At sunset one evening in 1353, the 6-year-old Catherine Benincasa is said to have experienced the first of the mystical visions that would power her brief, extraordinary life. While returning to her home in Siena with her brother Stefano after a visit to their married sister across the valley, she gazed over the church of St. Dominic and saw Jesus drenched in light, flanked by SS. Peter, Paul and John. Jesus smiled at Catherine and blessed her. Stefano, finding his sister standing in the road gaping at the sky, shook her from her trance. The vision evaporated, and Catherine burst into tears.
She returned that evening to what must have been a teeming household; Catherine was the second youngest of 25 children, though some of them, like her own twin sister, had died in infancy. While Catherine, later to become St. Catherine of Siena, kept her vision of Christ a secret, her piety sharpened after that encounter; in imitation of the public flagellants who had been roaming Europe since the outbreak of bubonic plague some years before, Catherine and several playmates took to flagellating themselves in secret. An appetite for self-mortification would prove one of the saint’s most enduring traits, and would lead to her death, at 33, of starvation.
In this respect, Catherine’s behavior foreshadowed that of a great many women today for whom power and suffering — often self-inflicted — are curiously intertwined. Modern-day anorexics, bulimics and self-injurers experience an illusion of control through disciplining or mutilating their bodies, echoing the pious self-punishments of Catherine’s time. The lives of Catherine and other saints like her can help to explain why these impulses persist among women — from athletes and models to Diana, Princess of Wales — when both the world and the position of women in it have been radically transformed.
Catherine’s childhood vision of Jesus and the penitence it inspired were common in the lives of mystic saints: individuals whose piety took the form of frequent, direct and personal visions of Christ and other holy figures. Though mystics have existed since the earliest days of Christianity, they gained prominence during the chaotic later Middle Ages, a time of plague, civil strife and economic transition that historians have compared to our present era. A great many of these visionaries were female — St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Bridget of Sweden, to name just a few — and their visions and prophecies afforded them a degree of visibility and influence that was virtually unheard of in women of their time.
Fourteenth-century girls were married off as early as 12 or 13, shortly after they reached puberty, in part to insure their virginity. But Catherine Benincasa had other plans — she had promised her chastity to Christ at the age of 7. The death of her favorite older sister, in childbirth, sealed her resolve not to marry, and she chopped off her long gold hair to repel potential suitors. Her parents, distraught at having to forfeit the wealth a new son-in-law might have brought to the family, retaliated by forcing Catherine to work as the family servant. But when no amount of punishment could break her will, her father relented, allowing her to pursue her spiritual endeavors.
At about 17, Catherine became a tertiary, or lay member, of a Dominican order in Siena whose adherents she had watched and admired as a child. These were chaste widows who ministered to the sick and the urban poor (a growing presence as Europe’s agricultural economy yielded to commerce and city life); as a young virgin, Catherine made an incongruous addition. She continued to live at home, spending most of her time praying alone in a tiny cell beneath a flight of stairs, where she was plagued by demonic visions and temptations. To combat these, she amplified her acts of penance, not speaking for three years except at confession, eating nothing but bread, water and raw vegetables, sleeping on a wooden board and flagellating herself three times daily until she drew blood. Her mother, aghast, took Catherine with her for a bathing cure; she scalded herself in the sulfuric water. ”At that time, the more you were like Jesus in his sufferings, the holier you were and the better,” says Sister Suzanne Noffke, who is translating and editing Catherine’s letters. ”She very much wanted martyrdom.”
Catherine’s desire for martyrdom drew on popular tales of the martyr-saints, some of whom died spectacularly at the hands of the Romans during the first three centuries of Christianity, while others were killed later by invading Huns, Vikings and Saracens. Yet martyrdom was only one route to sainthood for women, who account for fewer than 20 percent of all saints; many early female saints were foundresses and patrons of churches and also converters, both in the first centuries A.D. (St. Helena, Emperor Constantine I’s mother, is believed to have converted him) and during the sixth to eighth centuries, when missionaries worked to spread Christianity among the Frankish and Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. Queens and noblewomen, whose job it was to receive these missionaries, often were first to convert, and then converted their husbands — which, in early societies, meant the simultaneous conversion of that ruler’s subjects.
