Letters of Catherine Benincasa
Catherine Benincasa

Part 1 out of 5

Anne Soulard, Charles Franks, Robert Shimmin, and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team


[Illustration: _The Ecstasy of St. Catherine
Detail from Bazzis Fresco_]




Table of Persons Addressed
St. Catherine of Siena as seen in her letters
Chief Events in the life of St. Catherine
Brief Outline of Contemporary Public Events
To Monna Alessa dei Saracini
To Benincasa her brother, when he was in Florence
To the Venerable Religious, Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Monna Agnese, who was the wife of Messer Orso Malavolti
To Sister Eugenia, her niece at the Convent of St. Agnes of Montepulciano
To Nanna, daughter of Benincasa, a little maid, her niece
Letters on the Consecrated Life
To Brother William of England
To Daniella of Orvieto, clothed with the Habit of St. Dominic
To Monna Agnese, wife of Francesco, a tailor of Florence
Letters in response to certain criticisms
To Monna Orsa, wife of Bartolo Usimbardi, and to Monna Agnese
To a Religious man in Florence, who was shocked at her Ascetic
To Brother Bartolomeo Dominici
To Brother Matteo di Francesco Tolomei
To a Mantellata of Saint Dominic, called Catarina di Scetto
To Neri di Landoccio dei Pagliaresi
To Monna Giovanna and her other daughters in Siena
To Messer John, the Soldier of Fortune
To Monna Colomba in Lucca
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, of the Order of the Preachers
To Gregory XI
To Gregory XI
To Gregory XI
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, at Avignon
To Catarina of the Hospital, and Giovanna di Capo
To Sister Daniella of Orvieto
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, and to Master John III
To Sister Bartolomea della Seta
To Gregory XI
To the King of France
Letters to Florence
To the Eight of War chosen by the Commune of Florence
To Buonaccorso di Lapo: written when the Saint was at Avignon
To Gregory XI
To Monna Lapa, her mother, before she returned from Avignon
To Monna Giovanna di Corrado Maconi
To Messer Ristoro Canigiani
To the Anziani and Consuls and Gonfalonieri of Bologna
To Nicholas of Osimo
To Misser Lorenzo del Pino of Bologna, Doctor in Decretals
Letters written from Rocca D'Orcia
To Monna Lapa, her mother, and to Monna Cecca
To Monna Catarina of the Hospital, and to Giovanna di Capo
To Monna Alessa, clothed with the Habit of Saint Dominic
To Gregory XI
To Raimondo of Capua
To Urban VI
To her spiritual children in Siena
To Brother William and to Messer Matteo of the Misericordia
To Sano di Maco, and to all her other sons in Siena
To Brother Raimondo of Capua
To Urban VI
To Don Giovanni of the Cells of Vallombrosa
Letters announcing peace
To Monna Alessa, when the Saint was at Florence
To Sano di Maco, and to the other sons in Christ
To three Italian Cardinals
To Giovanna, Queen of Naples
To Sister Daniella of Orvieto
To Stefano Maconi
To certain holy hermits who had been invited to Rome by the Pope
To Brother William of England, and to Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Brother Andrea of Lucca, Brother Baldo, and Brother Lando
To Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Queen Giovanna of Naples
To Brother Raimondo of the Preaching Order, when he was in Genoa
To Urban VI
Letters describing the experience preceding death
To Master Raimondo of Capua
To Master Raimondo of Capua, of the Order of the Preachers


Agnese, Monna, di Francesco
Andrea, Brother, of Lucca
Antonio, Brother, of Nizza

Baldo, Brother
Bartolomea, Sister, della Seta
Bartolomeo, Brother, Dominici
Benincasa, Benincasa
Benincasa, Eugenia
Benincasa, Monna Lapa
Benincasa, Nanna
Bologna, Anziani of

Capo, Giovanna di
Canigiani, Ristoro
Cardinals, Three Italian
Catarina, of the Hospital
Cecca, Monna
Colomba, Monna, of Lucca

Daniella, Sister, of Orvieto

France, the King of
Florence, Letters to

Giovanna, Queen of Naples
Giovanni, Don, of the Cells of Vallombrosa
Gregory XI.

John, Messer, Soldier of Fortune
John III., Master

Lando, Brother
Lapo, Buonaccorso di

Maco, Sano di
Maconi, Monna Giovanna di Corrado
Maconi, Stefano
Malavolti, Monna Agnese
Matteo, Messer, of the Misericordia

Osimo, Nicholas of

Pagliaresi, Neri di Landoccio dei
Pino, Lorenzo del

Raimondo, Brother, of Capua
Religious, A, in Florence

Saracini, Monna Alessa dei
Scetto, Catarina di

Tolomei, Brother Matteo di

Urban VI., Pope
Usimbardi, Monna Orsa

War, the Eight of
William, Brother, of England




The letters of Catherine Benincasa, commonly known as St. Catherine of
Siena, have become an Italian classic; yet perhaps the first thing in them
to strike a reader is their unliterary character. He only will value them
who cares to overhear the impetuous outpourings of the heart and mind of
an unlettered daughter of the people, who was also, as it happened, a
genius and a saint. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, the other great writers of
the Trecento, are all in one way or another intent on choice expression;
Catherine is intent solely on driving home what she has to say. Her
letters were talked rather than written. She learned to write only three
years before her death, and even after this time was in the habit of
dictating her correspondence, sometimes two or three letters at a time, to
the noble youths who served her as secretaries.

The modern listener to this eager talk may perhaps at first feel wearied.
Suffocated by words, repelled by frequent crudity and confusion of
metaphor, he may even be inclined to call the thought childish and the
tone overwrought. But let him persevere. Let him read these letters as
chapters in an autobiography, noting purpose and circumstance, and reading
between the lines, as he may easily do, the experience of the writer.
Before long the very accents of a living woman will reach his ears. He
will hear her voice, now eagerly pleading with friend or wrong-doer, now
brooding tender as a mother-bird over some fledgling soul, now broken with
sobs as she mourns over the sins of Church and world, and again chanting
high prophecy of restoration and renewal, or telling in awestruck
undertone sacred mysteries of the interior life. Dante's Angel of Purity
welcomes wayfarers upon the Pilgrim Mount "in voce assai piu che la
nostra, viva." The saintly voice, like the angelic, is more living than
our own. These letters are charged with a vitality so intense that across
the centuries it draws us into the author's presence.

Imagination is inclined to see the canonized saints as a row of solemn
figures, standing in dull monotony of worshipful gesture, like Virgins and
Confessors in an early mosaic. Yet, as a matter of fact, people who have
been canonized were to their contemporaries the most striking
personalities among men and women striving for righteousness. They were
all, to be sure, very good; but goodness, despite a curious prejudice to
the contrary, admits more variety in type than wickedness, and produces
more interesting characters. Catherine Benincasa was probably the most
remarkable woman of the fourteenth century, and her letters are the
precious personal record of her inner as of her outer life. With all their
transparent simplicity and mediaeval quaintness, with all the occasional
plebeian crudity of their phrasing, they reveal a nature at once so many-
sided and so exalted that the sensitive reader can but echo the judgment
of her countrymen, who see in the dyer's daughter of Siena one of the most
significant authors of a great age.


As is the case with many great letter-writers, though not with all,
Catherine reveals herself largely through her relations with others. Some
of her letters, indeed, are elaborate religious or political treatises,
and seem at first sight to have little personal colouring; yet even these
yield their full content of spiritual beauty and wisdom only when one
knows the circumstances that called them forth and the persons to whom
they were addressed. A mere glance at the index to her correspondence
shows how widely she was in touch with her time. She was a woman of
personal charm and of sympathies passionately wide, and she gathered
around her friends and disciples from every social group in Italy, not to
speak of many connections formed with people in other lands. She wrote to
prisoners and outcasts; to great nobles and plain business men; to
physicians, lawyers, soldiers of fortune; to kings and queens and
cardinals and popes; to recluses pursuing the Beatific Vision, and to men
and women of the world plunged in the lusts of the flesh and governed by
the pride of life. The society of the fourteenth century passes in review
as we turn the pages.

Catherine wrote to all these people in the same simple spirit. With one
and all she was at home, for all were to her, by no merely formal phrase,
"dearest brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus." One knows not whether to
be more struck by the outspoken fearlessness of the woman or by her great
adaptability. She could handle with plain directness the crudest sins of
her age; she could also treat with subtle insight the most elusive phases
of spiritual experience. No greater distance can be imagined than that
which separates the young Dominican with her eyes full of visions from a
man like Sir John Hawkwood, reckless free-lance, selling his sword with
light-hearted zeal to the highest bidder, and battening on the disorder of
the times. Catherine writes to him with gentlest assumption of fellowship,
seizes on his natural passions and tastes, and seeks to sanctify the
military life of his affections. With her sister nuns the method changes.
She gives free play to her delicate fancy, drawing her metaphors from the
beauty of nature, from tender, homely things, from the gentle arts and
instincts of womanhood. Does she speak to Pope Gregory, the timid? Her
words are a trumpet-call. To the harsh Urban, his successor? With finest
tact she urges self-restraint and a policy of moderation. Temperaments of
every type are to be met in her pages--a sensitive poet, troubled by
"confusion of thought" deepening into melancholia; a harum-scarum boy, in
whose sunny joyousness she discerns the germ of supernatural grace;
vehement sinners, fearful saints, religious recluses deceived by self-
righteousness, and men of affairs devoutly faithful to sober duty.
Catherine enters into every consciousness. As a rule we associate with
very pure and spiritual women, even if not cloistered, a certain deficient
sense of reality. We cherish them, and shield them from harsh contact with
the world, lest the fine flower of their delicacy be withered. But no one
seems to have felt in this way about Catherine. Her "love for souls" was
no cold electric illumination such as we sometimes feel the phrase to
imply, but a warm understanding tenderness for actual men and women. It
would be hard to exaggerate her knowledge of the world and of human

Yet sometimes Catherine appears to us austere and exacting; unsparing in
condemnation, and unrelenting in her demands on those she loves. Many of
her letters are in a strain of exhortation that rises into rebuke. The
impression at first is unpleasant. We are tempted to feel this unfailing
candour captious; to resent the note of authority, equally clear whether
she write to Pope or Cardinal; to suspect Catherine, in a word, of
assuming that very judicial attitude which she constantly deprecates as
unbecoming to us poor mortals. And perhaps the very frequency of her plea
for tolerance and forbearance suggests a conscious weakness. Like most
brilliant and ardent people, she was probably by nature of a critical and
impatient disposition; she was, moreover, a plebeian. At times, when she
is quite sure that men are on the side of the devil, she allows her
instinctive frankness full scope; it must be allowed that the result is
astounding. Yet even as we catch our breath we realise that her remarks
were probably justified. It is hard for us moderns to remember how crudely
hideous were the sins which she faced. In these days, when we are all
reduced to one apparent level of moral respectability, and great
saintliness and dramatic guilt are alike seldom conspicuous, we forget the
violent contrasts of the middle ages. Pure "Religious," striving after the
exalted perfection enjoined by the Counsels, moved habitually among moral
atrocities, and bold vigour of speech was a practical duty. Catherine
handled without evasion the grossest evils of her time, and the spell
which she exercised by simple force of direct dealing was nothing less
than extraordinary.

It is easy to see why Catherine's plain speaking was not resented. She
rarely begins with rebuke. The note of humility is first struck; she is
always "servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ." Thence she
frequently passes into fervent meditation on some special theme: the
exceeding wonder of the Divine Love, the duty of prayer, the nature of
obedience. We are lifted above the world into a region of heavenly light
and sweetness, when suddenly--a blow from the shoulder!--a startling sense
of return to earth. From the contemplation of the beauty of holiness,
Catherine has swiftly turned us to face the opposing sin. "Thou art the
man!" A few trenchant sentences, charged with pain, and the soul which has
been raised to celestial places awakes to see in itself the contradiction
of all that is so lovely. Into the region of darkness Catherine goes with
it. It is not "thou" but "we" who have sinned. She holds that sinful heart
so near her own that the beatings are confounded; her words now and again
express a shuddering personal remorse for sins of which she could have had
no personal knowledge. Her sense of unity with her fellow-men lies deeper
than any theory of brotherhood; she feels herself in sober truth guilty of
the sins of her brothers: her experience illustrates the profound truth
that only purity can know perfect penitence.

