instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A charismatic lay woman

In her essay, "Catherine of Siena and Lay Sanctity in Fourteenth-Century Italy," in Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern, Karen Scott makes a suggestion I haven't come across before in my limited reading on St. Catherine:
Within fifteen years of her death, when Raymond of Capua, her former confessor and disciple, finished composing the Legenda Major, he expressed a relatively cautious evaluation of her lay activity... his narrative deemphasizes her lay status in a number of important ways.... He did not draw attention to the private nature of these three religious commitments [St. Catherine cut off her hair to avoid marriage; she made a private vow of virginity; she experienced a mystical marriage to Jesus], which in fact were not ecclesiastically sanctioned, but rather he stressed the mystical character of her experiences to give them a very special legitimacy...

...Raymond's account of Catherine's life reflects a certain uneasiness about her apostolic activities that is not present in her own writings... Raymond attributes Catherine's ability to convert sinners and exhort churchmen successfully not to her ordinary words and example, as she did, but to an extraordinary intervention of God's supernatural power... Raymond's portrait of Catherine actually emphasizes her extraordinary and charismatic character and champions an almost monastic and contemplative model of sanctity. [emphasis added]
 According to Professor Scott, this deemphasis of St. Catherine's lay status is reflected in her iconography:
Just how successful Raymond was in deemphasizing Catherine's lay status and involvement in public affairs is evident in the development of early modern iconography based on his hagiographical masterpiece. While the earliest visual representations of Catherine show her dressed in the late-medieval lay tertiary's habit -- white tunic and veil, black cape -- in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the iconography evolved significantly to give her the semblance of a nun. Artists added scapular, rosary, and black veil, and they represented her almost exclusively in moments of visionary trance.
Taking the last point first, I doubt Bl. Raymond (d. 1399) bears much responsibility for Sixteenth Century tastes in iconography -- or, for that matter, for Sixteenth Century knowledge of Fourteenth Century lay Dominican habits.

As to the rest, my own inexpert opinion is that we don't need to infer an intention of deemphasizing St. Catherine's lay status to explain the Legenda Major. Bl. Raymond was her spiritual director and student, not her administrative assistant, so her spirituality would naturally be of primary importance to him. He freely admits that a lot of what she tells him of her spiritual experiences and infused knowledge goes over his head -- I have this advantage over Bl. Raymond, that I can read about these things from a distance of hundreds of years, with a canonization and a Doctorate of the Church to add context, while he had to wrestle with them from across the table -- so trying to fit them to familiar patterns makes sense apart from a specific desire to downplay her lay status.

And I'll suggest that, to Bl. Raymond and his contemporaries, St. Catherine's lay status was absolutely evident. In Fourteenth Century Italy, Religious Women = Nuns = Cloistered; the Third Orders, meanwhile, were flourishing and well-known. That people today are confused over St. Catherine's canonical status doesn't mean people of her own time and place were, so we shouldn't expect Bl. Raymond to write with an eye to avoiding confusion he never encountered. In this light, the mystical character of her experiences is precisely what gives them a very special legitimacy. Either she was responding to God, or she was just making stuff up; I can't see how it helps the argument that the laity have a unique contribution to make to the Church to suggest that that contribution be discerned apart from God's will.

Finally, on the point that Bl. Raymond attributed St. Catherine's successes to God's power working through her, while St. Catherine regarded it as her ordinary words and example, I see this as another example of those around a holy person being better able to gauge her holiness than she is (the closer you are to God, I'm told, the more you focus on the remaining distance). More precisely, it sounds like Bl. Raymond recognized the charisms that St. Catherine exercised -- Pope Paul VI famously referred to her "charism of exhortation" -- while she simply exercised them in a way that was, for her, perfectly natural. Isn't that how charisms work?

The essay concludes with this suggestion:
Perhaps it will be the responsibility of another era to reevaluate the significance of St. Catherine's lay contribution to the church and to learn new lessons from it.
I agree that there's plenty St. Catherine can teach the laity about their contributions to the Church, though I suspect the generations of and immediately following Vatican II may be too close to the fire ignited by its declaration of the universal call to holiness to do the job adequately. At the folk level, at least, St. Catherine seems merely to be the model for writing stern public smackdowns of bishops and popes.

Maybe I've fallen into an uncritical acceptance of Bl. Raymond's deemphasis of St. Catherine's lay status, but I have to say that the lessons of St. Catherine's involvement in public affairs cannot be learned apart from the lessons of her involvement in mystical contemplation of that mad lover, the crucified Jesus. I would find the exhortations I see around me a lot more charismatic if they were more evidently the product, as they were with St. Catherine, of God calling an unwilling exhorter out of her cell of self-knowledge and divine union.

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