Friday, February 13, 2009
St Catherine de Ricci, Virgin, Order of Preachers
Song of Songs 8:1-4 / Matthew 25:1-13
What is the difference between a daydreamer and a visionary? What separates the frenzied confusion of hysteria and the sublime coherence of holy passion? What marks the divide between the marks of abuse and the prints of love?
Determined to enter a Dominican convent at an early age, Alessandra (as Catherine was christened) was refused entry by her father, and she fell deathly ill, only to recover to full health when her desire was fulfilled. Adolescent hysteria or divine zeal? In her early years at the convent, Catherine seemed listless, inattentive, prone to dropping and breaking things, and was poised to be dismissed. Unfocused and careless or enraptured and visionary? From the age of twenty, and for twelve years to follow, Catherine experienced weekly, from Thursday through Friday, the wounds of Christ's Passion visibly in her own body, to the wonder and astonishment of her sisters and all who thronged to see her. Victim of a masochistic, world-hating piety or privileged and intimate partaker in the depths of the love of Christ, her Bridegroom?
We are odd creatures; wonderfully made, to be sure, but odd. God has made us to be metaphysical amphibians, born and first at home in one world (the physical), but made to stretch our minds and our hearts to another (the spiritual), without ever leaving the first world behind. Yet, even as the vast expanse of a swamp dwarfs the humble pond out of which a frog makes its first leap, so too the spiritual world in which we are made to live is immeasurably vast, grander and richer than anything physical could begin to describe. Yet, experience it bodily we must, for God made us not to be disembodied spirits, but creatures of flesh, blood and bone.
This is why the physical palette we have can only begin to reflect the depths of our inner selves. We cry when in pain and when in sorrow, when lonely and when angry, when nostalgic and when overjoyed, on parting and on meeting up again. So it is with everything of the body. Our bodies are beautiful and wonderful things, to be sure, but how could we begin to expect them to capture the subtle and delicate nuances of our spiritual lives? Even our most intimate desires for union with Jesus Christ must, by a necessity woven into us by Christ himself and therefore no cause of shame, be spoken by the words of the deepest, intimate union of our bodies: His left hand under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me.
Are we surprised, then, that the holy gifts Christ gave as dowry to his Bride Catherine should also resemble, in the least important but no less visible way, the signs of the dissolution of the body and the self? When we are seized by the Love which the world was made and which set the vault of the heavens spinning in rapt adoration, can our bodies do anything but tremble and threaten to burst open in imitation of a love they cannot, except by his enlarging grace, contain?
But in all of this, Catherine was not lost to herself or to others. Knowing her weekly Passions to distract herself and those who came to gaze, Catherine bid her Bridegroom to bring them to an end, which he happily did. Even during the period of these happy trials, Catherine was no less active in seeing to the needs not only of the sisters of her convent, but also to those many from the world outside who sought her counsel. Catherine's passions and ecstasies did not cripple her in the world, did not make her an alien to ordinary human duty and kindness. Throughout her life in the convent, she was ever the wise and never a foolish virgin.
What marks the difference between the marks of abuse and the prints of love? That those imprinted with love are not undone, that they live not broken lives of terror and confusion, of confused counsel and misleading visions, but a life of calm yet fervent hope for the coming of the Bridegroom, lived out in a life of abiding charity for all those whom he has espoused.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up, nor awake my love till she please.