Catherine is then saved from any touch of Pharisaism by her remarkable
identification of herself with the person to whom she writes. But to
understand her attitude we must go further. For she never pauses in
reprobation of evil. Full of conviction that the soul needs only to
recognise its sin to hate and escape it for ever, she passes swiftly on to
impassioned appeal. Her words breathe a confidence in men that never fails
even when she is writing to the most hardened. She succeeded to a rare
degree in the difficult conciliation of uncompromising hatred toward sin
with unstrained fellowship with the sinner, and invincible trust in his
responsiveness to the appeal of virtue. When we consider the times in
which she lived, this large and touching trustfulness becomes to our eyes
a victory of faith. That it was no mere instinct, but an attitude
resolutely adopted and maintained, is evident from her frequent
discussions of charity and tolerance, some of which will be found in these
selections. She constantly urges her disciples to put the highest possible
construction on their neighbours' actions; nor is any phase of her
teaching more constantly repeated than the beautiful application of the
text: "In My Father's House are many mansions," to enjoin recognition of
the varieties in temperament and character and practice which may coexist
in the House of God.

Catherine had learned a hard lesson. She saw in human beings not their
achievements, but their possibilities. Therefore she quickened repentance
by a positive method, not by morbid analysis of evil, not by lurid
pictures of the consequences of sin, but by filling the soul with glowing
visions of that holiness which to see is to long for. She never despaired
of quickening in even the most degraded that flame of "holy desire" which
is the earnest of true holiness to be. We find her impatient of mint and
cummin, of over-anxious self-scrutiny. "Strive that your holy desires
increase," she writes to a correspondent; "and let all these other things
alone." "I, Catherine--write to you--with desire": so open all her
letters. Holy Desire! It is not only the watchword of her teaching: it is
also the true key to her personality.


We have dwelt on Catherine, the friend and guide of souls; but it is
Catherine the mystic, Catherine the friend of God, before whom the ages
bend in reverence. The final value of her letters lies in their
revelation, not of her dealings with other souls, but of God's dealings
with her own.

But in presence of the record of these deep experiences, silence is better
than words: is, indeed, for most of us the only possible attitude. The
letters that follow must speak for themselves. The clarity of mind which
Catherine always preserved, even in moments of highest exaltation, and her
loving eagerness to share her most sacred experiences with those dear to
her, have given her a power of expression that has produced pages of
unsurpassed interest and value, alike for the psychologist and for the
believer. Moreover--and this we well may note--her letters enable us to
apprehend with singularly happy intimacy, the natural character and
disposition of her whom these high things befell. In the very cadence of
their impetuous phrasing, in their swift dramatic changes, in their
marvellous blending of sweetness and virility, they show us the woman.
Some of them, especially those to her family and friends, are of almost
childlike simplicity and homely charm; others, among the most famous of
their kind, deal with mystical, or if we choose so to put it, with
supernatural experience: in all alike, we feel a heart akin to our own,
though larger and more tender.

The central fact in Catherine's nature was her rapt and absolute
perception of the Love of God, as the supreme reality in the universe.
This Love, as manifested in creation, in redemption, and in the sacrament
of the Altar, is the theme of her constant meditations. One little phrase,
charged with a lyric poignancy, sings itself again and again, enlightening
her more sober prose: "For nails would not have held God-and-Man fast to
the Cross, had love not held Him there." Her conceptions are positive, not
negative, and joyous adoration is the substance of her faith.

But the letters show us that this faith was not won nor kept without sharp
struggle. We have in them no presentation of a calm spirit, established on
tranquil heights of unchanging vision, above our "mortal moral strife."
Catherine is, as we can see, a woman of many moods--very sensitive, very
loving. She shows a touching dependence on those she loves, and an
inveterate habit of idealising them, which leads to frequent disillusion.
She is extremely eager and intense about little things as well as great;
hers is a truly feminine seriousness over the detail of living. She is
keenly and humanly interested in life on this earth, differing in this
respect from some canonized persons who seem always to be enduring it
_faute de mieux_. And, as happens to all sensitive people who refuse to
seclude themselves in dreams, life went hard with her. Hers was a frail
and suffering body, and a tossed and troubled spirit; wounded in the house
of her friends, beset by problem, shaken with doubt and fear by the
spectacle presented to her by the world and the Church of Christ. The
letters tell us how these, her sorrows and temptations, were not separated
from the life of faith, but a true portion of it: how she carried them
into the Divine Presence, and what high reassurance awaited her there.
Ordinary mortals are inclined to think that supernatural experience
removes the saints to a perplexing distance. In Catherine's case, however,
we become aware as we study the record that it brings her nearer us. For
these experiences, far from being independent of her outer life, are in
closest relation with it; even the highest and most mysterious, even those
in which the symbolism seems most remote from the modern mind, can be
translated by the psychologist without difficulty into modern terms. They
spring from the problems of her active life; they bring her renewed
strength and wisdom for her practical duties. An age, which like our own
places peculiar emphasis and value on the type of sanctity which promptly
expresses itself through the deed, should feel for Catherine Benincasa an
especial honour. She is one of the purest of Contemplatives; she knows,
what we to-day too often forget, that the task is impossible without the
vision. But it follows directly upon the vision, and this great mediaeval
mystic is one of the most efficient characters of her age.


Catherine's soaring imagination lifted her above the circle of purely
personal interests, and made her a force of which history is cognisant in
the public affairs of her day. She is one of a very small number of women
who have exerted the influence of a statesman by virtue, not of feminine
attractions, but of conviction and intellectual power. It is impossible to
understand her letters without some recognition of the public drama of the

Two great ideals of unity--one Roman, one Christian in origin--had
possessed the middle ages. In the strength of them the wandering barbaric
hordes had been reduced to order, and Western Europe had been trained into
some perception of human fellowship. Of these two unifying forces, the
imperialistic ideal was moribund in Catherine's time: not even a Dante,
born fifty years after his true date, could have held to it. Remained the
ideal of the Church universal, and to this last hope of a peaceful
commonwealth that should include all humanity, the idealists clung in

But alas for the faith of idealists when fact gives theory the lie! What
at this time was the unity of mankind in the Church but a formal
hypothesis? The keystone of her all-embracing arch was the Papacy. But the
Pope no longer sat heir of the Caesars in the seat of the Apostles; for
seventy years he had been a practical dependant of the French king, living
in pleasant Provence. Neither the scorn of Dante, nor the eloquence of
Petrarch, nor the warnings of holy men, had prevailed on the popes to
return to Italy, and make an end of the crying scandal which was the
evident contradiction of the Christian dream. Meantime, the city of the
Caesars lay waste and wild; the clergy was corrupt almost past belief; the
dreaded Turk was gathering his forces, a menace to Christendom itself. The
times were indeed evil, and the "servants of God," of whom then, as now,
there were no inconsiderable number, withdrew for the most part into
spiritual or literal seclusion, and in the quietude of cloister or forest
cell busied themselves with the concerns of their own souls.

Not so Catherine Benincasa. She had known that temptation and conquered
it. After her reception as a Dominican Tertiary, she had possessed the
extraordinary resolution to live for three years the recluse life, not in
the guarded peace of a convent, but in her own room at home, in the noisy
and overcrowded house where a goodly number of her twenty-four brothers
and sisters were apparently still living. And these had been years of
inestimable preciousness; but they came to an end at the command of God,
speaking through the constraining impulse of her love for men. From the
mystical retirement in which she had long lived alone with her Beloved,
she emerged into the world. And the remarkable fact is that in no respect
did she blench from the situation as she found it. She "faced life
steadily and faced it whole." A Europe ravaged by dissensions lay before
her; a Church which gave the lie to its lofty theories, no less by the
hateful worldliness of its prelates than by its indifferent abandonment of
the Seat of Peter. Above this sorry spectacle the mind of Catherine soared
straight into an upper region, where only the greatest minds of the day
were her comrades. Her fellow-citizens were unable to entertain the idea
even of civic peace within the limits of their own town; but patriotic
devotion to all Italy fired her great heart. More than this--her instinct
for solidarity forced her to dwell in the thought of a world-embracing
brotherhood. Her hopes were centred, not like Dante's in the Emperor the
heir of the Caesars, but in the Pope the heir of Christ. Despite the
corruption from which she recoiled with horror, despite the Babylonian
captivity at Avignon, she saw in the Catholic Church that image of a pure
universal fellowship which the noblest Catholics of all ages have
cherished. To the service of the Church, therefore, her life was
dedicated; it was to her the Holy House of Reconciliation, wherein all
nations should dwell in unity; and only by submission to its authority
could the woes of Italy be healed.

Catherine's letters on public affairs--historical documents of recognised
importance--give us her practical programme. It was formed in the light of
that faith which she always describes as "the eye of the mind." She was
called during her brief years of political activity to meet three chief
issues: the absence of the Pope from Italy; the rebellion of the Tuscan
cities, headed by Florence, against his authority; and at a later time the
great Schism, which broke forth under Urban VI. During her last five years
she was absorbed in ecclesiastical affairs. In certain of her immediate
aims she succeeded, in others she failed. It would be hard to say whether
her success or her failure involved the greater tragedy. For behind all
these aims was a larger ideal that was not to be realised--the dream,
entertained as passionately by Catherine Benincasa as by Savonarola or by
Luther, of thorough Church-reform. Catherine at Avignon, pleading this
great cause in the frivolous culture and dainty pomp of the place;
Catherine at Rome, defending to her last breath the legal rights of a Pope
whom she could hardly have honoured, and whose claims she saw defended by
extremely doubtful means--is a figure as pathetic as heroic. Few sorrows
are keener than to work with all one's energies to attain a visible end
for the sake of a spiritual result, and, attaining that end, to find the
result as far as ever. This sorrow was Catherine's. The external successes
which she won--considerable enough to secure her a place in history--
availed nothing to forward the greater aim for which she worked. Gregory
XI., under her magnetic inspiration, gathered strength, indeed, to make a
personal sacrifice and to return to Rome, but he was of no calibre to
attempt radical reform, and his residence in Italy did nothing to right
the crying abuses that were breaking Christian hearts. His successor, on
the other hand, did really initiate the reform of the clergy, but so
drastic and unwise were his methods that the result was terrible and
disconcerting--the development of a situation of which only the Catholic
idealist could discern the full irony; no less than Schism, the rending of
the Seamless Robe of Christ.

With failing hopes and increasing experience of the complexity of human
struggle, Catherine clung to her aim until the end. There was no touch of
pusillanimity in her heroic spirit. As with deep respect we follow the
Letters of the last two years, and note their unflagging alertness and
vigour, their steady tone of devotion and self-control, we realise that to
tragedy her spirit was dedicate. Her energy of mind was constantly on the
increase. Still, it is true, she wrote to disciples near and far long,
tender letters of spiritual counsel--analyses of the religious life
tranquilly penetrating as those of an earlier time. But her political
correspondence grew in bulk. It is tense, nervous, virile. It breathes a
vibrating passion, a solemn force, that are the index of a breaking heart.
Not for one moment did Catherine relax her energies. From 1376, when she
went to Avignon, she led, with one or two brief intermissions only, the
life of a busy woman of affairs. But within this outer life of strenuous
and, as a rule, thwarted activities, another life went on--a life in which
failure could not be, since through failure is wrought redemption.

