I recently offered the following post on social media:
I read something about St. Catherine of Siena last night that has completely torn apart my existence and forced a sharp examination of conscience. Why? Because the saints—when we really, really dare to see them—are not there first of all to comfort us. They should first disturb us. They work in Christ, who wounds us in order to heal us.
Perhaps not surprisingly, several people followed up to ask what it was that I read. I didn’t include the text or an explanation of it at first because in some sense it doesn’t really matter what it was. What matters is that it mattered to me and that, once again, I have been struck by the witness of a saint in a way that I can only describe as being wounded. Yes, there is inspiration and maybe even eventually some form of consolation, but first of all there is a wound. I am at one and the same time baffled and stunned by what I read—by the witness of this saint. I can’t fully disclose why; I don’t know how.
But I suppose I can share the passage and try to describe what I see going on there at least to a certain extent. I don’t expect that others will be struck in the way I have been struck by this particular episode, but I do believe that anyone who seriously stares at the witness of a saint—past the popularized niceties and any glossy clichés that may have accrued to them—will see someone staring back at them with a gaze that pierces to their core and upsets the cozy stasis in which we recline ourselves time and time again. I believe that if we don’t allow the saints to disturb us, then we aren’t really seeing them as they are.
So here’s what I read: In her biography of Catherine of Siena, Sigrid Undset is recalling an episode in Catherine’s early life in which she feels God is calling her to care for a woman named Andrea who suffers from breast cancer but, because her flesh is rotting and she is in such a disagreeable state, has no one to care for her. Catherine goes willingly. The stench is indeed noxious, but rather than work quickly or cover her nose and mouth, Catherine presses her face right up against the rotting flesh. Catherine is determined to make herself as close and as intimate in her care for Andrea as she possibly can.
At first, Andrea receives the care gratefully, but before long she is poisoned either by jealously or feelings of inadequacy or whatever, and she stirs up rumors about Catherine that are themselves odious. Catherine keeps going towards Andrea, day after day.
One day, as Andrea’s flesh continues to rot and the very air around her becomes more and more nauseating, Catherine is simply overpowered by the foul nature of the room, of Andrea’s body, of this task of mercy. In other words, Catherine’s body was revolting against this deed even though her soul was indeed willing. Catherine was going to be sick. I’ll now appeal to Undset’s own words to relay what happened next:
When she had washed the sores she knew that it was impossible for her to continue with this work any longer. Filled with anger against her own miserable flesh [that is, Catherine is condemning her own physical '“weakness”], she seized the bowl, which was full of the water she has washed the sores with, and pus from the sores: “By the Life of the Almighty, by the beloved Bridegroom of my soul, you shall receive in your stomach what you feel such fear of.” She turned from the bed and drank the contents of the bowl. Later she confessed to Raimondo [her spiritual director and confessor] that once she had mastered her revulsion the horrible drink had seemed delicious. And from that time on she never felt any reluctance about looking after Andrea. (Chapter VI)
I literally can’t even. I’ve got to call this what it is: absolutely disgusting. She is on the verge of being sick from the mere smell of the decaying flesh, but rather than find some way to cope or reduce the severity of the stench or hurry up to leave the room, Catherine drinks the pus. Who does that?!
I’m tempted to try to interpret this or even allegorize it in some way. But the fact of the matter must be confronted; I cannot squirm out of seeing what is there to see: for the sake of charity, this saint literally consumed what repulsed her. Not metaphorically, not pedagogically, not strictly spiritually, but physically. I find it hard to imagine what kind of boundary would be strong enough to keep a will like that from seeking charity.
As I said in my initial post, all I can really say is that this strikes me right at my core and forces me into a severe examination of conscience. About that, I simply cannot tell you.
What I can tell you, though, is what Undset says this ultimately meant to Catherine:
The next night her beloved Jesus appeared to her. He uncovered the five wounds He had received on the cross: “My beloved, for My sake you have fought many a fight, and with My help you have always triumphed. But yesterday you won your greatest victory when you drank the terrible drink for love’s sake, and trampled your own flesh under foot. Now I shall let you drink of a drink which is not often offered to human kind.” He laid His right hand on the maiden’s neck and bowed her face into His divine side: “Drink, daughter, drink My blood, and you shall taste a sweetness which will fill your whole soul; it shall even penetrate your body, which you have despised for My sake.” And Catherine laid her lips to the very Source of life and was allowed to drink her fill—and was left both satisfied and changed.
Apparently, this unthinkable kind of intimacy with the decaying Andrea is united to an unthinkable kind of intimacy with the Lord Jesus himself. It seems easier to say I want that kind of intimacy with Jesus than that kind of intimacy with Andrea, but Catherine looks back at me and won’t let me separate the two.
This whole episode should probably come with a “trigger warning,” for everyone. I don’t know how someone could see all this for what it is and not be totally distressed. Yeah, maybe eventually inspired or even consoled that such a saint like Catherine exists, but first of all wounded and dismayed. I can really only say that this is all so wounding.
None of this was lost on Undset, who is not only one of the finest literary figures of her generation but also one of the keenest observers of both the human condition and the mystery of grace (those things tend to go together). So I’ll end here by sharing the long closing paragraph of this chapter of her biography, where Undset is at once totally aware of how most people will perceive an episode such as this and totally unimpressed with anything less than perceiving what is truly, actually happening here:
People of our own time may consider the story of Catherine and Andrea more horrible than edifying, and feel that her ecstatic contemplation of the blood of Christ—a motive which recurs continually in her visions and her letters and her teaching—discloses an unhealthy love for the least attractive feature of Christianity. In our own lifetime we have learned to know the smell of rotting corpses on battlefields and in bombed towns; we know of the stinking sores and boils of prisoners from concentration camps, where dead and dying were made to lie on beds as wretched as the one Catherine had chosen for herself. We have poured out oceans of blood and tears, both of the guilty and the guiltless, while we hoped against hope that this blood and these tears could help to save a world reeling under the weight of its miseries. And how little we have achieved of the great things we dreamed! Yet we ascribe it to the confused ideas of the time she lived in and her own dark vision of Christianity, when Catherine intoxicated herself with the blood of Christ—that blood which would put an end to human bloodshed, if only we could agree to receive it as the redemption from our bloodthirsty passions, our insatiable lust for imagined gain for ourselves projected onto other nations or classes. Indeed, many Catholics think in this way. The strong-willed, brave and strangely optimistic girl who handled the powerful men of her time so masterfully, who had such an unusual understanding of the characters of the men and women among whom she lived, who really succeeded in making peace between many of her unruly townsmen, who in fact on one or two occasions prevented war, and on many put an end to bloody feuds—she would answer us as she answered her contemporaries in her letters and conversations and in the Dialogue: that the blood of Christ was the only source of her own courage and strength and wisdom, of her amazing and indomitable joy of living. She would say to us, Drink of it with the lips of your souls, as the saints in their visions seemed to drink it with their lips of flesh; assuage your thirst in the love which streams from God’s holy Heart—then there will be an end to the vain shedding of man’s blood by the hand of man. In her visions Catherine saw God’s fire fall from heaven, like a rain of blazing light and burning warmth: can we really understand anything of her experience, we who have seen the fire of hate falling from the clouds, who fear in our hearts for the day when an even more destructive fire, invented by an even more bitter hatred and more violent passions, shall rain down over us and over children? For us, Catherine would have only the same message which she brought to her contemporaries, she would know only the same remedy for our misery—the blood of Christ, the fire of God’s love, which burns up self-love and self-will, and lets the soul appear, beautiful and full of grace, as it was meant to be when God created us.