Memorial of St. Catherine of Siena

Scripture Readings: 1 Jn 15-2:2;  Mt 11:25-30

Today we remember a Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena. It is a fitting memorial for our retreat because St. Catherine was a Lay Dominican. Queens, popes, and ordinary people sought her counsel. She lived only about 33 years.

One of her best-known teachings is about “the cell of self-knowledge.”  She taught that self-knowledge is vital to the spiritual progress of the pilgrim-traveler. She said that prayer is founded on and flows from self-knowledge.

She received these insights one day when our Lord appeared to her and said, “Do you know, daughter, who you are and Who I am? If you know these two things, you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul become penetrated by this truth and the enemy can never lead you astray.”  This was the cornerstone of Catherine’s spiritual life and teaching.

“You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS.” In other words, “I’m God; you’re not.” This sums up the whole bible! Thomas Merton, in The Silent Life, (p. 16ff) applies this inclination to “play God” to our everyday life. He writes, “There are many acceptable and ‘sane’ ways of indulging one’s illusory claim to divine power. One can be, for example, a proud and tyrannical parent, or a tearful and demanding martyr-parent…one can be a sadistic and overbearing boss…a clown, a daredevil, or a libertine. One can be rigidly conventional or blatantly unconventional. …Some satisfy their desire for divinity by knowing everyone else’s business, other’s by judging their neighbor, or telling them what to do. …The great enemy of monastic purity of heart is, then, the basic hidden project of being better than everyone else.  …Since all of this is manifestly impossible, St. Bernard points out that such a soul is subject to insecurity and fear.” Fear plagues the soul that aspires to be omnipotent. Such a one is the victim of the delusion that he or she can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if only they manage well.

There has always been a danger of various forms of Pelagianism in monastic life. It is the idea that we seek a right relationship with God by our own efforts. It is a type of works-righteousness that springs from doubt that one is loved and accepted by Christ. St. Catherine’s vision and subsequent teaching on self-knowledge clears this up.

“You are she who is not” simply means that at the root of our being there is nothing of ours, but only a gift of God. As St. Paul asked the Corinthians, “What have you that you did not receive from God?”

But this self-knowledge was not enough. Years later Catherine wrote of her deeper understanding. “Knowledge of God’s goodness in you” is also essential. It is this knowledge that, as St. Benedict says at the conclusion of the Prologue, will cause “our hearts to expand with the inexpressible delight of love.” This makes the cell of self-knowledge Two-rooms-in-one: Knowledge of one’s poverty and knowledge of God’s goodness in self. There is a simple way that we dwell in this room: by imitating the birds of the air and the lilies of the field in the sure confidence that God in heaven knows our needs and supplies them.