Catherine’s wisdom about the cell and all its metaphorical meanings is always closely tied to her wisdom regarding knowledge of God and self; indeed, these two aspects of Catherine’s teaching, each multi-faceted, are closely intertwined. I separate the topics here to offer as much clarity as possible about each.
Time in cell; Knowledge of God & Knowledge of self
Spending time in the cell
The cell is a foundational symbol and metaphor in Catherine’s wisdom about the spiritual journey. In Catherine’s day, the common meaning of cell referred to the home and living space of a hermit living in the periphery of a medieval city such as Siena, or to the bedroom of monks and nuns living in the monastery. The cell-bedroom was also the space where time was spent in silence and solitude in order to pray and connect to God.
Because Catherine’s earliest experience of connection to God happened in the solitude of her bedroom at her parents’ home, and she considered this her “cell,” going into one’s cell came to signify taking time to connect with God, in addition to its ordinary meaning referring to a particular type of room.
As we shall see below, “cell” came to express various dimensions of intentionally connecting to God’s presence. It was a metaphor for the state of consciousness necessary for the encounter with God, namely the experience of focusing one’s consciousness introspectively, opening oneself to “hear” or inwardly perceive God’s presence-communication-inspiration. Such inward focus facilitated the experience of God’s love, as well as the introspective experience of honestly appraising who one is before God. As we shall see, Catherine formulated the key dynamic of the spiritual journey as growth in knowledge of God and of self before God in order to be transformed in capacity to love. And time in the cell was necessary for this dynamic to take place.
Catherine used the word cell paired with other words to signify different aspects of this foundational dynamic of spending time with consciousness focused inward. There is the cell of self-knowledge, sometimes the house of self-knowledge (with a similar meaning), the cell of the soul, the cell of the side of Christ, and others as we shall see below.
As I have explained, Catherine communicated her wisdom in short, usually intense texts, often loaded with images and intertwined metaphors. Her letters, remember, are more akin to sermons than to essays. One gains layers of insight by examining her texts as one might a poem or painting, interpreting their symbolic meanings that appeal to the whole person and not just to reason. As well, it is important to overlay texts with nuances about the same topic. Through these exercises one can acquire a more comprehensive understanding of Catherine’s wisdom. Accordingly, in what follows I will cite several passages in which Catherine uses the word cell to show the multiple nuances of her teaching through this metaphor.
Becoming accustomed to dwelling in the cell
For Catherine, the basis for a spiritual journey is becoming accustomed to dwelling in the cell, that is, to spending time in connection with God. Thus, this concept is highlighted in the first paragraph of The Dialogue.
She [the soul] has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it. (Dialogue 1.25)
We have said the cell is a metaphor for an inner experience of introspection, an inner experience of tuning-in to the place of consciousness where we connect with the reality of God and can know ourselves while conscious of God’s love. Thus, becoming accustomed to regularly taking time for such introspective inner experience is a basic first step in the spiritual journey.
In this first paragraph of The Dialogue, cell is paired with self-knowledge. This pairing emphasizes that a most significant dimension of regular introspection is becoming conscious of our sinfulness, our woundedness, our self-centeredness, and our all-around need for God. This self-knowledge makes possible receptivity and appreciation of God’s unconditional mercy and care for us. By upon knowledge follows love Catherine refers to the dynamic of recognizing one’s need for God and then experiencing God’s merciful transformative love. That is, with felt knowledge of one’s need, one is able to appreciate God’s love as all accepting and merciful and one is able to recognize the change in one’s sinful, self-centeredness as a result of grace. This interrelated dynamic—two sides of the same coin—that is, knowledge of self plus felt appreciation of God’s love, leads to growth in desire for God and the transformation God offers, as well as desire to perceive reality according to God’s perspective and act accordingly.
Thus, in this first paragraph of her full-length work, Catherine asserts that becoming accustomed to spending time in introspection that focuses on God and knowledge of who we are before God is the foundation of the spiritual journey.
You are the cell, God is the bed
Catherine tells the nun, Costanza, about the cell, where the cell has three interrelated meanings. Cell has the straightforward meaning of physical space; it is Costanza’s bedroom. At the same time cell is a metaphor for the core of Costanza’s identity, her spiritual self, and a metaphor for the experience of focusing on inner spiritual reality. This is an example of Catherine’s intricate metaphors, where one image can have multiple meanings in one text. This is also a particularly rich text containing the core of Catherine’s wisdom on the dynamics of the spiritual journey, insights similar to the above paragraph from The Dialogue.
You know what you should do? That which you do when you go into your cell at night to go to sleep. First you reach your cell, and once inside, your bed. You clearly know that you need the cell [as a space in which to sleep], but then your eye and desire (affetto) focus on your bed, where you find rest. You should act in a similar manner when you reach the cell of self-knowledge; I want you to open your eye to knowledge through affective love. Go into the cell and go to bed, in which bed you will find God’s sweet goodness, which is within you, cell. You will see clearly that your being was granted to you through grace and not out of obligation. . . . For you see my daughter, this bed is covered with a red bedspread, the blood of the sacrificed lamb. So, rest there and never leave. Notice that you have no cell without a bed nor a bed without a cell. Nurture your soul in this goodness of God. (Letter 73, May 1376)
Let me try to unpack this text. Notice Catherine wants Constanza to reflect on the analogy and not just acknowledge it with her mind. For Catherine wants to teach her followers the importance of reflection on their experience. First, Catherine sets up an analogy to catch Costanza’s attention in a very mundane, concrete way. Costanza should reflect on what it is like to recognize that her cell is necessary to have a good night’s rest, yet most important for a good rest is the bed. In terms of the metaphor, Catherine tells Costanza that she must seek quiet in order to connect to God (enter the cell) but must also focus on knowledge of God’s love (go to bed, where God is the bed). That is, she needs a space for the silence and introspection necessary to experience God and most of all to know herself in the light of God’s love.
