Letters of Catherine Benincasa by Catherine Benincasa

Anne Soulard, Charles Franks, Robert Shimmin, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team LETTERS OF CATHERINE BENINCASA SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA AS SEEN IN HER LETTERS TRANSLATED & EDITED WITH INTRODUCTION BY VIDA D. SCUDDER TABLE OF CONTENTS Table of Persons Addressed St. Catherine of Siena as seen in her letters Chief Events in the life
This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
  • 25/03/1347–29/04/1380
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

Anne Soulard, Charles Franks, Robert Shimmin, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team


[Illustration: _The Ecstasy of St. Catherine Detail from Bazzis Fresco_]




Table of Persons Addressed
St. Catherine of Siena as seen in her letters Chief Events in the life of St. Catherine Brief Outline of Contemporary Public Events To Monna Alessa dei Saracini
To Benincasa her brother, when he was in Florence To the Venerable Religious, Brother Antonio of Nizza To Monna Agnese, who was the wife of Messer Orso Malavolti To Sister Eugenia, her niece at the Convent of St. Agnes of Montepulciano To Nanna, daughter of Benincasa, a little maid, her niece Letters on the Consecrated Life
To Brother William of England
To Daniella of Orvieto, clothed with the Habit of St. Dominic To Monna Agnese, wife of Francesco, a tailor of Florence Letters in response to certain criticisms To Monna Orsa, wife of Bartolo Usimbardi, and to Monna Agnese To a Religious man in Florence, who was shocked at her Ascetic Practices
To Brother Bartolomeo Dominici
To Brother Matteo di Francesco Tolomei To a Mantellata of Saint Dominic, called Catarina di Scetto To Neri di Landoccio dei Pagliaresi
To Monna Giovanna and her other daughters in Siena To Messer John, the Soldier of Fortune
To Monna Colomba in Lucca
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, of the Order of the Preachers To Gregory XI
To Gregory XI
To Gregory XI
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, at Avignon To Catarina of the Hospital, and Giovanna di Capo To Sister Daniella of Orvieto
To Brother Raimondo of Capua, and to Master John III To Sister Bartolomea della Seta
To Gregory XI
To the King of France
Letters to Florence
To the Eight of War chosen by the Commune of Florence To Buonaccorso di Lapo: written when the Saint was at Avignon To Gregory XI
To Monna Lapa, her mother, before she returned from Avignon To Monna Giovanna di Corrado Maconi
To Messer Ristoro Canigiani
To the Anziani and Consuls and Gonfalonieri of Bologna To Nicholas of Osimo
To Misser Lorenzo del Pino of Bologna, Doctor in Decretals Letters written from Rocca D’Orcia
To Monna Lapa, her mother, and to Monna Cecca To Monna Catarina of the Hospital, and to Giovanna di Capo To Monna Alessa, clothed with the Habit of Saint Dominic To Gregory XI
To Raimondo of Capua
To Urban VI
To her spiritual children in Siena
To Brother William and to Messer Matteo of the Misericordia To Sano di Maco, and to all her other sons in Siena To Brother Raimondo of Capua
To Urban VI
To Don Giovanni of the Cells of Vallombrosa Letters announcing peace
To Monna Alessa, when the Saint was at Florence To Sano di Maco, and to the other sons in Christ To three Italian Cardinals
To Giovanna, Queen of Naples
To Sister Daniella of Orvieto
To Stefano Maconi
To certain holy hermits who had been invited to Rome by the Pope To Brother William of England, and to Brother Antonio of Nizza To Brother Andrea of Lucca, Brother Baldo, and Brother Lando To Brother Antonio of Nizza
To Queen Giovanna of Naples
To Brother Raimondo of the Preaching Order, when he was in Genoa To Urban VI
Letters describing the experience preceding death To Master Raimondo of Capua
To Master Raimondo of Capua, of the Order of the Preachers


Agnese, Monna, di Francesco
Andrea, Brother, of Lucca
Antonio, Brother, of Nizza

Baldo, Brother
Bartolomea, Sister, della Seta
Bartolomeo, Brother, Dominici
Benincasa, Benincasa
Benincasa, Eugenia
Benincasa, Monna Lapa
Benincasa, Nanna
Bologna, Anziani of

Capo, Giovanna di
Canigiani, Ristoro
Cardinals, Three Italian
Catarina, of the Hospital
Cecca, Monna
Colomba, Monna, of Lucca

Daniella, Sister, of Orvieto

France, the King of
Florence, Letters to

Giovanna, Queen of Naples
Giovanni, Don, of the Cells of Vallombrosa Gregory XI.

John, Messer, Soldier of Fortune
John III., Master

Lando, Brother
Lapo, Buonaccorso di

Maco, Sano di
Maconi, Monna Giovanna di Corrado
Maconi, Stefano
Malavolti, Monna Agnese
Matteo, Messer, of the Misericordia

Osimo, Nicholas of

Pagliaresi, Neri di Landoccio dei
Pino, Lorenzo del

Raimondo, Brother, of Capua
Religious, A, in Florence

Saracini, Monna Alessa dei
Scetto, Catarina di

Tolomei, Brother Matteo di

Urban VI., Pope
Usimbardi, Monna Orsa

War, the Eight of
William, Brother, of England




The letters of Catherine Benincasa, commonly known as St. Catherine of Siena, have become an Italian classic; yet perhaps the first thing in them to strike a reader is their unliterary character. He only will value them who cares to overhear the impetuous outpourings of the heart and mind of an unlettered daughter of the people, who was also, as it happened, a genius and a saint. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, the other great writers of the Trecento, are all in one way or another intent on choice expression; Catherine is intent solely on driving home what she has to say. Her letters were talked rather than written. She learned to write only three years before her death, and even after this time was in the habit of dictating her correspondence, sometimes two or three letters at a time, to the noble youths who served her as secretaries.

The modern listener to this eager talk may perhaps at first feel wearied. Suffocated by words, repelled by frequent crudity and confusion of metaphor, he may even be inclined to call the thought childish and the tone overwrought. But let him persevere. Let him read these letters as chapters in an autobiography, noting purpose and circumstance, and reading between the lines, as he may easily do, the experience of the writer. Before long the very accents of a living woman will reach his ears. He will hear her voice, now eagerly pleading with friend or wrong-doer, now brooding tender as a mother-bird over some fledgling soul, now broken with sobs as she mourns over the sins of Church and world, and again chanting high prophecy of restoration and renewal, or telling in awestruck undertone sacred mysteries of the interior life. Dante’s Angel of Purity welcomes wayfarers upon the Pilgrim Mount “in voce assai piu che la nostra, viva.” The saintly voice, like the angelic, is more living than our own. These letters are charged with a vitality so intense that across the centuries it draws us into the author’s presence.

Imagination is inclined to see the canonized saints as a row of solemn figures, standing in dull monotony of worshipful gesture, like Virgins and Confessors in an early mosaic. Yet, as a matter of fact, people who have been canonized were to their contemporaries the most striking personalities among men and women striving for righteousness. They were all, to be sure, very good; but goodness, despite a curious prejudice to the contrary, admits more variety in type than wickedness, and produces more interesting characters. Catherine Benincasa was probably the most remarkable woman of the fourteenth century, and her letters are the precious personal record of her inner as of her outer life. With all their transparent simplicity and mediaeval quaintness, with all the occasional plebeian crudity of their phrasing, they reveal a nature at once so many- sided and so exalted that the sensitive reader can but echo the judgment of her countrymen, who see in the dyer’s daughter of Siena one of the most significant authors of a great age.


As is the case with many great letter-writers, though not with all, Catherine reveals herself largely through her relations with others. Some of her letters, indeed, are elaborate religious or political treatises, and seem at first sight to have little personal colouring; yet even these yield their full content of spiritual beauty and wisdom only when one knows the circumstances that called them forth and the persons to whom they were addressed. A mere glance at the index to her correspondence shows how widely she was in touch with her time. She was a woman of personal charm and of sympathies passionately wide, and she gathered around her friends and disciples from every social group in Italy, not to speak of many connections formed with people in other lands. She wrote to prisoners and outcasts; to great nobles and plain business men; to physicians, lawyers, soldiers of fortune; to kings and queens and cardinals and popes; to recluses pursuing the Beatific Vision, and to men and women of the world plunged in the lusts of the flesh and governed by the pride of life. The society of the fourteenth century passes in review as we turn the pages.

Catherine wrote to all these people in the same simple spirit. With one and all she was at home, for all were to her, by no merely formal phrase, “dearest brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.” One knows not whether to be more struck by the outspoken fearlessness of the woman or by her great adaptability. She could handle with plain directness the crudest sins of her age; she could also treat with subtle insight the most elusive phases of spiritual experience. No greater distance can be imagined than that which separates the young Dominican with her eyes full of visions from a man like Sir John Hawkwood, reckless free-lance, selling his sword with light-hearted zeal to the highest bidder, and battening on the disorder of the times. Catherine writes to him with gentlest assumption of fellowship, seizes on his natural passions and tastes, and seeks to sanctify the military life of his affections. With her sister nuns the method changes. She gives free play to her delicate fancy, drawing her metaphors from the beauty of nature, from tender, homely things, from the gentle arts and instincts of womanhood. Does she speak to Pope Gregory, the timid? Her words are a trumpet-call. To the harsh Urban, his successor? With finest tact she urges self-restraint and a policy of moderation. Temperaments of every type are to be met in her pages–a sensitive poet, troubled by “confusion of thought” deepening into melancholia; a harum-scarum boy, in whose sunny joyousness she discerns the germ of supernatural grace; vehement sinners, fearful saints, religious recluses deceived by self- righteousness, and men of affairs devoutly faithful to sober duty. Catherine enters into every consciousness. As a rule we associate with very pure and spiritual women, even if not cloistered, a certain deficient sense of reality. We cherish them, and shield them from harsh contact with the world, lest the fine flower of their delicacy be withered. But no one seems to have felt in this way about Catherine. Her “love for souls” was no cold electric illumination such as we sometimes feel the phrase to imply, but a warm understanding tenderness for actual men and women. It would be hard to exaggerate her knowledge of the world and of human hearts.

Yet sometimes Catherine appears to us austere and exacting; unsparing in condemnation, and unrelenting in her demands on those she loves. Many of her letters are in a strain of exhortation that rises into rebuke. The impression at first is unpleasant. We are tempted to feel this unfailing candour captious; to resent the note of authority, equally clear whether she write to Pope or Cardinal; to suspect Catherine, in a word, of assuming that very judicial attitude which she constantly deprecates as unbecoming to us poor mortals. And perhaps the very frequency of her plea for tolerance and forbearance suggests a conscious weakness. Like most brilliant and ardent people, she was probably by nature of a critical and impatient disposition; she was, moreover, a plebeian. At times, when she is quite sure that men are on the side of the devil, she allows her instinctive frankness full scope; it must be allowed that the result is astounding. Yet even as we catch our breath we realise that her remarks were probably justified. It is hard for us moderns to remember how crudely hideous were the sins which she faced. In these days, when we are all reduced to one apparent level of moral respectability, and great saintliness and dramatic guilt are alike seldom conspicuous, we forget the violent contrasts of the middle ages. Pure “Religious,” striving after the exalted perfection enjoined by the Counsels, moved habitually among moral atrocities, and bold vigour of speech was a practical duty. Catherine handled without evasion the grossest evils of her time, and the spell which she exercised by simple force of direct dealing was nothing less than extraordinary.