Catherine found succor in her solitary torments on Shrove Tuesday 1367, when she was about 20. It was the last night of Carnival in Siena, and revelers filled the streets. As Catherine prayed alone in her cell, the Virgin Mary and Jesus appeared to her along with King David, John the Evangelist and SS. Paul and Dominic. While King David played a harp, Jesus placed a ring of betrothal upon Catherine’s finger. It is said that the ring remained visible to her throughout her life, though no one else could see it.
After this spiritual union — a recurrent element in the lives of female mystics — Catherine’s retreat from the world came to an abrupt end: God instructed her to venture forth and help her fellow creatures. She rejoined her family at dinnertime (though she seldom ate) and reluctantly began to talk about her visions. She accompanied the other women in her order, known as mantellate, on their visits to the hospital, where she was said to have effected miracle cures. By the time she was in her early 20’s, she had amassed a group of disciples who called her Mamma. Male and female, religious and lay (one of her closest friends was a young nobleman she had extricated from a blood feud), these devotees watched over Catherine during her ecstasies, when she went rigid for hours at a time, and also served as her secretaries and scribes. (Though she had learned to read, like most laypeople she probably could not write.) She began an enormous correspondence, often dictating letters to several scribes at once, imparting her wishes and advice to neighbors, family members, kings, religious leaders and the Pope himself.
At the time, Siena was plagued by bloody internecine disputes, and Catherine became known for her ability to mediate these successfully, as well as to touch and convert sinners and prisoners. She rekindled the faith of one man, Niccolo di Toldo, on the eve of his own beheading, then accompanied him to his execution and caught his severed head in her hands. She began visiting other Tuscan cities, often to dissuade them from rebelling against the papacy, something they were increasingly tempted to do as their own populations and commercial power grew. There she would preach in public squares, urging the conversion of sinners, and several priests were required to hear the thousands of confessions her words provoked.
For a 14th-century woman, such a public life was extraordinary to the point of being freakish. By then, even aristocratic women had lost much of the power they wielded in the early Middle Ages. The population had grown, land was more scarce and heredity laws were rewritten in favor of primogeniture so that family estates could be kept intact. Women could rarely inherit. ”The good woman was invisible,” says Elizabeth Petroff, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts. ”She wasn’t supposed to leave the house. She wasn’t even supposed to be seen standing at the window of the house.” Outside the convent, women received little or no education, and with the rise of the all-male university in the 13th century, education within the convents began to suffer. Medieval theology portrayed women as the more fleshly of the sexes, corrupt and dangerous to men; accounts of many male saints’ lives abound with lewd female temptresses.
It was no surprise, then, that pious women of Catherine’s era turned to mysticism; contemplation was virtually forced upon them by the lack of other opportunities. But that their visions and prophecies were taken seriously by men points to a paradox in the medieval view of women: their very lowliness, it was thought, made them more likely conduits for celestial intelligence. Barbara Newman, professor of English and religion at Northwestern University, says: ”Women’s bodies were seen as being more permeable than men’s, more open to diverse influences. Just as women are more easily tempted by the Devil, the same thing is true with the Holy Spirit.” For this reason, Newman says, it was impossible for male clerics to dismiss out of hand the holy visions of a woman. ”Women embodied that voice from the underground,” she says, ”of Christ standing in judgment over the power structure.”
In the medieval mind, there was a connection between weakness, self-abnegation and holiness — a connection that originated in Christ’s shame and suffering on earth. Female mystics believed this, too; St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary and Benedictine nun who penned strenuous works of theology, medicine and natural history as well as hymns and other liturgical music, wrote of herself, ”I am a poor earthen vessel and say these things not of myself, but from the serene Light.”
Catherine’s correspondence is sprinkled with professions of her own unworthiness. ”Poor wretched woman that I am, my sins are so much more numerous than ever,” she wrote in one letter, and in another, to an apostolic nuncio for Pope Gregory XI, ”I received your letter, my dear father, and it was a great consolation and joy to think you would remember someone so poor and lowly.”