From the days of her stigmatization, which occurred in 1375 at Pisa,
Catherine had been convinced that in some special sense she was to share
in the Passion of Christ, and offer herself a sacrifice for the sins of
Holy Church. Now this conception deepened till it became all-absorbing. In
full consciousness of failing vital powers, in expectation of her
approaching death, she offered her sufferings of mind and body as an
expiation for the sins around her. By word of mouth and by letters of
heartbroken intensity she summoned all dear to her to join in this holy
offering. Catherine's faith is alien to these latter days. Yet the
psychical unity of the race is becoming matter not only of emotional
intuition, but established scientific fact: and no modern sociologist, no
psychologist who realizes how unknown in origin and how intimate in
interpenetration are the forces that control our destiny, can afford to
scoff at her. She had longed inexpressibly for outward martyrdom. This was
not for her, yet none the less really did she lay down her life on the
Altar of Sacrifice. The evils of the time, and above all of the Church,
had generated a sense of unbearable sin in her pure spirit; her constant
instinct to identify herself with the guilt of others found in this final
offering an august climax and fulfilment.

During the last months of her life--months of excruciating physical
sufferings, vividly described for us by her contemporaries--the woman's
rectitude and wisdom, her swift tender sympathies, were still, as ever, at
the disposal of all who sought them. With unswerving energy she still
laboured for the cause of truth. When we consider the conditions,
spiritual and physical, of those last months, we read with amazement the
able, clearly conceived, practical letters which she was despatching to
the many European potentates whom she was endeavouring to hold true to the
cause of Urban. But her spirit in the meantime dwelt in the region of the
Eternal, where the dolorous struggle of the times appeared, indeed, but
appeared in its essential significance as seen by angelic intelligences.
The awe-struck letters to Fra Raimondo, her Confessor, with which this
selection closes, are an accurate transcript of her inner experience. They
constitute, surely, a precious heritage of the Church for which her life
was given. Catherine Benincasa died heartbroken; yet in the depths of her
consciousness was joy, for God had revealed to her that His Bride the
Church, "which brings life to men," "holds in herself such life that no
man can kill her." "Sweetest My daughter, thou seest how she has soiled
her face with impurity and self-love, and grown puffed up by the pride and
avarice of those who feed at her bosom. But take thy tears and sweats,
drawing them from the fountain of My divine charity, and cleanse her face.
For I promise thee that her beauty shall not be restored to her by the
sword, nor by cruelty nor war, but by peace, and by humble continual
prayer, tears, and sweats poured forth from the grieving desires of My
servants. So thy desire shall be fulfilled in long abiding, and My
Providence shall in no wise fail."


Psychologically, as in point of time, St. Catherine stands between St.
Francis and St. Teresa. Her writings are of the middle ages, not of the
renascence, but they express the twilight of the mediaeval day. They
reveal the struggles and the spiritual achievement of a woman who lived in
the last age of an undivided Christendom, and whose whole life was
absorbed in the special problems of her time. These problems, however, are
in the deepest sense perpetual, and her attitude toward them is suggestive

It has been claimed that Catherine, a century and a half later, would have
been a Protestant. Such hypotheses are always futile to discuss; but the
view hardly commends itself to the careful student of her writings. It is
suggested, naturally enough, by her denunciations of the corruptions of
the Church, denunciations as sweeping and penetrating as were ever uttered
by Luther; by her amazingly sharp and outspoken criticism of the popes;
and by her constant plea for reform. The pungency of all these elements in
her writings is felt by the most casual reader. But it must never be
forgotten that honest and vigorous criticism of the Church Visible is, in
the mind of the Catholic philosopher, entirely consistent with loyalty to
the sacerdotal theory. There is a noble idealism that breaks in fine
impatience with tradition, and audaciously seeks new symbols wherein to
suggest for a season the eternal and imageless truth. But perhaps yet
nobler in the sight of God--surely more conformed to His methods in nature
and history--is that other idealism which patiently bows to the yoke of
the actual, and endures the agony of keeping true at once to the heavenly
vision and to the imperfect earthly form. Iconoclastic zeal against
outworn or corrupt institutions fires our facile enthusiasm. Let us
recognize also the spiritual passion that suffers unflinchingly the
disparity between the sign and the thing signified, and devotes its
energies, not to discarding, but to restoring and purifying that sign.
Such passion was Catherine's. The most distinctive trait in the woman's
character was her power to cling to an ideal verity with unfaltering
faithfulness, even when the whole aspect of life and society around her
seemed to give that verity the lie. To imagine her without faith in the
visible Church and the God-given authority of the Vicar of Christ is to
imagine another woman. Catherine of Siena's place in the history of minds
is with Savonarola, not with Luther.

Catherine confronted a humanity at enmity with itself, a Church conformed
to the image of this world. Her external policy proved helpless to right
these evils. The return of the Popes from Avignon resulted neither in the
pacification of Christendom nor in the reform of the Church. The Great
Schism, of which she saw the beginning, undermined the idea of Christian
unity till the thought of the Saint of Siena was in natural sequence
followed by the thought of Luther. Outwardly her life was spent in
labouring for a hopeless cause, discredited by the subsequent movement of
history. But the material tragedy was a spiritual triumph, not only
through the victory of faith in her own soul, but through the value of the
witness which she bore. Neither of the great conceptions of unity which
possessed the middle ages was identical with the modern democratic
conception; yet both, and in particular that of the Church, pointed in
this direction. That ideal of world-embracing brotherhood to which men
have been slowly awakening throughout the Christian centuries was the
dominant ideal of Catherine's mind. She hoped for the attainment of such a
brotherhood through the instrument of an organized Christendom, reduced to
peace and unity under one God-appointed Head. History, as some of us
think, has rejected the noble dream. We seem to see that the undying hope
of the human spirit--a society shaped by justice and love--is never likely
to be gained along the lines of the centralization of ecclesiastical
power. But if our idea of the means has changed, the same end still shines
before us. The vision of human fellowship in the Name of Christ, for which
Catherine lived and died, remains the one hope for the healing of the


[Processor's note: this timeline and the one that follows appeared in the
opposite order in the 1905 edition on which this etext is based. Their
order has been reversed to correctly reflect the order in which they
appear in the table of contents.]

1347. On March 25th, Catherine, and a twin-sister who dies at once, are
born in the Strada dell' Oca, near the fountain of Fontebranda, Siena. She
is the youngest of the twenty-five children of Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer,
and Lapa, his wife.

1353-4. As a child, Catherine is peculiarly joyous and charming. When six
years old she beholds the vision of Christ, arrayed in priestly robes,
above the Church of St. Dominic. She is inspired by a longing to imitate
the life of the Fathers of the desert, and begins to practise many
penances. At the age of seven she makes the vow of virginity. She is drawn
to the Order of St. Dominic by the zeal of its founder for the salvation
of souls.

1359-1363. Her ascetic practices meet with sharp opposition at home. She
is urged to array herself beautifully and to marry, is denied a private
chamber, and forced to perform the menial work of the household, etc. In
time, however, her perseverance wins the consent of her father and family
to her desires.

1363-1364. She is vested with the black and white habit of Saint Dominic,
becoming one of the Mantellate, or Dominican tertiaries, devout women who
lived under religious rule in their own homes.

1364-1367. She leads in her own room at home the life of a religious
recluse, speaking only to her Confessor. She is absorbed in mystical
experiences and religious meditation. During this time she learns to read.
The period closes with her espousals to Christ, on the last day of
Carnival, 1367.

1367-1370. In obedience to the commands of God, and impelled by her love
of men, she returns gradually to family and social life. From this time
dates her special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She joyfully devotes
herself to household labours, and to a life of ministration to the sick
and needy. In 1368 her father dies, and the Revolution puts an end to the
prosperity of the Benincasa family, which is now broken up. Catherine
seems to have retained to the end the care of Monna Lapa. In 1370 she dies
mystically and returns to life, having received the command to go abroad
into the world to save souls.

1370-1374. Her reputation and influence increase. A group of disciples
gathers around her. Her correspondence gradually becomes extensive, and
she becomes known as a peacemaker. At the same time, her ecstasies and
unusual mode of life excite criticism and suspicion. In May, 1374, she
visits Florence, perhaps summoned thither to answer charges made against
her by certain in the Order. She returns to Siena to minister to the
plague-stricken. She meets at this time Fra Raimondo of Capua, her
Confessor and biographer. Her gradual induction into public affairs is
accompanied by growing sorrow over the corruptions of the Church.

1375. At the invitation of Pietro Gambacorta, Catherine visits Pisa. Her
object is to prevent Pisa and Lucca from joining the League of Tuscan
cities against the Pope. She meets the Ambassador from the Queen of
Cyprus, and zealously undertakes to further the cause of a Crusade. On
April 1st she receives the Stigmata in the Church of Santa Cristina; but
the marks, at her request, remain invisible. She prophesies the Great
Schism. A brief visit to Lucca.

1376. Catherine receives Stefano Maconi as a disciple, and at his instance
reconciles the feud between the Maconi and the Tolomei. She attempts by
correspondence to reconcile Pope Gregory XI. and the Florentines. On April
1st the Divine Commission to bear the olive to both disputants is given
her in a vision. In May, at the request of the Florentines, she goes to
Florence. Sent as their representative to Avignon, she reaches that city
on June 18th. Gregory entrusts her with the negotiations for peace. The
Florentine ambassadors, however, delay their coming, and when they come
refuse to ratify her powers. Thwarted in this direction, she devotes all
her efforts to persuading the Pope to return to Rome, and triumphing over
all obstacles, succeeds. She leaves for home on September 13th, but is
retained for a month in Genoa, at the house of Madonna Orietta Scotta.
After a short visit at Pisa, she reaches Siena in December or January.

1377. Catherine converts the castle of Belcaro, conveyed to her by its
owner, into a monastery. She visits the Salimbeni in their feudal castle
at Rocca D'Orcia, for the purpose of healing their family feuds. While
here she learns miraculously to write. She also visits Sant' Antimo and

1378. Gregory, in failing health, perhaps regretting his return, becomes
alienated from Catherine. He sends her, however, to Florence, where she
stays in a house built for her by Niccolo Soderini, at the foot of the
hill of St. George. She succeeds in causing the Interdict to be respected,
but almost loses her life in a popular tumult, and keenly regrets not
having won the crown of martyrdom. After the death of Gregory, and the
establishment of the longed-for peace by Pope Urban, Catherine returns to
Siena, where she devotes herself to composing her "Dialogue." After the
outbreak of the Schism, Urban, whom she had known at Avignon, summons her
to Rome. She reluctantly obeys, and takes up her abode in that city on
November 28th, accompanied by a large group of disciples, her "Famiglia,"
who live together, subsisting on alms. From this time Catherine devotes
her whole powers to the cause of Urban. She is his trusted adviser, and
seeks earnestly to curb his impatient temper on the one hand, and to keep
the sovereigns of Europe faithful to him on the other. She writes on his
behalf to the Kings of France and Hungary, to Queen Giovanna of Naples, to
the magistrates of Italian cities, to the Italian cardinals who have
joined the Schism, and to others. Fra Raimondo, despatched to France, to
her grief and exaltation, evades his mission through timidity, to her
bitter disappointment, but does not return to Rome till after her death.
Catherine's health, always fragile, gives way under her unremitting
labours and her great sorrows.

1380. Catherine succeeds in quieting the revolt of the Romans against
Urban. She dedicates herself as a sacrificial victim, in expiation of the
sins of the Church and of the Roman people. In vision at St. Peter's, on
Sexagesima Sunday, the burden of the Ship of the Church descends upon her
shoulders. Her physical sufferings increase, and on April 30th she dies,
in the presence of her disciples.


