Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two by Undset: Part 2

Finally, I am ready to go back and do part 2 of the post on the Sigrid Undset books I was reading back in January! Whew, that took a while (and I'm mortified to see that at the end of the post I promised to follow up in "a day or two.") So, the second book was actually a new one: Undset's hagiography of St. Catherine of Siena, which has recently been republished by Ignatius Press.

I didn't know much about St. Catherine of Siena before I read this book. I purchased it mainly for Undset's writing, which I already know and love. I knew Catherine mainly as the holy woman who convinced the Pope to return from his exile in Avignon, but that was pretty much it. I can be slack with my spiritual reading, taking several months to read one book. However, Undset's writing style worked its magic and I practically devoured this book, finishing it in two or three days.

Undset not only tells us about Catherine's life, but paints a vivid picture of life in 14th-century Tuscany. With her usual knack for historical detail, she tells us of the political situation of Italy and the Papal States during Catherine's life, and explains the reasons for the exile to Avignon - basically there were a lot of political games being played between the French and the Italian cardinals, and the French really wanted the temporal power that comes with having control over the papacy. The Italian cardinals were definitely biased towards selecting Italian popes, true - but Undset reveals the reasons for that bias by explaining to us how a non-Italian pope complicated the situation in the Papal States. Non-Italians were less interested in the welfare of the people, seeking mainly to plunder the papal possessions in the name of their country. The historical background is very important for understanding Catherine's life and Undset certainly treats it with all due diligence.

I had always assumed that Catherine of Siena was a nun (most medieval women saints seem to be either nuns or queens), but actually, she was a Third Order Dominican. As a young woman she joined an order of Dominican tertiaries in Siena, mostly widows who lived at home. I was surprised that she chose this route rather than that of a cloistered nun - but obviously God had His reasons for keeping Catherine out of the cloister. Catherine was also from a distinctly middle-class background, in a time when many religious leaders were of the noble class. Her father was a cloth dyer in Siena and her brothers also worked in that trade. She was not highly educated, either - she learned to read and write as an adult, and these abilities came to her almost as a miraculous blessing.

The other really striking thing about Catherine, to me anyway, was her ability to form deep spiritual friendships with men. The young men of Siena seemed to be really drawn to her - she was able to act as a spiritual guide and lead them out of lives of wantonness. Undset described how young men would enter her home, angry that she was converting their best "drinking buddies," and leave converted themselves. These young men often addressed Catherine as "Mamma" emphasizing her role as spiritual mother. In an unusual role reversal, her confessor, Raimondo of Capua, came to regard her as his spiritual guide. He could perceive that Catherine had been given graces far beyond anything he himself would have. Catherine shows that real feminine virtue is attractive to men; men want to have something to aspire to, a woman whom they can look up to as an ideal. Something to remember in our modern times, when the goal for "real women" seems to be to act like rough, crude men. The best in womanhood - graciousness, firmness, chastity - calls out to the best in manhood - courageousness, chivalry, and purity.

I would recommend this biography to anyone wishing to learn more about Catherine of Siena, or about the "Babylonian exile" of the Papacy to Avignon. Catherine is truly an example of God using the weak of the world to shame the strong. She was a woman, in a time when women were not regarded as equal to men; of humble origins, in a time when noble blood mattered most. Yet because of the extraordinary graces given to her by God she was able to admonish and guide kings and Popes, and to accomplish God's will on earth.

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