I have to admit that when I first read a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, she was not my favorite mystic. She was everything I feel that I'm not: extreme, audacious, certain, rigid, and unflinching in her view of the truth. For someone who tends to be uncertain about a lot of things, who takes a long time to make a decision or avoids anything that will significantly rock the boat, Catherine made me uncomfortable.
Catherine was a 14th century Italian woman who, as is true for many saints, died young. Marriage or convent were the only options for a young woman of her day who wanted to remain in good standing. To the great horror of her family, Catherine had no interest in marriage. She held out stubbornly for years until her parents eventually relented and let her pursue the life she wished, which wasn't exactly the convent either.
Though she lived like a nun in piety, simplicity, and chastity, her convent was not in cloistered walls with other women but in a cell in her own home, a closet under the stairs that seemed somehow more sparse and pitiful than even the one Harry Potter occupied. In this cell, she saw visions of Jesus and was tormented by demons. She wrote letters to Popes and vowed to eat little except the Lord's Supper (upon eating the Eucharist, she would often fall into a trance or ecstatic vision...perhaps because of a mystical connection to God but maybe also because she was really hungry).
When I first read her biography, I grumbled under my breath and occasionally rolled my eyes at her extreme devotion and seeming arrogance. After all, she held audience with Pope Gregory to try to get the him to move the papacy from Avignon to Rome. At one point, Catherine wrote a scathing and patronizing letter to the Pope saying: "I beg of you, on behalf of Christ crucified, that you be not a timorous child but manly. Open your mouth and swallow down the bitter for the sweet.” Catherine threw shade at the Pope, calling him a baby! And the thing is, she was successful! He listened to her and moved the papacy to Rome. And she became one of the most influential Catholics (of both men and women) of her day.
The Scriptures for today in Advent talk about two people who encountered Jesus: the two blind men in Matthew 9:27-31 who were healed by him. Afterwards, they didn't listen to Jesus' warning for them to be silent...no, they went out and boasted all over the countryside.
I guess when you have encountered Jesus like Catherine of Siena and the blind men, you cannot be silent. And you might make a lot of people uncomfortable. This truth-telling might look like Catherine's, who was so confident in her message and pious in her life that even the patriarchy of the day sat down and listened to her.
As I approach 40 this week, I am learning that speaking and living the truth can have consequences even more extreme than making people uncomfortable. Several Christian leaders were arrested this week after peacefully standing up for undocumented immigrants. And Christians all over the world face more serious bodily harm and even death for sharing their faith.
This Advent, I hope to encounter Jesus, and respond the blind men did, unable to keep my mouth shut about the healing Jesus offers and the love God longs to show us. May we all be people who know God's love so deeply that we can't shut up about it.
Today I read an interview with Sister Sinjin by Jessica Mesman Griffith at Sick Pilgrim. Their music, particularly In the Virgin's Womb He Lay and their version of O Come O Come Emmanuel, were just what I needed today: three women boldly boasting of the Good News of the Incarnation, one lovely melody at a time.