1368-1369. Political Revolution in Siena. The compromise government of the
Riformatori is established. The Emperor Charles V. is summoned to the city
by the party worsted in the Revolution, joined by certain nobles. He
arrives in January, '69, but is forced to withdraw by a popular rising.
The nobles are excluded from the chief power and ravaged by feuds among

1372. Gregory XI. declares war against Bernabo Visconti of Milan, and
takes into his pay the English free-lance, Sir John Hawkwood. Peter
d'Estaing, appointed Legate of Bologna, makes truce with Bernabo. The
latter, however, continues secretly to incite Tuscany to rebel against the
Pope, inflaming the indignation of the Tuscans at the arbitrary policy of
the Papal Legates, and in particular of the Nuncio, Gerard du Puy, who is
supporting the claims of those turbulent nobles, the Salimbeni in Siena.
Catherine is in correspondence with both d'Estaing and Du Puy. On April
22nd, Gregory, in full consistory, announces his intention of returning to

1373. Italy is devastated by petty strife: "It seems as if a planet
reigned at this time which produced in the world the following effects:
That the Brothers of St. Austin killed their Provincial at Sant' Antonio
with a knife; and in Siena was much fighting. At Assisi the Brothers Minor
fought, and killed fourteen with a knife. And those of the Rose fought,
and drove six away. Also, those of Certosa had great dissensions, and
their General came and changed them all about. So all Religious everywhere
seemed to have strife and dissension among themselves. And every Religious
of whatever rule was oppressed and insulted by the world. So with brothers
according to the flesh--cousins, wives, relatives, and neighbours. It
seems that there were divisions all over the whole world. In Siena,
loyalty was neither proposed nor observed, gentlemen did not show it among
themselves nor outside, nor did the Nine among themselves or with outside
persons, nor did the Twelve. The people did not agree with their own
leader, nor exactly with any one else. Thus all the world was a place of
shadows."--_Chronicle of Neri di Donato_.

A Crusade publicly proclaimed by the Pope.

1374. Plague and famine lay Tuscany waste. William of Noellet, the Papal
Legate, refuses to allow corn to be imported into Tuscany from the Papal
States. Hawkwood, probably at his instigation, ravages the country, and
even threatens the city of Florence. Florence, enraged, rebels against the
Pope, and appoints from the ranks of the Ghibellines a new body of
Magistrates, known as the Eight of War. Meantime, Cione de' Salimbeni is
raiding the country around Siena. The roads through the Maremma are
insecure for peaceable folk, and the peasants are driven to take refuge in
the plague-stricken town.

1375. Eighty Italian cities join a League, headed by Florence, against the
Pope, with the watchword, "Fling off the foreign yoke."

1376. Gregory despatches ambassadors to the Eight of War, who scorn his
proposals. Florence incites Bologna to revolt, and the Legate flees. The
Papal Nuncio is flayed alive in the streets of Florence. The city is
placed under an Interdict. Envoys are despatched to Avignon, who set forth
eloquently, but to no avail, the grievances of the city. War is declared
against Florence by the Pope, and Count Robert of Geneva, with an army of
free-lances, is sent into Italy. Count Robert, laying waste the territory
of Bologna, summons Hawkwood to his aid, and perpetrates the hideous
massacre of Cesena. Catherine, sent to Avignon, fails to procure peace.
Gregory, swayed by her representations, returns to Italy, and reaches
Rome, after a difficult journey, on January 17th, 1377.

1378. Gregory, exhausted and disappointed by the continued discords in
Italy, dies in March. The Archbishop of Bari, known as Urban VI., is
appointed his successor. In July, peace is made with Florence, and the
Interdict upon the city is raised. The harsh measures of Urban in dealing
with the clergy arouse violent antagonism. In June, the Cardinals begin to
circulate rumours challenging the validity of the election, and on
September 20th they formally announce that the election was invalid,
having been forced on them by fear, and appoint as Pope the Cardinal
Robert of Geneva, who takes the name of Clement VII.

1379-1380. The Great Schism divides Europe. England remains faithful to
Urban: France and Naples, after wavering, declare for Clement. War rages
between the two Popes. The schismatic forces gain possession of the Castle
of Saint Angelo at Rome, but are driven out by the forces of Urban, who in
gratitude marches barefoot in solemn procession from Santa Maria in
Trastevere, to St. Peter's. The city, however, later revolts against
Urban, but is reconciled to him, partly through the efforts of Catherine.
Queen Giovanna of Naples, having conspired against Urban's life, is



The young widow of noble family to whom this letter was written was the
most cherished among Catherine's women friends. She seems, as often
happens with the chosen companion of a fervent and powerful nature, to
have been a person simple, lovable, and quietly wise. Having after her
husband's death assumed the habit of St. Dominic, she distributed her
possessions to the poor by Catherine's advice, but she evidently retained
her home in Siena. This became a constant refuge for the saint from the
overcrowded Benincasa household, and the scene of more than one charming
episode in her life as told by the legend. For the Mantellate, or
tertiaries of St. Dominic, were not cloistered, nor did they take the
monastic vows; they simply lived in their own homes a life of special

To Alessa, Catherine left on her deathbed the care of her spiritual
family. This intimate little letter dates from an early period in their
friendship. In its homely, practical wisdom, as in the gentle loftiness of
its tone, it shows the watchful and loving care with which Catherine
entered into the details of the daily life of those whom she sought to
lead with her in the way of salvation. The tests she proposes are as
penetrating to-day as they were then.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, thy poor unworthy
mother, want thee to attain that perfection for which God has chosen thee.
It seems to me that one wishing so to attain should walk with and not
without moderation. And yet every work of ours ought to be done both
without and with moderation: it befits us to love God without moderation,
putting to that love neither limit nor measure nor rule, but loving Him
immeasurably. And if thou wish to reach the perfection of love, it befits
thee to set thy life in order. Let thy first rule be to flee the
conversation of every human being, in so far as it is simply conversation,
except as deeds of charity may demand; but to love people very much, and
talk with few of them. And know how to talk in moderation even with those
whom thou lovest with spiritual love; reflect that if thou didst not do
this, thou wouldst place a limit before perceiving it to that limitless
love which thou oughtest to bear to God, by placing the finite creature
between you: for the love which thou shouldst place in God thou wouldst
place in the creature, loving it without moderation; and this would hinder
thy perfection. Therefore thou shouldst love it spiritually, in a
disciplined way.

Be a vase, which thou fillest at the source and at the source dost drink
from. Although thou hadst drawn thy love from God, who is the Source of
living water, didst thou not drink it continually in Him thy vase would
remain empty. And this shall be the sign to thee that thou dost not drink
wholly in God: when thou sufferest from that which thou lovest, either by
some talk thou didst hold, or because thou wast deprived of some
consolation thou wast used to receiving, or for some other accidental
cause. If thou sufferest, then, from this or anything else except wrong
against God, it is a clear sign to thee that this love is still imperfect,
and drawn far from the Source. What way is there, then, to make the
imperfect perfect? This way: to correct and chastise the movements of thy
heart with true self-knowledge, and with hatred and distaste for thy
imperfection, that thou art such a peasant as to give to the creature that
love which ought to be given wholly to God, loving the creature without
moderation, and God moderately. For love toward God should be without
measure, and that for the creature should be measured by that for God, and
not by the measure of one's own consolations, either spiritual or
temporal. So do, then, that thou lovest everything in God, and correct
every inordinate affection.

Make two homes for thyself, my daughter. One actual home in thy cell, that
thou go not running about into many places, unless for necessity, or for
obedience to the prioress, or for charity's sake; and another spiritual
home, which thou art to carry with thee always--the cell of true self-
knowledge, where thou shalt find within thyself knowledge of the goodness
of God. These are two cells in one, and when abiding in the one it behoves
thee to abide in the other, for otherwise the soul would fall into either
confusion or presumption. For didst thou rest in knowledge of thyself,
confusion of mind would fall on thee; and didst thou abide in the
knowledge of God alone, thou wouldst fall into presumption. The two, then,
must be built together and made one same thing; if thou dost this, thou
wilt attain perfection. For from self-knowledge thou wilt gain hatred of
thine own fleshliness, and through hate thou wilt become a judge, and sit
upon the seat of thy conscience, and pass judgment; and thou wilt not let
a fault go without giving sentence on it.

From such knowledge flows the stream of humility; which never seizes on
mere report, nor takes offence at anything, but bears every insult, every
loss of consolation, and every sorrow, from whatever direction they may
come, patiently, with joy. Shames appear glory, and great persecutions
refreshment; and it rejoices in all, seeing itself punished for that
perverse law of self-will in its members which for ever rebels against
God; and it sees itself conformed with Christ Jesus crucified, the way and
the doctrine of truth.

In the knowledge of God thou shalt find the fire of divine charity. Where
shalt thou rejoice? Upon the Cross, with the Spotless Lamb, seeking His
honour and the salvation of souls, through continual, humble prayer. Now
herein is all our perfection. There are many other things also, but this
is the chief, from which we receive so much light that we cannot err in
the lesser works that follow.

Rejoice, my daughter, to conform thee to the shame of Christ. And watch
over the impulse of the tongue, that the tongue may not always respond to
the impulse of the heart; but digest what is in thy heart, with hatred and
distaste for thyself. Do thou be the least of the least, subject in
humility and patience to every creature through God; not making excuses,
but saying: the fault is mine. Thus are vices conquered in thy soul and in
the soul of him to whom thou shouldest so speak: through the virtue of

Order thy time: the night to vigil, when thou hast paid the debt of sleep
to thy body; and the morning in church with sweet prayer; do not spend it
in chatting until the appointed hour. Let nothing except necessity, or
obedience, or charity, as I said, draw thee away from this or anything
else. After the hour of eating, recollect thyself a little, and then do
something with thy hands, as thou mayest need. At the hour of vespers, do
thou go and keep quiet; and as much as the Holy Spirit enjoins on thee,
that do. Then go back and take care of thy old mother without negligence,
and provide what she needs; be thine this burden. More when I return. So
do that thou mayest fulfil my desire. I say no more. Remain in the holy
and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


One questions whether Catherine's brother would have relished the
admonitions of his saintly sister, had he known what we learn through her
biographer: that, feeling the temporal prosperity of her family to be a
snare to them, she had earnestly prayed that they might fall into poverty.
The petition was promptly granted: worldly losses, and the departure of
two of the brothers for Florence, followed upon the Sienese Revolution of
1368. Apparently, family misunderstandings accompanied these
readjustments. In the first of the present letters Catherine takes her
elder brother to task for neglect of his mother, Monna Lapa. We do not
know the effect of her remarks, but we do know that in the large family of
twenty-four, no one except Catherine herself--first recluse, and later
busy woman of affairs as she was--seems to have carried the
responsibility for the mother's welfare. The mother lived for the most
part with her great daughter, except when public interests took Catherine
away from home--occasions to which poor Monna Lapa was never reconciled.