It is easy to see why Catherine’s plain speaking was not resented. She rarely begins with rebuke. The note of humility is first struck; she is always “servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ.” Thence she frequently passes into fervent meditation on some special theme: the exceeding wonder of the Divine Love, the duty of prayer, the nature of obedience. We are lifted above the world into a region of heavenly light and sweetness, when suddenly–a blow from the shoulder!–a startling sense of return to earth. From the contemplation of the beauty of holiness, Catherine has swiftly turned us to face the opposing sin. “Thou art the man!” A few trenchant sentences, charged with pain, and the soul which has been raised to celestial places awakes to see in itself the contradiction of all that is so lovely. Into the region of darkness Catherine goes with it. It is not “thou” but “we” who have sinned. She holds that sinful heart so near her own that the beatings are confounded; her words now and again express a shuddering personal remorse for sins of which she could have had no personal knowledge. Her sense of unity with her fellow-men lies deeper than any theory of brotherhood; she feels herself in sober truth guilty of the sins of her brothers: her experience illustrates the profound truth that only purity can know perfect penitence.

Catherine is then saved from any touch of Pharisaism by her remarkable identification of herself with the person to whom she writes. But to understand her attitude we must go further. For she never pauses in reprobation of evil. Full of conviction that the soul needs only to recognise its sin to hate and escape it for ever, she passes swiftly on to impassioned appeal. Her words breathe a confidence in men that never fails even when she is writing to the most hardened. She succeeded to a rare degree in the difficult conciliation of uncompromising hatred toward sin with unstrained fellowship with the sinner, and invincible trust in his responsiveness to the appeal of virtue. When we consider the times in which she lived, this large and touching trustfulness becomes to our eyes a victory of faith. That it was no mere instinct, but an attitude resolutely adopted and maintained, is evident from her frequent discussions of charity and tolerance, some of which will be found in these selections. She constantly urges her disciples to put the highest possible construction on their neighbours’ actions; nor is any phase of her teaching more constantly repeated than the beautiful application of the text: “In My Father’s House are many mansions,” to enjoin recognition of the varieties in temperament and character and practice which may coexist in the House of God.

Catherine had learned a hard lesson. She saw in human beings not their achievements, but their possibilities. Therefore she quickened repentance by a positive method, not by morbid analysis of evil, not by lurid pictures of the consequences of sin, but by filling the soul with glowing visions of that holiness which to see is to long for. She never despaired of quickening in even the most degraded that flame of “holy desire” which is the earnest of true holiness to be. We find her impatient of mint and cummin, of over-anxious self-scrutiny. “Strive that your holy desires increase,” she writes to a correspondent; “and let all these other things alone.” “I, Catherine–write to you–with desire”: so open all her letters. Holy Desire! It is not only the watchword of her teaching: it is also the true key to her personality.


We have dwelt on Catherine, the friend and guide of souls; but it is Catherine the mystic, Catherine the friend of God, before whom the ages bend in reverence. The final value of her letters lies in their revelation, not of her dealings with other souls, but of God’s dealings with her own.

But in presence of the record of these deep experiences, silence is better than words: is, indeed, for most of us the only possible attitude. The letters that follow must speak for themselves. The clarity of mind which Catherine always preserved, even in moments of highest exaltation, and her loving eagerness to share her most sacred experiences with those dear to her, have given her a power of expression that has produced pages of unsurpassed interest and value, alike for the psychologist and for the believer. Moreover–and this we well may note–her letters enable us to apprehend with singularly happy intimacy, the natural character and disposition of her whom these high things befell. In the very cadence of their impetuous phrasing, in their swift dramatic changes, in their marvellous blending of sweetness and virility, they show us the woman. Some of them, especially those to her family and friends, are of almost childlike simplicity and homely charm; others, among the most famous of their kind, deal with mystical, or if we choose so to put it, with supernatural experience: in all alike, we feel a heart akin to our own, though larger and more tender.

The central fact in Catherine’s nature was her rapt and absolute perception of the Love of God, as the supreme reality in the universe. This Love, as manifested in creation, in redemption, and in the sacrament of the Altar, is the theme of her constant meditations. One little phrase, charged with a lyric poignancy, sings itself again and again, enlightening her more sober prose: “For nails would not have held God-and-Man fast to the Cross, had love not held Him there.” Her conceptions are positive, not negative, and joyous adoration is the substance of her faith.

But the letters show us that this faith was not won nor kept without sharp struggle. We have in them no presentation of a calm spirit, established on tranquil heights of unchanging vision, above our “mortal moral strife.” Catherine is, as we can see, a woman of many moods–very sensitive, very loving. She shows a touching dependence on those she loves, and an inveterate habit of idealising them, which leads to frequent disillusion. She is extremely eager and intense about little things as well as great; hers is a truly feminine seriousness over the detail of living. She is keenly and humanly interested in life on this earth, differing in this respect from some canonized persons who seem always to be enduring it _faute de mieux_. And, as happens to all sensitive people who refuse to seclude themselves in dreams, life went hard with her. Hers was a frail and suffering body, and a tossed and troubled spirit; wounded in the house of her friends, beset by problem, shaken with doubt and fear by the spectacle presented to her by the world and the Church of Christ. The letters tell us how these, her sorrows and temptations, were not separated from the life of faith, but a true portion of it: how she carried them into the Divine Presence, and what high reassurance awaited her there. Ordinary mortals are inclined to think that supernatural experience removes the saints to a perplexing distance. In Catherine’s case, however, we become aware as we study the record that it brings her nearer us. For these experiences, far from being independent of her outer life, are in closest relation with it; even the highest and most mysterious, even those in which the symbolism seems most remote from the modern mind, can be translated by the psychologist without difficulty into modern terms. They spring from the problems of her active life; they bring her renewed strength and wisdom for her practical duties. An age, which like our own places peculiar emphasis and value on the type of sanctity which promptly expresses itself through the deed, should feel for Catherine Benincasa an especial honour. She is one of the purest of Contemplatives; she knows, what we to-day too often forget, that the task is impossible without the vision. But it follows directly upon the vision, and this great mediaeval mystic is one of the most efficient characters of her age.


Catherine’s soaring imagination lifted her above the circle of purely personal interests, and made her a force of which history is cognisant in the public affairs of her day. She is one of a very small number of women who have exerted the influence of a statesman by virtue, not of feminine attractions, but of conviction and intellectual power. It is impossible to understand her letters without some recognition of the public drama of the time.

Two great ideals of unity–one Roman, one Christian in origin–had possessed the middle ages. In the strength of them the wandering barbaric hordes had been reduced to order, and Western Europe had been trained into some perception of human fellowship. Of these two unifying forces, the imperialistic ideal was moribund in Catherine’s time: not even a Dante, born fifty years after his true date, could have held to it. Remained the ideal of the Church universal, and to this last hope of a peaceful commonwealth that should include all humanity, the idealists clung in desperation.

But alas for the faith of idealists when fact gives theory the lie! What at this time was the unity of mankind in the Church but a formal hypothesis? The keystone of her all-embracing arch was the Papacy. But the Pope no longer sat heir of the Caesars in the seat of the Apostles; for seventy years he had been a practical dependant of the French king, living in pleasant Provence. Neither the scorn of Dante, nor the eloquence of Petrarch, nor the warnings of holy men, had prevailed on the popes to return to Italy, and make an end of the crying scandal which was the evident contradiction of the Christian dream. Meantime, the city of the Caesars lay waste and wild; the clergy was corrupt almost past belief; the dreaded Turk was gathering his forces, a menace to Christendom itself. The times were indeed evil, and the “servants of God,” of whom then, as now, there were no inconsiderable number, withdrew for the most part into spiritual or literal seclusion, and in the quietude of cloister or forest cell busied themselves with the concerns of their own souls.

Not so Catherine Benincasa. She had known that temptation and conquered it. After her reception as a Dominican Tertiary, she had possessed the extraordinary resolution to live for three years the recluse life, not in the guarded peace of a convent, but in her own room at home, in the noisy and overcrowded house where a goodly number of her twenty-four brothers and sisters were apparently still living. And these had been years of inestimable preciousness; but they came to an end at the command of God, speaking through the constraining impulse of her love for men. From the mystical retirement in which she had long lived alone with her Beloved, she emerged into the world. And the remarkable fact is that in no respect did she blench from the situation as she found it. She “faced life steadily and faced it whole.” A Europe ravaged by dissensions lay before her; a Church which gave the lie to its lofty theories, no less by the hateful worldliness of its prelates than by its indifferent abandonment of the Seat of Peter. Above this sorry spectacle the mind of Catherine soared straight into an upper region, where only the greatest minds of the day were her comrades. Her fellow-citizens were unable to entertain the idea even of civic peace within the limits of their own town; but patriotic devotion to all Italy fired her great heart. More than this–her instinct for solidarity forced her to dwell in the thought of a world-embracing brotherhood. Her hopes were centred, not like Dante’s in the Emperor the heir of the Caesars, but in the Pope the heir of Christ. Despite the corruption from which she recoiled with horror, despite the Babylonian captivity at Avignon, she saw in the Catholic Church that image of a pure universal fellowship which the noblest Catholics of all ages have cherished. To the service of the Church, therefore, her life was dedicated; it was to her the Holy House of Reconciliation, wherein all nations should dwell in unity; and only by submission to its authority could the woes of Italy be healed.

Catherine’s letters on public affairs–historical documents of recognised importance–give us her practical programme. It was formed in the light of that faith which she always describes as “the eye of the mind.” She was called during her brief years of political activity to meet three chief issues: the absence of the Pope from Italy; the rebellion of the Tuscan cities, headed by Florence, against his authority; and at a later time the great Schism, which broke forth under Urban VI. During her last five years she was absorbed in ecclesiastical affairs. In certain of her immediate aims she succeeded, in others she failed. It would be hard to say whether her success or her failure involved the greater tragedy. For behind all these aims was a larger ideal that was not to be realised–the dream, entertained as passionately by Catherine Benincasa as by Savonarola or by Luther, of thorough Church-reform. Catherine at Avignon, pleading this great cause in the frivolous culture and dainty pomp of the place; Catherine at Rome, defending to her last breath the legal rights of a Pope whom she could hardly have honoured, and whose claims she saw defended by extremely doubtful means–is a figure as pathetic as heroic. Few sorrows are keener than to work with all one’s energies to attain a visible end for the sake of a spiritual result, and, attaining that end, to find the result as far as ever. This sorrow was Catherine’s. The external successes which she won–considerable enough to secure her a place in history– availed nothing to forward the greater aim for which she worked. Gregory XI., under her magnetic inspiration, gathered strength, indeed, to make a personal sacrifice and to return to Rome, but he was of no calibre to attempt radical reform, and his residence in Italy did nothing to right the crying abuses that were breaking Christian hearts. His successor, on the other hand, did really initiate the reform of the clergy, but so drastic and unwise were his methods that the result was terrible and disconcerting–the development of a situation of which only the Catholic idealist could discern the full irony; no less than Schism, the rending of the Seamless Robe of Christ.

With failing hopes and increasing experience of the complexity of human struggle, Catherine clung to her aim until the end. There was no touch of pusillanimity in her heroic spirit. As with deep respect we follow the Letters of the last two years, and note their unflagging alertness and vigour, their steady tone of devotion and self-control, we realise that to tragedy her spirit was dedicate. Her energy of mind was constantly on the increase. Still, it is true, she wrote to disciples near and far long, tender letters of spiritual counsel–analyses of the religious life tranquilly penetrating as those of an earlier time. But her political correspondence grew in bulk. It is tense, nervous, virile. It breathes a vibrating passion, a solemn force, that are the index of a breaking heart. Not for one moment did Catherine relax her energies. From 1376, when she went to Avignon, she led, with one or two brief intermissions only, the life of a busy woman of affairs. But within this outer life of strenuous and, as a rule, thwarted activities, another life went on–a life in which failure could not be, since through failure is wrought redemption.

