Book review: “Catherine of Siena” by Sigrid Undset

Catherine of Siena was one of those pleasant re-discoveries from my Goodreads reading list. At some point, I stumbled upon it in the bibliography of a book I was reading, added it, and forgot about it. Scanning through my reading list, it again caught my eye.

What about it? The title itself: I like biography, and I assumed that’s what I would be getting myself into. I wasn’t familiar with the name– or the author for that matter (Sigrid Undest), so I did a little digging. Sigrid was the 1928 Nobel Prize winner in literature for her novel Kristin Lavransdatter, a story of life in the Middle Ages as told through the eyes of a woman in Norway. The author being a Norwegian woman herself, and a convert to Catholicism from atheism as well, the material seemed engaging.

But as I began to read the first couple chapters, I didn’t exactly like what I was reading. Or, at least, it felt strange and unfamiliar. Really, a different world. In the fourteenth century, if you weren’t dying of the plague, then you were probably under siege by a local tyrant or maybe being tortured to death. To put it in Hobbes’ famous phrase, life seemed solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Enter Catherine. A young girl in the 14th century republic of Siena. Siena is described as:

Life was like a brightly coloured tissue, where violence and vanity, greed and uninhibited desire for sensual pleasure, the longing for power, and ambition, were woven together in a multitude of patterns. But through the tissue ran silver threads of Christian charity, deep and genuine piety in the monasteries and among the good priests, among the brethren and sisters who had dedicated themselves to a life of helping their neighbours.

Catherine stood out as an oddity in her family. Nearly from birth, she would have visions. Christ appeared to her, seemingly on an almost daily basis. By the age of 7, she swore to herself that she would enter a convent. But her piety took on forms both miraculous and masochistic. She would whip herself, tie tight chains around her wrists until she bled, and turn stone cold as a statue while she prayed for hours on end. Who was this woman? But apparently I wasn’t the only one: her friends and neighbors found it more than a little strange:

Her extraordinary personality, so full of mystical activity, is timeless in its significance. It is not easy for us to understand her, but it was not easy for her contemporaries either.

I wanted to call her out for hypocrisy, for using an outer form of piety to draw attention to herself. But the more I read of her, how others responded to her, I had to doubt my doubts about this fourteenth century saint. While this model of worship and faith was not my own, it was a living thing, and it was good. She was nothing but a bringer of goodness and love to those around her. By their fruits ye shall know them, right?

Saints and sinners

I suspect part of my initial reaction can be attributed to the assumptions about the Middle Ages that come from being born in the post-Enlightenment era. The success of science and technology and a “modern” way of thinking allowed us to slough off the past as so much superstition. But I have also gained a little skepticism from such a view from authors like Charles Taylor, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. In his A Short History of England, Chesterton writes about how Christianity was wrongly accused of putting the dark in the “Dark Ages”:

I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn’t.

There are a few cultural references to medieval religious life, even among Disney movies (at least ones from the 90s). Who can forget Friar Tuck from Robin Hood

Image result for rocket robin hood friar tuck gif

Or the good versus evil of Frollo and the archdeacon in Hunchback of Notre Dame

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And Monty Python uses the trope relentlessly:

Image result for monty python monks gif

But on the whole, most references seem to portray the monks and friars in a rather negative light. If they are not simply daft or hypocrites, they are outright evil. One lesser known reference to this is the portrayal of Prior Aymer in Ivanhoe. Just in the very description of his person, we can already tell that Prior Aymer, that “worthy churchman” isn’t going to be one of the good guys:

It was not difficult to ascertain the condition and character of one of these personages. He was obviously an ecclesiastic of high rank; his dress was that of a Cistercian Monk, but composed of materials much finer than those which the rule of that order admitted. His mantle and hood were of the best Flanders cloth, and fell in ample, and not ungraceful folds, around a handsome, though somewhat corpulent person. His coutnenance bore as little the marks of self-denial, as his habit indicated his contempt of worldly splendour. His features might have been called good, had there not lurked under the pent-house of his eye, that sly epicurean twinkle which indicates the cautious voluptuary. In other respects, his profession and situation taught him a ready command over his countenance, which he could contract at pleasure into solemnity, although its natural expression was the good-humoured social indulgence. In defiance of conventual rules, and the edicts of popes and councils, the sleeves of the dignitary were lined and turned up with rich furs, his mantle secured at the throat with a golden clasp, and the whole dress proper to his order as much refined upon and ornamented, as that of a quaker beauty of the day, who, while she retains the garb and costume of her sect continues to give to its simplicity, by the choice of materials and the mode of disposing them, a certain air of coquettish attraction, savouring but too much of the vanities of the world.