In the second of these notes, Catherine comforts her brother very sweetly,
probably for the loss of his wealth. But if we may judge from the nature
of the reflections addressed to him, the spiritual instruction by which
Benincasa was capable of profiting was extremely elementary in character.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest brother in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, a useless servant, comfort
and bless thee and invite thee to a sweet and most holy patience, for
without patience we could not please God. So I beg you, in order that you
may receive the fruit of your tribulations, that you assume the armour of
patience. And should it seem very hard to you to endure your many
troubles, bear in memory three things, that you may endure more patiently.
First, I want you to think of the shortness of your time, for on one day
you are not certain of the morrow. We may truly say that we do not feel
past trouble, nor that which is to come, but only the moment of time at
which we are. Surely, then, we ought to endure patiently, since the time
is so short. The second thing is, for you to consider the fruit which
follows our troubles. For St. Paul says there is no comparison between our
troubles and the fruit and reward of supernal glory. The third is, for you
to consider the loss which results to those who endure in wrath and
impatience; for loss follows this here, and eternal punishment to the

Therefore I beg you, dearest brother, to endure in all patience. And I
would not have it escape your mind that you should correct you of your
ingratitude, and your ignoring of the duty you owe your mother, to which
you are held by the commandment of God. I have seen your ingratitude
multiply so that you have not even paid her the due of help that you owe:
to be sure, I have an excuse for you in this, because you could not; but
if you had been able, I do not know that you would have done it, since you
have left her in scarcity even of words. Oh, ingratitude! Have you not
considered the sorrow of her labour, nor the milk that she drew from her
breast, nor the many troubles that she has had, over you and all the
others? And should you say to me that she has had no compassion on us, I
say that it is not so; for she has had so much on you and the other that
it costs her dear. But suppose it were true--you are under obligation to
her, not she to you. She did not take her flesh from you, but gave you
hers. I beg you to correct this fault and others, and to pardon my
ignorance. For did I not love your soul, I would not say to you what I do.
Remember your confession, you and all your family. I say no more to you.
Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest and most beloved brother in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, servant and
slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, comfort you in the Precious Blood
of the Son of God: with desire to see you wholly in accord with the Will
of God, and transformed thereby; knowing that this is a sweet and holy
yoke which makes all bitterness turn into sweetness. Every great burden
becomes light beneath this most holy yoke of the sweet will of God,
without which thou couldst not please God, but wouldst know a foretaste of
Hell. Comfort you, comfort you, dearest brother, and do not faint beneath
this chastisement of God; but trust that when human help fails, divine
help is near. God will provide for you. Reflect that Job lost his
possessions and his sons and his health: his wife remained to him for a
perpetual scourge; and then, when God had tested his patience, He restored
everything to him double, and at the end eternal life. Patient Job never
was perturbed, but would say, always exercising the virtue of holy
patience, "God gave them to me, God has taken them from me; the Name of
God be blessed." So I want you to do, dearest brother: be a lover of
virtue, with holy patience, often using confession, which will as often
help you to endure your afflictions. And I tell you, God will show His
benignity and mercy, and will reward you for every affliction which you
shall have borne for His love. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God.
Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


It is in her letters to persons leading the dedicated life that one can
most clearly study Catherine's own inner experience. When warning and
consoling them, she is speaking to herself. This obscure girl had a way of
writing to the great of this earth--and indeed to the very Fathers of
Christendom--with the straightforward simplicity of a teacher instructing
childish minds in the evident rudiments of virtue. Often the sanctified
common sense of her letters to dignitaries is the most noticeable thing
about them. But when she turns to a holy hermit, the tone changes. The
commonplaces of the moral life are assumed or left behind; she speaks to a
soul that has presumably already brought its will into accord with the
divine will in regard to all outward happenings, and she takes calmly for
granted that this is a light and little thing. We proceed to the analysis
of temptations more subtle and more alluring. Catherine has few superiors
among religious thinkers in the power to trace self-will to its remotest
lairs, in the deeper reaches of personality. In letters to such
correspondents as Frate Antonio she often gives us, as here, precious
records of her intercourse with her Lord.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

To you, most beloved and dearest father and brother in Christ Jesus: I
Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write and
commend me in the Precious Blood of the Son of God, with desire to see you
kindled and inflamed in the furnace of divine charity and your own self-
will--the will that robs us of all life--consumed therein. Let us open our
eyes, dearest brother, for we have two wills--one of the senses, which
seeks the things of sense, and the other the self-will of the spirit,
which, under aspect and colour of virtue, holds firm to its own way. And
this is clear when it wants to choose places and seasons and consolations
to suit itself, and says: "Thus I wish in order to possess God more
fully." This is a great cheat, and an illusion of the devil; for not being
able to deceive the servants of God through their first will--since the
servants of God have already mortified it so far as the things of sense
go--the devil catches their second will on the sly with things of the
spirit. So many a time the soul receives consolation, and then later feels
itself deprived thereof by God; and another experience will harrow it,
which will give less consolation and more fruit. Then the soul, which is
inspired by what gives sweetness, suffers when deprived of it, and feels
annoyance. And why annoyance? Because it does not want to be deprived; for
it says, "I seem to love God more in this way than in that. From the one I
feel that I bear some fruit, and from the other I perceive no fruit at
all, except pain and ofttimes many conflicts; and so I seem to wrong God."
Son and brother in Christ Jesus, I say that this soul is deceived by its
self-will. For it would not be deprived of sweetness; with this bait the
devil catches it. Frequently men lose time in longing for time to suit
themselves, for they do not employ what they have otherwise than in
suffering and gloominess.

Once our sweet Saviour said to a very dear daughter of His, "Dost thou
know how those people act who want to fulfil My will in consolation and in
sweetness and joy? When they are deprived of these things, they wish to
depart from My will, thinking to do well and to avoid offence; but false
sensuality lurks in them, and to escape pains it falls into offence
without perceiving it. But if the soul were wise and had the light of My
will within, it would look to the fruit and not to the sweetness. What is
the fruit of the soul? Hatred of itself and love of Me. This hate and love
are the issue of self-knowledge; then the soul knows its faulty self to be
nothing, and it sees in itself My goodness, which keeps its will good; and
it sees what a person I have made it, in order that it may serve Me in
greater perfection, and judges that I have made it for the best, and for
its own greatest good. Such a man as this, dearest daughter, does not wish
for time to suit himself, because he has learned humility; knowing his
infirmity, he does not trust in his own wish, but is faithful to Me. He
clothes him in My highest and eternal will, because he sees that I neither
give nor take away, save for your sanctification; and he sees that love
alone impels Me to give you sweetness and to take it from you. For this
cause he cannot grieve over any consolation that might be taken from him
within or without, by demon or fellow-creature--because he sees that, were
this not for his good, I should not permit it. Therefore this man rejoices
because he has light within and without, and is so illumined that when the
devil approaches his mind with shadows to confuse him, saying, 'This is
for thy sins,' he replies like a person who shrinks not from suffering,
saying, 'Thanks be to my Creator, who has remembered me in the time of
shadows, punishing me by pain in finite time. Great is this love, which
will not punish me in the infinite future.' Oh, what tranquillity of mind
has this soul, because it has freed itself from the self-will which brings
storm! But not thus does he whose self-will is lively within, seeking
things after his own way! For he seems to think that he knows what he
needs better than I. Many a time he says, 'It seems to me that I am
wronging God in this: free me from wrong, and let what He wills be done.'
This is a sign that you are freed from wrong, when you see in yourself
goodwill not to want to wrong God, and displeasure with sin; thence ought
you to take hope. Although all external activities and inward consolations
should fail, let goodwill to please God ever remain firm. Upon this rock
is founded grace. If thou sayest, I do not seem to have it, I say that
this is false, for if thou hadst it not, thou wouldst not fear to wrong
God. But it is the devil who makes things look so, in order that the soul
may fall into confusion and disordered sadness, and hold firm its self-
will, by wanting consolations, times and seasons in its own way. Do not
believe him, dearest daughter, but let your soul be always ready to endure
sufferings in howsoever God may inflict them. Otherwise you would do like
a man who stands on the threshold with a light in his hand, who reaches
his hand out and casts light outside, and within it is dark. Such is a man
who is already united in outward things with the will of God, despising
the world; but within, his spiritual self-will is living still, veiled in
the colour of virtue." Thus spoke God to that servant of His spoken of

Therefore I said that I wished and desired that your will should be
absorbed and transformed in Him, while we hold ourselves always ready to
bear pains and toils howsoever God chooses to send them to us. So we shall
be freed from darkness and abide in light. Amen. Praised be Jesus Christ
crucified and sweet Mary.


Catherine is well aware that the world can be as true a school of holiness
as the forest cell. She writes to the noble lady, Monna Agnese Malavolti,
in much the same strain as to Frate Antonio. The danger of spiritual self-
will forms indeed one of those recurring themes which pervade her letters
like the motifs of Wagnerian music--ever the same, yet woven into ever-
new harmonies.

But the general subject of this letter is the "Santissima Pazienza," which
is still frequently invoked by the common folk of Siena: and Catherine's
analysis searches deep. Patience could hardly have been one of the virtues
most native to the woman's valiant spirit, and one feels in her keen and
solemn meditations that she had herself known the bitter and corroding
power of the sin "that burns and does not consume," and that "makes the
soul unendurable to itself." It is with convincing fervour and fulness
that she presents impatience as the permanent condition of the lost. The
little discussion of impatience in human relations, and of the "proud
humility" resorted to by a soul ravaged by a sense of neglect, has also a
very personal note. But it is still more clear in the letter that
Catherine's had become the disciplined nature which can "endure a restless
mind with more reverence than a tranquil one," if such be the will of God,
and which has entered deeply into the joy that awaits the meek.

Monna Agnese must have stood in special need of these touching
exhortations: she was a woman sorrowfully tried. Her son had been beheaded
in 1372, in punishment for heinous sin; and now her only daughter had
died. "For the which thing," writes Catherine, with one of her own
inimitable phrases, "I am deeply content, with a holy compassion."

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of
the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His Precious Blood, with the
desire to see you established in true patience, since I consider that
without patience we cannot please God. For just as impatience gives much
pleasure to the devil and to one's own lower nature, and revels in nothing
but anger when it misses what the lower nature wants, so it is very
displeasing to God. It is because anger and impatience are the very pith
and sap of pride that they please the devil so much. Impatience loses the
fruit of its labour, deprives the soul of God; it begins by knowing a
foretaste of hell, and later it brings men to eternal damnation: for in
hell the evil perverted will burns with anger, hate and impatience. It
burns and does not consume, but is evermore renewed--that is, it never
grows less, and therefore I say, it does not consume. It has indeed
parched and consumed grace in the souls of the lost, but as I said it has
not consumed their being, and so their punishment lasts eternally. The
saints say that the damned ask for death and cannot have it, because the
soul never dies. It dies to be sure to grace, by mortal sin; but it does
not die to existence. There is no sin nor wrong that gives a man such a
foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience. It is hated by
God, it holds its neighbour in aversion, and has neither knowledge nor
desire to bear and forbear with its faults. And whatever is said or done
to it, it at once empoisons, and its impulses blow about like a leaf in
the wind. It becomes unendurable to itself, for perverted will is always
gnawing at it, and it craves what it cannot have; it is discordant with
the will of God and with the rational part of its own soul. And all this
comes from the tree of Pride, from which oozes out the sap of anger and
impatience. The man becomes an incarnate demon, and it is much worse to
fight with these visible demons than with the invisible. Surely, then,
every reasonable being ought to flee this sin.

But note, that there are two sources of impatience. There is a common kind
of impatience, felt by ordinary men in the world, which befalls them on
account of the inordinate love they have for themselves and for temporal
things, which they love apart from God; so that to have them they do not
mind losing their soul, and putting it into the hands of the devils. This
is beyond help, unless a man recognizes himself, how he has wronged God,
and cuts down that tree of Pride with the sword of true humility, which
produces charity in the soul. For there is a tree of Love, whose pith is
patience and goodwill toward one's neighbour. For, just as impatience
shows more clearly than any other sin that the soul is deprived of God--
because it is at once evident that since the pith is there, the tree of
Pride must be there--so patience shows better and more perfectly than any
other virtue, that God is in the soul by grace. Patience, I say, deep
within the tree of Love, that for love of its Creator disdains the world,
and loves insults whencesoever they come.

