Thursday, 20 April 2017

Saint Catherine of Siena ANN ROCHFORD

On Tuesday the 18th of April Ann Rochford gave an introductory paper on Saint Catherine of Siena, as part of the Carmelite Library’s regular Spiritual Reading Group.

Catherine of Siena was the great Dominican woman of the fourteenth century.   She is a one of the great Mystics and a noted ascetic.  Pope Paul VI commented, “Her gift of wisdom enabled her to taste the truth” She was uneducated: she did not learn to read until her late teens and she only learnt to write her own correspondence in her later twenties.  Yet, she is noted as a great theologian, in fact a Doctor of the Church, (a person whose teachings are true and timeless). She has left us with a collection of almost 400 letters; twenty-seven prayers and her very great work “The Dialogue.”  (Three different literary genres) She carried on lengthy correspondences with popes, kings and princes.  She is credited as being a driving force in bringing the Papacy back to Rome, from Avignon.  She was a peacemaker and spiritual advisor.  She had a legion of followers in her lifetime.  All this, and she was dead at thirty-three.
Catherine was born on the 25th of March 1347.  She was the 24th of 25 children.  (Family of multiple births, with a twin sister. Maybe half the children died in infancy) Her father was Giacomo de Benincasa, her mother Lapa Piagenta.  Lapa was forty when Catherine was born and lived to be 89.  She walked in the procession, which brought Catherine’s relics back to Siena. Siena itself was a town of cloth dyers. It was prosperous and Catherine’s family was not poor; her parents desired to marry their children, particularly their daughters, “up”.

Catherine was beautiful and was particularly noted for her hair.  It was considered that a very good marriage was likely.  Catherine had other ideas.  She had her first mystical experience around the age of six or seven when she was walking home with her brother and saw the face of Jesus in the sky above the Cathedral of San Domenico.
She decided immediately that she would devote her life to Jesus; she would not marry but also would not join a convent. Catherine was always a very strong-willed, determined and plain-speaking woman.  She set her own course. (Modern feminists like her.)  “Speak Truth to Power.” In her early teens a marriage was arranged.  Catherine refused to cooperate, cut off her hair, and refused to eat.  Her mother was furious, her father ultimately relented, came to understand her spirituality and gave her a room in the house for her spiritual reflections.

In her mid teens she was accepted into the Mantellate, a third order of lay Dominicans.  These were women, usually widows, who took the Dominican vows, wore the habit, kept the Dominican rules of silence and prayer times: but they lived in their own homes.  This suited Catherine well, because she could chart the course of her own spirituality, but was not such a happy arrangement for the rest of her family.  They would often come home and find that she had given away the food for the night, or they would see their winter cloak around the shoulders of the beggar down the street. In her first few years in the Mantellate she led a life of solitude, although she was taught by older members of the order, how to read. Her life of deep mysticism began to flourish.  She talks of having many visions whilst in mystical trances and being visited, not just by Jesus Himself but also by many saints, including Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, and Mary Magdalene. 

She embraced a life of extreme ascetism.  This included self-flagellation twice a day, and near starvation.  (Holy anorexia, a thin body is a holy body).  She also tried to deprive herself of sleep. She was mastering her physical desires in order to focus on her spiritual growth.  She opened gaping wounds on her body, which she called her flowers.  She was regularly urged by her spiritual advisors to curb her ascetic tendencies, but refused. The fact that she did not join the Order as a nun allowed her to become extreme is these practices, without being curbed.

