Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The de Chantal Society/St. Catherine of Siena

The de Chantal Society of St. Francis de Sales Seminary, led by Lydia LoCoco and Bishop Donald Hying, is now into its third year of bringing women in the Archdiocese together for an evening or morning of quiet prayer and reflection followed by socialization, three times each year.  The description found on the seminary website is quite lovely and enticing:

"We invite you to take a short respite that promises, like a breath of fresh air, to offer you silence, prayer, meditation and spiritual formation - time for you.

We are the de Chantal Society. Sponsored by Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's Nazareth Project, our mission is to spiritually form and inspire Catholic women like St. Jane de Chantal, who are integral to our families, vocations and the Catholic Church.
We ask nothing of you (except prayer!). Our mission is to support you.  Please choose the gathering that works best for you."
Attending the de Chantal Society is one of my very favorite things to do.  Not only do I enjoy the quiet of silent prayer before our Eucharistic Lord, and the joy of fellowship with other Catholic women, but Bishop Hying never fails to inspire as he shares stories of the lives of women saints upon whom we can model our lives.  
At the most recent de Chantal Society gathering, Bishop Hying shared the story of St. Catherine of Siena of whom I knew very little, so I took careful notes and am happy to review them and share the gist of his reflection here.

Quotes from St. Catherine of Siena:

"Love transforms one into what one loves."
"You are she who is not. I am He who is."
"If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire."
"I am the fire and you are the sparks."

St. Catherine of Siena (source)

As far as saints are concerned, according to Bishop Hying, St. Catherine of Siena is in the stratosphere.  She was a mystic, which means that she had a direct knowledge of God obtained through subjective experience. She knew God, not just through an intellectual belief, but through a real human experience.  For St. Catherine, God was so real that she could actually reach out and touch Him, and then boldly act upon that vision.

Like many saints, St. Catherine of Siena only lived on this earth for a short time, dying at the age of 33.  It was almost as if a fiery explosion propelled her into the world, and like a meteor she flew through the heavens and then sparked out.  To be holy like St. Catherine and other saints who die young, Bishop Hying says it seems as if we have to "get it right quickly and then check out, because the longer we stay around, the more we mess it up."

She was born during the time of black death, on March 25th, 1347, was one of 22 children, many of whom died during infancy and childhood, and had a very strong will.  She had her first vision of God when she  was only five or six years old.  She saw Christ seated in His glory.  By age seven she vowed to give her whole life to God.  It's as if God reaches down and chooses certain souls to show us who He is, and St. Catherine was one of them.  There are two types of saints-those that are born holy and those who are wild and have a conversion.  St. Catherine was clearly of the first type.

She didn't feel called to marriage or to religious life.  In fact, when her sister died in childbirth, her family expected her to marry.  She performed a massive fast to get her way and avoid marrying her sister's widower. Eventually she became a Dominican Tertiary which was a mendicant order, meaning she didn't live in a convent or monastery, but remained in the world.  Most of the others in her order were older and lived in community, but she chose to live in a little shack in her parent's back yard.  She learned to read and lived in silence and solitude.  She demanded nothing for herself, rarely slept, and performed many long fasts often only eating the Eucharist.

At age 21 she had a mystical and emotional marriage with Jesus.  She wore a ring on her finger that no one else could see.  She took care of the poor in hospitals and homes.  People would often gather around her and she gave communal spiritual direction.  She was called to delve into the world as if God had pushed her to live an extension of His life.  Like St. Catherine, we, too, are called to be in the world but not of the world, by living in deep union with Jesus.

She advocated for reform of the clergy.  During her lifetime there was a schism in the Church with three separate popes. She felt empowered to go to the real pope and convince him to return from France to Rome.  How many people can go to the pope, tell him what to do, receive a personal audience and then watch as he follows their advice? The fact that St. Catherine was able to achieve this shows that true power doesn't come from office, it comes from holiness.

She was taken by the transcendence and immanence of God-He's above us, but also has entered into our experience, close to us and within us.  This is the amazing truth that before the world was created, each one of us was already loved in the mind and heart of God.  We exist and that is the ultimate expression of His love for us.  The trinity dwells in us through sanctifying grace; the astounding conviction that through the sacraments, God comes to live in us.

St. Catherine had a deep love for the Trinity and believed that heaven is standing at the heart of the Trinity. She knew that there is an overwhelming force of God's love for us to the point where we are moved to tears, where our head knowledge of God suddenly explodes in the heart.  St. Catherine's lived experience of God changed everything.  She said, "God pressed Himself into my being and that's who I am."  She had ecstasies that took her out of herself and transported her into the heart of God.  It is only for a few rare souls that this is possible on this side of death.

As a priest, Bishop Hying says that there are times during the elevation when the host is so light and times when it is heavy.  There are moments when he is unmoved and then at other times he is deeply moved by the Real Presence.  There are times when God seems close and other times when He seems far away.  The moments of grace are the times when, in a profound and real way, we feel His overwhelming love for us.  St. Catherine felt His overwhelming love all the time.

What matters for us today is that we take the things she teaches us and live them out.  St. Catherine of Siena shows us that God's love for us is prodigal, infinite, unending, divine fire.  We are to see ourselves as an extension of Jesus in the world.  St. Catherine was so submerged in God that there was a fine line separating the two.  Her divine power came from the Lord using her, but God is the one who is; she is the one who is not.

To read Catherine's works is daunting and overwhelming, but she has something to say to all of us, and that is that throughout her life she took the next step and stayed true to herself because she knew who she was in God's eyes.  Holiness doesn't make us odd.  Like St. Catherine of Siena, holiness makes us beautiful.


  1. Anne, you must have taken grreat notes :) This is wonderful! I love St. Catherine. She is one of the first Saints whom I read about after my adult "conversion." I was fascinated by how "real" her relationship with God was. I don't know if it was mentioned, but she had the stigmata as well, although she begged Jesus that it not be visible to others. It appeared after her death. I'm also struck by the fact that she was the 24th or so child in her family. What if her parents had quit after two children? Something to think about! Her body is incorrupt...amazing after so many centuries. I know you read everything, so you've probably read her Dialogue It is such perfect reading for Lent that I think I'll get out my copy and keep it close by. Thanks for remnding me about this glorious woman!

    " It was almost as if a fiery explosion propelled her into the world, and like a meteor she flew through the heavens and then sparked out." How perfect!

    Blessed Lent to you dear Anne! xo

  2. Patricia, thank you so much for your kind remarks! I have not read her Dialogue, but I will have to put it on my list of must-reads! A blessed Lent to you, as well!

  3. Thank you for sharing, Anne...What a blessed evening! You can imagine how Divine it was to kneel before her tomb in Rome...I had to remind myself to breathe!

  4. Hi Anne,
    Ohhh...love all this info on St Catherine! Out of the quotes you put up my favorite was:
    ""You are she who is not. I am He who is." It tickled my funny bone! Bishop Hying's words about the ebb and flow of our spiritual life were helpful to me also because I go through these ups and downs as well.

    Thanks for posting this, Anne!