In God’s Garden – Saint Catherine of Siena

[Saint Catherine of Siena]
As the years pass by, Father Time makes many changes in the busy town and quiet country, but there are some places he seems to have forgotten or passed over so lightly that they look very much the same to-day as they did hundreds of years ago.

One of these places, which Time has dealt so gently with, is in the heart of Italy, built high upon a hill. It is a town whose towers and palaces and steep, narrow streets are little changed from what they were five hundred and more years ago, when Catherine, the saint of Siena, was born there.

To-day if you climb the steep winding road that leads up to the city, and make your way through the gates and along the steepest of the narrow streets, you will come to a house with a motto written over the door in golden letters – “Sposæ Christi Katharinæ domus,” which means “The house of Katherine, the bride of Christ.” And if you go in you will see the very room where Saint Catherine used to live, the bed of planks on which she slept, her little chapel, and the rooms which her brothers and sisters used.

It all looks just as it did when Benincasa, the dyer of Siena, lived there with his wife Lapa. They had more than twenty children, but each one was welcome, and when at last Catherine and a twin sister were born, there still did not seem one too many. The little sister lived only a few days, and perhaps that made the parents love Catherine all the more, and it was not only her own family who loved her. She was the favourite of all the neighbours, and however busy they were they would always find time to stop and talk to her as they passed. It was not that she was very beautiful, or even very clever, but she had a way of making every one feel happy when she was near them, and she had the sunniest smile that ever dimpled a baby’s face. It was like a sunbeam, lighting up everything near it, and it shone in her eyes as well, so that ere long the people found a new name for her, and called her “Joy” instead of Catherine.

As soon as she could walk alone, Catherine would wander away, sure of a welcome at every house, and though at first when the other children cried, “The baby is lost again!” the mother would be anxious, she soon ceased to mind, and only said, “She is sure to be safe somewhere.”

And safe she always was, for every one would stop work to look after her as she toddled along, and wherever she went Joy carried the sunshine with her.

It happened that one afternoon when Catherine was about six years old, her mother sent her and an elder brother, Stephen, to carry a message to a house some way off. It was a beautiful evening, and as the children went hand in hand down the steep street and up the hill towards the great church of Saint Dominic, Catherine stopped a moment to look at the sunset. She always loved beautiful colours, and to-night the little fleecy clouds were all touched with crimson and gold, like fairy islands in a pale green sea, more beautiful than anything she had ever seen.

Stephen did not care for sunsets. He was much more anxious to be home in time for supper, so he ran on alone, calling to Catherine to follow quickly.

Catherine did not seem to hear his voice or to notice that he was gone, but stood there with eyes fixed on the sunset, her face shining, and her hair like a halo of gold round her head.

It was not the evening sky she was looking at, but a vision of heavenly beauty. For there among the rose-pink clouds she saw the Madonna seated upon a throne and holding in her arms the infant Christ. It was no longer the poor Madonna of the stable, but the Queen of Heaven, her dazzling robe blue as the summer sky, and a jewelled crown upon her head. Only the same sweet mother-look was there as when she bent over the manger-bed. There are no words to tell of the beauty of the Christ-child’s face. Catherine only knew that as He looked at her He smiled and held up His little hand as if in blessing, and that smile drew her heart to His feet.

Then suddenly Catherine’s arm was roughly shaken and her brother asked her impatiently at what she was gazing.

“O Stephen,” she cried, “did you not see it too? Look!”

But the vision had faded, and the grey twilight closed in upon the two little figures as they went slowly home, the boy vexed with his loitering sister, and she sobbing with disappointment to think that the window in heaven was shut, and that she might never again look within.

As Catherine grew older, she never forgot the vision she had seen, or how the hand of the Christ-child had been stretched out to bless her. And it made her think often how she could best please Him, so that some day He might smile on her again.