Yet these disclaimers hardly offset the emphatic, even imperious tone of the letters themselves, in which Catherine used her status as an empty vessel for God’s word to chide, exhort, cajole and even threaten with damnation people she believed were failing to embody their full Christian potential. ”If women had a reputation for genuine holiness, that was a ticket to influence,” Sister Noffke says, and Catherine did not hesitate to use it. In a letter to a governor of Milan who violently opposed the papacy, she likened him to a gangrenous limb on a body of the church. To King Charles V of France, whose involvement in the Hundred Years War Catherine felt was sapping resources from the more worthy project of initiating another crusade, she wrote: ”Enough of this stupid blindness! I am telling you in the name of Christ crucified to wait no longer to make this peace. Make peace! Make peace!” At times she even mocked her own zeal. ”I don’t want to say any more,” she wrote to her old friend Frate Bartolomeo Dominici, ”because I wouldn’t stop until I died — or bored you to death!”
Catherine’s most ardent wish for the church was that the papacy would return to Rome from Avignon, where it had relocated in 1309 to escape civil unrest. To this end, she wrote hortatory letters to Pope Gregory XI, with whom she felt a great familiarity, addressing him often as Babbo, or ”Dearest Daddy,” and urging him to act. ”Up, father! No more irresponsibility!” she wrote in one letter, and in another: ”You ought to be using the power and strength that is yours. If you don’t intend to use it, it would be better and more to God’s honor and the good of your soul to resign.” In this and nearly all of her letters, she concludes by apologizing for her forwardness. ”Forgive me! Forgive me! My great love for your salvation, and my great pain when I see it threatened, makes me speak.. . .Don’t make it necessary for me to complain about you to Christ crucified. (There is no one else I can complain to, since there is no one greater [than you]on earth).”
Mingled with this odd swirl of diffidence and cheekiness, of grandiosity and self-effacement, was the tendency among female mystics to take physical self-punishment to brutal extremes. Catherine overcame her revulsion at a cancer patient’s fetid sore by drinking a cup of the pus it discharged, and she was famous for her drastic fasting — she often inserted sticks into her throat to make herself vomit after eating. Bridget of Sweden poured hot wax on her flesh. St. Clare of Assisi slept on the floor in wintertime and fasted three days each week during Lent. ”The men had work to do, so they didn’t have time for a lot of penance and suffering,” Noffke says. ”Women were not to be seen, not to be heard, but they could suffer.” Priests tended to glorify suffering in women, and encouraged it in their confessions.
Yet extreme self-mortification could also make a woman the object of suspicion, for around the corner from inspired female holiness always lurked the possibility of heresy or witchcraft — the danger that Satan, not God, was employing the woman as his vessel. ”I’m not surprised at your fear, father, especially about my eating habits,” Catherine wrote to a priest in Florence. ”I am always fearful because of my own weakness and the devil’s cleverness.” The historian Caroline Walker Bynum has noted that witch and saint were in a sense mirror images of each other: both were impelled by an outside power, whether good or evil; both could read people’s minds and perform supernatural feats; both were lifted off the ground — witches by flying, saints through levitation.
Suspicions about Catherine’s orthodoxy prompted the leaders of the Dominican order to summon her to Florence in spring 1374, when her reputation first began to grow. Though she satisfied her examiners, the Dominicans assigned her a new confessor, Raymond of Capua, whom they charged with keeping a sharp eye on her. As it turned out, Raymond became Catherine’s most loyal defender, and wrote her vita, or biography, which made a strong case for her sainthood. (She was canonized in 1461 and declared a Doctor of the Church — one of three women to bear that title — in 1970.) Indeed, most female mystics who became saints had the allegiance of one or more powerful men who shielded them from the world’s suspicion. ”If you didn’t have somebody in the church hierarchy who could speak for you, you were really lost,” Elizabeth Petroff says.
One casualty was Marguerite Porete, author of ”A Mirror of Simple Souls,” who was accused of heresy and burned in 1310. According to Barbara Newman, the problem for Margaret may have been one of style as much as doctrine: ”She did not say, ‘I have had a vision’ or ‘I have had a prophetic call.’ She just wrote the book the way a male author would have written it, and she didn’t get away with it.” Female strength, untempered by humility, self-abnegation or the imprimatur of a male authority, was an intolerable threat.
In 1376, Catherine intensified her campaign to move the papacy from Avignon to Rome by visiting Avignon herself, where she met repeatedly with Gregory XI and continued to write him as well, urging his departure. In September of that year, he finally set off for Rome by ship, his reluctant court in tow. But the Pope’s return to Rome failed to have the salubrious impact Catherine had hoped for; disheartened in a foreign land, Gregory XI died in 1378, and his Neapolitan successor, Urban VI, managed to alienate the French cardinals and royalty almost instantly. The cardinals retaliated by appointing a second pope, or antipope, from Geneva, whom they installed in Avignon as Clement VII. Thus began the Great Western Schism, in which two, and even three, popes sought to preside over Western Christendom until 1417.