In an interrelated manner, the cell is not just a space for introspection. It is the cell of self-knowledge, that is the space for introspection is to be used to focus on knowledge of self while connected to God.
And cell has a related third meaning. Costanza herself is the cell in her potential for the experience of inner consciousness. When Catherine says, which is within you, cell, she is addressing Costanza as cell, that is as dwelling for the experience of connection to God. In other words, Catherine is saying that we are spiritual beings, we have an inherent capacity to encounter God when focused on our inward, spiritual dimension. And in this inwardness, we consciously meet the reality of God and the truth, good and bad, about ourselves. As the physical cell is necessary for a good night’s rest, so space to focus on inner experience in silence is necessary for the spiritual journey, and we must take seriously that we have an inner spiritual dimension which is also a cell, that is a space where we encounter God.
So, in order to encounter God, we should be conscious of requiring a physical space where we can have silence and solitude. We should pay attention to the reality that we have a place of consciousness within us where we can connect to spiritual reality. In these “spaces” we encounter God’s love and learn to know ourselves before God.
Catherine’s metaphor continues. Catherine elaborates on her imagery of the bed, God’s love. Costanza must now imagine the bedspread of the bed, which is symbolic of the Blood; blood is in turn a symbol for God’s love as offering redemption and salvation. So once in the cell and focused on the experience of inner quiet, Costanza is to notice God’s goodness, and more specifically God’s love as saving and transforming; and as already stated, knowledge of these dimensions of God’s love come through knowledge of our need for God. In other words, Catherine taught that God’s love might be experienced as consolation, as joy, as peace and in other ways, but it must always be experienced as saving and transforming. For this is the main effect of God’s love within us. Thus, Costanza should never separate herself from returning to focus on God’s saving love, which involves at the same time, knowledge of self. The metaphorical admonition to rest in the bed covered by the red bedspread and never leave that bed means that Costanza’s spiritual consciousness should regularly and frequently return to focus on God’s love as transformative.
Catherine adds a riddle: there is no bed without a cell and no cell without a bed. What does she mean by this? There exists no interiorly felt, savored experience of God’s goodness and salvific love (the bed) without taking time for silent inward focus and paying attention to how God moves in our lives (cell). And the experience of inner connection to the transcendent within us (cell) is possible because God dwells within us (bed).
The cell is a well
The following text is from a letter written to her cousin and Dominican friar, Tommaso dalla Fonte. Through the metaphor of a well filled in part with soil, then with water, we learn other nuances about Catherine’s wisdom regarding the cell and knowledge of God and self. Also, we again see how Catherine’s wisdom must be deciphered from her multiple metaphors and symbols.
If we were to ask our sweetest, most loving, most merciful Father, he would respond saying something like, “Dearest children, if you want to find my will, to develop a felt sense for it, then always dwell in the cell of your soul.” This cell is a well, filled with both water and soil. In the soil we can recognize our poverty, that we are not; for when we recognize that we are not, we are able to see that our being comes from God. Oh! ardent charity beyond comprehension, I see that the living water has found and reached the soil bringing with it the truth of His true, sweet will, which only wants our sanctification.
And so, let us go into the depth of this well, where we will become compellingly convinced that dwelling there we will come to know ourselves and the goodness of God. With repentance and humility, we will learn that we are not, and then we will enter into the burning, consuming, open heart [of God], which is as an open window that never closes. Focusing on the free will God has given us, we come to know and see that His will is focused on our sanctification and nothing else. (Letter 41, uncertain date)
In this text there are two metaphors for cell: the cell of the soul, and the cell as a well.
Cell of the soul
Using the voice of God, Catherine tells Tommaso to spend time in the cell of the soul, by which Catherine means something similar to “you are the cell” in her letter to the nun, Costanza. That is, the core of our being is a dwelling place for the experience of God. This dwelling place is the conscious experience of our transcendent self, where we connect to God. We are cell, because we have a soul, meaning that as humans we exist in both spiritual as well as material reality, and have a capacity to connect to God, who both holds us in being and is present to us through the Spirit. So, spending time in the cell of the soul implies entering into the experience of quiet listening and quiet receptivity to our inner consciousness in order to connect to God.
We are not
The cell, or that inner consciousness is also like a well. When we go into this well, or inner consciousness, we first encounter soil which is a metaphor for the experience that we are not. What does Catherine mean by this expression common in her writings? By we are not Catherine means that we depend on God, without God we would not exist, without God’s help we would fail to actualize the best of who we are. This expression reflects a knowledge that is beyond words, acquired by Catherine through her closeness to God. She invites Tommaso to the sort of closeness to God that will reveal to him as well, this foundational intuition.
Catherine tells us we learn that we are not through repentance and humility. Humility, in Catherine’s medieval spirituality, means recognition of the truth, both good and bad about ourselves. On the one hand humility involves appreciating that our very existence depends on God, and most crucially that we need God and are not sufficient onto ourselves; on the other hand, humility involves recognizing in a felt way that we are made in the image of God and filled with God’s life.