At around 20, after a vision, Catherine saw that God was calling her to leave her enclosed life and work in the World.  In the vision God told her he wanted her to fly on two wings, one wing was her personal spirituality, the other service to others.   She began visiting the sick in their homes and feeding and caring for them in the local hospital Santa Maria Della Scala.  She asked to be given the worst cases, the plague and leprosy. She soon attracted a following of local young Sienans, and then people from further afield, who joined her in her work.  Such was the enthusiasm of her following that she eventually had to build a house of her own just outside Siena, to cater for her large following.  Her followers were men and women, clergy and laity, quite remarkable for a medieval laywoman.  She instructed them by sharing her own spiritual journey and acting as their spiritual director.  She referred to them as her Family and they often called her Mamma.  Her followers would not describe her as happy -- but always very joyful.  Her letters often express her love for them.
Amongst her followers were: her mother, her sister-in-law, a Franciscan provincial, Augustinians, William Flete a Cambridge graduate and English Augustinian, who came to Italy to meet her and remained a close friend, young Dominican novices, young lay people from rich and poor families. There were also three young laymen, who acted as secretaries and wrote all of her correspondence.
As her fame became better known, Catherine became famous as a peacemaker.  She was called upon to settle disputes in families, and then disputes between the fractious Italian states.  In these matters she wrote to, and instructed, the King of France, the Queen of Hungary, dukes, counts and other notables across Europe. Catherine’s letters are straight forward and a delight to read.  Her strong personality and sense of what is right in God’s eyes, shines through them.  She thinks nothing of the fact that a young woman of humble birth is giving very direct instructions to the great people of her time.  She is doing God’s business.

Catherine’s great concern at this time was about the parlous state of the Church.  Catherine loved the Church, which she saw as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.  She was distraught the terrible state of the Church of her time.  In 1309, due to safety threats, the Pope went to Avignon and did not return.  The church was corrupt, mismanaged and scandalous.  She called for urgent and deep reforms.  She spoke the truth about Church corruption (as a good Dominican should) and she believed that all members of the church should be able to speak the truth to its leaders and that the leaders ought  (as their duty) to listen to them.  She thought that as a general principle, the Church should always be in a state of reform.
The Church understood her to be remarkable.  She was uneducated, but she had a deep grasp of theology. Leading theologians of the time tested her and were astounded by her insights.  It was considered that she could only get this understanding by having a very deep spiritual life.  Raymund of Capua, a noted Dominican, was appointed to be her personal confessor.  (He later became the Dominican Master and Catherine’s biographer.) She was as much Raymund’s spiritual adviser as he was hers.  They developed a great friendship.  Catherine often chided him for his timidity.  She at one stage wrote and told him “to be a man.”  She actually meant, be more like me.  Later in her life she was scathing of him when he called off a diplomatic mission to Avignon, because he had heard that he was not welcome there, and men were waiting to kill him.  She wrote to him in Pisa where he had taken refuge, asking him to explain why he had given up, what might be, his only chance to die a martyr.  She was clear that she would not have given up that chance!
Catherine began a mutual correspondence with Pope Gregory XI in which she entreated him to bring the Papacy back to Rome and reform the Church. He kept her letters to him, but we do not have his replies; she did not keep correspondence that came to her. Catherine was eventually sent to Avignon to speak with him personally.  He resisted her, but then returned to Rome soon after.  Shortly after, Gregory died and Urban VI was elected.  Urban was a difficult and abrasive personality, but a reformer. Catherine was called to Rome to advise him and help make peace with the quarrelsome Italian states, and between the Vatican and Avignon.  She travelled quite a bit, to Pisa and Florence, and when she could, back to her own community in Siena.

Catherine’s great work is The Dialogue. It was written in the last few years of her life.  Her scribes, who took turns to sit with her, wrote down the document and recorded what she was saying, during her mystical trances. At the beginning of The Dialogue she tells us she wants to pursue truth and clothe herself in it:  the truth of herself: the truth of God. To speak the Truth is the Dominican charism.  Catherine was a very fervent Dominican.  Truth and Love are the two virtues that shine through her work.

The work is a dialogue between herself and God (really between humanity and God) and obviously comes from her times of mystical experiences.  She has four petitions she wishes to put to God, and she gives us her record of the discussion involved in each of the questions. Her petitions were about Herself, the Church, the whole world, and for assurance of God’s providence in all things, particularly in regard to a certain case of which she was aware. In the discussion she refers to herself in the third person, often as “the soul”.  God is usually called “first truth”.

 Mystics, like poets, need symbol and image to express their thoughts.  The Dialogue is therefore not an easy read, but if you have the time, it is worth some effort.

Catherine died in Rome in 1380, aged 33.  In her last years her body was ravaged by her inability to eat and mortifications she imposed on her body.  These no doubt hastened her death.

To understand Catherine well, we have to have some understanding of medieval spirituality, which has a language and practices of its own time, and often sounds foreign to us today. This is the case with all of the medieval mystics.  Despite the difficulty in interpretation, the great body of work that she left speaks for itself.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Many Hats of Rowan Williams: The Mitre

 On the 21st of February Philip Harvey conducted the first Spiritual Reading Group for 2017 on the writings of Rowan Williams. One of the passages was from Rowan’s book on the statements of the creed, ‘Tokens of Trust : an Introduction to Christian Belief’ (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2007), pages 35-37. Here is the passage followed by a reading.

It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.

One of the greatest Christian minds ever, Thomas Aquinas, said in the thirteenth century that we should never think of creation as an event, with a before and after, or as a change in circumstances – as if first there was a chaotic mess, then God came along and organized it, which was a popular view in the ancient world. Creation is an action of God that sets up a relationship between God and what is not God. Eternally, there is just God – outside time because he doesn’t get better or worse, or change in any way. And time begins when God speaks to call into being a world that is different and so establishes a reality that depends on him. It depends on him moment by moment, carried along on the current of his activity. Behind and beneath everything we encounter is this action. We may look at something that seems unmoving and unchanging, like the pillars of a cathedral or the peaks of a mountain, but what is within and beyond it is an intense energy and movement. The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God.

To all life thou givest, to both great and small,
In all life thou livest, the true life of all.

says the hymn (‘Immortal, invisible’), and it says it all. There is the real Christian doctrine of creation, creation that is going on as we speak or write or read. It’s a vision present in many of our prayers as well as hymns, and it’s there too in the Bible, most of all in what are usually called the ‘Wisdom Books’ of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha – Proverbs, bits of Job, some of the Psalms, and so on. One of its most beautiful expressions is in the seventh chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, which speaks of God’s wisdom as a spirit gentle and keen and peaceful and intelligent, always permeating the universe and always looking for friends and co-operators in the world of human beings, looking for a home in the human mind and heart. And when, in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul is talking to the intellectuals of Athens, he quotes approvingly from a Greek poet saying that in God ‘we live and move and have our being’.


The passage we have just heard comes in response to the apostolic profession: ‘I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth’. It is impossible, I think, to hear this passage and not notice how quickly Rowan moves from basic theological premises to a poet’s way of illustrating how creation works when God is the mover, to expressions that pronounce a mystic’s awareness of creation, the ultimate spiritual implications of the argument. He goes from theologian to poet to mystic in the space of a page.

Certain sayings are most attractive.  “Creation is an action of God that sets up a relationship between God and what is not God.” The fact that we are told we live in relationship with God is the start of our own growth in that relationship. How we choose to develop that relationship depends on us as much as it depends on God, but it is through finding there is such a relationship that we learn more about our own purpose within creation, as created beings.

He says that at the heart of creation “is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God.” Outpouring is at the centre of Orthodox thinking about God. For Rowan, scientific explanations of creation are helpful and good, but not everything. Indeed, any explanation that does not include God will be limiting, by definition. And quoting St Paul, Rowan declares the belief that in God “we live and move and have our being”. In other words, anyone who is truly alive to God’s work in creation will become aware of God’s work in them.

We all know that one hat Rowan Williams literally does wear from time to time is a mitre. Those who think of bishops as ecclesiastical pen-pushers and head-kickers may not be aware that one of the primary roles of a bishop is defender of the creed. That is, a bishop from earliest times both revealed the truth of the statements in the creed and defended them, especially from the destructive and pernicious effects of error, or heresy. Error, though, is no matter in this context. Anyone who reads ‘Tokens of Trust’ comes face-to-face with that revelation, the liveliness and beauty of Christian faith, once we start pondering the deeper meanings of the lines. The book opens up ways of thinking about each of the statements so we see them anew and think about them in our own given time.

So Rowan is being a bishop, but notice the way he proceeds. “It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here.” Come again. “Should be”? How could it be anything other than “rather exhilarating”? Because Rowan knows he’s talking to an audience who might find everything he’s saying just one more incredible explanation for the same old doctrine repeated in church each week. Whereas we are in fact declaring belief in this God, the one who was there before creation and is at work through creation even as we speak. This is a form of expression found constantly in his writing: even when he wishes to talk definitively on a subject, he leaves open a space for questions, second thoughts, contrary experiences, other beliefs. He is not practising with a closed system.

Another good example is in the next sentence: “ It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything.” He doesn’t describe God’s action as white heat but as “a sort of white heat”. He knows well the risk of  people taking literally what we mean when we describe something indescribable. His use of modifiers, comparatives, perhapses, sort-ofs of all sorts, enables him to talk authoritatively without sounding absolutist to a mixed audience, one that obviously includes scientists. 

I was tempted to select as a hat for this passage, the foolscap. I sometimes think of theologians as wearers of the foolscap, not in mockery but because theology starts after the fact of what Rowan is talking about here. A theologian takes his blank foolscap and starts writing a whole lot of words to explain what should be a matter of the bleeding obvious. Rowan names Saint Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who once said all of his works were straw for the fire. Aquinas meant that any amount of writing, important and necessary as it is, doesn’t change who God is. We remember that the dunce’s hat referred to latter-day followers of Duns Scotus, renowned for their mere unthinking repetition of theological concepts. Clearly this hat does not fit Rowan Williams. 

One other typical feature of Rowan’s creative work on display here is his reliance both on Scripture and Tradition. He starts from the creed and appeals to catholic Tradition, notably Aquinas, then in conclusion consolidates everything by reference to both Testaments of the Bible. This is typical of many Christian churches but is especially typical of Rowan’s kind of Anglicanism. He is the whole time keen to be inclusive of Christian thinking through time, not exclusive.  

The Many Hats of Rowan Williams: The Beanie

On the 21st of February Philip Harvey conducted the first Spiritual Reading Group for 2017 on the writings of Rowan Williams. One of the passages was from his book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, ‘Silence and Honey Cakes : the Wisdom of the Desert’ (Lion, 2003,  pages 45-46). Here is the passage followed by a reading.

Arsenius was famous not for physical self-denial but for silence; and if there is one virtue pretty universally recommended in the desert, it is this. Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem, it seems. You can lead a life of heroic labour and self-denial at the external level, refusing the comforts of food and sleep; but if you have not silence – to paraphrase St Paul, it will profit you nothing. There is a saying around in the literature describing Satan or the devils in general as the greatest of ascetics: the devil does not sleep or eat – but this does not make him holy. He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil. And our normal habits of speech so readily reinforce that imprisonment. Again and again, the desert teachers point out where speech can lead us astray. One of the rare occasions when something positive is said about the great but controversial monastic theologian Evagrius in the ‘sayings of the Desert Fathers’ is when he is depicted (not without some satisfaction) as accepting humbly the rebuke of another monk and keeping silence in a debate. Abba Pambo is represented as refusing to speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ says the old man, unanswerably; archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature. Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.

So once again, we have to be careful about the risk of modernizing the desert tradition in a shallow way. It sounds wonderful when we are told that the path of asceticism is all about self-discovery, because most of us are deeply in love with the idea of self-expression – and discovering the ‘true self’ so as to express it more fully is the burden of hundreds of self-help books – but for the desert monks and nuns, the quest for truth can be frightening, and they know how many strategies we devise to keep ourselves away from the real thing. As we have already seen, they are familiar with the idea that to discover ourselves all we really need is for other people to go away – or at least to fall into the parts we have written for them and not try to change us or interfere with our plans: and the essentially corporate character of monastic self-discovery is something we have seen to be fundamental to the therapy they exercise. Our life is with the neighbour. And if everybody else were indeed taken away, we would not actually have a clue about who we ‘really’ were. The sense in which we also need to be independent of the judgments of others is of course equally significant.


The Desert Fathers and Mothers, as we call them today, were people who chose to go and live outside the urban areas of Egypt and Syria in the 3rd century Empire. They chose to live a life based on the Gospel revelation of Jesus Christ and their writings are about the earliest examples of monastic spirituality. They were, to all intents and purposes, hermits, but hermits whose holiness of life made them teachers and spiritual directors who finished up attracting constant attention from other people, the very cloud of witnesses hermits had chosen to keep at some distance.

This particular passage states some of the concerns of this life: physical self-denial, silence and speech, holiness, the rejection of evil, social power, social illusions, corporate self-discovery, and the self. It’s quite a list, all things that brought these people to be hermits, things that we ourselves deal with every day.

Rowan Williams identifies at least two essentials here. The first is where, after quoting one of the monks, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ Rowan then states “Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.” In other words, silence is the place where we may learn of God, silence is where we come out of and where we will return. Silence, he is saying, also teaches us about how we use words, that it is in silence that we learn to use the right words and come to know when our words are necessary, and when not. The monk knows that his silence speaks as eloquently and deeply as any of his words. And the monk is not saying this to make any claim for himself. He is saying this in order that we, individually, may learn to be more like this in our own living with silence.

The other essential teaching that I see in this passage is where Rowan concludes that “Our life is with the neighbour.” Jesus, in all his work, confronts us with “Who is my neighbour?” and here it is hermits who show us how to relate and understand one another. It is through living with others, even when apart in a place of reflection (which is what we do a good deal of the time anyway), that we learn more about ourselves, and them. Not that this is always easy, it isn’t, but once we know this is our choice and place, then our spiritual life will grow, together with our neighbours’.

Rowan Williams is an archbishop, which is why we read with rueful amusement his report of the Desert Monastics’ attitudes towards people like him. The father-monk refuses to even speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria and Rowan notes “archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature.” That an archbishop would think suspicion of an archbishop “healthy” tells us a lot about his own self-awareness, self-deprecation and sense of the awkwardness that exists between church authority and true holiness. The question of how a truly holy person can at the same time exercise influence and control as a leader is one we encounter again and again in his writing. It must be observed that Rowan’s own amusement at the variety of human life, and acceptance of those differences, is itself one of the messages. People are not going to change just by us telling them to change, nor will they learn if we are not first the example of someone whose holiness is worth learning from. As the stories tell us in the ‘sayings of the Desert Fathers’, the roles apportioned to us in life are never the whole story, nor do they come close to explaining who we really are. Certainly not before God, where any kind of illusion is useless.

The other concern I would draw attention to here is where he says of the devil being “the greatest of ascetics”, but that “He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil.” Evil, why it happens and how we handle it, is another preoccupation of this thinker. And Rowan attends to evil in this passage in regard to language, how language can “imprison” us and how speech can “lead us astray.” As a regular user of language, indeed a philosopher of language, Rowan’s truth is a challenge. All the words we use, in daily speech and in every kind of communication, have the potential both to harm and to, as he puts it,  “strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves.” We know how this works and how easy it is to maintain these illusions, how well we can explain away or justify everything in words. Yet we are being told here that these can be the barrier between ourselves, and God. They perpetuate our human illusions about ourselves and others.