CATHERINE OF SIENA
A person who believes that Jesus Christ
Is Lord and Savior of the World is called
A saint through faith, the substance of the things
Hoped for, the evidence of things not seen;
And in the Catholic Church some souls are known
As saints and doctors by the grace of God.
The blessed Catherine of Siena, born
A twin upon Annunciation Day,
The last of thirteen children who survived,
Professed her love for God through holiness
When wars and plagues had shaken faith and hope
In city-states of Tuscany where walls
Protected citizens from outside harm.
Her father’s trade was dyeing wool; his wife,
Madonna Lapa, ruled the family.
This daughter destined to direct the Popes,
Young Caterina Benincasa, taught
Herself to say the Angelus at five,
And knelt upon the steps of stairs at home
To say an Ave Maria, step by step.
When she was six years old, she looked across
Valle Piatta to the abbey church
Of San Domenico; above its roof
She saw the Savior of the World, who sat
In bishop’s robes upon a royal throne,
The treble Papal crown upon His head.
Beside the Lord were Peter, Paul and John,
And Jesus raised His hand and blessed the girl,
Who stood enraptured while the love of God
Abounded in her soul, a cup that gushed.
Her brother called to her; she did not move.
He had to take her arm to make her wake
As though from sleep, transformed forevermore.
She swam beneath the water in the sea
Of love, and vowed when seven she would be
The bride of Christ, and of no other man,
A virgin pure in body and in soul.
In times alone with God she learned to build
An inner cell within her soul which she
Would never leave, despite temptation’s pull
And the entreaties from her family,
Who wanted to arrange a groom for her.
Forced to divulge her vow of chastity,
She told her parents that her will was fixed:
“It would be easier to melt a stone
Than tear this resolution from my heart.
I must obey the Lord before all men;
My Bridegroom is so rich that He will give
Me all I need, if you should throw me out.”
The twelve-year-old prevailed; no more would they
Attempt to wed her to a mortal man,
Although she lived beneath her parents’ roof
Another seven years, her room a cell
Beside the landing, ten by sixteen feet.
O Catherine, if I had one-tenth your zeal,
What miracles could God perform through me,
What battles could He win for souls of men!
The revelation of the Trinity
Was hers through meditation, solitude,
And the denial of her self: three times
A day she scourged her body with a chain
Of iron: once for her own sins, once more
For sins of every living soul, and once
For souls in purgatory, giving Christ,
Her Lord and Savior, blood for blood, ‘til blood
Ran down her shoulders in her sacred cell.
Within her parents’ house where she would sleep
For half an hour on every other day
On planks of wood when she was not in prayer.
The holy teen’s devout desire to join
An order of St. Dominic was quenched
At last when she received the robe and veil,
In white to symbolize her purity,
And the black cape, in black as sign of death
Unto this world and of humility.
Eternal blessedness is knowing God,
God as He is; thus she renounced the world,
That which is vanishing, for unity
With Him who suffered on the cross of love.
She gave belongings to the poor, and cared
For sickest of the sick in darkest hours,
Even when stinking wounds made others leave,
And patients shouted blasphemies at her.
Companions said that when she prayed, she rose
Above the floor so high that one could place
A hand between the woman and the floor;
When she received the Body of the Lord,
She would withdraw in ecstasy, as stiff
And as insensible as Lazarus
Four days inside the cave before the Lord
Commanded him to rise and leave the tomb.
When Catherine’s soul was lifted to commune
With Love Incarnate, she could not perceive
A needle in her foot, and passersby
Who doubted her sincerity would kick
The girl who lay insensate in the street.
At twenty-two she ate no solid food,
And for long times the Eucharist alone
Provided nourishment for her who drank,
In mystic flights, from Jesus’ wounded side.
Christ let her see His secrets, and equipped
Her with the gifts of grace to call her forth,
His weapon in the battle for men’s souls.
One story of a multitude is all
I have the space to tell of how she saved
The souls of men through visions and her prayers.
One winter day two wagons took two men,
Condemned to suffer torture and then death,
Around the town as executioners
Used red-hot tongs to tear and burn their flesh.
The robbers, chained to stakes, reviled the Lord
As townsmen shook and shuddered in alarm;
But Catherine of Siena, who had seen
The wagons pass, retired to beg in prayer
For Christ to save the wretches’ souls, as He
Had saved the robber crucified by Him.
The wagons drove up to a city gate,
The Porta della Giustitia,
And there beneath the arch stood Christ, who wore
A crown of thorns and bled from head to toe.
Caught up in Spirit, Catherine saw the Lord;
The robbers saw Him too, and when He saw
Their eyes and hearts, defiance broke in them.
These highwaymen called for a priest, confessed
Their sins, sang hymns, and met their deaths content.
The very moment that they died redeemed,
The praying virgin woke from ecstasy,
For love of God and mankind for His sake
Was all the mystic knew worth living for.
The exile of the Popes to Avignon
(Franciscans called it Babylonia,
And hung their harps on poplars as they wept)
Disrupted Rome, corrupted faith, and left
Believers rudderless and insecure.
The Roman churches lay in ruins, priests
Had morals of degenerates, and law
Was lost as factions fought and clutched for power.
God sent as punishment the plague, Black Death,
Which killed one-half of Europe’s populace.
In thirteen-fifty St. Birgitta, a seer
From Sweden, heard the call to cleanse the Church.
She went to Rome and urged the Pope to leave
His capital in Avignon, lest he
Should suffer wrath from God–but he refused.
As John the Baptist heralded the work
And ministry of Christ, Birgitta ran
Before the mystic saint who wrought success,
The Pope’s return to Rome from Avignon,
For Catherine told Pope Gregory that he
Had made a vow when Cardinal to move
To Rome if ever he became the Pope,
A vow which he had never told a soul.
At thirty-three, the age her Bridegroom died,
Suffering, paralyzed below the waist,
As she lay on her bed of wooden boards,
The purest dove accused herself of sins,
And cried aloud, “My honor! Never! Praise
And honor to Christ crucified alone!”
In April thirteen-eighty Catherine gave
Her spirit to the Father’s hands.
In spring a million buds appear on trees;
In winter snowflakes fall from clouds, each one
Unique in pattern, each a gift to earth,
And as each bud and snowflake offers gifts
That come from it alone, so every child
Who’s born again of God, among the millions, bears
And offers special gifts, the gifts of grace
And mercy to the Lord and humankind.
This daughter of a wealthy family
Used special gifts to lead and move the Popes
And men of lower rank to follow God.
Greater than special gifts that Catherine had
Through her ascetic life and ministry
Was intimacy she possessed with Christ;
She loved the Lord with heart and soul and strength,
And fixed her eyes on Jesus’ wounds; she knew
None are redeemed without the blood of Christ.
She served her Bridegroom, clove right by His side,
Surrendered self with zeal, and gave up pride
As she renounced the world to be His bride.
From Virginia Street and Other Poems
and Three Saints, Two Villains