Repentance in this context involves letting God know that we are sorry for the ways in which we act as though we do not need God. This wisdom on humility and repentance reminds us that part of the spiritual journey of knowledge of self involves discovering the ways one lives as though one did not need God.
Back to her metaphor of the well: to the extent that spending time connected to our spiritual core—focused on inner consciousness—leads us to an intuition about our need for God, we will move through the soil to the water. Here water is a metaphor for God’s unimaginable love; experience of that love affirms within us that God always wants what is best for us and our salvation.
Note that Catherine uses two unrelated metaphors to emphasize her intuition. God is living water, the substance absolutely needed for life. Just as persons must drink water to stay alive, they must connect to God’s love in order to flourish as humans capable of love. That is, we must drink of God or we are not. Catherine emphasizes this key formulation of her wisdom through a change of metaphors: God’s love is an open heart beckoning to us, and at the same time God’s heart is like a window which never closes. In other words, as we recognize our need for God, we will experience that God’s love is like an open heart, inviting us, waiting to pull us in and embrace us; and this embrace of love is a love that never abandons us (a window that never closes).
The image of living water is Biblical, as in John’s Gospel where Jesus gives the Samaritan woman water (Jn 4: 1-16), which is living water. Indeed, Catherine is explicit about living water symbolizing God’s life sustaining love. Catherine tells Alessa,
Take a vessel that you fill at the fountain, and drink at the fountain. If you did not replenish this water continuously, the vessel would become empty. So, God’s love is the fountain of living water. [that is, one must take that love in continuously or one becomes empty of God’s life-giving love]. (Letter 49, Fall 1377)
Cell: dwelling place carried wherever we go
To a monk, Catherine describes the cell as a dwelling we carry wherever we go; this is an explicit reference to the fact that the cell is an inner experience, a place of consciousness within; and since this is the case, it is possible to enter this dwelling, that is engage in the inner experience, no matter where we are.
With desire to see you dwelling in the cell of knowledge of self and of the goodness of God within you. This cell is a dwelling place that persons carry with them wherever they go.
He has become a lover of the cell; he delights in praying the psalms within it in humble, continuous prayer, and so has made of the cell a heaven. (Letter 37, end 1377)
Catherine asserts that if we faithfully practice seeking connection with God, the experience will become so meaningful and important, delightful, says Catherine that we will seek it constantly. The knowledge of God and self, fruit of connection to God is “heaven.” That is, the experience is filled with peace, contentment, joy, safety. In short the discipline of turning to focus on inner experience may be an effort at first or at times, but it is ultimately an experience that offers such consolation that we seek it with anticipation.
Cell of the side of Christ
In a letter to novices of the Olivetan Benedictine monastery, Catherine advises dwelling in the cell of the side of Christ.
I point you to the cell of the side of Christ where you will find knowledge of yourself and his goodness. . . . Advance, go in and remain in this sweet space; for if you remain in this space there will be no evil or creature that can distance you from grace nor prevent you from arriving at your destination of seeing and tasting God. (Letter 36, April 1376)
The side of Christ as open wound is a metaphor for an entrance into or path to the heart of Christ where one will experience God’s love as salvific. For the wound of the side of Christ is also a metaphor for Jesus’ giving his life for us. Out of this wound water poured out indicating that all blood, and therefore all life (to the Hebrews blood=life) had been poured out. Thus, to enter the side of Christ and make a cell there suggests the experience of focusing our inner consciousness on Jesus’ welcoming, receptive love (the wound is open to reach the heart, love), while at the same time being present to the salvific dimension of that love; (that is, Jesus’ life has been given for us). If our consciousness rests in this reality of God’s love holding us in being and in the absolute conviction that this love is that which saves, then we cannot be derailed from the path to fulfill who we are meant to be as images of God. These are powerful images for seeking and staying present to God’s love as transforming.
Cell: empowers mother of prayer and growth in virtue
This passage, addressed to nuns from two different monasteries, highlights Catherine’s insistence to many correspondents that the practice of spending time in the cell is essential to continuous prayer, “the mother of prayer.”
Deprive yourself of levity of mind and vanity of heart and instead go to spend time in the cell; there you can enter into the mother of prayer, which will help you to grow in virtue. (Letter 217, October 1377)
Continuous prayer—a term which describes a multifaceted dimension of the spiritual journey—most essentially refers to an ongoing awareness of the reality of God and the capacity to access that awareness easily at any time. Such ease of connection with God is one of the goals of the spiritual journey as it allows the person to be responsive to God’s guidance and transformation.
 Catherine used the word soul mostly to mean the person in the context of relationship with God. She also used soul to mean the eternal identity of the person, the spiritual core of our reality that is unique to each of us and continues after death.
 Citation from Noffke’s translation of The Dialogue shows the chapter, then the page number.
Knowledge of God-Knowledge of Self
In this section I cite various passages about knowledge of God and self which takes place in the cell. As I have already explained, Catherine’s wisdom is like a crystal which has various sides and prisms. The full crystal is appreciated as it is viewed from various angles and its various prisms are considered. Accordingly, I present below various passages or prisms of Catherine’s wisdom on knowledge of God and self. Before proceeding to these citations, I describe Catherine’s use of “selfish self-love,” a key concept necessary to understand her wisdom; for central to knowing ourselves before God is recognizing our tendency to self-centeredness.
