Today, Thursday, April 29, is the feast of St. Catherine of Sienna. If you’ve never encountered St. Catherine before, she was a Spanish 14th century mystic. As a child, Catherine had a vision of Jesus, “seated in glory” with saints Peter, Paul, and John. Jesus smiled and blessed her, and from then on she spent most of her time in prayer. Her parents tried to encourage more age, gender, and class appropriate pursuits for a little girl from a wealthy family, but Catherine was determined. She cut off all her hair and stood firm until finally she was allowed to sequester herself in a dark room where she fasted and slept on boards. (From this description, I can kind of see why her parents were reluctant…)
As she grew, Catherine had many visions, some of which were difficult. At times, she felt abandoned by God. Eventually, after years of torment, she experienced a “mystical marriage” to Christ and promptly became a nurse (she had also become a Dominican sister; nursing was a common vocation among their order), caring especially for people with cancer and leprosy, two groups that other nurses did not like to treat.
Catherine continued to work as a nurse during a time of plague in her community; she visited prisoners sentenced to death; and she arbitrated feuds, including feuds within the church. Catherine is also remembered for her work during a papal schism to restore unity in the church, writing hundreds of letters to politically and religiously powerful men seeking peace.
From accounts of her life and work, it seems that Catherine was a woman filled with passion and love of God. That passion took her to all kinds of extremes, from her childhood asceticism to her care for the sickest and most reviled in society. And extremes tend to shock the status quo: As her career grew in publicity, Siena was divided about whether Catherine was indeed a saint, or if she was simply a religious fanatic. The well timed support of an influential bishop helped her win public favor and opinion.
I am reflecting especially on St. Catherine today, because of a quote attributed to her:
“To the servant of God every place is the right place, and every time is the right time.”
Every place is the right place and every time is the right time to spread the love of Christ, to God’s work of justice and mercy, to offer ourselves as co-workers of the Spirit in the world. It was true for Catherine in the 1300s; it is true for us today. And there are matters pressing us as deeply as they pressed her, calling out for love, justice, mercy, and the movement of the Spirit, all motivated by a passionate love of God and one another.
Last night I presented at an alumni panel for the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC), in a Zoom room with at least 40 other people who have dedicated themselves to the work of love, justice, and mercy. ESC is an organization that invites young adults (21-30) to spend a year living in an intentional community while working at a social justice non-profit and developing their spirituality as individuals and as a community. When I was a corps member, one of the things I learned (and am continually learning, every day) was that the work of love, justice and mercy must, for me, be rooted in a connection to God and God’s love. When it wasn’t, burn out would ensue.
When the work centered only on the changes that I could perceive; only the basis of public opinion in a community; only on how results matched strategic goals, then when I encountered failure, recalcitrance, and broken systems (which was frequently!), I felt defeated. When the work was about my performance — how able I was to cure a plague or repair a schism in the church, for example — then I became stuck in a mire of pride and self defeat. The cultivation of human relationships, of growing in my own relationship with God, of the gift of living out God’s call, disappeared and instead an idol appeared. No longer was it the right place and right time to spread God’s love — it was a place where I had failed to achieve my own goals.
Channeling our inner St. Catherine — to serve God in every place and every time, and allow a love of God to be our motivation and guide — does not mean less dedication to a cause. If you have read the news this week you know that death and sin continue to stalk within us and in our communities. But if we work from a place that puts God at the center, then we have fuel to carry us on our way. We cannot heal our brokenness — only God can — but we can be co-workers with the Spirit to bring out that healing.