From the days of her stigmatization, which occurred in 1375 at Pisa, Catherine had been convinced that in some special sense she was to share in the Passion of Christ, and offer herself a sacrifice for the sins of Holy Church. Now this conception deepened till it became all-absorbing. In full consciousness of failing vital powers, in expectation of her approaching death, she offered her sufferings of mind and body as an expiation for the sins around her. By word of mouth and by letters of heartbroken intensity she summoned all dear to her to join in this holy offering. Catherine’s faith is alien to these latter days. Yet the psychical unity of the race is becoming matter not only of emotional intuition, but established scientific fact: and no modern sociologist, no psychologist who realizes how unknown in origin and how intimate in interpenetration are the forces that control our destiny, can afford to scoff at her. She had longed inexpressibly for outward martyrdom. This was not for her, yet none the less really did she lay down her life on the Altar of Sacrifice. The evils of the time, and above all of the Church, had generated a sense of unbearable sin in her pure spirit; her constant instinct to identify herself with the guilt of others found in this final offering an august climax and fulfilment.

During the last months of her life–months of excruciating physical sufferings, vividly described for us by her contemporaries–the woman’s rectitude and wisdom, her swift tender sympathies, were still, as ever, at the disposal of all who sought them. With unswerving energy she still laboured for the cause of truth. When we consider the conditions, spiritual and physical, of those last months, we read with amazement the able, clearly conceived, practical letters which she was despatching to the many European potentates whom she was endeavouring to hold true to the cause of Urban. But her spirit in the meantime dwelt in the region of the Eternal, where the dolorous struggle of the times appeared, indeed, but appeared in its essential significance as seen by angelic intelligences. The awe-struck letters to Fra Raimondo, her Confessor, with which this selection closes, are an accurate transcript of her inner experience. They constitute, surely, a precious heritage of the Church for which her life was given. Catherine Benincasa died heartbroken; yet in the depths of her consciousness was joy, for God had revealed to her that His Bride the Church, “which brings life to men,” “holds in herself such life that no man can kill her.” “Sweetest My daughter, thou seest how she has soiled her face with impurity and self-love, and grown puffed up by the pride and avarice of those who feed at her bosom. But take thy tears and sweats, drawing them from the fountain of My divine charity, and cleanse her face. For I promise thee that her beauty shall not be restored to her by the sword, nor by cruelty nor war, but by peace, and by humble continual prayer, tears, and sweats poured forth from the grieving desires of My servants. So thy desire shall be fulfilled in long abiding, and My Providence shall in no wise fail.”


Psychologically, as in point of time, St. Catherine stands between St. Francis and St. Teresa. Her writings are of the middle ages, not of the renascence, but they express the twilight of the mediaeval day. They reveal the struggles and the spiritual achievement of a woman who lived in the last age of an undivided Christendom, and whose whole life was absorbed in the special problems of her time. These problems, however, are in the deepest sense perpetual, and her attitude toward them is suggestive still.

It has been claimed that Catherine, a century and a half later, would have been a Protestant. Such hypotheses are always futile to discuss; but the view hardly commends itself to the careful student of her writings. It is suggested, naturally enough, by her denunciations of the corruptions of the Church, denunciations as sweeping and penetrating as were ever uttered by Luther; by her amazingly sharp and outspoken criticism of the popes; and by her constant plea for reform. The pungency of all these elements in her writings is felt by the most casual reader. But it must never be forgotten that honest and vigorous criticism of the Church Visible is, in the mind of the Catholic philosopher, entirely consistent with loyalty to the sacerdotal theory. There is a noble idealism that breaks in fine impatience with tradition, and audaciously seeks new symbols wherein to suggest for a season the eternal and imageless truth. But perhaps yet nobler in the sight of God–surely more conformed to His methods in nature and history–is that other idealism which patiently bows to the yoke of the actual, and endures the agony of keeping true at once to the heavenly vision and to the imperfect earthly form. Iconoclastic zeal against outworn or corrupt institutions fires our facile enthusiasm. Let us recognize also the spiritual passion that suffers unflinchingly the disparity between the sign and the thing signified, and devotes its energies, not to discarding, but to restoring and purifying that sign. Such passion was Catherine’s. The most distinctive trait in the woman’s character was her power to cling to an ideal verity with unfaltering faithfulness, even when the whole aspect of life and society around her seemed to give that verity the lie. To imagine her without faith in the visible Church and the God-given authority of the Vicar of Christ is to imagine another woman. Catherine of Siena’s place in the history of minds is with Savonarola, not with Luther.

Catherine confronted a humanity at enmity with itself, a Church conformed to the image of this world. Her external policy proved helpless to right these evils. The return of the Popes from Avignon resulted neither in the pacification of Christendom nor in the reform of the Church. The Great Schism, of which she saw the beginning, undermined the idea of Christian unity till the thought of the Saint of Siena was in natural sequence followed by the thought of Luther. Outwardly her life was spent in labouring for a hopeless cause, discredited by the subsequent movement of history. But the material tragedy was a spiritual triumph, not only through the victory of faith in her own soul, but through the value of the witness which she bore. Neither of the great conceptions of unity which possessed the middle ages was identical with the modern democratic conception; yet both, and in particular that of the Church, pointed in this direction. That ideal of world-embracing brotherhood to which men have been slowly awakening throughout the Christian centuries was the dominant ideal of Catherine’s mind. She hoped for the attainment of such a brotherhood through the instrument of an organized Christendom, reduced to peace and unity under one God-appointed Head. History, as some of us think, has rejected the noble dream. We seem to see that the undying hope of the human spirit–a society shaped by justice and love–is never likely to be gained along the lines of the centralization of ecclesiastical power. But if our idea of the means has changed, the same end still shines before us. The vision of human fellowship in the Name of Christ, for which Catherine lived and died, remains the one hope for the healing of the nations.


[Processor’s note: this timeline and the one that follows appeared in the opposite order in the 1905 edition on which this etext is based. Their order has been reversed to correctly reflect the order in which they appear in the table of contents.]

1347. On March 25th, Catherine, and a twin-sister who dies at once, are born in the Strada dell’ Oca, near the fountain of Fontebranda, Siena. She is the youngest of the twenty-five children of Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer, and Lapa, his wife.

1353-4. As a child, Catherine is peculiarly joyous and charming. When six years old she beholds the vision of Christ, arrayed in priestly robes, above the Church of St. Dominic. She is inspired by a longing to imitate the life of the Fathers of the desert, and begins to practise many penances. At the age of seven she makes the vow of virginity. She is drawn to the Order of St. Dominic by the zeal of its founder for the salvation of souls.

1359-1363. Her ascetic practices meet with sharp opposition at home. She is urged to array herself beautifully and to marry, is denied a private chamber, and forced to perform the menial work of the household, etc. In time, however, her perseverance wins the consent of her father and family to her desires.

1363-1364. She is vested with the black and white habit of Saint Dominic, becoming one of the Mantellate, or Dominican tertiaries, devout women who lived under religious rule in their own homes.

1364-1367. She leads in her own room at home the life of a religious recluse, speaking only to her Confessor. She is absorbed in mystical experiences and religious meditation. During this time she learns to read. The period closes with her espousals to Christ, on the last day of Carnival, 1367.

1367-1370. In obedience to the commands of God, and impelled by her love of men, she returns gradually to family and social life. From this time dates her special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She joyfully devotes herself to household labours, and to a life of ministration to the sick and needy. In 1368 her father dies, and the Revolution puts an end to the prosperity of the Benincasa family, which is now broken up. Catherine seems to have retained to the end the care of Monna Lapa. In 1370 she dies mystically and returns to life, having received the command to go abroad into the world to save souls.

1370-1374. Her reputation and influence increase. A group of disciples gathers around her. Her correspondence gradually becomes extensive, and she becomes known as a peacemaker. At the same time, her ecstasies and unusual mode of life excite criticism and suspicion. In May, 1374, she visits Florence, perhaps summoned thither to answer charges made against her by certain in the Order. She returns to Siena to minister to the plague-stricken. She meets at this time Fra Raimondo of Capua, her Confessor and biographer. Her gradual induction into public affairs is accompanied by growing sorrow over the corruptions of the Church.

1375. At the invitation of Pietro Gambacorta, Catherine visits Pisa. Her object is to prevent Pisa and Lucca from joining the League of Tuscan cities against the Pope. She meets the Ambassador from the Queen of Cyprus, and zealously undertakes to further the cause of a Crusade. On April 1st she receives the Stigmata in the Church of Santa Cristina; but the marks, at her request, remain invisible. She prophesies the Great Schism. A brief visit to Lucca.

1376. Catherine receives Stefano Maconi as a disciple, and at his instance reconciles the feud between the Maconi and the Tolomei. She attempts by correspondence to reconcile Pope Gregory XI. and the Florentines. On April 1st the Divine Commission to bear the olive to both disputants is given her in a vision. In May, at the request of the Florentines, she goes to Florence. Sent as their representative to Avignon, she reaches that city on June 18th. Gregory entrusts her with the negotiations for peace. The Florentine ambassadors, however, delay their coming, and when they come refuse to ratify her powers. Thwarted in this direction, she devotes all her efforts to persuading the Pope to return to Rome, and triumphing over all obstacles, succeeds. She leaves for home on September 13th, but is retained for a month in Genoa, at the house of Madonna Orietta Scotta. After a short visit at Pisa, she reaches Siena in December or January.

1377. Catherine converts the castle of Belcaro, conveyed to her by its owner, into a monastery. She visits the Salimbeni in their feudal castle at Rocca D’Orcia, for the purpose of healing their family feuds. While here she learns miraculously to write. She also visits Sant’ Antimo and Montepulciano.

1378. Gregory, in failing health, perhaps regretting his return, becomes alienated from Catherine. He sends her, however, to Florence, where she stays in a house built for her by Niccolo Soderini, at the foot of the hill of St. George. She succeeds in causing the Interdict to be respected, but almost loses her life in a popular tumult, and keenly regrets not having won the crown of martyrdom. After the death of Gregory, and the establishment of the longed-for peace by Pope Urban, Catherine returns to Siena, where she devotes herself to composing her “Dialogue.” After the outbreak of the Schism, Urban, whom she had known at Avignon, summons her to Rome. She reluctantly obeys, and takes up her abode in that city on November 28th, accompanied by a large group of disciples, her “Famiglia,” who live together, subsisting on alms. From this time Catherine devotes her whole powers to the cause of Urban. She is his trusted adviser, and seeks earnestly to curb his impatient temper on the one hand, and to keep the sovereigns of Europe faithful to him on the other. She writes on his behalf to the Kings of France and Hungary, to Queen Giovanna of Naples, to the magistrates of Italian cities, to the Italian cardinals who have joined the Schism, and to others. Fra Raimondo, despatched to France, to her grief and exaltation, evades his mission through timidity, to her bitter disappointment, but does not return to Rome till after her death. Catherine’s health, always fragile, gives way under her unremitting labours and her great sorrows.

