“Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
Like many others, this quotation from the writings of St. Catherine of Siena has been a favorite of mine for many years. Although I knew only a few key facts about her life at the time, hearing these words ignited within me a deep hope about the goodness of God’s plan for my life and the nobility of His will for me. It has only been recently that I discovered more about how St. Catherine lived out her own words and encouraged others to do the same. Last year I had the opportunity to read Saint Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire, Preacher of Freedom by Fr. Paul Murray, OP. This book illuminated for me Catherine’s specific charisms that colored the way she followed God and allowed her to set the world on fire with God’s love.
St. Catherine was absolutely enamored with the beauty of authentic freedom. Her desire for herself and for others to live in true freedom was evident in everything she did from serving the poor, to admonishing the political and spiritual leaders of her time, to giving counsel to her many disciples who sought to imitate her.
She speaks often of the immense dignity of the gift of our free will because it allows us to live as children of God. She gives praise to God that through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross our freedom has been restored to our fallen human nature. Catherine shares, “He is so kind that to serve him is more to reign than to be a servant. God makes all his servants kings and queens, free lords and ladies, for he has freed them from slavery to the devil and from blind servitude to the perverse tyranny of the world.” She passionately desires that every person she meets will not only find freedom from sin, oppression, and especially fear, but even more so she desires that they will attain the freedom for living virtue, seeking truth, and contemplating the divine.
St. Catherine deeply believes that our free will—our ability at all the times to choose to do the good and the will of God—is our surest defense against anything that threatens to take away our freedom. At the same time, she recognizes that our free will is also the exact place where we often feel the most weak and powerless in moments of temptation. Time and again, Catherine gives counsel filled with compassion and tenderness to those who are struggling against sin. She reminds them of the necessity of not only utilizing the gift of free will but also of seeking the Giver of the gift for assistance in using it. When facing despair of our sinfulness, she expresses the need to run to God and be embraced by His love in the same way that a fearful child runs to his mother. As she beautifully puts it, “Stay near your gentle mother, charity, who will free you from all servile fear and all coldness of heart, and give you strength, and breadth, and freedom of heart.”
With the same fervor that St. Catherine proclaims the beauty of true freedom, she also preaches the necessity of self-knowledge. Her passion for self-knowledge comes from her own deep knowledge of herself that is essential for the freedom she enjoys. She insists that, though uncomfortable, it is necessary for each person to enter into the “night of self-knowledge” in order to live in the freedom Christ has won for us. This self-knowledge must be sought with and through God. In speaking about her own prayer, she refers to looking at herself in the “gentle mirror of God.” Gazing at her reflection reveals her dignity of bearing the image of God through no doing of her own. At the same time, while gazing in the mirror of God she sees, “all the more clearly her own defects because of the purity she sees in him.”
For self-knowledge to be fruitful, it must consist of both the recognition that we are made in the image of God as well as the recognition of our sinfulness. In addition to the image of the mirror, St. Catherine uses the image of a cell to explain true self-knowledge in God. The cell is made up of two rooms. One room contains the joy of our being created, loved, and wanted by God. The other room contains the painful sadness of our sinfulness and weakness. Catherine insists that within this cell we must occupy both rooms at the same time. Self-knowledge grows and bears fruit through the integration of what seem to be two opposite realities.
Imitating St. Catherine Today
St. Catherine’s witness of lively faith and boldness of action inflamed the hearts of those she met during her lifetime. Today, her legacy continues to spark a desire within Catholics to live out God’s purpose for them. Freedom and self-knowledge were the foundations of Catherine’s spirituality. Through the seemingly ordinary means of daily prayer and contemplation, we can gain the authentic self-knowledge and freedom of heart that allowed St. Catherine to speak the truth boldly, to serve the poor tenderly, and to proclaim passionately to every soul the abundance of life they are called to in Christ. Through freedom and self-knowledge we too can set the world ablaze with the fire of God’s love.
Bethany Dhingra is a millennial with a missionary heart. She loves using her Catholic Studies and Communications degrees from the University of St. Thomas to draw others into a relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. She served as a campus missionary with FOCUS for 3 years. Most recently, Bethany is living in Missouri with her husband and learning how to follow Christ through the sacrament of marriage.