Why this outright hostility to monks? I’m not saying this didn’t happen: oh, it did. But I think there is a little more going on here. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age talks about the gradual shifts that changes the religious outlook from 1500 to 2000. One of those aspects that he talks about is this hatred of monks, nuns, and saints and how it originated from similar suspicions of hypocrisy like my reaction above:

What I’m calling “Reform” here expressed a profound dissatisfaction with the hierarchical equilibrium between lay life and the renunciative vocations. In one way, this was quite understandable. This equilibrium involved accepting that masses of people were not going to live up to the demands of perfection. They were being “carried”, in a sense, by the perfect. And there is something in this which runs against the very spirit of Christian faith.

But this doesn’t explain the unease, the growing demand to close the gap. All civilizations which have been organized around a “higher” religion have shown a great spread between the dedicated and the less committed, between highly demanding forms of devotion and more perfunctory practice, between paths of renunciation and those in which religious ritual served more the needs of prosperity and flourishing. To borrow a term from the jargon of European integration, these religious civilizations operated “at several speeds”.

Chesterton believes that we have lost something by throwing away the baby with the bath water when it comes to saints. One thing he remarks on that I fid quite profound is the idea of variety:

The conception of a patron saint had carried from the Middle Ages one very unique and as yet unreplaced idea. It was the idea of variation without antagonism. The Seven Champions of Christendom were multiplied by seventy times seven in the patrons of towns, trades and social types; but the very idea that they were all saints excluded the possibility of ultimate rivalry in the fact that they were all patrons. The Guild of the Shoemakers and the Guild of the Skinners, carrying the badges of St. Crispin and St. Bartholomew, might fight each other in the streets; but they did not believe that St. Crispin and St. Bartholomew were fighting each other in the skies. Similarly the English would cry in battle on St. George and the French on St. Denis; but they did not seriously believe that St. George hated St. Denis or even those who cried upon St. Denis. Joan of Arc, who was on the point of patriotism what many modern people would call very fanatical, was yet upon this point what most modern people would call very enlightened.

It today’s world, we insist on what Isaiah Berlin calls monism, the idea that

to all true questions there must be one true answer and one only, all the other answers being false, for otherwise the questions cannot be genuine questions. There must exist a path which leads clear thinkers to the correct answers to these questions, as much in the moral, social and political worlds as in that of the natural sciences, whether it is the same method or not; and once all the correct answers to the deepest moral, social and political questions that occupy (or should occupy) mankind are put together, the result will represent the final solution to all the problems of existence.

But the saints showed that there was more than one way to do right, to be holy, and to live a good life. Today, with Francis Bacon as the saint of rationality, we seem to think that any question can be resolved if you can design the right experiment or get the right evidence. I think we can learn a lot from the Middle Ages as a model of diversity, a diversity that hasn’t been significantly narrowed in today’s culture.

14th Century Feminism

All this without actually talking about Catherine! I feel that Catherine embodies many of these ideas explained above. She was different: she stood out starkly from those around her. Her family was at first disappointed that she chose to join the Sisters of Penitence. But even at church, her seeming extreme modes of piety were viewed with jealousy and outright hostility. Other sisters thought she was trying to hard. And brothers in the church hierarchy felt called upon to call her to repentance. But more often than not, when they confronted her, they were the ones repenting.

Undset summarizes near the end:

Well-meaning people were always criticising her travels over Italy, not to speak of those in foreign lands—even to the Papal court in Avignon, at the head of a company of priests and monks, young and old men and women and God knows who else besides. . . . They considered that a virgin consecrated to God should stay at home in her cell, say the daily Office, do good in secret, and otherwise hold her tongue. As for less well-disposed critics, all with their private reasons for being upset and annoyed—when they saw a young woman, the daughter of respectable but quite ordinary people, mixing herself up in affairs which concerned governments and prelates, stepping into the arena where complicated party interests and matters of state were decided by force of arms—what could they say, but that in spite of all her fine words about humility and the love of Christ, conversion and all kinds of spiritual things, they realised that behind all the pious words and excuses for daring to give advice to men who held the fates of countries and peoples in their hands, was an unbending will; and beneath all the fine words they heard a tone of steely determination.

I think that we could do well to remember the extraordinary life of St. Catherine.

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