1380. Catherine succeeds in quieting the revolt of the Romans against Urban. She dedicates herself as a sacrificial victim, in expiation of the sins of the Church and of the Roman people. In vision at St. Peter’s, on Sexagesima Sunday, the burden of the Ship of the Church descends upon her shoulders. Her physical sufferings increase, and on April 30th she dies, in the presence of her disciples.


1368-1369. Political Revolution in Siena. The compromise government of the Riformatori is established. The Emperor Charles V. is summoned to the city by the party worsted in the Revolution, joined by certain nobles. He arrives in January, ’69, but is forced to withdraw by a popular rising. The nobles are excluded from the chief power and ravaged by feuds among themselves.

1372. Gregory XI. declares war against Bernabo Visconti of Milan, and takes into his pay the English free-lance, Sir John Hawkwood. Peter d’Estaing, appointed Legate of Bologna, makes truce with Bernabo. The latter, however, continues secretly to incite Tuscany to rebel against the Pope, inflaming the indignation of the Tuscans at the arbitrary policy of the Papal Legates, and in particular of the Nuncio, Gerard du Puy, who is supporting the claims of those turbulent nobles, the Salimbeni in Siena. Catherine is in correspondence with both d’Estaing and Du Puy. On April 22nd, Gregory, in full consistory, announces his intention of returning to Rome.

1373. Italy is devastated by petty strife: “It seems as if a planet reigned at this time which produced in the world the following effects: That the Brothers of St. Austin killed their Provincial at Sant’ Antonio with a knife; and in Siena was much fighting. At Assisi the Brothers Minor fought, and killed fourteen with a knife. And those of the Rose fought, and drove six away. Also, those of Certosa had great dissensions, and their General came and changed them all about. So all Religious everywhere seemed to have strife and dissension among themselves. And every Religious of whatever rule was oppressed and insulted by the world. So with brothers according to the flesh–cousins, wives, relatives, and neighbours. It seems that there were divisions all over the whole world. In Siena, loyalty was neither proposed nor observed, gentlemen did not show it among themselves nor outside, nor did the Nine among themselves or with outside persons, nor did the Twelve. The people did not agree with their own leader, nor exactly with any one else. Thus all the world was a place of shadows.”–_Chronicle of Neri di Donato_.

A Crusade publicly proclaimed by the Pope.

1374. Plague and famine lay Tuscany waste. William of Noellet, the Papal Legate, refuses to allow corn to be imported into Tuscany from the Papal States. Hawkwood, probably at his instigation, ravages the country, and even threatens the city of Florence. Florence, enraged, rebels against the Pope, and appoints from the ranks of the Ghibellines a new body of Magistrates, known as the Eight of War. Meantime, Cione de’ Salimbeni is raiding the country around Siena. The roads through the Maremma are insecure for peaceable folk, and the peasants are driven to take refuge in the plague-stricken town.

1375. Eighty Italian cities join a League, headed by Florence, against the Pope, with the watchword, “Fling off the foreign yoke.”

1376. Gregory despatches ambassadors to the Eight of War, who scorn his proposals. Florence incites Bologna to revolt, and the Legate flees. The Papal Nuncio is flayed alive in the streets of Florence. The city is placed under an Interdict. Envoys are despatched to Avignon, who set forth eloquently, but to no avail, the grievances of the city. War is declared against Florence by the Pope, and Count Robert of Geneva, with an army of free-lances, is sent into Italy. Count Robert, laying waste the territory of Bologna, summons Hawkwood to his aid, and perpetrates the hideous massacre of Cesena. Catherine, sent to Avignon, fails to procure peace. Gregory, swayed by her representations, returns to Italy, and reaches Rome, after a difficult journey, on January 17th, 1377.

1378. Gregory, exhausted and disappointed by the continued discords in Italy, dies in March. The Archbishop of Bari, known as Urban VI., is appointed his successor. In July, peace is made with Florence, and the Interdict upon the city is raised. The harsh measures of Urban in dealing with the clergy arouse violent antagonism. In June, the Cardinals begin to circulate rumours challenging the validity of the election, and on September 20th they formally announce that the election was invalid, having been forced on them by fear, and appoint as Pope the Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who takes the name of Clement VII.

1379-1380. The Great Schism divides Europe. England remains faithful to Urban: France and Naples, after wavering, declare for Clement. War rages between the two Popes. The schismatic forces gain possession of the Castle of Saint Angelo at Rome, but are driven out by the forces of Urban, who in gratitude marches barefoot in solemn procession from Santa Maria in Trastevere, to St. Peter’s. The city, however, later revolts against Urban, but is reconciled to him, partly through the efforts of Catherine. Queen Giovanna of Naples, having conspired against Urban’s life, is excommunicated.



The young widow of noble family to whom this letter was written was the most cherished among Catherine’s women friends. She seems, as often happens with the chosen companion of a fervent and powerful nature, to have been a person simple, lovable, and quietly wise. Having after her husband’s death assumed the habit of St. Dominic, she distributed her possessions to the poor by Catherine’s advice, but she evidently retained her home in Siena. This became a constant refuge for the saint from the overcrowded Benincasa household, and the scene of more than one charming episode in her life as told by the legend. For the Mantellate, or tertiaries of St. Dominic, were not cloistered, nor did they take the monastic vows; they simply lived in their own homes a life of special devotion.

To Alessa, Catherine left on her deathbed the care of her spiritual family. This intimate little letter dates from an early period in their friendship. In its homely, practical wisdom, as in the gentle loftiness of its tone, it shows the watchful and loving care with which Catherine entered into the details of the daily life of those whom she sought to lead with her in the way of salvation. The tests she proposes are as penetrating to-day as they were then.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, thy poor unworthy mother, want thee to attain that perfection for which God has chosen thee. It seems to me that one wishing so to attain should walk with and not without moderation. And yet every work of ours ought to be done both without and with moderation: it befits us to love God without moderation, putting to that love neither limit nor measure nor rule, but loving Him immeasurably. And if thou wish to reach the perfection of love, it befits thee to set thy life in order. Let thy first rule be to flee the conversation of every human being, in so far as it is simply conversation, except as deeds of charity may demand; but to love people very much, and talk with few of them. And know how to talk in moderation even with those whom thou lovest with spiritual love; reflect that if thou didst not do this, thou wouldst place a limit before perceiving it to that limitless love which thou oughtest to bear to God, by placing the finite creature between you: for the love which thou shouldst place in God thou wouldst place in the creature, loving it without moderation; and this would hinder thy perfection. Therefore thou shouldst love it spiritually, in a disciplined way.

Be a vase, which thou fillest at the source and at the source dost drink from. Although thou hadst drawn thy love from God, who is the Source of living water, didst thou not drink it continually in Him thy vase would remain empty. And this shall be the sign to thee that thou dost not drink wholly in God: when thou sufferest from that which thou lovest, either by some talk thou didst hold, or because thou wast deprived of some consolation thou wast used to receiving, or for some other accidental cause. If thou sufferest, then, from this or anything else except wrong against God, it is a clear sign to thee that this love is still imperfect, and drawn far from the Source. What way is there, then, to make the imperfect perfect? This way: to correct and chastise the movements of thy heart with true self-knowledge, and with hatred and distaste for thy imperfection, that thou art such a peasant as to give to the creature that love which ought to be given wholly to God, loving the creature without moderation, and God moderately. For love toward God should be without measure, and that for the creature should be measured by that for God, and not by the measure of one’s own consolations, either spiritual or temporal. So do, then, that thou lovest everything in God, and correct every inordinate affection.

Make two homes for thyself, my daughter. One actual home in thy cell, that thou go not running about into many places, unless for necessity, or for obedience to the prioress, or for charity’s sake; and another spiritual home, which thou art to carry with thee always–the cell of true self- knowledge, where thou shalt find within thyself knowledge of the goodness of God. These are two cells in one, and when abiding in the one it behoves thee to abide in the other, for otherwise the soul would fall into either confusion or presumption. For didst thou rest in knowledge of thyself, confusion of mind would fall on thee; and didst thou abide in the knowledge of God alone, thou wouldst fall into presumption. The two, then, must be built together and made one same thing; if thou dost this, thou wilt attain perfection. For from self-knowledge thou wilt gain hatred of thine own fleshliness, and through hate thou wilt become a judge, and sit upon the seat of thy conscience, and pass judgment; and thou wilt not let a fault go without giving sentence on it.

From such knowledge flows the stream of humility; which never seizes on mere report, nor takes offence at anything, but bears every insult, every loss of consolation, and every sorrow, from whatever direction they may come, patiently, with joy. Shames appear glory, and great persecutions refreshment; and it rejoices in all, seeing itself punished for that perverse law of self-will in its members which for ever rebels against God; and it sees itself conformed with Christ Jesus crucified, the way and the doctrine of truth.

In the knowledge of God thou shalt find the fire of divine charity. Where shalt thou rejoice? Upon the Cross, with the Spotless Lamb, seeking His honour and the salvation of souls, through continual, humble prayer. Now herein is all our perfection. There are many other things also, but this is the chief, from which we receive so much light that we cannot err in the lesser works that follow.

Rejoice, my daughter, to conform thee to the shame of Christ. And watch over the impulse of the tongue, that the tongue may not always respond to the impulse of the heart; but digest what is in thy heart, with hatred and distaste for thyself. Do thou be the least of the least, subject in humility and patience to every creature through God; not making excuses, but saying: the fault is mine. Thus are vices conquered in thy soul and in the soul of him to whom thou shouldest so speak: through the virtue of humility.

Order thy time: the night to vigil, when thou hast paid the debt of sleep to thy body; and the morning in church with sweet prayer; do not spend it in chatting until the appointed hour. Let nothing except necessity, or obedience, or charity, as I said, draw thee away from this or anything else. After the hour of eating, recollect thyself a little, and then do something with thy hands, as thou mayest need. At the hour of vespers, do thou go and keep quiet; and as much as the Holy Spirit enjoins on thee, that do. Then go back and take care of thy old mother without negligence, and provide what she needs; be thine this burden. More when I return. So do that thou mayest fulfil my desire. I say no more. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


One questions whether Catherine’s brother would have relished the admonitions of his saintly sister, had he known what we learn through her biographer: that, feeling the temporal prosperity of her family to be a snare to them, she had earnestly prayed that they might fall into poverty. The petition was promptly granted: worldly losses, and the departure of two of the brothers for Florence, followed upon the Sienese Revolution of 1368. Apparently, family misunderstandings accompanied these readjustments. In the first of the present letters Catherine takes her elder brother to task for neglect of his mother, Monna Lapa. We do not know the effect of her remarks, but we do know that in the large family of twenty-four, no one except Catherine herself–first recluse, and later busy woman of affairs as she was–seems to have carried the responsibility for the mother’s welfare. The mother lived for the most part with her great daughter, except when public interests took Catherine away from home–occasions to which poor Monna Lapa was never reconciled.

In the second of these notes, Catherine comforts her brother very sweetly, probably for the loss of his wealth. But if we may judge from the nature of the reflections addressed to him, the spiritual instruction by which Benincasa was capable of profiting was extremely elementary in character.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest brother in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, a useless servant, comfort and bless thee and invite thee to a sweet and most holy patience, for without patience we could not please God. So I beg you, in order that you may receive the fruit of your tribulations, that you assume the armour of patience. And should it seem very hard to you to endure your many troubles, bear in memory three things, that you may endure more patiently. First, I want you to think of the shortness of your time, for on one day you are not certain of the morrow. We may truly say that we do not feel past trouble, nor that which is to come, but only the moment of time at which we are. Surely, then, we ought to endure patiently, since the time is so short. The second thing is, for you to consider the fruit which follows our troubles. For St. Paul says there is no comparison between our troubles and the fruit and reward of supernal glory. The third is, for you to consider the loss which results to those who endure in wrath and impatience; for loss follows this here, and eternal punishment to the soul.