Selfish self-love is the opposite of love/charity, the goal of the spiritual journey. Selfish self-love is another word for self-centeredness. We are self-centered when focused on self-interest to the exclusion of others and when we are unable to notice or appreciate that which is good for others. Without recognizing our self-centeredness, we are unable to know that we are seeing and acting without love. Thus, self-centeredness or the view of reality and others through the lens of one’s own interests without regard for others is for Catherine the root of all sin and disorder because it prevents the person from seeing and acting with the eyes of love. Knowledge of self will always involve recognizing one’s self-centeredness.
Two cells in one
In the following passage Catherine explains to her follower, Alessa, that the cell of self-knowledge, unlike her physical bedroom, is a space she carries with her wherever she goes; besides, this inner space is really two cells in one.
My daughter, you should create two dwelling places, one in your actual cell [her physical bedroom] . . . and another that is spiritual, which you carry with you at all times. This is the cell of true knowledge of yourself, and it is here that you will find the knowledge of the goodness of God within you. These are actually two cells in one; when you dwell in one of these it is important for you to dwell in the other at the same time, otherwise your soul would become confused. For if you remained only present to knowledge of yourself, you could suffer mental distress; and remaining present only to knowledge of God you would become self-satisfied. It is, therefore, important that these two [forms of knowledge] season each other and be as one. In this way you may reach perfection. (Letter 49, Oct/Nov 1377)
The cell of knowledge of self and the cell of knowledge of God are two cells in one, meaning that the two forms of knowledge, the two spaces of experience within, should exist together, as two sides of the same coin. That is, the metaphor of two cells refers to two related forms of inner experience. One cell or inner space is the connection to God’s love and the other cell or inner space involves consciously recognizing who we are before God. One could say these “cells” are spaces for different dimensions of intuitive knowledge arising from one’s spiritual core.
Catherine teaches here that for spiritual growth and transformation these two experiences must exist together; they are beneficial and drive transformation when lived at the same time. Catherine opines that if one only focuses on experiencing God’s presence and God’s love, one could become self-satisfied, or deluded that one is on the right path, when this might not be the case. If one only focuses on recognizing one’s self-centeredness and neediness, one could become discouraged or despondent and get caught up in lack of hope. Instead, when I become conscious of my need for God and experience God’s love as merciful, forgiving and healing, I learn about God’s love at the same time that this love has a transformative effect. Knowing God’s love as I experience my weakness and neediness further fuels my knowledge of God’s love.
In short, Catherine encouraged Alessa to take time to connect to her inner self, attentive to the experience of God’s love, at the same time noticing her need for God, for it is these two experiences in relationship to each other that result in increased love and desire for God, and in transformation away from self-centeredness.
Blessed abyss: Knowledge of God and self
In a letter to a group of sisters Catherine refers to the cell of knowledge of God and self, as the cell of soul and heart. These words highlight that the cell is a form of experience known through the deepest, core dimensions of consciousness, that is, the soul, or one’s transcendent self, and the heart, or the seat of capacity for love. The knowledge of God and self which are goal of the spiritual journey must be known with the core of our affectivity at the transcendent depth of our consciousness. Applying the word abyss, or bottomless depth, also underscores that the experience of God and self that transforms takes place in the depths of the transcendent (bottomless) dimension of human persons. In other words, “blessed abyss” is one of Catherine’s symbolic words, in this case for the infinity of God which is accessible to us at our spiritual core where the Spirit dwells and God holds us in being.
I don’t believe one can acquire the fullness of grace or virtue without dwelling in the cell of the heart and soul. In this dwelling we will acquire lifegiving treasure, that is, the blessed abyss of knowledge of God and self. (Letter 30, May 1374)
Experience at the core of self, where our consciousness tunes in to our transcendent self, allows us to know God with depth of intuition beyond concepts or words. What do we learn about God in this place of consciousness? God is like a peaceful sea; from this sea emerges all life, all that has being. Connecting to the infinity of God-sea, we learn to love all that God has created including ourselves.
You [speaking to God] are the only one who is good; you are that peaceful sea from which emerges all that has being; not, however, that which is not, namely sin. [Then God speaks]: “I want you to love all that is good and perfect and worthy of love; all that is created by me, ultimate goodness.” (Letter 30, May 1374)
God is creator of all except sin, and all, except sin is loved by God. Knowing God means we come to learn this, and therefore relate to all of God’s creation out of love.
Knowledge of the blood
Catherine advises a Carthusian monk on the dynamics of the spiritual journey.
And if you don’t find in yourself the light as desire . . . go with holy hatred into the cell of the knowledge of yourself and God. There let your soul become drunk with the blood of the sweet, loving Word. With this knowledge you acquire all great perfection, in faith and in the hope of the blood shed with such fire of love. (Letter 201, October 1372)
Holy hatred here most likely refers to the recognition of one’s limitations and need for God, or to recognition that one’s selfish self-love is that which leads one astray. Aware that self-centeredness derails him from the truth about himself and that which is ordered according to God, the monk should seek the experience of God’s salvific love, which will reveal and transform self-centeredness. In this case, the metaphor for opening oneself to God’s salvific love is to become “drunk in the blood.” (Remember blood is a metaphor for God’s redemptive love in that Jesus gave his life for us). This striking metaphor suggests allowing our inner senses and our consciousness to be overpowered by meditation on God’s salvific love; it suggests meditation on Jesus’ story, especially his willingness to give his life for us. Catherine returns again and again to this metaphor of blood to suggest meditation on Jesus giving his life for us as a path into knowledge of God’s desire for our salvation. Such repeated meditation teaches us in the depths of ourselves that God cares deeply for our redemption (with fire of love); this knowledge is vital fuel for our motivation to cooperate with God’s love, to respond to God’s offer of grace.