I was saying that anger and impatience were of two kinds, one general and
one special. We have spoken of the common kind. Now I talk of the more
particular, of the impatience of those who have already despised the
world, and who wish to be servants of Christ crucified in their own way;
that is, in so far as they shall find joy and consolation in Him. This is
because spiritual self-will is not dead in them: therefore they
imperiously demand from God that He should give them consolations and
tribulations in their own way, and not in His; and so they become
impatient, when they get the contrary of what their spiritual self-will
wants. This is a little offshoot from Pride, sprouting from real Pride, as
a tree sends out a little tree by its side, which looks separated from it,
but nevertheless it gets the substance from which it springs from the same
tree. So is self-will in the soul which chooses to serve God in its own
way; and when that way fails it suffers, and its suffering makes it
impatient, and it is unendurable to itself, and takes no pleasure in
serving God or its neighbour. Nay, if any one came to it for comfort or
help it would give him nothing but reproaches, and would not know how to
be tolerant to his need. All this results from the sensitive spiritual
self-will that grows from the tree of Pride which was cut down, but not
uprooted. It is cut down when the soul uplifts its desire above the world,
and fastens it on God, but has fastened there imperfectly; the root of
Pride was left, and therefore it sent up an offshoot by its side, and
shows itself in spiritual things. So, if it misses consolations from God,
and its mind stays dry and sterile, it at once becomes disturbed and
depressed, and, under colour of virtue--because it thinks itself deprived
of God--it begins to complain, and lays down the law to God. But were it
truly humble and had true hate and knowledge of itself, it would deem
itself unworthy of the visitation of God to its soul, and worthy of the
pain that it suffers, in being deprived, not of God's grace in the soul,
but of its consolations. It suffers, then, because it has to work in its
chains; yes, spiritual self-will suffers under the delusion that it is
wronging God, while the trouble is really with its own lower nature.

Therefore the humble soul, which has freely uprooted with eager love the
root of Pride, has annulled its own will, seeking ever the honour of God
and the salvation of souls. It does not mind sufferings, but endures a
restless mind with more reverence than a quiet one; having a holy
respectful knowledge that God gives and grants this to it for its good,
that it may rise from imperfection to perfection. That is the way to make
it attain perfection, for it recognizes better thereby its own defects and
the grace of God, which it finds within, in the goodwill that God has
given it to hate its mortal sin. Also, by meditating on its defects and
faults, old and new, it has conceived hatred for itself, and love for the
Highest Eternal Will of God. Therefore it bears these things with
reverence, and is content to endure inwardly and outwardly, in whatever
way God grants it. Provided that it can be filled and clothed with the
sweetness of the will of God, it rejoices in everything; and the more it
sees itself deprived of the thing it loves, whether the consolations of
God, as I said, or of its fellows, the more gladsome it grows. For many a
time it happens that the soul loves spiritually; but if it does not find
the consolation or satisfaction from the beloved that it would like, or if
it suspects that more love or satisfaction is given to another than to
itself, it falls into suffering, into depression of mind, into criticism
of its neighbour and false judgment, passing judgment on the mind and
intention of the servants of God, and especially on those from whom it
suffers. Thence it becomes impatient, and thinks what it should not think,
and says with its tongue what it should not say. In such suffering as
this, it likes to resort to a proud humility, which has the aspect of
humility, but is really an offshoot of Pride, springing up beside it--
saying to itself: "I will not pay these people any more attention, or
trouble myself any more about them. I will keep entirely to myself; I do
not wish to hurt either myself or them." And it abases itself with a
perverted scorn. Now it ought to perceive that this is scorn, by the
impulse to judge that it feels in its heart, and by the complaints of its
tongue. It ought not then to do so; for in this fashion it will never get
rid of the root of Pride, nor cut off the little son at the side, which
hinders the soul from attaining the perfection at which it has aimed. But
it ought to kneel at the table of the Most Holy Cross, to receive the food
of the honour of God and the salvation of souls, with a free heart, with
holy hatred of itself, with passionate desire: seeking to gain virtue by
suffering and sweat, and not by private consolations either from God or
its fellows; following the footsteps and the teaching of Christ Crucified,
saying to itself with sharp rebuke: "Thou shouldst not, my soul, thou that
art a member, travel by another road than thy Head. An unfit thing it is
that limbs should remain delicate beneath a thorn-crowned Head." If such
habits became fixed, through one's own frailty, or the wiles of the devil,
or the many impulses that shake the heart like winds, then the soul ought
to ascend the seat of its conscience, and reason with itself, and let
nothing pass without punishment and chastisement, hatred and distaste for
itself. So the root shall be pulled up, and by displeasure against itself
the soul will drive out displeasure against its neighbour, grieving more
over the unregulated instincts of its own heart and thoughts than over the
suffering it could receive from its fellows, or any insult or annoyance
they could inflict on it.

This is the sweet and holy fashion observed by those who are wholly
inspired of Christ; for in this wise they have uprooted perverted pride,
and that marrow of impatience of which we said above that it was very
pleasing to the devil, because it is the beginning and occasion of every
sin; and on the contrary that as it is very pleasing to the devil, so it
is very displeasing to God. Pride displeases Him and humility pleases Him.
So greatly did the virtue of humility please Him in Mary that He was
constrained to give her the Word His Only-Begotten Son and she was the
sweet mother who gave Him to us. Know well, that until Mary showed by her
spoken words her humility and pure will, when she said: "Ecce Ancilla
Domini, be it done unto me according to Thy word"--the Son of God was not
incarnate in her; but when she had said this, she conceived within herself
that sweet and Spotless Lamb--the Sweet Primal Truth showing thereby how
excellent is this little virtue, and how much the soul receives that
offers and presents its will in humility to its Creator. So then--in the
time of labours and persecutions, of insults and injuries inflicted by
one's neighbour, of mental conflicts and deprivation of spiritual
consolations, by the Creator or the creature, (by the Creator in His
gentleness, when He withdraws the feeling of the mind, so that it does not
seem as if God were in the soul, so many are its pains and conflicts--and
by fellow-creatures, in conversation or amusement, or when the soul thinks
that it loves more than it is loved)--in all these things, I say that the
soul perfected by humility says: "My Lord, behold Thy handmaid: be it done
unto me according to Thy word, and not according to what I want with my
senses." So it sheds the fragrance of patience, around the Creator and its
fellow-creature and itself. It has peace and quiet in its mind, and it has
found peace in warfare, because it has driven far from it its self-will
founded in pride, and has conceived divine grace in its soul. And it bears
in its mind's breast Christ crucified, and rejoices in the Wounds of
Christ crucified, and seeks to know naught but Christ crucified; and its
bed is the Cross of Christ crucified. There it annuls its own will, and
becomes humble and obedient.

For there is no obedience without humility, nor humility without charity.
This is shown by the Word, for in obedience to His Father and in humility,
He ran to the shameful death of the Cross, nailing and binding Him with
the nails and bands of charity, and enduring in such patience that no cry
of complaint was heard from Him. For nails were not enough to hold God-
and-Man nailed and fastened on the Cross had Love not held Him there. This
I say that the soul feels; therefore it will not joy otherwise than with
Christ crucified. For could it attain to virtue and escape Hell and have
eternal life, without sufferings, and have in the world consolations
spiritual and temporal, it would not wish them; but it desires rather to
suffer, enduring even unto death, than to have eternal life in any other
way: only let it conform itself with Christ crucified, and clothe it with
His shames and pains. It has found the table of the Spotless Lamb.

Oh, glorious virtue! Who would not give himself to death a thousand times,
and endure any suffering through desire to win thee? Thou art a queen, who
dost possess the entire world; thou dost inhabit the enduring life; for
while the soul that is arrayed in thee is yet mortal, thou makest it abide
by force of love with those who are immortal. Since, then, this virtue is
so excellent and pleasing to God and useful to us and saving to our
neighbour, arise, dearest daughter, from the sleep of negligence and
ignorance, casting to earth the weakness and frailty of thy heart, that it
feel no suffering nor impatience over anything that God permits to us, so
that we may not fall either into the common kind of impatience, or into
the special kind, as we were saying before, but serve our sweet Saviour
manfully, with liberty of heart and true perfect patience. If we do
otherwise, we shall lose grace by the first sort of impatience, and by the
second we shall hinder our state of perfection; and you would not attain
that to which God has called you.

It seems that God is calling you to great perfection. And I perceive it by
this, that He takes away from you every tie that might hinder it in you.
For as I have heard, it seems that He has called to Himself your daughter,
who was your last tie with the outer world. For which thing I am deeply
content, with a holy compassion, that God should have set you free, and
taken her from her labours. Now then, I want that you should wholly
destroy your own will, that it may cling to nothing but Christ crucified.
In this way you will fulfil His will and my desire. Therefore, not knowing
any other way in which you could fulfil it, I said to you that I desired
to see you established in true and holy patience, because without this we
cannot reach our sweet goal. I say no more. Remain in the holy and sweet
grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


Two nieces, daughters of Bartolo Benincasa, were nuns in the Convent of
Montepulciano. To one of them the following letter is addressed. One can
read between the lines a lively solicitude. Never cloistered herself,
Catherine had a close intimacy with cloisters, and knew their best and
worst. She held in hearty and loyal respect the opportunities which they
offered for leading an exalted life; to this Convent of St. Agnes she was
peculiarly attached. At the same time, she was well aware, as other
letters beside the present show, that even the best of cloisters afforded
at this time scant shelter to young girls from emotional temptation, gross
or fine. Her warnings to her niece have the authoritative tone of anxiety.
Let us hope that Eugenia took them to heart; and that, leading the
disciplined life of Catherine's desire, she became not unworthy to receive
and apprehend in its full beauty the penetrating meditation on Prayer
which forms the second part of the letter. The thoughts of this
meditation, like many others in Catherine's letters, will be found
amplified in her Dialogue--a colloquy between God and her soul, composed
and dictated in trance during the year 1378. The following quotation
illustrates an interesting passage of the letter:--

"In this way, vocal prayer can be useful to the soul and do Me pleasure,
and from imperfect vocal prayer it can advance by persevering practice to
perfect mental prayer. But if it aims simply to complete its number (of
paternosters), or if it gave up mental prayer for the sake of vocal, it
would never arrive at perfection. Sometimes, when a soul has made a
resolution to say a certain number of prayers, I may visit its mind, now
in one way, now in another: at one time with the light of self-knowledge
and contrition over its lightness, at another, with the largesse of My
charity; at another, by putting before its mind, in diverse manner as may
please Me, and as that soul may have craved, the Presence of My Truth. And
the soul will be so ignorant that it will turn from My Visitation, in
order to complete its number, from a conscientious scruple against giving
up what it began. It ought not to do thus, for this would be a wile of the
devil. But at once, when it feels its mind ready for My Visitation, in any
way, as I said, it should abandon the vocal prayer. Then, when the mental
has passed, if there is time it can resume the other, which it had planned
to say. But if there is not time it must not care nor be troubled or

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of
the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood, with
desire to see thee taste the food of angels, since thou art made for no
other end; and that thou mightest taste it, God bought thee with the Blood
of His Only-Begotten Son. But reflect, dearest daughter, that this food is
not taken upon earth, but on high, and therefore the Son of God chose to
be lifted up upon the wood of the Most Holy Cross, in order that we might
receive this food upon this table on high. But thou wilt say to me: What
is this food of angels? I reply to thee: it is the desire of God, which
draws to itself the desire that is in the depths of the soul, and they
make one thing together.

This is a food which while we are pilgrims in this life, draws to itself
the fragrance of true and sincere virtues, which are prepared by the fire
of divine charity, and received upon the table of the cross. That is,
virtue is won by pain and weariness, casting down one's own fleshly
nature;--the kingdom of one's soul which is called Heaven (_cielo_)
because it hides (_cela_) God within it by patience, is seized with force
and violence. This is the food that makes the soul angelic, and therefore
it is called the food of angels; and also because the soul, separated from
the body, tastes God in His essential Being. He satisfies the soul in such
wise that she longs for no other thing nor can desire aught but what may
help her more perfectly to keep and increase this food, so that she holds
in hate what is contrary to it. Therefore, like a prudent person, she
looks with the light of most holy faith, which is in the eye of the mind,
and beholds what is harmful and what is useful to her. And as she has
seen, so she loves and condemns--holding, I say, her own fleshly nature
and all the vices which proceed from it, bound beneath the feet of her
affections. She flees all causes that may incline her to vice or hinder
her perfection. So she annuls her self-will, which is the cause of all
evil, and subjects it to the yoke of holy obedience, not only to the Order
and its chief, but to every least creature through God. She flees all
glory and human indulgence, and glories only in the shames and sorrows of
Christ crucified: insults, outrage, ridicule, injuries, are milk to her;
she joys in them, to be conformed with the Bridegroom, Christ crucified.
She renounces conversation with fellow-beings, because she sees that they
often intervene between us and our Creator, and she flees to the actual
and to the mental cell.