Therefore I beg you, dearest brother, to endure in all patience. And I would not have it escape your mind that you should correct you of your ingratitude, and your ignoring of the duty you owe your mother, to which you are held by the commandment of God. I have seen your ingratitude multiply so that you have not even paid her the due of help that you owe: to be sure, I have an excuse for you in this, because you could not; but if you had been able, I do not know that you would have done it, since you have left her in scarcity even of words. Oh, ingratitude! Have you not considered the sorrow of her labour, nor the milk that she drew from her breast, nor the many troubles that she has had, over you and all the others? And should you say to me that she has had no compassion on us, I say that it is not so; for she has had so much on you and the other that it costs her dear. But suppose it were true–you are under obligation to her, not she to you. She did not take her flesh from you, but gave you hers. I beg you to correct this fault and others, and to pardon my ignorance. For did I not love your soul, I would not say to you what I do. Remember your confession, you and all your family. I say no more to you. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest and most beloved brother in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, comfort you in the Precious Blood of the Son of God: with desire to see you wholly in accord with the Will of God, and transformed thereby; knowing that this is a sweet and holy yoke which makes all bitterness turn into sweetness. Every great burden becomes light beneath this most holy yoke of the sweet will of God, without which thou couldst not please God, but wouldst know a foretaste of Hell. Comfort you, comfort you, dearest brother, and do not faint beneath this chastisement of God; but trust that when human help fails, divine help is near. God will provide for you. Reflect that Job lost his possessions and his sons and his health: his wife remained to him for a perpetual scourge; and then, when God had tested his patience, He restored everything to him double, and at the end eternal life. Patient Job never was perturbed, but would say, always exercising the virtue of holy patience, “God gave them to me, God has taken them from me; the Name of God be blessed.” So I want you to do, dearest brother: be a lover of virtue, with holy patience, often using confession, which will as often help you to endure your afflictions. And I tell you, God will show His benignity and mercy, and will reward you for every affliction which you shall have borne for His love. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


It is in her letters to persons leading the dedicated life that one can most clearly study Catherine’s own inner experience. When warning and consoling them, she is speaking to herself. This obscure girl had a way of writing to the great of this earth–and indeed to the very Fathers of Christendom–with the straightforward simplicity of a teacher instructing childish minds in the evident rudiments of virtue. Often the sanctified common sense of her letters to dignitaries is the most noticeable thing about them. But when she turns to a holy hermit, the tone changes. The commonplaces of the moral life are assumed or left behind; she speaks to a soul that has presumably already brought its will into accord with the divine will in regard to all outward happenings, and she takes calmly for granted that this is a light and little thing. We proceed to the analysis of temptations more subtle and more alluring. Catherine has few superiors among religious thinkers in the power to trace self-will to its remotest lairs, in the deeper reaches of personality. In letters to such correspondents as Frate Antonio she often gives us, as here, precious records of her intercourse with her Lord.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

To you, most beloved and dearest father and brother in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write and commend me in the Precious Blood of the Son of God, with desire to see you kindled and inflamed in the furnace of divine charity and your own self- will–the will that robs us of all life–consumed therein. Let us open our eyes, dearest brother, for we have two wills–one of the senses, which seeks the things of sense, and the other the self-will of the spirit, which, under aspect and colour of virtue, holds firm to its own way. And this is clear when it wants to choose places and seasons and consolations to suit itself, and says: “Thus I wish in order to possess God more fully.” This is a great cheat, and an illusion of the devil; for not being able to deceive the servants of God through their first will–since the servants of God have already mortified it so far as the things of sense go–the devil catches their second will on the sly with things of the spirit. So many a time the soul receives consolation, and then later feels itself deprived thereof by God; and another experience will harrow it, which will give less consolation and more fruit. Then the soul, which is inspired by what gives sweetness, suffers when deprived of it, and feels annoyance. And why annoyance? Because it does not want to be deprived; for it says, “I seem to love God more in this way than in that. From the one I feel that I bear some fruit, and from the other I perceive no fruit at all, except pain and ofttimes many conflicts; and so I seem to wrong God.” Son and brother in Christ Jesus, I say that this soul is deceived by its self-will. For it would not be deprived of sweetness; with this bait the devil catches it. Frequently men lose time in longing for time to suit themselves, for they do not employ what they have otherwise than in suffering and gloominess.

Once our sweet Saviour said to a very dear daughter of His, “Dost thou know how those people act who want to fulfil My will in consolation and in sweetness and joy? When they are deprived of these things, they wish to depart from My will, thinking to do well and to avoid offence; but false sensuality lurks in them, and to escape pains it falls into offence without perceiving it. But if the soul were wise and had the light of My will within, it would look to the fruit and not to the sweetness. What is the fruit of the soul? Hatred of itself and love of Me. This hate and love are the issue of self-knowledge; then the soul knows its faulty self to be nothing, and it sees in itself My goodness, which keeps its will good; and it sees what a person I have made it, in order that it may serve Me in greater perfection, and judges that I have made it for the best, and for its own greatest good. Such a man as this, dearest daughter, does not wish for time to suit himself, because he has learned humility; knowing his infirmity, he does not trust in his own wish, but is faithful to Me. He clothes him in My highest and eternal will, because he sees that I neither give nor take away, save for your sanctification; and he sees that love alone impels Me to give you sweetness and to take it from you. For this cause he cannot grieve over any consolation that might be taken from him within or without, by demon or fellow-creature–because he sees that, were this not for his good, I should not permit it. Therefore this man rejoices because he has light within and without, and is so illumined that when the devil approaches his mind with shadows to confuse him, saying, ‘This is for thy sins,’ he replies like a person who shrinks not from suffering, saying, ‘Thanks be to my Creator, who has remembered me in the time of shadows, punishing me by pain in finite time. Great is this love, which will not punish me in the infinite future.’ Oh, what tranquillity of mind has this soul, because it has freed itself from the self-will which brings storm! But not thus does he whose self-will is lively within, seeking things after his own way! For he seems to think that he knows what he needs better than I. Many a time he says, ‘It seems to me that I am wronging God in this: free me from wrong, and let what He wills be done.’ This is a sign that you are freed from wrong, when you see in yourself goodwill not to want to wrong God, and displeasure with sin; thence ought you to take hope. Although all external activities and inward consolations should fail, let goodwill to please God ever remain firm. Upon this rock is founded grace. If thou sayest, I do not seem to have it, I say that this is false, for if thou hadst it not, thou wouldst not fear to wrong God. But it is the devil who makes things look so, in order that the soul may fall into confusion and disordered sadness, and hold firm its self- will, by wanting consolations, times and seasons in its own way. Do not believe him, dearest daughter, but let your soul be always ready to endure sufferings in howsoever God may inflict them. Otherwise you would do like a man who stands on the threshold with a light in his hand, who reaches his hand out and casts light outside, and within it is dark. Such is a man who is already united in outward things with the will of God, despising the world; but within, his spiritual self-will is living still, veiled in the colour of virtue.” Thus spoke God to that servant of His spoken of above.

Therefore I said that I wished and desired that your will should be absorbed and transformed in Him, while we hold ourselves always ready to bear pains and toils howsoever God chooses to send them to us. So we shall be freed from darkness and abide in light. Amen. Praised be Jesus Christ crucified and sweet Mary.


Catherine is well aware that the world can be as true a school of holiness as the forest cell. She writes to the noble lady, Monna Agnese Malavolti, in much the same strain as to Frate Antonio. The danger of spiritual self- will forms indeed one of those recurring themes which pervade her letters like the motifs of Wagnerian music–ever the same, yet woven into ever- new harmonies.

But the general subject of this letter is the “Santissima Pazienza,” which is still frequently invoked by the common folk of Siena: and Catherine’s analysis searches deep. Patience could hardly have been one of the virtues most native to the woman’s valiant spirit, and one feels in her keen and solemn meditations that she had herself known the bitter and corroding power of the sin “that burns and does not consume,” and that “makes the soul unendurable to itself.” It is with convincing fervour and fulness that she presents impatience as the permanent condition of the lost. The little discussion of impatience in human relations, and of the “proud humility” resorted to by a soul ravaged by a sense of neglect, has also a very personal note. But it is still more clear in the letter that Catherine’s had become the disciplined nature which can “endure a restless mind with more reverence than a tranquil one,” if such be the will of God, and which has entered deeply into the joy that awaits the meek.

Monna Agnese must have stood in special need of these touching exhortations: she was a woman sorrowfully tried. Her son had been beheaded in 1372, in punishment for heinous sin; and now her only daughter had died. “For the which thing,” writes Catherine, with one of her own inimitable phrases, “I am deeply content, with a holy compassion.”

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His Precious Blood, with the desire to see you established in true patience, since I consider that without patience we cannot please God. For just as impatience gives much pleasure to the devil and to one’s own lower nature, and revels in nothing but anger when it misses what the lower nature wants, so it is very displeasing to God. It is because anger and impatience are the very pith and sap of pride that they please the devil so much. Impatience loses the fruit of its labour, deprives the soul of God; it begins by knowing a foretaste of hell, and later it brings men to eternal damnation: for in hell the evil perverted will burns with anger, hate and impatience. It burns and does not consume, but is evermore renewed–that is, it never grows less, and therefore I say, it does not consume. It has indeed parched and consumed grace in the souls of the lost, but as I said it has not consumed their being, and so their punishment lasts eternally. The saints say that the damned ask for death and cannot have it, because the soul never dies. It dies to be sure to grace, by mortal sin; but it does not die to existence. There is no sin nor wrong that gives a man such a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience. It is hated by God, it holds its neighbour in aversion, and has neither knowledge nor desire to bear and forbear with its faults. And whatever is said or done to it, it at once empoisons, and its impulses blow about like a leaf in the wind. It becomes unendurable to itself, for perverted will is always gnawing at it, and it craves what it cannot have; it is discordant with the will of God and with the rational part of its own soul. And all this comes from the tree of Pride, from which oozes out the sap of anger and impatience. The man becomes an incarnate demon, and it is much worse to fight with these visible demons than with the invisible. Surely, then, every reasonable being ought to flee this sin.

But note, that there are two sources of impatience. There is a common kind of impatience, felt by ordinary men in the world, which befalls them on account of the inordinate love they have for themselves and for temporal things, which they love apart from God; so that to have them they do not mind losing their soul, and putting it into the hands of the devils. This is beyond help, unless a man recognizes himself, how he has wronged God, and cuts down that tree of Pride with the sword of true humility, which produces charity in the soul. For there is a tree of Love, whose pith is patience and goodwill toward one’s neighbour. For, just as impatience shows more clearly than any other sin that the soul is deprived of God– because it is at once evident that since the pith is there, the tree of Pride must be there–so patience shows better and more perfectly than any other virtue, that God is in the soul by grace. Patience, I say, deep within the tree of Love, that for love of its Creator disdains the world, and loves insults whencesoever they come.

