One of the biggest deceptions we can entertain is the idea that the saints somehow had it easy spiritually and therefore they were able to attain holiness in a way that is nearly impossible for everyone else. If there is anything to be learned from studying the lives of the saints attentively, it is that suffering was often the path upon which they trod, and there is certainly nothing easy about that. It is not that we must suffer in order to attain holiness, but there is a spiritual deepening that takes place when one accepts that path. Jesus did say that if we wanted to be a disciple we had to be ready to take up our cross and follow Him and also that no servant is greater than the Master. He never hid the fact that it would take a lot of work, commitment, and even some suffering, if we wanted to be like Him. We also know that this is not the whole of the experience of being a disciple, although the “enemy of our human nature”* loves to make us think it is. It would be a huge mistake to give in to the temptation to focus so intently on the path of suffering that we lose sight of the joy, peace, and love that also come with discipleship and subsequent growth in holiness. Of course we know that one does not choose to suffer, but we must realize that one does choose to love. And in choosing to love, we choose everything that goes with love, including some suffering which we bear along with the joy. Reflecting upon this is important, especially as we have come to the later part of Lent in which the temptations are greatest to either become complacent in our efforts or to give up on them entirely because we haven’t been as diligent as we had hoped. Therefore, it is time to turn to the very saints we have revered to ask for the assistance needed to remember that when times are roughest, Jesus is closest.
A saint who is helpful in this area is St. Catherine of Siena. She was intimately acquainted with suffering, but bore it readily because she loved Jesus completely. St. Catherine is the patron saint of those who suffer temptations, (as well as having an array of other patronages.) While she valiantly stood her ground against temptations which came from those around her, it was the interior struggles which were the most difficult. Briefly, Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy, the 24th of 25th children. During her teens her parents repeatedly tried to arrange marriages for her and she refused all their attempts. Her father finally acquiesced to letting her live in seclusion within their home; eventually Catherine realized through her prayer and mystical experiences that she was to go outward to others in service. She joined a group of 3rd Order Dominicans in Siena, and quickly became an outspoken advocate for the poor, organized various ministries, and worked tirelessly among the sick. However, when the Great Papal Schism began, it was she who not only wrote the pope telling him – (not requesting!) – God wanted him back in Rome, but she went to Avignon personally to enact his return. She became a relentless advocate for the pope in Rome during a time of great upheaval and political unrest within the Church. A few years later, she succumbed to a mysterious illness, dying on April 29, 1380 at the age of 33.
St. Catherine loved Jesus intensely and thus, she was able to follow His call which for her included opting not to marry, (against the initial desires of her parents), serving the destitute and ill as a laywoman, and telling popes what to do: definitely not socially acceptable for women at that time. Because of her intimacy with Jesus she was able to push against those constraints, a stance which was quite challenging. More difficult however, were the great interior sufferings and temptations with which she was assailed. Remember, the “enemy of our human nature” does not want any of us to advance in holiness and so at every opportunity he will try to thwart our progress. During once such time, Catherine was experiencing terrible ‘temptations of the flesh,’ and so she begged Jesus for help, asking: “Where were you when my heart was being tormented by so many temptations?” [His response might startle us.] Jesus replied: “I was in your heart.” Catherine said, “… With all due respect for your majesty, how can I believe that you were living in my heart, when it was full of unclean and devilish thoughts?” Jesus replied, “Those thoughts and temptations: did they gladden your heart, or sadden it? Did they bring you pleasure, or displeasure?” Catherine said, “Great pain, and great displeasure.” Jesus then helped her to see that it was He who affected her displeasure because it was "I who was hiding in the center of your heart.” ** Thus, once again we see that attentiveness to the movements within our heart is how we grow in discernment and wisdom.
The experience of St. Catherine teaches that we can trust Jesus to be in our heart no matter what is going on there. If we are struggling with a weakness or if we have faltered in our Lenten plans, He is still there, loving us rather than being judgmental. It is this love which empowers us to grow in holiness, no matter how imperceptible it may be at the time. When we feel it least is when we need to trust Him the most! Remember, the evil one wants to deceive and so, manipulate us. But if we trust Jesus, who is Truth, we have nothing to fear because He is where we need Him most, when we need Him most. He never abandons us; He is especially near when we are most greatly tempted, even if we have given in to the temptation and have fallen into a particular sinful tendency. The closer we get to God, the more the enemy will try to frustrate our efforts. Therefore we must never give in to believing that we will never advance in holiness, or that we have ‘blown it’ and so 'we must give up,' or that we are so sinful that Jesus is far from us. Nothing could be further from the truth.
St. Catherine also shows us that God can use anyone to initiate bold changes. She was nobody of importance; she did not come from money and had no pedigree, yet she was able to affect great influence during a confusing time within the Church. This was the time of the Avignon Papacy and then the Great Papal Schism in which there were as many as three men simultaneously claiming to be the legitimate pope. Catherine was able to discern the true pope and convince him to get back to Rome lest the Church come apart at the seams. Therefore, Catherine shows how our efforts can affect much more change than we might seem to think. At this time, it would be good to prayerfully discern what we might do to help the Church, the Body of Christ, as a faithful witness to our love for Jesus. We may not be called to ‘go to Rome,’ but through our example we certainly can help those who are faltering in their faith, and we can volunteer in our parishes to help make them safer, more efficient, more welcoming to all as places of love, fellowship, and assistance. If so called, we can offer our insights to our local religious governing bodies through letter writing or participation in various committees and boards. But one thing we can (and should) all do is to pray, because prayer is always the way to proceed.