To this I summon thee and the others: and I command thee, dearest daughter
mine, that thou abide for ever in the cell of self-knowledge, where we
find the angelic food of the eager desire of God toward us; and in the
actual cell, with vigil and humble faithful continual prayer, divesting
thy heart and mind of every creature, and clothing them with Christ
crucified. Otherwise thou wouldst eat upon the earth, and there I have
already said to thee, one should not eat. Reflect that thy Bridegroom,
Christ sweet Jesus, wishes naught between thee and Him, and is very
jealous. So as soon as He saw that thou didst love any thing apart from
Him, He would go from thee, and thou wouldst be made worthy to eat the
food of beasts. And wouldst thou not truly be a beast, and food for
beasts, didst thou leave the Creator for the creature, and infinite good
for finite and transitory things that pass like the winds, light for
darkness, life for death, Him who clothes thee in the sun of justice with
the clasp of obedience, and pearls of living faith, firm hope, and perfect
charity, for him who robs thee of them? And wouldst thou not be foolish
indeed to depart from Him who gives thee perfect purity--so that the
closer thou dost cling to Him, the more the flower of thy virginity is
refined--for those who many a time and oft shed a stench of impurity,
defiling mind and body? God avert them from thee by His infinite mercy!

And in order that no such thing may ever happen to thee, be on thy guard:
let not thy misfortune be such as to enter into any private conversation,
with monk or layman. For if I were to know or hear it, even if I were much
farther away than I am, I would give thee such a discipline that it would
stay in thy memory all thy whole life; never mind who may be by. Beware
neither to give nor receive, except in case of need, helping every one in
common within and without. Be steadfast and mature in thyself. Serve the
sisters tenderly, with all vigilance, especially those whom thou seest in
need. When guests pass by and ask for thee at the gratings, abide in thy
peace and do not go--but let them say to the prioress what they wanted to
say to thee, unless she commands thee to go on thy obedience. Then, hold
thy head bowed, and be as savage as a hedgehog. Keep in thy mind the
manners which that glorious virgin Saint Agnes made her daughters observe.
Go to confession and tell thy need; and when thou hast received thy
penance, run. Beware, moreover, that thy confessors be not from the men
who have brought thee up. And do not wonder because I talk so; for many a
time thou mayest have heard me say, and it is the truth, that the talk of
so-called pious men and women, full of depraved expressions, ruins the
souls and the habits and practices of Religious. Beware that thou bind thy
heart to none but Christ crucified; for the hour would come when thou
wouldst wish to set it free and couldst not, which would be very hard for
thee. I say that the soul which has tasted of the food of angels has seen
in the light that this and the other things we were speaking of are an
obstacle between itself and its food, and therefore flees them with the
greatest zeal. I say that it loves and seeks what may increase and
preserve it. And because it has seen that this food is better enjoyed by
means of prayer offered in self-knowledge, therefore it exercises itself
therein continually by all the ways in which it can hold closer to God.

Prayer is of three sorts. The one is perpetual: it is the holy perpetual
desire, which prays in the sight of God, whatever thou art doing; for this
desire directs all thy works, spiritual and corporal, to His honour, and
therefore it is called perpetual. Of this it seems that Saint Paul the
glorious was talking when he said: Pray without ceasing. The other kind is
vocal prayer, when the offices or other prayers are said aloud. This is
ordained to reach the third--that is, mental prayer: your soul reaches
this when it uses vocal prayer in prudence and humility, so that while the
tongue speaks the heart is not far from God. But one must exert one's self
to hold and establish one's heart in the force of divine charity. And
whenever one felt one's mind to be visited by God, so that it was drawn to
think of its Creator in any wise, it ought to abandon vocal prayer, and to
fix its mind with the force of love upon that wherein it sees God visit
it; then, if it has time, when this has ceased, it ought to take up the
vocal prayer again, in order that the mind may always stay full and not
empty. And although many conflicts of diverse kinds should abound in
prayer, and darkness of mind with much confusion, the devil making the
soul feel that her prayer was not pleasing to God--nevertheless, she ought
not to give up on account of those conflicts and shadows, but to abide
firm in fortitude and long perseverance, considering that the devil so
does to draw her away from prayer the mother, and God permits it to test
the fortitude and constancy of that soul. Also, in order that by those
conflicts and shadows she may know herself not to be, and in the goodwill
which she feels preserved within her may know the goodness of God, Who is
Giver and Preserver of good and holy wills: such wills as are not
vouchsafed to all who want them.

By this means she attains to the third and last--mental prayer, in which
she receives the reward for the labours she underwent in her imperfect
vocal prayer. Then she tastes the milk of faithful prayer. She rises above
herself--that is, above the gross impulses of the senses--and with angelic
mind unites herself with God by force of love, and sees and knows with the
light of thought, and clothes herself with truth. She is made the sister
of angels; she abides with her Bridegroom on the table of crucified
desire, rejoicing to seek the honour of God and the salvation of souls;
since well she sees that for this the Eternal Bridegroom ran to the
shameful death of the Cross, and thus fulfilled obedience to the Father,
and our salvation. This prayer is surely a mother, who conceives virtues
by the love of God, and brings them forth in the love of the neighbour.
Where dost thou show love, faith, and hope, and humility? In prayer. For
thou wouldst never take pains to seek the thing which thou didst not love;
but he who loves would ever be one with what he loves--that is, God. By
means of prayer thou askest of Him thy necessity; for knowing thyself--the
knowledge on which true prayer is founded--thou seest thyself to have
great need. Thou feelest thyself surrounded by thine enemies--by the world
with its insults and its recalling of vain pleasures, by the devil with
his many temptations, by the flesh with its great rebellion and struggle
against the spirit. And thou seest that in thyself thou art not; not
being, thou canst not help thyself; and therefore thou dost hasten in
faith to Him who is, who can and will help thee in thine every need, and
thou dost hopefully ask and await His aid. Thus ought prayer to be made,
if thou wishest to have that which thou awaitest. Never shall any just
thing be denied thee which thou askest in this wise from the Divine
Goodness; but if thou dost in other wise, little fruit shalt thou receive.
Where shalt thou feel grief in thy conscience? In prayer. Where shalt thou
divest thee of the self-love which makes thee impatient in the time of
insults and of other pains, and shalt clothe thee in the divine love which
shall make thee patient, and shalt glory in the Cross of Christ crucified?
In prayer. Where shalt thou breathe the perfume of virginity and the
hunger for martyrdom, holding thee ready to give thy life for the honour
of God and the salvation of souls? In this sweet mother, prayer. This will
make thee an observer of thy Rule: it will seal in thy heart and mind
three solemn vows which thou didst make at thy profession, leaving there
the imprint of the desire to observe them until death. This releases thee
from conversation with fellow-creatures, and gives thee converse with thy
Creator; it fills the vessel of thy heart with the Blood of the Humble
Lamb, and crowns it with flame, because with flame of love that Blood was

The soul receives and tastes this mother Prayer more or less perfectly,
according as it nourishes itself with the food of angels--that is, with
holy and true desire for God, raising itself on high, as I said, to
receive it upon the table of the most sweet Cross. Therefore I said to
thee that I desired to see thee nourished with angelic food, because I see
not that in otherwise thou couldst be a true bride of Christ crucified,
consecrated to Him in holy religion. So do that I may see thee a jewel
precious in the sight of God. And do not go about wasting thy time. Bathe
and drown thee in the sweet Blood of thy Bridegroom. I say no more. Remain
in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


This tender and playful little letter, with its childlike simplicity of
fancy and gentle authority of tone, encourages us to believe that
Catherine appreciated the full advantages of being an aunt. We have other
indications that the many spiritual ties which held her as she grew older
never weakened the bond of any natural affection. Indeed, Catherine re-
created each natural bond, when possible, as a spiritual bond, an
achievement none too common. Doubtless, many children grew up around her
in the large Benincasa household. We know that at the time of the plague,
in 1374, Lapa was bringing up eleven grandchildren in her own house. Of
these, eight fell victims to the pestilence, and we have a glimpse of
Catherine burying them with her own hands, and saying as she laid them to
rest one by one, "This one, at least, I shall not lose." Of the little
Nanna to whom this letter was written we know nothing, except that she was
the child of the elder brother, who, as we have already seen, had moved to

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of
the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood, with
desire to see thee a real bride of Christ crucified, running away from
everything which might hinder thee from possessing this sweet and glorious
Bridegroom. But thou couldst not do this if thou wert not among those wise
virgins consecrated to Christ who had lamps with oil in them, and light
was within. See, then, if thou wishest to be a bride of Christ, thou must
have lamp, and oil, and light. Dost thou know what this means, daughter
mine? By the lamp is meant our heart, because a heart ought to be made
like a lamp. Thou seest that a lamp is wide above and narrow below, and so
the heart is made, to signify that we ought always to keep it wide above,
through holy thoughts and holy imaginations and continual prayer; always
holding in memory the blessings of God, and chiefly the blessing of the
Blood by which we are bought. For Blessed Christ, my daughter, did not buy
us with gold or silver or pearls or other precious stones; nay, He bought
us with His precious Blood. So one wants never to forget so great a
blessing, but always to hold it before one's eyes, in holy and sweet
gratitude, seeing how immeasurably God loves us: who did not shrink from
giving His only begotten Son to the opprobrious death of the Cross, to
give us the life of grace.

I said that a lamp is narrow below, and so is our heart: to signify that
the heart ought to be narrow toward these earthly things--that is, it must
not desire nor love them extravagantly, nor hunger for more than God wills
to give us; but ever thank Him, seeing how sweetly He provides for us so
that we never lack anything.

Now in this way, our heart will really be a lamp. But reflect, daughter
mine, that this would not be enough were there no oil within. By oil is
meant that sweet little virtue, profound humility: for it is fitting that
the bride of Christ be humble and gentle and patient; and she will be as
humble as she is patient, and as patient as she is humble. But we cannot
attain this virtue of humility except by true knowledge of ourselves,
knowing our misery and frailty, and that we by ourselves can do no good
deed, nor escape any conflict or pain; for if we have a bodily infirmity,
or a pain or conflict in our minds, we cannot escape it or remove it--for
if we could we should escape from it swiftly. So it is quite true that we
in ourselves are nothing other than infamy, misery, stench, frailty, and
sins; wherefore, we ought always to abide low and humble. But to abide
wholly in such knowledge of one's self would not be good, because the soul
would fall into weariness and confusion; and from confusion it would fall
into despair: so the devil would like nothing better than to make us fall
into confusion, to drive us afterward to despair. We ought, then, to abide
in the knowledge of the goodness of God in Himself, perceiving that He has
created us in His image and likeness, and re-created us in grace by the
Blood of His only-begotten Son, the sweet incarnate Lord; and reflecting
how continually the goodness of God works in us. But see, that to abide
entirely in this knowledge of God would not be good, because the soul
would fall into presumption and pride. So it befits us to have one mixed
with the other--that is, to abide in the holy knowledge of the goodness of
God, and also in the knowledge of ourselves: and so we shall be humble,
patient, and gentle, and in this way we shall have oil in our lamp.

Now, then, we must have light--otherwise it would not be enough. This
light has to be the light of most holy faith. But the saints say that
faith without works is dead, so our faith might be neither living nor
holy, but dead. Therefore we need to exert ourselves virtuously all the
time, and leave our childishness and vanities, and not behave any longer
like worldly girls, but like faithful brides consecrated to Christ
crucified; in this way we shall have a lamp, and oil, and light.