Catherine had heard a great deal about the good men who went to live in deserts to be alone with God, – how they lived in caves and had scarcely anything to eat, and how God would sometimes send the ravens to bring them food. Now she was always fond of wandering, and the idea of living in a desert seemed a beautiful way of serving Christ. She had never gone beyond the walls of the town, and all outside was a new world to her; so she was sure if only she could pass through the city gates, she would soon find her way to the desert, where there would certainly be a cave ready for her to live in.

So one day Catherine set out very early in the morning, carrying in her pocket a small loaf of bread, just in case the ravens should forget to come to a little girl-hermit.

In those days it was not safe to live outside the city walls, and there were no farms nor houses to be seen as Catherine slipped through the gates and began to find her way down the hillside, among tangled briars and over rough stones. Soon her feet grew very tired, and everything looked so forlorn and wild that she was sure this must be the desert at last, and there, too, was a little cave in the rocks waiting all ready for her.

It was very nice to creep in and out of the hot sunshine into the cool shade, and to rest until the sun went down. But as night came on and she knelt to say her evening prayer, she began to think of home, and the kind mother waiting there, and she knew she had done wrong to come away, even though she had meant to serve God.

Very quickly she left her cave, and as she ran home her feet seemed to fly over the ground. The desert had not been so very far away after all, and she reached the house before her mother had begun to grow anxious, but she never again wandered away to live a hermit’s life.

As Catherine grew older she loved to listen to the stories of the saints, and there was one she was never tired of hearing. It was the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the saint whose name she bore.

This young queen was said to be the wisest and noblest of all the saints, and when her courtiers wished her to marry, she said she would only marry a prince who was perfect in every way. Such a prince was of course impossible to find, but one night a poor old hermit had a vision in which the Madonna came to him and told him that our Blessed Lord, the only perfect Man, would accept the love of the young queen’s heart and the service of her hands. And when the queen knew this her joy was great, and that very night the Virgin mother came to her in a cloud of glory surrounded by angels bearing crowns of lilies, and in her arms was the Holy Child, who smiled on the queen and placed a ring upon her finger, as a sign that she belonged to Him.

The more Catherine thought about this story the more she longed that Christ would accept her heart and service too. And one night in a dream He seemed to come to her, just as He had come to the other Catherine, placing a ring upon her finger and bidding her remember that now she had given her heart to Him.

Thus it was a great trouble to Catherine when she was told by her parents soon after this that she was old enough to begin to think of marriage. She said she did not wish to marry at all. But this only made her parents angry with her, especially when one day they found she had cut off all her beautiful golden hair, thinking to make herself so ugly that no one would want her for his wife.

“Very well,” said her father, “if thou wilt not marry as I bid thee, then shalt thou do the housework and be our servant.”

He expected this would be a great punishment, but Catherine was glad to have hard work to do, and did it so well and cheerfully that her father began to feel his anger melt away. Then it happened one day that in passing her room he looked in, and there he saw her kneeling with clasped hands and upturned face, and eyes in which the peace of heaven shone, while around her head was a bright light that took the form of a snow-white dove resting there.

From that moment he ceased to be angry with Catherine, and said all should be as she wished, for surely the dove was a sign that God accepted her prayers and approved of what she did.

So she was allowed to have a little room which she made into a chapel where she could be alone to think and to pray. She wanted to learn to conquer herself before she could serve Christ in the world, and for three years she lived almost entirely alone, praying in the little chapel, struggling to overcome her faults and to grow strong to resist temptation.

But in spite of all her struggles evil thoughts would come into her heart, and it seemed impossible to keep them out. It was easy to do right things, but so terribly difficult to think only pure and good thoughts. She knew that Satan sent the wicked thoughts into her heart, but the hardest trial of all was that Christ seemed to have left her to fight alone – He seemed so very far away.

At last one night, as she lay sobbing in despair, suddenly the evil thoughts left her, and instead she felt that Christ was near and that He bent tenderly over her.

“Why, oh why didst Thou leave me so long, dear Lord?” she cried.

“I never left thee,” His voice said quietly.