Knowledge of God and self as our homeland
Catherine writes to an Abbess about the cell of self-knowledge and knowledge of God as a homeland and a true and legitimate spouse.
She attaches herself to her homeland, the cell, as to a true and legitimate spouse. . . . In the cell she makes a home with the eternal spouse, embracing the sorrow and disgrace that may come her way, without concern for the delights, status and honors of the world. She lets go of her selfish self-will; placing before her mind’s eye the obedience of Christ crucified. (Letter 86 end 1379)
Here we have two more metaphors that disclose nuances of Catherine’s wisdom. Homeland has the connotation of a place where our identity is rooted, the place where we belong. This suggests that the experience of tuning in to our inner consciousness in quiet and opening ourselves to the experience of God while coming to terms with truth about ourselves, is an experience where we find our true identity and our belonging. The truth about ourselves and God reveals to us our foundational identity. When our consciousness is centered on this foundational identity we are rooted in our true home.
This true home is also like a legitimate spouse. Legitimate spouse captures the Biblical concept of faithfulness to God without deviating in “infidelity” to other Gods, be they the literal pagan Gods of the Old Testament, or the disordered priorities of today, where we forget God. The metaphor of learning to know God as “legitimate spouse” invites us to focus on fidelity to love God and what is in God, which implies seeking awareness of “infidelities” to this spouse. That is, we are invited to know when our love is directed in disordered ways; when we pursue wants and activities that are not ordered, or when our desires are directed in a self-centered manner, deviating from a commitment to God.
Knowledge of God in the cell-homeland also teaches us that God’s love is the pearl of great price, the priority experience through which we receive the strength to face the difficulties of life. For obedience to Christ crucified implies that following God and imitating Jesus’ giving of himself for us will at times require suffering and sacrifice. Without conversion of self-centeredness through knowledge of God and self we will be unable to know God in the crosses of life, for our self-centeredness will reject these or avoid these.
Rootedness in God imagined as legitimate spouse or as homeland, makes possible the endurance of suffering, as well as detachment from that which distracts from the journey of transformation and accomplishment of God’s will.
Knowledge of God through the Cross
Catherine advises a monk about knowledge of the cross.
Make sure that the tree of the Holy Cross is always planted and standing straight in the cell of your soul. For from this tree you will harvest the fruit of obedience, patience and deep humility. You will die to selfish self-love; you will acquire a reputation for being a lover of souls. (Letter 52, April 1376)
The metaphor of the cross being planted straight in the cell suggests that awareness of God’s love as saving love should be at the center of our meditation on an ongoing basis. God’s love as love that gives of self unto death for the good of the other must be front and center when we connect to the core of ourselves in prayer. For the depth knowledge that Jesus gave his life for us is foundational for the Christian spiritual journey. That is, time spent inwardly connecting to God and self should always return to the recognition that God’s love for us is of unfathomable depth in that God became a human person who gave his life for us.
That the cross is a tree interlaces with Catherine’s metaphors about trees as plants that must be planted in the correct place and tended to properly. Thus, the knowledge of God’s love revealed in Jesus giving of his life for us must be nurtured with particular care and priority.
Knowledge of the cross also has implications for self-knowledge. Since knowledge of God and self are two sides of the same coin, experiencing Jesus’ utter giving of self should lead us to examine to what extent we are able to give of ourselves, that is, die to selfish self-love.
Knowledge of the cross in the context of the cell of self-knowledge also implies that having learnt how Jesus’ suffering was meaningful and a form of lifegiving love, we are challenged to examine how we live through suffering. Are we allowing God’s love to help us live through our crosses and transform this suffering into new life? This is a central part of the self-knowledge that comes from having the cross planted straight in the cell of the soul.
Knowledge of God as angelic food
In a letter to her niece, a nun, Catherine urges the importance of connection to one’s inner consciousness (the cell of self-knowledge) in order to find God’s “angelic food.”
I invite you and the other sisters, and I charge you, my special daughter, to stay always in the cell of self-knowledge where we find the angelic food of God’s overwhelming desire for us. . . . You will ask me, “What is this angelic food?” I answer, it is God’s desire that draws the soul to him through her deepest affectivity (affetto), uniting her desire with His and so the two become one [God’s desire and that of the soul]. (Letter 26, May 1379)
The metaphor of “angelic food” discloses another dimension or side of the crystal of knowledge of God. “Angelic food” is a metaphor for God’s desire to be in relationship with us and that all of us be in conscious relationship with God. Accordingly, when persons take the time to connect to their inner consciousness, God attracts them through their deepest motivation, their deepest affectivity. Through this metaphor of “angelic food,” then, we learn that God draws us through the human desire for connection. As the person is attracted to connection with God, her desire, the directionality of her motivation and affectivity come together with those of God. This is a remarkable assertion. As our desires are converted and transformed, they become increasingly congruent with those of God. As God’s love draws me in, my desires become transformed through the connection to that saving love. Self-knowledge in this case involves becoming conscious of our transformed desires. See also the tab on desire and affetto.