If we are to discern, we must work at being attentive to God, to the movements within our hearts, and to those with whom we interact. We must also recognize that our gifts are needed to keep the community of the faithful healthy. During Lent, an effort at increasing prayer is ever important for our spiritual growth, especially in knowing more clearly the depth of God’s love, a love which will then inspire us to move outward to share it with others. Like St. Catherine we do not need wealth or pedigree to move mountains with our faith, but we do need to recognize the temptations which attempt to divert us away from our call to discipleship. When those times happen, we can enter into our own hearts, seeking so we may find Jesus who is indeed there, assuring us of His Love. And even if we do not feel His presence, we need to trust His words to St. Catherine, meant for each and every person of faith: “Who was it… if not I who was hiding in the center of your heart?”
May we learn to discern the presence of Jesus so that we might live a courageous life of faith! May our Lenten journey be a time of peace as we confidently rely on Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life! May we remember and truly believe that when times are roughest, Jesus is closest! May we turn to the intercession of St. Catherine of Siena when we are assailed by temptations and interior trials! May we be assured that Jesus is always in our heart in the same way He was always in St. Catherine’s! And may we be bold in our faith, knowing that our discipleship is a gift from God, and therefore is pleasing to Jesus! Let us continue to meet Jesus within our hearts! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: * St. Ignatius of Loyola astutely characterized the devil as “the enemy of our human nature.” I have chosen to use this ‘description’ rather than a name or title, and so it is intentional that it is not capitalized. This is also because I always capitalize pronouns for Jesus so as to make it as clear as possible when I am referring to Him. Thus, I want to make a clear contrast between the one who is God and one who is against God.
Furthermore, the experience of St. Catherine reveals the same lesson which St. Ignatius taught in The Spiritual Exercises, written almost 200 years later. In discerning what comes from God, we look to see whether something moves us toward or away from Him. In the example quoted, Catherine was filled with pain in her struggle with temptations, wondering how she could be so close to Jesus, yet simultaneously be filled with sinful thoughts and desires. It did not seem (to her) that her heart was a fitting place for Jesus to reside when it was filled with such sinfulness. Jesus, however, helped her to see that she would not have felt so badly if not for His presence. He was where she needed Him most: in the midst of her heart. Therefore, she was able to see that it was His Spirit assisting her in resisting the temptations, enabling her to have the strength to choose to move against that which was urging her to take the path away from God.
** In the February 2019 edition of Magnificat the Meditation of the Day for the 10th was from the preaching of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. In it he recounted this exchange between St. Catherine of Siena and Jesus which took place during one of her mystical experiences.
If you would like more on St. Catherine, go to my Archives to an earlier entry called She Who is Not, dated April 29, 2013. (On the right side of this blog page find Archives and scroll way down to access it.)
The next post will be on April 22.
1. This is a photo I took while at the Green Sand Beach in Hawaii, mentioned in a recent post. The day we were there was Valentine's Day; seeing that cloud on that particular day added to my joy since it reminded me of God's great love. He is always near, in the center of our heart.
2. St. Catherine of Siena-Guardian of the Papacy, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: This icon wonderfully depicts St. Catherine holding the tiara worn by popes at the time, a sign of their power, her humility, and also her boldness in working to keep the pope in Rome where he belonged. (That is what she told him, by the way: that he belonged in Rome.) You can find this icon, and you can purchase a copy in one of many diverse mediums, at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-catherine-of-siena-guardian-of-the-papacy-288-william-hart-mcnichols.html
3. Jesus Returning the Cross to St. Catherine of Siena by Crescenzio Gambarelli (1602): This painting is in the Viae Siena (the Chapel of the Vaults) in San Domenico Cathedral, Siena, Italy. I chose it because it seems to symbolize the relationship of Jesus and St. Catherine as she experienced Him mystically. You can find more about this at http://www.viaesiena.it/en/caterina/itinerario/basilica-di-san-domenico/cappella-volte
4. I took this photo while on a sightseeing submarine off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii in the bay at Kailua-Kona. I chose this tropical fish, a large Tang which was swimming by, because it symbolizes the point I was making: deceptively, everything looked blue through the window of the sub, but in reality there are more colors that simply were not getting through to our eyes. It is truth, but distorted. That is exactly how the 'enemy' likes to operate!
5. Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders (1889): This is a close-up of the actual road workers and so it is only a section of the painting. I chose it because it shows men working on different parts of the same project, each doing something that may not be most essential in and of itself, but as a team their efforts are getting the road built efficiently. Their job may be considered lowly, and yet, without them there is no road, no easy travel, no movement.
6. Behind Every Great Man by Kevin "WAK" Williams: I chose this because it depicts prayer beautifully. It shows the strength which comes through our petition to God for whatever we need. The man, presumably a husband and father, is protecting his family from the falling beam, and the wife is protecting him as he labors. Together, they labor for protection and peace; both are 'moving mountains.' For more on this beautiful and moving work, as well as some information on the artist, go to https://www.blackartdepot.com/products/behind-every-great-man-by-kevin-wak-williams
7. Divine Mercy, painted by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, (1934): This is the original painting of Jesus as seen in the visions of St. Faustina Kowalska and commissioned by her religious order. It is often referred to by the words of the prayer Jesus taught St. Faustina: "Jesus, I Trust In You." For more, go to https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-original-image-of-divine-mercy-its-not-where-you-might-think-70393
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart