Over the past twenty years, I have become an admirer, a follower of sorts, of Catherine of Siena. I have sought out her images—that Roman nose, that stalk of lilies—in museums and churches. Once, chancing upon a portrait of her in the Art Institute of Chicago, I felt as if I’d sighted a Kardashian. In her native Tuscany, I later discovered, it’s harder not to see her: she’s everywhere, even on street corners.
While in Florence a few years ago, on our way to catch the bus to Siena, my husband and I were stopped in our tracks by a sidewalk inscription in Italian and English: “Every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now.” It seemed personally significant, no doubt as it does to most passersby. Wanting to commit the location to memory, so Joe and I could come back and stand by these words again, we looked up at the street sign. We were on the corner of Saint Catherine of Siena Street. Of course we were.
That was not the first time I felt Catherine influencing, guiding, and, dare I say it, speaking to me. The most direct messages are from her writing: letters, prayers, and passages from Il Dialogo (The Dialogue), a theological masterpiece that chronicles her dialogue with God. Extraordinary in volume, considering that Catherine grew up illiterate. How much of it Catherine dictated versus what she managed to write in her own hand is immaterial when the words are as powerful as these: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” She’s bumper-sticker worthy with messages that are uncannily timely today: “We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues – I see the world is rotten because of silence.”
No one could ever accuse Catherine of staying silent. When something needed to be said or done, Catherine committed herself—mind, body, soul, and voice to the task. Some 650 years ago, when the average woman had no public voice and literally belonged to men—father, brother, and inevitably spouse—Catherine singularly belonged only to herself and to God. When she spoke out, counseling princes and popes alike, she neither waited for nor relied on any human authority. She attracted followers and the occasional accuser. Through it all she never lost her voice or her faith. She was Catherine, the original badass.
The Badass Trailblazer
The word badass has flexed its biceps and swaggered its way into widespread usage, conjuring up images of super-fit, hypercompetitive, butt-kickers. The badassery I prefer connotes being values-driven and fearless in one’s display of compassion, courage, and care for others. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., writing on the Psychology Today blog, explained: “A badass is someone who does the dirty jobs; the jobs that other people don’t want to do—for example, our troops and inner-city teachers. A badass does what needs to be done, no matter how difficult it is, without complaint or need for fanfare.” Jen Sincero, in her bestselling You Are a Badass, describes this mission as showing up “as the brightest, happiest, badassiest version of yourself, whatever that looks like to you.” True badassery, therefore, is all about being bold and brave and, most important, showing up in the world to do what you care most deeply about. Catherine of Siena was all over that centuries before it became fashionable.
Born in 1347, Catherine Benincasa was the twenty-third child (though some say the twenty-fourth, but really who’s counting) of Jacopo and Lapa. At a young age, she decided she would never marry and instead would dedicate her life to God. When her parents insisted that she marry her widowed brother-in-law, Catherine cut off all her hair in protest. Her mother decided to teach Catherine a thing or two about the consequences of such stubbornness by making her the family servant. Instead of breaking her spirit, the experience thrilled Catherine, who reveled in the solitude and sacrifice. Winning in the end, Catherine joined the Dominican community, not as a nun, but as a mantellata (a kind of adjunct, attached to the order, but as a lay person). Instead of being cloistered away, Catherine went out into the world, tending to the poor, the sick, and forgotten. She didn’t stop there, becoming an emissary of peace between feuding families and warring Italian states.
When Pope Gregory XI, the last of the French popes, was holed up in Avignon, she told him to return himself and the papacy to Rome. In a letter to Gregory, Catherine wrote: “I hear that these people are trying to frighten you, saying you will be killed, in order to prevent your return. I, however, on behalf of Christ crucified, tell you, dear holy father, not to be afraid for any reason whatever.” It strikes me as both ironic and revelatory that Catherine assumes the authority of speaking “on behalf of Christ” when addressing the pope, who (like all popes) occupies the role of Christ’s representative in the world (or so the church says).
Despite her influence, Catherine never assumed power or lusted after privilege. Instead, her badassery kept her on the front lines in the humble servitude of choice. In June 1374, when Catherine left Florence to return to her hometown of Siena, she found the place seized by famine and plague, which claimed family members and neighbors. Unafraid of disease or death, Catherine plunged into the care of others, recognizing that this was what she was supposed to do—her time, her mission.
When Pope Urban VI sent for Catherine to help to unify the church and prevent further schism, Siena longed to keep their hometown holy woman close by and tried to dissuade her from making the long journey to Rome. Catherine went anyway, accompanied by followers, the last such sojourn she ever made. By early 1380, she had weakened and became sick, then died on April 29th at the age of thirty-three. Her body was buried in Rome, but followers later opened the grave and made off with her head, bringing it back to Siena where it is still on display.
Eye-to-Eye (Sort of) with Catherine
On our trip to Italy a few years ago, my husband and I traveled to Siena where in an echoing edifice we sat side-by-side on wooden chairs and stared at Catherine’s nearly 650-year-old mummified head. By this time, Joe and I were used to seeing relics displayed in churches: little bits of one saint or another. But here was Catherine’s entire head, draped in a white veil and glimpsed through the grill of an oversized reliquary on a side altar. (And with a huge sign blaring, “No photographs!” as if shouting in the silence—the objective being to drum up postcard sales in the giftshop.) I stared at her visible front teeth and found the whole experience rather flat and, frankly, a little weird. We visited the Benincasa home, tricked out into a marble-encased shrine (“No Photographs!”) and left. Catherine, at least for me, was not in residence that day.
That evening, I asked myself what I had expected. That she was going to speak? Well, yes. It had happened, sort of, a dozen or so years earlier on a trip to Montreal where Joe and I came across a church covered from nave to vestibule and around every pillar with portraits of saints, both familiar and obscure. In the far corner was Catherine of Siena. Joe snapped several photos and printed them when we got home. On each photo of Catherine was a pink mark shaped like an abstract hourglass or maybe a chalice on the white apron of her habit. It was low, where her womb would be. On all the digital images of her and every print, the mark is clearly visible. Was that on the portrait at the church? Surely, we would have noticed. If not, what does that mean about our photo?
I decided that it’s a sign—but of what? Given its position, the womb is obviously connected with gestation, in much the same way that a cocoon connotes a butterfly-in-the-making. Both take time and a leap of faith. On my writer’s journey, patience has been a mainstay. This pink mark, on its surface, encourages me with the belief that with patience and persistence come the payoff. But to keep it at that is to trivialize Catherine into a patient cheerleader. Pondering further, I learned ancient traditions honored the divine feminine and the sacred womb. Of the seven chakras or energy centers of the body, the womb chakra is considered the seat of spirituality for both women and men. So, if I choose to take this as a sign, it should be a spiritual one.
Believing I might be on to something, I turned to her letters, more than 400 of which remain. In one, Catherine chastises an elderly widow for her vanities and frivolous life, then concluded: “Please understand that I would rather do something for you instead of just talking.”
To my modern mind (and given my share of vanities and frivolities), Catherine’s advice to the widow hits me as austere. Yet, instead of being put off by it, I am drawn to her conviction to “do…instead of just talking.”
Those words ignite the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian-wannabe-mystic in me. Recalling the message from that Florentine street corner, I acknowledge that every step has taken me here, now. I’m on a mission to find a mission.
As I look at that photo, now framed on my desk, I take a quick inventory of the tools at my disposal. I have my words. I can write about what I deeply believe to be true: that each of us, no matter how ordinary, can do extraordinary things in our own ways, and in the process experience a personal and intimate connection with God. This is what I’ve learned from Catherine’s example and, in far more humble ways, in my own life. This, I decide, is my mission as I take baby badass steps behind Catherine. I am compelled to write about people (real and fictional) who are thrust into the extraordinary amid the most ordinary, and in doing so to give courage and hope to others.
Yes, this is what I can do. And so, I must.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree (fiction concentration) from Northwestern University, where she received the Distinguished Thesis Award for her novel-in-progress—a mystery that revolves around an artifact of Catherine of Siena. Patricia is also a Pushcart Prize nominee for the grand prize-winning short story she wrote for Loon Magic, the 2019 anthology from TallGrass Writers Guild. She a is also the founder and publisher of www.FaithHopeandFiction.com, an e-literary magazine.