Learning to love God’s goodness in oneself
To a laywoman follower Catherine writes,
I desire to see you dwell in the cell of self-knowledge, so that you may achieve perfect love. For I believe that whoever does not love her Creator will not please him; for the Creator is love and desires nothing but love. . . . This is what I wish for you, my dear mother in Christ Jesus, that you love God’ goodness in yourself; His immeasurable charity (love) is to be found in the cell of self-knowledge. In this cell you will find God who holds in existence everything that has being.
Thus, within yourself you will find memory, which holds and is made to hold the treasure of God’s blessings. There you will find understanding, which makes possible our sharing in the wisdom of the Son of God, which involves knowing and comprehending his will and realizing that he wants only our sanctification. Understanding all this, the soul (the person) cannot be disturbed or pained by anything that may come her way as she has learned that all is filled with God’s providence and great love. (Letter 241, July/August 1376)
This passage repeats much that has already been said both in very direct language and with twists of imagery that can shed new light on familiar themes. For instance, Catherine tells this woman to love God’s goodness in herself. It is another way of naming that God dwells in me and holds me in being. This formulation about loving God’s goodness in myself would be a powerful way of focusing a meditation: God’s goodness is in me. Can I imagine this and contemplate this? Can I love the good that is in me, because in that good is God?
There is an important nuance in this passage. Catherine refers to memory and understanding, part of a three-dimensional envisioning of the person that started in early Christianity and was strong in the Middle Ages. The soul or spiritual core was imagined as having three dimensions, namely memory, understanding, and will. Through the construct of “memory” Catherine reminds us that we have a spiritual capacity to absorb and have at hand awareness of God’s blessings, thus cementing within us assurance that God wants our good. “Understanding” makes possible insight into God’s wisdom and empowers internalized heartfelt knowledge about God’s transforming, faithful love; this knowledge leads to a deep-rooted peace in the face of life’s unfolding, knowing that all is encompassed by God’s love. See also “discernment of providence” on the latter insight.
The view of the person as having memory, understanding and will is an important theme in Catherine’s wisdom so I will describe it in more detail in another tab. [See, Three powers of the soul]
Separating self-centeredness from love-charity: the knife
Writing to a favorite layman, Catherine uses the metaphor of a knife that is manufactured in the cell of self-knowledge to teach about learning to separate what is self-centered from what is ordered in God
The knife separates worldliness and selfish self-love from love and that which is of eternal value.
You will ask me, dearest son, “where do I find this knife, where is it manufactured?” I answer, it is found in the cell of knowledge of yourself, where you develop hatred of vice, hatred of your weakness (in terms of sinning), and at the same time love for your Creator, for your neighbor, and for true virtue. Where is the knife manufactured? In the fire of divine charity, on the anvil of the body of the sweet, loving Word, the Son of God. (Letter 329, Beginning 1379)
The knife is a metaphor for the ability to distinguish and let go of—cut out—that which is self-centered in motivation and origin. The knife cuts out that which is self-centered from that which is congruent with love and care for the good of the other. What is the knife? It is love for God together with distaste for that which is self-centered. For the knife to be forged, that is, for such love for God and distaste for self-centeredness to grow, the anvil of Jesus’ body and the fire of God’s love are required. In other words, the ability to distinguish what is self-centered from its opposite and to act out of love rather than self-centeredness develops through time spent in knowledge of Jesus’ giving of self (his body) as one soaks in the transformative love of God (the fire of divine charity); for this experience to take place, one must spend time in the cell-experience of inner quiet.
Learning sorrow for disappointing God
Catherine writes to a monk about humility and how this is learned in the house of knowledge of God and self. (Here house has the same meaning as cell, namely both a physical space and a metaphor for a place of inner consciousness).
[They should] enter and shut themselves off in the house of knowledge of self, which is the house in which the soul should dwell. In this house she [the soul] finds another cell, that is the cell of knowledge of God’s goodness within us, where together with knowledge of self leads to true humility with holy hatred for any offense in which she [the soul] has incurred and still incurs against her Creator. And this leads to true, perfect patience. And in the knowledge of God found within herself, she acquires the virtue of burning charity [love]. (Letter 94, End 1377)
The cell or house of dual knowledge of God and self is central to acquiring humility, which is a way of speaking about knowing who we are before God. Humility here does not refer to being self-effacing. Rather humility means knowing the truth about oneself and acting out of that place. Thus, part of humility is recognizing I am wonderfully made in the image of God and held in being by God, which means all my good potential is held and supported by God’s love and grace. I need God to be the best I can be. Humility also implies recognizing my self-centeredness and having awareness that I need God to avoid self-centered behaviors and choices.
When one lives out of humility, one acquires consciousness of and dislike for all that is contrary to love and truth. When we have grown in humility, we grow in sensitivity to recognizing when we have gone astray and to dislike these deviations. The “holy hatred” described by Catherine can be seen as a dimension of love, that is I hate that which is harmful to one I love—in this case God. Holy hatred could also be interpreted as a felt sense that emerges spontaneously from a place of transformation through God’s love that alerts us when we are going against that which is in God, or put another way, when we are not following God.