I was saying that anger and impatience were of two kinds, one general and one special. We have spoken of the common kind. Now I talk of the more particular, of the impatience of those who have already despised the world, and who wish to be servants of Christ crucified in their own way; that is, in so far as they shall find joy and consolation in Him. This is because spiritual self-will is not dead in them: therefore they imperiously demand from God that He should give them consolations and tribulations in their own way, and not in His; and so they become impatient, when they get the contrary of what their spiritual self-will wants. This is a little offshoot from Pride, sprouting from real Pride, as a tree sends out a little tree by its side, which looks separated from it, but nevertheless it gets the substance from which it springs from the same tree. So is self-will in the soul which chooses to serve God in its own way; and when that way fails it suffers, and its suffering makes it impatient, and it is unendurable to itself, and takes no pleasure in serving God or its neighbour. Nay, if any one came to it for comfort or help it would give him nothing but reproaches, and would not know how to be tolerant to his need. All this results from the sensitive spiritual self-will that grows from the tree of Pride which was cut down, but not uprooted. It is cut down when the soul uplifts its desire above the world, and fastens it on God, but has fastened there imperfectly; the root of Pride was left, and therefore it sent up an offshoot by its side, and shows itself in spiritual things. So, if it misses consolations from God, and its mind stays dry and sterile, it at once becomes disturbed and depressed, and, under colour of virtue–because it thinks itself deprived of God–it begins to complain, and lays down the law to God. But were it truly humble and had true hate and knowledge of itself, it would deem itself unworthy of the visitation of God to its soul, and worthy of the pain that it suffers, in being deprived, not of God’s grace in the soul, but of its consolations. It suffers, then, because it has to work in its chains; yes, spiritual self-will suffers under the delusion that it is wronging God, while the trouble is really with its own lower nature.

Therefore the humble soul, which has freely uprooted with eager love the root of Pride, has annulled its own will, seeking ever the honour of God and the salvation of souls. It does not mind sufferings, but endures a restless mind with more reverence than a quiet one; having a holy respectful knowledge that God gives and grants this to it for its good, that it may rise from imperfection to perfection. That is the way to make it attain perfection, for it recognizes better thereby its own defects and the grace of God, which it finds within, in the goodwill that God has given it to hate its mortal sin. Also, by meditating on its defects and faults, old and new, it has conceived hatred for itself, and love for the Highest Eternal Will of God. Therefore it bears these things with reverence, and is content to endure inwardly and outwardly, in whatever way God grants it. Provided that it can be filled and clothed with the sweetness of the will of God, it rejoices in everything; and the more it sees itself deprived of the thing it loves, whether the consolations of God, as I said, or of its fellows, the more gladsome it grows. For many a time it happens that the soul loves spiritually; but if it does not find the consolation or satisfaction from the beloved that it would like, or if it suspects that more love or satisfaction is given to another than to itself, it falls into suffering, into depression of mind, into criticism of its neighbour and false judgment, passing judgment on the mind and intention of the servants of God, and especially on those from whom it suffers. Thence it becomes impatient, and thinks what it should not think, and says with its tongue what it should not say. In such suffering as this, it likes to resort to a proud humility, which has the aspect of humility, but is really an offshoot of Pride, springing up beside it– saying to itself: “I will not pay these people any more attention, or trouble myself any more about them. I will keep entirely to myself; I do not wish to hurt either myself or them.” And it abases itself with a perverted scorn. Now it ought to perceive that this is scorn, by the impulse to judge that it feels in its heart, and by the complaints of its tongue. It ought not then to do so; for in this fashion it will never get rid of the root of Pride, nor cut off the little son at the side, which hinders the soul from attaining the perfection at which it has aimed. But it ought to kneel at the table of the Most Holy Cross, to receive the food of the honour of God and the salvation of souls, with a free heart, with holy hatred of itself, with passionate desire: seeking to gain virtue by suffering and sweat, and not by private consolations either from God or its fellows; following the footsteps and the teaching of Christ Crucified, saying to itself with sharp rebuke: “Thou shouldst not, my soul, thou that art a member, travel by another road than thy Head. An unfit thing it is that limbs should remain delicate beneath a thorn-crowned Head.” If such habits became fixed, through one’s own frailty, or the wiles of the devil, or the many impulses that shake the heart like winds, then the soul ought to ascend the seat of its conscience, and reason with itself, and let nothing pass without punishment and chastisement, hatred and distaste for itself. So the root shall be pulled up, and by displeasure against itself the soul will drive out displeasure against its neighbour, grieving more over the unregulated instincts of its own heart and thoughts than over the suffering it could receive from its fellows, or any insult or annoyance they could inflict on it.

This is the sweet and holy fashion observed by those who are wholly inspired of Christ; for in this wise they have uprooted perverted pride, and that marrow of impatience of which we said above that it was very pleasing to the devil, because it is the beginning and occasion of every sin; and on the contrary that as it is very pleasing to the devil, so it is very displeasing to God. Pride displeases Him and humility pleases Him. So greatly did the virtue of humility please Him in Mary that He was constrained to give her the Word His Only-Begotten Son and she was the sweet mother who gave Him to us. Know well, that until Mary showed by her spoken words her humility and pure will, when she said: “Ecce Ancilla Domini, be it done unto me according to Thy word”–the Son of God was not incarnate in her; but when she had said this, she conceived within herself that sweet and Spotless Lamb–the Sweet Primal Truth showing thereby how excellent is this little virtue, and how much the soul receives that offers and presents its will in humility to its Creator. So then–in the time of labours and persecutions, of insults and injuries inflicted by one’s neighbour, of mental conflicts and deprivation of spiritual consolations, by the Creator or the creature, (by the Creator in His gentleness, when He withdraws the feeling of the mind, so that it does not seem as if God were in the soul, so many are its pains and conflicts–and by fellow-creatures, in conversation or amusement, or when the soul thinks that it loves more than it is loved)–in all these things, I say that the soul perfected by humility says: “My Lord, behold Thy handmaid: be it done unto me according to Thy word, and not according to what I want with my senses.” So it sheds the fragrance of patience, around the Creator and its fellow-creature and itself. It has peace and quiet in its mind, and it has found peace in warfare, because it has driven far from it its self-will founded in pride, and has conceived divine grace in its soul. And it bears in its mind’s breast Christ crucified, and rejoices in the Wounds of Christ crucified, and seeks to know naught but Christ crucified; and its bed is the Cross of Christ crucified. There it annuls its own will, and becomes humble and obedient.

For there is no obedience without humility, nor humility without charity. This is shown by the Word, for in obedience to His Father and in humility, He ran to the shameful death of the Cross, nailing and binding Him with the nails and bands of charity, and enduring in such patience that no cry of complaint was heard from Him. For nails were not enough to hold God- and-Man nailed and fastened on the Cross had Love not held Him there. This I say that the soul feels; therefore it will not joy otherwise than with Christ crucified. For could it attain to virtue and escape Hell and have eternal life, without sufferings, and have in the world consolations spiritual and temporal, it would not wish them; but it desires rather to suffer, enduring even unto death, than to have eternal life in any other way: only let it conform itself with Christ crucified, and clothe it with His shames and pains. It has found the table of the Spotless Lamb.

Oh, glorious virtue! Who would not give himself to death a thousand times, and endure any suffering through desire to win thee? Thou art a queen, who dost possess the entire world; thou dost inhabit the enduring life; for while the soul that is arrayed in thee is yet mortal, thou makest it abide by force of love with those who are immortal. Since, then, this virtue is so excellent and pleasing to God and useful to us and saving to our neighbour, arise, dearest daughter, from the sleep of negligence and ignorance, casting to earth the weakness and frailty of thy heart, that it feel no suffering nor impatience over anything that God permits to us, so that we may not fall either into the common kind of impatience, or into the special kind, as we were saying before, but serve our sweet Saviour manfully, with liberty of heart and true perfect patience. If we do otherwise, we shall lose grace by the first sort of impatience, and by the second we shall hinder our state of perfection; and you would not attain that to which God has called you.

It seems that God is calling you to great perfection. And I perceive it by this, that He takes away from you every tie that might hinder it in you. For as I have heard, it seems that He has called to Himself your daughter, who was your last tie with the outer world. For which thing I am deeply content, with a holy compassion, that God should have set you free, and taken her from her labours. Now then, I want that you should wholly destroy your own will, that it may cling to nothing but Christ crucified. In this way you will fulfil His will and my desire. Therefore, not knowing any other way in which you could fulfil it, I said to you that I desired to see you established in true and holy patience, because without this we cannot reach our sweet goal. I say no more. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


Two nieces, daughters of Bartolo Benincasa, were nuns in the Convent of Montepulciano. To one of them the following letter is addressed. One can read between the lines a lively solicitude. Never cloistered herself, Catherine had a close intimacy with cloisters, and knew their best and worst. She held in hearty and loyal respect the opportunities which they offered for leading an exalted life; to this Convent of St. Agnes she was peculiarly attached. At the same time, she was well aware, as other letters beside the present show, that even the best of cloisters afforded at this time scant shelter to young girls from emotional temptation, gross or fine. Her warnings to her niece have the authoritative tone of anxiety. Let us hope that Eugenia took them to heart; and that, leading the disciplined life of Catherine’s desire, she became not unworthy to receive and apprehend in its full beauty the penetrating meditation on Prayer which forms the second part of the letter. The thoughts of this meditation, like many others in Catherine’s letters, will be found amplified in her Dialogue–a colloquy between God and her soul, composed and dictated in trance during the year 1378. The following quotation illustrates an interesting passage of the letter:–

“In this way, vocal prayer can be useful to the soul and do Me pleasure, and from imperfect vocal prayer it can advance by persevering practice to perfect mental prayer. But if it aims simply to complete its number (of paternosters), or if it gave up mental prayer for the sake of vocal, it would never arrive at perfection. Sometimes, when a soul has made a resolution to say a certain number of prayers, I may visit its mind, now in one way, now in another: at one time with the light of self-knowledge and contrition over its lightness, at another, with the largesse of My charity; at another, by putting before its mind, in diverse manner as may please Me, and as that soul may have craved, the Presence of My Truth. And the soul will be so ignorant that it will turn from My Visitation, in order to complete its number, from a conscientious scruple against giving up what it began. It ought not to do thus, for this would be a wile of the devil. But at once, when it feels its mind ready for My Visitation, in any way, as I said, it should abandon the vocal prayer. Then, when the mental has passed, if there is time it can resume the other, which it had planned to say. But if there is not time it must not care nor be troubled or bewildered.”

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood, with desire to see thee taste the food of angels, since thou art made for no other end; and that thou mightest taste it, God bought thee with the Blood of His Only-Begotten Son. But reflect, dearest daughter, that this food is not taken upon earth, but on high, and therefore the Son of God chose to be lifted up upon the wood of the Most Holy Cross, in order that we might receive this food upon this table on high. But thou wilt say to me: What is this food of angels? I reply to thee: it is the desire of God, which draws to itself the desire that is in the depths of the soul, and they make one thing together.

This is a food which while we are pilgrims in this life, draws to itself the fragrance of true and sincere virtues, which are prepared by the fire of divine charity, and received upon the table of the cross. That is, virtue is won by pain and weariness, casting down one’s own fleshly nature;–the kingdom of one’s soul which is called Heaven (_cielo_) because it hides (_cela_) God within it by patience, is seized with force and violence. This is the food that makes the soul angelic, and therefore it is called the food of angels; and also because the soul, separated from the body, tastes God in His essential Being. He satisfies the soul in such wise that she longs for no other thing nor can desire aught but what may help her more perfectly to keep and increase this food, so that she holds in hate what is contrary to it. Therefore, like a prudent person, she looks with the light of most holy faith, which is in the eye of the mind, and beholds what is harmful and what is useful to her. And as she has seen, so she loves and condemns–holding, I say, her own fleshly nature and all the vices which proceed from it, bound beneath the feet of her affections. She flees all causes that may incline her to vice or hinder her perfection. So she annuls her self-will, which is the cause of all evil, and subjects it to the yoke of holy obedience, not only to the Order and its chief, but to every least creature through God. She flees all glory and human indulgence, and glories only in the shames and sorrows of Christ crucified: insults, outrage, ridicule, injuries, are milk to her; she joys in them, to be conformed with the Bridegroom, Christ crucified. She renounces conversation with fellow-beings, because she sees that they often intervene between us and our Creator, and she flees to the actual and to the mental cell.

