I’ve chosen St. Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510) because great mystical wisdom and charity emerged from an unlikely life. From early childhood she was devout and wanted to become a Carmelite nun, but when her parents married her off at age 15, Catherine was obedient. It was a bad match (made probably for financial and political reasons), and Catherine struggled through years with a man who had little if anything in common with her, who cheated on her and had children by other women, and who shared none of her aspirations of faith.
In other words, Catherine felt called to a certain life devoted to God, but that calling was thwarted, by all appearances. Her husband eventually experienced his own conversion and joined his wife in her expansive charitable work, nursing the sick and caring for the poor—thus they worked together for 20 years. He died in 1493, and Catherine carried on for nearly two more decades, fully engaged in the work to which she was called.
How often do we believe that we have missed our calling somehow? My grandmother was called to be a teacher, but because she grew up during the Great Depression, there was no college training for her. She taught Sunday School all the years I knew her, but she did grieve privately for the school teacher’s life that would have suited her so well. Others of us did not find a life partner, for reasons beyond our control, even though we knew we were gifted to be lovers, wives, and mothers. And how many thousands of women live and die in dire poverty, never having the opportunity to use their gifts and live out God’s dreams for them? Catherine’s life is proof that, regardless of circumstance, we can love God and love others through a life powered by that love.
Catherine had visions, and she experienced what mystics understand as a personal encounter with the overwhelming love of God, a connection that changed her life and enabled her to thrive in a bad marriage and minister to people through running a hospital and persisting in charitable work, even caring for people during Genoa’s fight against the plague in 1497. She was well-known not only for her dedication to the work but also for her personal stringent spiritual practices, which included extensive fasting at times.
Catherine’s confessor and others close to her took down her words, and Catherine’s wisdom survives in two works: Life and Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa and Purgation and Purgatory, The Spiritual Dialogue.
I see without eyes, and I hear without ears. I feel without feeling and taste without tasting. I know neither form nor measure; for without seeing I yet behold an operation so divine that the words I first used, perfection, purity, and the like, seem to me now mere lies in the presence of truth. . . . Nor can I any longer say, “My God, my all.” Everything is mine, for all that is God’s seem to be wholly mine. I am mute and lost in God. (Life, 50)
When God sees the Soul pure as it was in its origins,
He tugs at it with a glance,
draws it and binds it to Himself with a fiery love
that by itself could annihilate the immortal soul.
In so acting, God so transforms the soul in Him
that it knows nothing other than God;
and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love
until He restores it
to that pure state from which it first issued.
These rays purify and then annihilate.
The soul becomes like gold
that becomes purer as it is fired,
all dross being cast out.
Having come to the point of twenty-four carats,
gold cannot be purified any further;
and this is what happens to the soul
in the fire of God’s love. (Purgation and Purgatory, 79-80)
I highly recommend Carol Lee Flinders’ book, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (HarperCollins, 1993). Flinders goes into much spiritual and psychological depth in her discussion of St. Catherine of Genoa; this essay is especially helpful to women and the way we experience sin, grace, and growth. St. Catherine’s story is complex, but one with which many woman can identify. We might imagine this young girl struggling against an arranged marriage and making this struggle the focus of her life. But her deepest and most longstanding struggle was within herself—learning who she was in God and how fully she could give herself to that love. This is a lesson each of us must learn every day and through all circumstances.