APPLICATIONS TO CONTEMPORARY SPIRITUALITY
Steps for a spiritual journey
First step: taking time to become quiet within (time in the cell)
Any of us who wishes to pursue a spiritual journey needs to develop a discipline for taking quiet time that will allow us to turn our focus away from all the noise going on in our minds and open our consciousness to the presence of God dwelling in our spiritual core. There are many structures to create such quiet time. One can choose to sit quietly just 15 minutes a day, perhaps with sacred or meditative music in the background. Or one can use one of many online prayer aids with a Gospel meditation for the day and quiet music. There are aids (and apps) for practicing centering prayer. Or one can take time to prayerfully read over a Biblical reading for the day. All forms of set prayers such as reading the Hours, or recitation of the rosary can also serve to raise our consciousness to God.
Step two: conscious attention to knowing God and self
According to Catherine, time spent in quiet must move beyond set prayers to focus on the presence of God within and to reflection on the way God acts in our life. One must develop a discipline of paying attention to God’s movements within.
I must learn to pay attention to and reflect on the connection between my prayer and God’s response to my prayer. For the knowledge of God about which Catherine writes is not factual knowledge. It is knowledge acquired through relationship. If someone asks me to tell them about a good friend, I could give facts about her, such as her age, or her occupation or whether she is married. But I could also report on what sort of person she is, something I learn through our relationship. For instance, is she caring and responsive, does she listen well, is she willing to share about her vulnerability or not? What Catherine encourages us to learn about God is that which is learned through relationship. What is God like in relating to me? God is love, so what is it like to have a relationship with someone who is love and loves me with that love? Below I offer some suggestions for prayer exercises or structures that could help us with such personal reflections. 
Knowledge of God through Scripture
Weekly or even daily time spent with Scripture is an important way of learning to know God in a relational way. While factual knowledge about God obtained through reading a commentary on scripture or reflecting together in a Bible study group is important for knowing God, this is not the knowledge of God about which Catherine writes. We need to take a step beyond information about the wisdom in Scripture. We need to allow the words of Scripture to become God’s word spoken to our hearts by paying attention to how God touches our emotions and inner self.
For instance, I am reading the scripture of the day and suddenly I feel a sense of consolation and the sense that this passage was written just for me. It touches my heart, it motivates me, or comforts me or encourages me. Or the words of Scripture illuminate a problem I have been struggling with or a decision I need to make. In my quiet time I see that the passage has been illuminated by the Spirit just for me. This experience leads me to feel God knows me and cares about me. I am learning that God loves me.
There are various guides to lectio divina, which offer practical approaches to listening to the Word of God in Scripture in a personal way.
Dialogue with God about my life
Learning about God also happens as a result of reflection on how God responds to my prayers. For instance, I ask God to help me become aware of times when I am about to be impatient with others and help me act calmly. In my quiet time I notice that in the last week I have been much more conscious than usual of growing impatience and more than usual I act in a patient manner. Or I pray for healing of anger that I simply can’t overcome, and I ask for help in not acting vindictively. In my quiet time I notice that my anger and my vindictive thoughts have subsided without efforts on my part. If I pay attention during quiet times I can have a felt sense that God is helping me or responding to my requests for help not just for myself but for my loved ones.
I may ask God to guide me, to help me sort out what do in a certain situation or how to handle a problem or I ask guidance for a forthcoming decision. In my quiet reflections I have an urging to make a certain decision or take a certain step and feel a sense of inspiration and guidance; and/or I experience an intuitive recognition of God’s presence to me in my inner gut sense about a particular action or alternative. I may have an insight about a way of viewing a problematic situation and this insight gives me peace and a sense of rightness.
As I reflect on ways God responds to me, I learn about who God is to me. I learn that I matter to God, that God cares about my life. I learn I can rely on God’s support and guidance. In other words, I am learning about God.
Examining my conscience with God
Many spiritual guides throughout the history of Christian spirituality have written about the importance of intentionally examining our conscience as a form of prayer. While there are different set exercises for doing this, the practice essentially involves asking God’s Spirit to shed light in my heart about the ways in which I am deviating from God’s love and will. I ask God to help me notice my failings, my areas of need for God’s transformative grace. Following Catherine’s wisdom, I suggest we should all examine ourselves before God on a regular basis regarding self-centeredness in our family relationships, in our relationships with colleagues, in the choices we make about our lives. After such reflections, I then offer to God my errors and weakness and ask for transforming grace. Finally, I pay attention to the experience that God is not a condemning, judgmental other; I notice that offering God my failings and asking for God’s help, I can have a sense of peace, of hope and trust that God will help me. Over time this form of spiritual exercise will help me grow in knowledge of God’s mercy, the form of God’s love about which Catherine repeatedly teaches. Thus, the practice of examining our conscience becomes a form of knowledge of self as well as knowledge of God.
Grace of familiarity with God
As one grows in the practice of regular prayer times that include dialogue with God and paying attention to God’s movements within, one will increasingly develop a sense of God’s presence and one becomes open to those free gifts of God’s grace where one knows that one knows that God is present and loves us. As Catherine well insists, one can expect these experiences when one takes time to be in the cell, that is to be quiet and listen to God. When we have a daily discipline of taking quiet times and focusing on God’s presence to us, we are much more likely to notice God’s touch in our lives, thus knowing both God and self better. At the same time, we become increasingly capable of responding to God’s initiatives of love.
Transformation as goal of the spiritual journey
In our pluralistic culture there is a great deal of literature on the spiritual journey from a variety of perspectives, including plural perspectives on the practice of Christian spirituality itself. There are a multiplicity of guides regarding methods of prayer, meditation, centering and schemas for an introspective journey. Catherine’s wisdom helps us contemporary Christians deluged with information and potential experiences, to stay focused on the central and ultimate goal of a spiritual journey, which is transformation of our capacity to love. For the Christian spiritual practices must ultimately lead to the imitation of Jesus’ priorities and values as presented in the Gospels. This suggests to me the importance of examining what we read and experience to see to what extent it helps lead us to that knowledge of God and self and transformation of self-centeredness that Catherine describes.