To this I summon thee and the others: and I command thee, dearest daughter mine, that thou abide for ever in the cell of self-knowledge, where we find the angelic food of the eager desire of God toward us; and in the actual cell, with vigil and humble faithful continual prayer, divesting thy heart and mind of every creature, and clothing them with Christ crucified. Otherwise thou wouldst eat upon the earth, and there I have already said to thee, one should not eat. Reflect that thy Bridegroom, Christ sweet Jesus, wishes naught between thee and Him, and is very jealous. So as soon as He saw that thou didst love any thing apart from Him, He would go from thee, and thou wouldst be made worthy to eat the food of beasts. And wouldst thou not truly be a beast, and food for beasts, didst thou leave the Creator for the creature, and infinite good for finite and transitory things that pass like the winds, light for darkness, life for death, Him who clothes thee in the sun of justice with the clasp of obedience, and pearls of living faith, firm hope, and perfect charity, for him who robs thee of them? And wouldst thou not be foolish indeed to depart from Him who gives thee perfect purity–so that the closer thou dost cling to Him, the more the flower of thy virginity is refined–for those who many a time and oft shed a stench of impurity, defiling mind and body? God avert them from thee by His infinite mercy!

And in order that no such thing may ever happen to thee, be on thy guard: let not thy misfortune be such as to enter into any private conversation, with monk or layman. For if I were to know or hear it, even if I were much farther away than I am, I would give thee such a discipline that it would stay in thy memory all thy whole life; never mind who may be by. Beware neither to give nor receive, except in case of need, helping every one in common within and without. Be steadfast and mature in thyself. Serve the sisters tenderly, with all vigilance, especially those whom thou seest in need. When guests pass by and ask for thee at the gratings, abide in thy peace and do not go–but let them say to the prioress what they wanted to say to thee, unless she commands thee to go on thy obedience. Then, hold thy head bowed, and be as savage as a hedgehog. Keep in thy mind the manners which that glorious virgin Saint Agnes made her daughters observe. Go to confession and tell thy need; and when thou hast received thy penance, run. Beware, moreover, that thy confessors be not from the men who have brought thee up. And do not wonder because I talk so; for many a time thou mayest have heard me say, and it is the truth, that the talk of so-called pious men and women, full of depraved expressions, ruins the souls and the habits and practices of Religious. Beware that thou bind thy heart to none but Christ crucified; for the hour would come when thou wouldst wish to set it free and couldst not, which would be very hard for thee. I say that the soul which has tasted of the food of angels has seen in the light that this and the other things we were speaking of are an obstacle between itself and its food, and therefore flees them with the greatest zeal. I say that it loves and seeks what may increase and preserve it. And because it has seen that this food is better enjoyed by means of prayer offered in self-knowledge, therefore it exercises itself therein continually by all the ways in which it can hold closer to God.

Prayer is of three sorts. The one is perpetual: it is the holy perpetual desire, which prays in the sight of God, whatever thou art doing; for this desire directs all thy works, spiritual and corporal, to His honour, and therefore it is called perpetual. Of this it seems that Saint Paul the glorious was talking when he said: Pray without ceasing. The other kind is vocal prayer, when the offices or other prayers are said aloud. This is ordained to reach the third–that is, mental prayer: your soul reaches this when it uses vocal prayer in prudence and humility, so that while the tongue speaks the heart is not far from God. But one must exert one’s self to hold and establish one’s heart in the force of divine charity. And whenever one felt one’s mind to be visited by God, so that it was drawn to think of its Creator in any wise, it ought to abandon vocal prayer, and to fix its mind with the force of love upon that wherein it sees God visit it; then, if it has time, when this has ceased, it ought to take up the vocal prayer again, in order that the mind may always stay full and not empty. And although many conflicts of diverse kinds should abound in prayer, and darkness of mind with much confusion, the devil making the soul feel that her prayer was not pleasing to God–nevertheless, she ought not to give up on account of those conflicts and shadows, but to abide firm in fortitude and long perseverance, considering that the devil so does to draw her away from prayer the mother, and God permits it to test the fortitude and constancy of that soul. Also, in order that by those conflicts and shadows she may know herself not to be, and in the goodwill which she feels preserved within her may know the goodness of God, Who is Giver and Preserver of good and holy wills: such wills as are not vouchsafed to all who want them.

By this means she attains to the third and last–mental prayer, in which she receives the reward for the labours she underwent in her imperfect vocal prayer. Then she tastes the milk of faithful prayer. She rises above herself–that is, above the gross impulses of the senses–and with angelic mind unites herself with God by force of love, and sees and knows with the light of thought, and clothes herself with truth. She is made the sister of angels; she abides with her Bridegroom on the table of crucified desire, rejoicing to seek the honour of God and the salvation of souls; since well she sees that for this the Eternal Bridegroom ran to the shameful death of the Cross, and thus fulfilled obedience to the Father, and our salvation. This prayer is surely a mother, who conceives virtues by the love of God, and brings them forth in the love of the neighbour. Where dost thou show love, faith, and hope, and humility? In prayer. For thou wouldst never take pains to seek the thing which thou didst not love; but he who loves would ever be one with what he loves–that is, God. By means of prayer thou askest of Him thy necessity; for knowing thyself–the knowledge on which true prayer is founded–thou seest thyself to have great need. Thou feelest thyself surrounded by thine enemies–by the world with its insults and its recalling of vain pleasures, by the devil with his many temptations, by the flesh with its great rebellion and struggle against the spirit. And thou seest that in thyself thou art not; not being, thou canst not help thyself; and therefore thou dost hasten in faith to Him who is, who can and will help thee in thine every need, and thou dost hopefully ask and await His aid. Thus ought prayer to be made, if thou wishest to have that which thou awaitest. Never shall any just thing be denied thee which thou askest in this wise from the Divine Goodness; but if thou dost in other wise, little fruit shalt thou receive. Where shalt thou feel grief in thy conscience? In prayer. Where shalt thou divest thee of the self-love which makes thee impatient in the time of insults and of other pains, and shalt clothe thee in the divine love which shall make thee patient, and shalt glory in the Cross of Christ crucified? In prayer. Where shalt thou breathe the perfume of virginity and the hunger for martyrdom, holding thee ready to give thy life for the honour of God and the salvation of souls? In this sweet mother, prayer. This will make thee an observer of thy Rule: it will seal in thy heart and mind three solemn vows which thou didst make at thy profession, leaving there the imprint of the desire to observe them until death. This releases thee from conversation with fellow-creatures, and gives thee converse with thy Creator; it fills the vessel of thy heart with the Blood of the Humble Lamb, and crowns it with flame, because with flame of love that Blood was shed.

The soul receives and tastes this mother Prayer more or less perfectly, according as it nourishes itself with the food of angels–that is, with holy and true desire for God, raising itself on high, as I said, to receive it upon the table of the most sweet Cross. Therefore I said to thee that I desired to see thee nourished with angelic food, because I see not that in otherwise thou couldst be a true bride of Christ crucified, consecrated to Him in holy religion. So do that I may see thee a jewel precious in the sight of God. And do not go about wasting thy time. Bathe and drown thee in the sweet Blood of thy Bridegroom. I say no more. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


This tender and playful little letter, with its childlike simplicity of fancy and gentle authority of tone, encourages us to believe that Catherine appreciated the full advantages of being an aunt. We have other indications that the many spiritual ties which held her as she grew older never weakened the bond of any natural affection. Indeed, Catherine re- created each natural bond, when possible, as a spiritual bond, an achievement none too common. Doubtless, many children grew up around her in the large Benincasa household. We know that at the time of the plague, in 1374, Lapa was bringing up eleven grandchildren in her own house. Of these, eight fell victims to the pestilence, and we have a glimpse of Catherine burying them with her own hands, and saying as she laid them to rest one by one, “This one, at least, I shall not lose.” Of the little Nanna to whom this letter was written we know nothing, except that she was the child of the elder brother, who, as we have already seen, had moved to Florence.

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood, with desire to see thee a real bride of Christ crucified, running away from everything which might hinder thee from possessing this sweet and glorious Bridegroom. But thou couldst not do this if thou wert not among those wise virgins consecrated to Christ who had lamps with oil in them, and light was within. See, then, if thou wishest to be a bride of Christ, thou must have lamp, and oil, and light. Dost thou know what this means, daughter mine? By the lamp is meant our heart, because a heart ought to be made like a lamp. Thou seest that a lamp is wide above and narrow below, and so the heart is made, to signify that we ought always to keep it wide above, through holy thoughts and holy imaginations and continual prayer; always holding in memory the blessings of God, and chiefly the blessing of the Blood by which we are bought. For Blessed Christ, my daughter, did not buy us with gold or silver or pearls or other precious stones; nay, He bought us with His precious Blood. So one wants never to forget so great a blessing, but always to hold it before one’s eyes, in holy and sweet gratitude, seeing how immeasurably God loves us: who did not shrink from giving His only begotten Son to the opprobrious death of the Cross, to give us the life of grace.

I said that a lamp is narrow below, and so is our heart: to signify that the heart ought to be narrow toward these earthly things–that is, it must not desire nor love them extravagantly, nor hunger for more than God wills to give us; but ever thank Him, seeing how sweetly He provides for us so that we never lack anything.

Now in this way, our heart will really be a lamp. But reflect, daughter mine, that this would not be enough were there no oil within. By oil is meant that sweet little virtue, profound humility: for it is fitting that the bride of Christ be humble and gentle and patient; and she will be as humble as she is patient, and as patient as she is humble. But we cannot attain this virtue of humility except by true knowledge of ourselves, knowing our misery and frailty, and that we by ourselves can do no good deed, nor escape any conflict or pain; for if we have a bodily infirmity, or a pain or conflict in our minds, we cannot escape it or remove it–for if we could we should escape from it swiftly. So it is quite true that we in ourselves are nothing other than infamy, misery, stench, frailty, and sins; wherefore, we ought always to abide low and humble. But to abide wholly in such knowledge of one’s self would not be good, because the soul would fall into weariness and confusion; and from confusion it would fall into despair: so the devil would like nothing better than to make us fall into confusion, to drive us afterward to despair. We ought, then, to abide in the knowledge of the goodness of God in Himself, perceiving that He has created us in His image and likeness, and re-created us in grace by the Blood of His only-begotten Son, the sweet incarnate Lord; and reflecting how continually the goodness of God works in us. But see, that to abide entirely in this knowledge of God would not be good, because the soul would fall into presumption and pride. So it befits us to have one mixed with the other–that is, to abide in the holy knowledge of the goodness of God, and also in the knowledge of ourselves: and so we shall be humble, patient, and gentle, and in this way we shall have oil in our lamp.

Now, then, we must have light–otherwise it would not be enough. This light has to be the light of most holy faith. But the saints say that faith without works is dead, so our faith might be neither living nor holy, but dead. Therefore we need to exert ourselves virtuously all the time, and leave our childishness and vanities, and not behave any longer like worldly girls, but like faithful brides consecrated to Christ crucified; in this way we shall have a lamp, and oil, and light.