The Gospel says that these wise virgins were five. So I tell thee that
there must be five in each of us--otherwise we shall not enter the wedding
feast of eternal life.

By these five it is meant that we must subject and mortify our five bodily
senses, in such wise that we may never offend with them, taking through
them or some of them unregulated pleasure or delight. In this way we shall
be five, when we have subdued our five senses.

But think that that sweet Bridegroom Christ is more jealous of His brides
than I could tell thee! Therefore if He should see that thou didst love
anyone more than Him, He would be angry with thee at once. And if thou
didst not correct thyself, the door would not be open to thee, to the
wedding feast which Christ the Lamb without spot holds for all His
faithful: but we should be driven away like bad women, as those five
foolish virgins were, who, glorying only and vainly in the integrity and
virginity of their body, lost the virginity of their soul, through the
corruption of the five senses, because they did not carry the oil of
humility with them, so that their lamps went out. Therefore it was said to
them: "Go hence to buy oil." By this oil is meant in this place the
flatteries and praises of men; since all the flatterers and praisers of
the world sell this oil. As if it were said to them: "You have not wanted
to buy eternal life with your virginity and your good works; no, you have
wanted to buy the praises of men, and to have the praises of men you have
wrought. Go now and buy praises, for you will not enter here." Therefore,
daughter mine, beware of the praises of men; and do not want praise for
any work that thou mayest do, for the door of eternal life would not be
open to thee later.

So, reflecting that this was the best way, I said that I desired to see
thee a real bride of Christ crucified; and so I beg and command thee that
thou try hard to be. I say no more to thee. Remain in the holy and sweet
grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


Catherine is known in history as one of the great ascetics of the Church;
these letters show her intimate attitude toward the mortification of the
flesh. She was a woman called of God and her natural powers, constantly to
assume the dangerous duty of convincing men of their sin; these letters
give us her conception of the safeguards needed in the performance of that

Both letters were written to Religious. Father William Flete was an
Englishman, who, passing through Italy in his youth, became fascinated
with the land, and spent the rest of his life in a hermit's cell in the
Forest of Lecceto. The annals of the time throw some entertaining side-
lights on his figure. Famous for his austerities and for the sanctity of
his life, he was also a very impatient and somewhat intolerant person,
given to carping criticism of his brother hermits. Catherine, in writing
to him, analyses mercilessly the dangers of the ascetic life; one feels
that not much self-righteousness could be left in a man after reading her
trenchant phrases. Soon, however, she lifts him with her to the ardent
contemplation of the perfect life; it is in words of singular beauty that
she describes the attitude of generous loving-kindness, uncritical, humble
and glad, with which the true servant of God considers all sorts and
conditions of men: "Such a man rejoices in every type that he sees,
saying: Thanks be to Thee, Eternal Father, that Thou hast many mansions in
Thy house.... He rejoices more in the differences among men than he would
in seeing them all walk in the same way; for so he sees more manifest the
greatness of the goodness of God. He gets from everything the fragrance of

In the letter to Sister Daniella, Catherine develops these ideas further.
Of this "great servant of God" nothing is known except what Catherine's
letters to her show. Something may be inferred from the fact that she is
one of the few people to whom the greater woman writes as to a spititual
equal. She repeats to Daniella the letter to Father William--such
warnings, indeed, being needed by all persons leading the consecrated
life--and then goes on, in the remainder of the letter as here given, to
discuss those farther reaches of perfection in which charity has done its
perfect work. Two things she wishes herself and Daniella to observe: the
first is abstinence from critical thoughts. Let us not "judge the minds of
our fellow-creatures, which are for God alone to judge." It is the key to
her own method in her great cure of souls which she here gives us: "When
it seems that God shows us the faults of others, keep on the safer side--
for it may be that thy judgment is false. On thy lips let silence abide.
And any vice which thou mayest ascribe to others, do thou ascribe at once
to them and to thyself, in true humility. If that vice really exists in a
person, he will correct himself better, seeing himself so gently
understood, and will say of his own accord the thing which thou wouldst
have said to him."--The other point which Catherine urges on Daniella is
the secondary importance of that life of mortification to which she firmly
believes that they have both been called. "Good is penance and maceration
of the body; but do not present these to me as a rule for every one. If
either for ourselves or others, we made penance our foundation ... we
should be ignorant, and should fall into a critical attitude, and become
weary and very bitter: for we should strive to give a finished work to
God, Who is Infinite Love, and demands from us only infinite desire."
Surely, in this last thought Catherine has attained in a flash to sublime
spiritual insight.

The Saints knew all about telepathy long before Societies of Psychical
Research grew eager over the matter. It might surprise some modern
psychologists to read the tranquil passage in which Catherine, assuming as
a matter of course that any servant of God engaged in intercessory prayer
has a mystical and direct knowledge of the condition of those she prays
for, proceeds to warn Daniella as intelligently as any modern could do,
though in different terms, as to the limitations within which this kind of
knowledge can be trusted.

The little note with which this group closes is not written to a great
recluse, but to a tailor's wife. With the simple, Catherine showed herself
simple; but Monna Agnese is to lead the consecrated life no less than
Sister Daniella. Catherine's plain directions to the one about her daily
living evince the same mental clarity and sobriety as her exhortations to
the other, and discriminate in much the same way between the excitement of
religious practices and true consecration.


In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest son in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the
servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood, with desire
to see you in true light. For without light we shall not be able to walk
in the way of truth, but shall walk in shadows. Two lights are necessary.
First, we must be illumined to know the transitory things of the world,
which all pass like the wind. But these are not rightly known if we do not
know our own frailty, how inclined it is, from the perverse law which is
bound up with our members, to rebel against its Creator. This light is
necessary to every rational creature, in whatever state it may be, if it
wishes to have divine grace, and to share in the blessing of the Blood of
the Spotless Lamb. This is the common light, that everybody in general
ought to have, for whoever has it not is in a state of condemnation. This
is the reason; that, not having light, he is not in a state of grace; for
one who does not know the evil of wrong, nor who is cause of it, cannot
avoid it nor hate the cause. So he who does not know good, and virtue the
cause of good, cannot love nor desire that good.

The soul must not stay content because it has arrived at gaining the
general light; nay, it ought to go on with all zeal to the perfect light.
For since men are at first imperfect rather than perfect, they should
advance in light to perfection. Two kinds of perfect people walk in this
perfect light. There are some who give themselves to castigating their
body perfectly, doing very great harsh penance; and that the flesh may not
rebel against the reason, they have placed all their desire rather on
mortifying their body than on slaying their self-will. These people feed
at the table of penitence and are good and perfect; but unless they have a
great humility and conform themselves not wholly to judge according to the
will of God and not according to that of men, they often wrong their
perfection, making themselves judges of those who do not walk in the same
way in which they do.

This happens to them because they have put more thought and desire on
mortifying their body than on slaying their self-will. Such men as these
always want to choose times and places and mental consolations to suit
themselves; also, worldly tribulations, and their battles with the devil;
saying, through self-deceit, beguiled by their own will--which is called
spiritual self-will--"I should like this consolation, and not these
assaults or battles with the devil; not for my own sake, but to please
God, and possess Him more fully, because I seem to possess Him better in
this way than in that." Many a time, in such a way as this, the soul falls
into suffering and weariness, and becomes unendurable to itself through
them, and thus wrongs its state of perfection. The odour of pride clings
to it, and this it does not perceive. For, were it truly humble and not
presumptuous, it would see well that the Sweet Primal Truth gives
conditions, time and place, and consolation and tribulation, according as
is needful to our perfection, and to fulfil in the soul the perfection to
which it is chosen. It would see that everything is given through love,
and therefore with love.

All things ought to be received with reverence, as is done by the second
class of people, who abide in this sweet and glorious light, who are
perfect in whatever condition they are, and, in so far as God permits
them, hold everything in due reverence, esteeming themselves worthy of
sufferings and scandals in the world, and of missing their consolations.
As they hold themselves worthy of sufferings, so they hold themselves
unworthy of the reward which follows suffering. These have known and
tasted in the light the eternal will of God, which wishes naught but our
good, and that we be sanctified in Him, therefore giving His gifts. When
the soul has known this will, it is arrayed therein, and cares for nothing
save to see in what wise it can grow, and preserve its condition perfect,
for glory and praise of the Name of God. Therefore, it opens the eye of
the mind upon its object, Christ crucified, who is rule and way and
doctrine for perfect and imperfect: and sees the loving Lamb, Who gives it
the doctrine of perfection, which seeing it loves.

Perfection is this: that the Word, the Son of God, fed at the table of
holy desire for the honour of God and for our salvation; and with this
desire ran with great zeal to the shameful death of the Cross, avoiding
neither toil nor labour, not drawing back for the ingratitude and
ignorance of us men who did not recognize His benefits, nor for the
persecution of the Jews, nor for mockery or insults or criticism of the
people, but underwent them all, like our captain and true knight, who was
come to teach us His way and rule and doctrine, opening the door with the
keys of His precious Blood, shed with ardent love and hatred against sin.
As says this sweet, loving Word, "Behold, I have made you a way, and
opened the door with My blood. Be you then not negligent to follow it, and
do not sit yourselves down in self-love, ignorantly failing to know the
Way, and presumptuously wishing to choose it after your own fashion, and
not after Mine who made it. Rise up then, and follow Me: for no one can go
to the Father but by Me. I am the Way and the Door."

Then the soul, enamoured and tormented with love, runs to the table of
holy desire, and sees not itself in itself, seeking private consolation,
spiritual or temporal, but, as one who has wholly destroyed his own will
in this light and knowledge, refuses no toil from whatever side it comes.
Nay, in suffering, in pain, in many assaults from the devil and criticisms
from men, it seeks upon the table of the Cross the food of the honour of
God and the salvation of men. And it seeks no reward, from God or from
fellow-creatures; such men serve God, not for their own joy, and the
neighbour not for their own will or profit, but from pure love. They lose
themselves, divesting them of the old man, their fleshly desires, and
array them in the new man, Christ sweet Jesus, following Him manfully.
These are they who feed at the table of holy desire, and have more zeal
for slaying their self-will than for slaying and mortifying the body. They
have mortified the body, to be sure, but not as a chief aim, but as the
tool which it is, to help in slaying self-will; for one's chief aim ought
to be and is to slay the will; that it may seek and wish naught save to
follow Christ crucified, seeking the honour and glory of His Name, and the
salvation of souls. Such men abide ever in peace and quiet; there are none
who can offend them, because they have cast away the thing that gives
offence--that is, self-will. All the persecutions which the world and the
devil can inflict run away beneath their feet; they stand in the water,
made fast to the twigs of eager desire, and are not submerged. Such a man
as this rejoices in everything; he does not make himself a judge of the
servants of God, nor of any rational creature; nay, he rejoices in every
condition and every type that he sees, saying, "Thanks be to Thee, eternal
Father, that Thou hast many mansions in Thy House." And he rejoices more
in the different kinds of men that he sees than he would do in seeing them
all walk in the same way, for so he sees the greatness of God's goodness
more manifest. He joys in everything, and gets from it the fragrance of
roses. And even as to a thing which he may expressly see to be sin, he
does not pose as a judge, but regards it rather with holy true compassion,
saying, "To-day it is thy turn, and to-morrow mine, unless it be for
divine grace which preserves me."

Oh, holy minds, who feed at the table of holy desire, who have attained in
great light to nourish you with holy food, clothed with the sweet raiment
of the Lamb, His love and charity! You do not lose time in accepting false
judgments, either of the servants of God or of the servants of the world;
you do not take offence at any criticism, either against yourselves or
others. Your love toward God and your neighbour is governed well, and not
ungoverned. And because it is governed, such men as these, dearest son,
never take offence at those whom they love; for appearances are dead to
them, and they have submitted themselves not to be guided by men, but only


Back to Full Books