Even though Catherine herself is known as a mystic, she does not focus in her own writings on exceptional spiritual experiences, nor offer teaching on how to have such experiences. (See the tab on “holiness and mysticism”). This reminds us contemporary seekers that a Christian spiritual journey is about transformation as just described. The type of experience and/or exceptionality of experiences of God are never the goal of the spiritual journey. Indeed, one could say that without a process of transformation, spiritual experiences are not centrally Christian in their identity.
As well, our culture includes a focus on self-improvement and self-care, which, needless to say, are important aspects of human life. Indeed, self-improvement and self-care can offer us greater freedom to care for the good of others. However, in terms of Catherine’s wisdom, self-improvement and self-care can become self-centered. Such efforts become self-centered if we rely only on ourselves for our self-improvement and if our self-improvement does not bear fruit in opening us to care for others. Catherine would say we would be forgetting our need for God, we would be lacking in humility (which is not to say that human intent and effort are not also required) if we do not seek God’s help for our growth. Self-improvement efforts also become self-centered if they become the main focus of a spiritual journey without concern for our transformation in capacity to give of self for the good of the other, or if we forget that Jesus taught us that life includes an element of Cross. That is, life will inevitably include sacrifice and suffering, at times inevitable; or at times sacrifices and acceptance of discomfort to ourselves must be chosen on the path to a higher good. For instance, a parent might sacrifice a personal goal or advantage in favor of the wellbeing or need of a child. There are other such choices that many of us must make over the course of a life that cares for self but is not self-centered.
I suggest that in our present culture we must be particularly attentive to an inherent, mostly unnamed subtext of many self-improvement guides and spiritual programs (some with a Christian religious context) that promote self in an absolute manner over any sacrifice or over the needs of those around us. Certainly, careful discernment and guidance of the Spirit are necessary to sort out when to focus on self-growth and self-protection, and when such efforts must be paused or sacrificed for the good of others who are a given part of our life.
Catherine’s knowledge of self and contemporary self-knowledge
Our present day understanding about the person from a psychological point of view did not exist in Catherine’s day; indeed, psychology as a discipline did not exist. The concept of the unconscious was not part of the way persons were understood in medieval times. Today we assume the unconscious. We assume there are experiences that affect our motivations, feelings and actions in ways unknown to us, or if known, may move us despite our consciousness. All sorts of wounding life experiences can affect our capacity to love in an un-selfcentered manner as described by Catherine.
Learning the reality about the lacks and wounds of my life and accepting the woundedness of my life story, can be difficult. Catherine’s wisdom about knowledge of self could be applied to such psychological self-knowledge and God’s loving grace can be sought to aid in what can be a very difficult journey. For instance, sometimes self-centeredness is the fruit of lack of love in our early life; or self-centeredness can be a protection from emotional trauma. Learning such truths about our lives can be emotionally painful and we can resist such experiences. Through prayer and connection to God we can seek and receive the grace to learn about and face these truths. As well, God’s love can bring healing to childhood or major life wounds. In our spiritual journey we can take seriously Jesus’ offer of healing as expressed in the Gospels and pray for our healing. Indeed, the experience of God’s love or grace helping us face the truth of our story and helping us heal and forgive, is one of the ways in which we can grow in knowledge of God’s love for us. In the process, such self-knowledge and healing can help us become much better able to recognize and care for the good of the other.
Meditations with Catherine’s metaphors
I propose one can meditate using Catherine’s metaphors. These metaphors lend themselves to journaling exercises or exercises using our imagination. First, of course, I would want to quiet myself and place myself consciously before God. I ask for the Spirit to guide my exercise.
We have seen above a number of metaphors that would empower fruitful meditations using our imaginations to picture ourselves as part of the imagery.
- Letter 41 has the metaphor of entering the cell, lying down in the bed, and covering oneself with the bedspread.
- Letter 36 invites us to imagine reaching Christ’s heart by entering into his side through the open wound left by the lance of the Roman guard.
- Letter 329 suggests the image of a knife that cuts out self-centeredness. How might we imagine a scene that allows us to enter into this metaphor?
There are two metaphors that do not imply action but offer images that we can use for a contemplative meditation. That is, I suggest focusing on the images for a period of time, following the steps for centering prayer of returning to the image each time you are distracted. At the same time pay attention to the movements within you. Focusing on images like the following can be transforming in the same manner that is centering prayer, so you may not have any particular insights. It is an exercise where we allow God’s grace to work in our hearts at a wordless level.
- “Angelic food” in Letter 26. What image comes to your mind in the quiet of your meditation that would symbolize God’s desire to be in relationship with us? What image would have a connotation for you similar to “angelic food”?
- The image of the tree of the cross planted straight within us in letter 52. Try to meditate on this image or one that has the same connotation.
 These suggestions for contemporary applications of Catherine’s spirituality are based on my own personal and pastoral experience. They reflect my particular point of view on application of Catherine’s spirituality. There are certainly many approaches to appropriating her wisdom for today.
 Of course, we must also learn facts about God and the teaching of our Christian tradition. Catherine presupposes this factual formation.