image of God who is love and truth.