At Urban VI’s request, Catherine journeyed to Rome and worked furiously to rally support behind him, believing that his legitimate election was inviolable, whatever his personal faults. She was brokenhearted over the failure of her mission, and her years of austerities had ravaged her physically, leaving her in constant pain. Unable to eat or even drink water, she deteriorated rapidly. ”Here is my body which I acknowledge as coming from Thee and I now offer it to Thee; may it be an anvil for Thy beatings, to atone for their sins,” she prayed. She died in 1380.
In his book ”Holy Anorexia,” Rudolph M. Bell argues compellingly that Catherine of Siena, along with many other Italian female mystics, fits the classic profile of an anorexic. In a 14th-century context, anorexia actually makes a kind of sense; self-deprivation was widely agreed to be holy, and holiness was one of the few modes of self-expression available to women — virtually their only route to power. The surprise, then, is not that anorexics existed in St. Catherine’s time, but that in our present secular, affluent culture, where women have access to a degree of education, independence and self-expression that would have staggered a 14th-century woman, self-denial and suffering continue to hold out the same kind of promise.
Today, anorexia nervosa afflicts about 1 of every 100 female adolescents in America, a majority of whom may never recover fully, and between 10 and 20 percent of whom will eventually die from the disease. About two million people, mostly women, cut and burn themselves compulsively in pursuit of an illusory sense of control, and many millions suffer from bulimia. In high-pressure athletic disciplines like ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, diving and long-distance running, the incidence of eating disorders among women is much higher; Rudolph Bell cites a study showing that nearly 1 in 6 aspiring ballerinas was anorexic. Clearly, a substantial number of women still derive a sense of power from disciplining their bodies, despite the fact that their deprivations and self-inflicted wounds ultimately weaken them and sometimes cost them their lives. Most remarkably, sufferers of anorexia and self-injury tend to be white, Western and middle to upper class — precisely the women who, more than any before them in history, would seem able to control a great deal more than their physical selves.
Even as our culture decries these disorders, in subtle ways it endorses the equation of suffering with female power; what was heroin chic if not a study of the stark beauty of feminine duress, a beauty that seemed to pulse forth with even greater intensity from the scrawny, bruised-looking models with raccoon eyes and hair tangled to perfection. And how else can we interpret the popular rehabilitation of Hillary Clinton, now that her outright power — offensive to many Americans — has been tempered by her dignified and mostly silent endurance of the most public marital humiliation ever. Now, for the first time since her arrival at the White House six years ago, the First Lady is widely hailed not only as a model for women, but — most dizzyingly — also as a future senatorial and even Presidential candidate. It is as if, through suffering, a certain unseemliness associated with her authority has been erased. Pain has worked for Hillary Clinton, involuntary though it may have been — a lesson that doubtless will be absorbed by younger women who look up to her.
Perhaps the best example of a woman whose visible pain inspired passionate devotion was Diana, Princess of Wales, who can legitimately be called a popular saint. In the Princess, as in the late-medieval mystics, personal charisma and a desire to help others was tinctured with suffering, including some of the same self-inflicted torments — anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation — that the mystic saints underwent. But Catherine of Siena punished herself in imitation of Christ, and the power she experienced came from feeling a greater proximity to God. Lacking any such divine affiliation, the suffering our culture elicits from its women seems doubly tragic — pointless in itself and, in most cases, a distraction from the real sources of power they might otherwise be able to tap.
Toward the end of her life, Catherine of Siena tried to reverse her extreme fasting, but by then her body could no longer tolerate food. Though she urged other women not to follow her example, her suffering was glorified after her death, and scores of young Italian girls starved themselves in her image.
In this, as in all matters, Catherine employed her most trusted weapon: epistolary advice. ”And where is the hope that you used to have in the kingdom of God?” she wrote to a Dominican nun who had grown ill from too many austerities. ”It is gone with the attachment to penance, by which means it hoped to have life eternal.. . .Don’t wish for the lesser good of penance to hinder the greater good.” Fewer women nowadays may long for a union with Christ, as Catherine did, but her advice still resonates: pain, as an end in itself, may well distract us from our greater good.
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