The Gospel says that these wise virgins were five. So I tell thee that there must be five in each of us–otherwise we shall not enter the wedding feast of eternal life.

By these five it is meant that we must subject and mortify our five bodily senses, in such wise that we may never offend with them, taking through them or some of them unregulated pleasure or delight. In this way we shall be five, when we have subdued our five senses.

But think that that sweet Bridegroom Christ is more jealous of His brides than I could tell thee! Therefore if He should see that thou didst love anyone more than Him, He would be angry with thee at once. And if thou didst not correct thyself, the door would not be open to thee, to the wedding feast which Christ the Lamb without spot holds for all His faithful: but we should be driven away like bad women, as those five foolish virgins were, who, glorying only and vainly in the integrity and virginity of their body, lost the virginity of their soul, through the corruption of the five senses, because they did not carry the oil of humility with them, so that their lamps went out. Therefore it was said to them: “Go hence to buy oil.” By this oil is meant in this place the flatteries and praises of men; since all the flatterers and praisers of the world sell this oil. As if it were said to them: “You have not wanted to buy eternal life with your virginity and your good works; no, you have wanted to buy the praises of men, and to have the praises of men you have wrought. Go now and buy praises, for you will not enter here.” Therefore, daughter mine, beware of the praises of men; and do not want praise for any work that thou mayest do, for the door of eternal life would not be open to thee later.

So, reflecting that this was the best way, I said that I desired to see thee a real bride of Christ crucified; and so I beg and command thee that thou try hard to be. I say no more to thee. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.


Catherine is known in history as one of the great ascetics of the Church; these letters show her intimate attitude toward the mortification of the flesh. She was a woman called of God and her natural powers, constantly to assume the dangerous duty of convincing men of their sin; these letters give us her conception of the safeguards needed in the performance of that duty.

Both letters were written to Religious. Father William Flete was an Englishman, who, passing through Italy in his youth, became fascinated with the land, and spent the rest of his life in a hermit’s cell in the Forest of Lecceto. The annals of the time throw some entertaining side- lights on his figure. Famous for his austerities and for the sanctity of his life, he was also a very impatient and somewhat intolerant person, given to carping criticism of his brother hermits. Catherine, in writing to him, analyses mercilessly the dangers of the ascetic life; one feels that not much self-righteousness could be left in a man after reading her trenchant phrases. Soon, however, she lifts him with her to the ardent contemplation of the perfect life; it is in words of singular beauty that she describes the attitude of generous loving-kindness, uncritical, humble and glad, with which the true servant of God considers all sorts and conditions of men: “Such a man rejoices in every type that he sees, saying: Thanks be to Thee, Eternal Father, that Thou hast many mansions in Thy house…. He rejoices more in the differences among men than he would in seeing them all walk in the same way; for so he sees more manifest the greatness of the goodness of God. He gets from everything the fragrance of roses.”

In the letter to Sister Daniella, Catherine develops these ideas further. Of this “great servant of God” nothing is known except what Catherine’s letters to her show. Something may be inferred from the fact that she is one of the few people to whom the greater woman writes as to a spititual equal. She repeats to Daniella the letter to Father William–such warnings, indeed, being needed by all persons leading the consecrated life–and then goes on, in the remainder of the letter as here given, to discuss those farther reaches of perfection in which charity has done its perfect work. Two things she wishes herself and Daniella to observe: the first is abstinence from critical thoughts. Let us not “judge the minds of our fellow-creatures, which are for God alone to judge.” It is the key to her own method in her great cure of souls which she here gives us: “When it seems that God shows us the faults of others, keep on the safer side– for it may be that thy judgment is false. On thy lips let silence abide. And any vice which thou mayest ascribe to others, do thou ascribe at once to them and to thyself, in true humility. If that vice really exists in a person, he will correct himself better, seeing himself so gently understood, and will say of his own accord the thing which thou wouldst have said to him.”–The other point which Catherine urges on Daniella is the secondary importance of that life of mortification to which she firmly believes that they have both been called. “Good is penance and maceration of the body; but do not present these to me as a rule for every one. If either for ourselves or others, we made penance our foundation … we should be ignorant, and should fall into a critical attitude, and become weary and very bitter: for we should strive to give a finished work to God, Who is Infinite Love, and demands from us only infinite desire.” Surely, in this last thought Catherine has attained in a flash to sublime spiritual insight.

The Saints knew all about telepathy long before Societies of Psychical Research grew eager over the matter. It might surprise some modern psychologists to read the tranquil passage in which Catherine, assuming as a matter of course that any servant of God engaged in intercessory prayer has a mystical and direct knowledge of the condition of those she prays for, proceeds to warn Daniella as intelligently as any modern could do, though in different terms, as to the limitations within which this kind of knowledge can be trusted.

The little note with which this group closes is not written to a great recluse, but to a tailor’s wife. With the simple, Catherine showed herself simple; but Monna Agnese is to lead the consecrated life no less than Sister Daniella. Catherine’s plain directions to the one about her daily living evince the same mental clarity and sobriety as her exhortations to the other, and discriminate in much the same way between the excitement of religious practices and true consecration.


In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest son in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood, with desire to see you in true light. For without light we shall not be able to walk in the way of truth, but shall walk in shadows. Two lights are necessary. First, we must be illumined to know the transitory things of the world, which all pass like the wind. But these are not rightly known if we do not know our own frailty, how inclined it is, from the perverse law which is bound up with our members, to rebel against its Creator. This light is necessary to every rational creature, in whatever state it may be, if it wishes to have divine grace, and to share in the blessing of the Blood of the Spotless Lamb. This is the common light, that everybody in general ought to have, for whoever has it not is in a state of condemnation. This is the reason; that, not having light, he is not in a state of grace; for one who does not know the evil of wrong, nor who is cause of it, cannot avoid it nor hate the cause. So he who does not know good, and virtue the cause of good, cannot love nor desire that good.

The soul must not stay content because it has arrived at gaining the general light; nay, it ought to go on with all zeal to the perfect light. For since men are at first imperfect rather than perfect, they should advance in light to perfection. Two kinds of perfect people walk in this perfect light. There are some who give themselves to castigating their body perfectly, doing very great harsh penance; and that the flesh may not rebel against the reason, they have placed all their desire rather on mortifying their body than on slaying their self-will. These people feed at the table of penitence and are good and perfect; but unless they have a great humility and conform themselves not wholly to judge according to the will of God and not according to that of men, they often wrong their perfection, making themselves judges of those who do not walk in the same way in which they do.

This happens to them because they have put more thought and desire on mortifying their body than on slaying their self-will. Such men as these always want to choose times and places and mental consolations to suit themselves; also, worldly tribulations, and their battles with the devil; saying, through self-deceit, beguiled by their own will–which is called spiritual self-will–“I should like this consolation, and not these assaults or battles with the devil; not for my own sake, but to please God, and possess Him more fully, because I seem to possess Him better in this way than in that.” Many a time, in such a way as this, the soul falls into suffering and weariness, and becomes unendurable to itself through them, and thus wrongs its state of perfection. The odour of pride clings to it, and this it does not perceive. For, were it truly humble and not presumptuous, it would see well that the Sweet Primal Truth gives conditions, time and place, and consolation and tribulation, according as is needful to our perfection, and to fulfil in the soul the perfection to which it is chosen. It would see that everything is given through love, and therefore with love.

All things ought to be received with reverence, as is done by the second class of people, who abide in this sweet and glorious light, who are perfect in whatever condition they are, and, in so far as God permits them, hold everything in due reverence, esteeming themselves worthy of sufferings and scandals in the world, and of missing their consolations. As they hold themselves worthy of sufferings, so they hold themselves unworthy of the reward which follows suffering. These have known and tasted in the light the eternal will of God, which wishes naught but our good, and that we be sanctified in Him, therefore giving His gifts. When the soul has known this will, it is arrayed therein, and cares for nothing save to see in what wise it can grow, and preserve its condition perfect, for glory and praise of the Name of God. Therefore, it opens the eye of the mind upon its object, Christ crucified, who is rule and way and doctrine for perfect and imperfect: and sees the loving Lamb, Who gives it the doctrine of perfection, which seeing it loves.

Perfection is this: that the Word, the Son of God, fed at the table of holy desire for the honour of God and for our salvation; and with this desire ran with great zeal to the shameful death of the Cross, avoiding neither toil nor labour, not drawing back for the ingratitude and ignorance of us men who did not recognize His benefits, nor for the persecution of the Jews, nor for mockery or insults or criticism of the people, but underwent them all, like our captain and true knight, who was come to teach us His way and rule and doctrine, opening the door with the keys of His precious Blood, shed with ardent love and hatred against sin. As says this sweet, loving Word, “Behold, I have made you a way, and opened the door with My blood. Be you then not negligent to follow it, and do not sit yourselves down in self-love, ignorantly failing to know the Way, and presumptuously wishing to choose it after your own fashion, and not after Mine who made it. Rise up then, and follow Me: for no one can go to the Father but by Me. I am the Way and the Door.”

Then the soul, enamoured and tormented with love, runs to the table of holy desire, and sees not itself in itself, seeking private consolation, spiritual or temporal, but, as one who has wholly destroyed his own will in this light and knowledge, refuses no toil from whatever side it comes. Nay, in suffering, in pain, in many assaults from the devil and criticisms from men, it seeks upon the table of the Cross the food of the honour of God and the salvation of men. And it seeks no reward, from God or from fellow-creatures; such men serve God, not for their own joy, and the neighbour not for their own will or profit, but from pure love. They lose themselves, divesting them of the old man, their fleshly desires, and array them in the new man, Christ sweet Jesus, following Him manfully. These are they who feed at the table of holy desire, and have more zeal for slaying their self-will than for slaying and mortifying the body. They have mortified the body, to be sure, but not as a chief aim, but as the tool which it is, to help in slaying self-will; for one’s chief aim ought to be and is to slay the will; that it may seek and wish naught save to follow Christ crucified, seeking the honour and glory of His Name, and the salvation of souls. Such men abide ever in peace and quiet; there are none who can offend them, because they have cast away the thing that gives offence–that is, self-will. All the persecutions which the world and the devil can inflict run away beneath their feet; they stand in the water, made fast to the twigs of eager desire, and are not submerged. Such a man as this rejoices in everything; he does not make himself a judge of the servants of God, nor of any rational creature; nay, he rejoices in every condition and every type that he sees, saying, “Thanks be to Thee, eternal Father, that Thou hast many mansions in Thy House.” And he rejoices more in the different kinds of men that he sees than he would do in seeing them all walk in the same way, for so he sees the greatness of God’s goodness more manifest. He joys in everything, and gets from it the fragrance of roses. And even as to a thing which he may expressly see to be sin, he does not pose as a judge, but regards it rather with holy true compassion, saying, “To-day it is thy turn, and to-morrow mine, unless it be for divine grace which preserves me.”

Oh, holy minds, who feed at the table of holy desire, who have attained in great light to nourish you with holy food, clothed with the sweet raiment of the Lamb, His love and charity! You do not lose time in accepting false judgments, either of the servants of God or of the servants of the world; you do not take offence at any criticism, either against yourselves or others. Your love toward God and your neighbour is governed well, and not ungoverned. And because it is governed, such men as these, dearest son, never take offence at those whom they love; for appearances are dead to them, and they have submitted themselves not to be guided by men, but only