“But where wert Thou, Lord, when all was so dark and evil?” she humbly asked.

“I was in thy heart,” replied the voice; “didst thou not hate the evil thoughts? if I had not been there thou wouldst not have felt how black they were, but because I was in the midst they seemed to thee most evil, and thus I gave thee strength to cast them out.”

So Catherine’s heart was filled with peace, and she learned to love Christ more and more, and to deny herself in every way, sleeping on bare planks with a log for her pillow, and eating the things she cared for least.

It was not that she thought these things good in themselves, but she felt she must use every means to make her heart pure and fit to serve her Master.

And before very long Christ spoke to her again in the stillness of the night, and told her she had lived long enough alone, that it was time now to go out into the world and help other people to grow good too.

When Catherine thought of the busy, noisy life which other people led, compared to the quiet peacefulness of her little cell and chapel, she was very sad, and thought she had offended God that He was sending her away from Him to mix with the world again. But His voice sounded in her ears once more, and told her it was not to separate her from Himself that He sent her out, but that she should learn to help others.

“Thou knowest that love giveth two commandments – to love Me, and to love thy neighbour. I desire that thou shouldst walk not on one but two feet, and fly to heaven on two wings.”

So Christ spoke to her, and Catherine with fearful heart prepared to obey, only praying that He would give her strength to do His will. And after that her life was spent in doing good to others.

The smile that used to lighten her face when she was a little child had still the power of bringing peace and gladness to all, as she went amongst the poor, nursing the sick, helping every one in trouble, and teaching people more by her life than her words to love God.

And as, when she was a baby, they called her Joy, so now again they found a new name for her, and she was known as “the child of the people.” In every kind of trouble they came to her, even asking her to settle their quarrels, so that she was the peacemaker as well as the helper of the whole town.

There was one special reason why people loved Catherine, and that was because she always saw the best that was in them. She knew there was good in every one, no matter how it was dimmed or bidden by the evil that wrapped it round. Where other eyes saw only evil temper or wicked spite, she looked beyond until she found some good that she could love. Every day she prayed to God that He would help her to see the beauty in each soul, so that she might help it to get rid of the sin that dimmed its beauty. And so, because she looked for good in every one, all showed her what was best in themselves, and for very shame would strive to be all that she thought them.

Catherine had joined the Dominican sisterhood and wore the white robe and black veil, but she did not live in a convent as other sisters did. Every morning when the sun began to gild the towers and roofs of the city, passers-by would see her leave her home and walk up the steep street towards the church of Saint Dominic where she always went to early mass.

Strangers must have wondered when they saw the men uncover their heads as she passed, as if she had been a queen instead of a poor sister clad in a coarse white robe and black veil. But if they had caught sight of her face perhaps they would have understood, for her eyes seemed as if they were looking into heaven, and the holy peace that shone in her smile made men feel that she lived in the very presence of God.

One morning as she was going to church as usual in the first light of dawn, her thoughts far away and her lips moving in prayer, she was startled by the touch of a hand upon her robe and the sound of a voice asking for help. She turned to look and saw a poor man leaning against the wall, haggard and pale, and so weak that he could scarcely stand.

“What dost thou want of me?” asked Catherine pitifully.

“I only ask a little help for my journey,” the poor man said; “my home is far from here, and the fever laid its hand upon me as I worked to provide bread for those I love. So I pray thee, lady, give me a little money that I may buy food to strengthen me before I start.”

“I would gladly help thee,” answered Catherine most sorrowfully, “but I am not a lady, only a poor sister, and I have no money of my own to give.”

She turned as if to go on, but the eager hand still held her cloak and the man begged once more.

“For Christ’s sake help me, for indeed I need thy help most sorely.”

Then Catherine stood still. She felt she could not leave him so. There was nothing at home she could part with, for that very morning she had given away all the food that was in the house. Her father and mother were good and kind, but she must not give away the things they needed. Sorrowful and perplexed, her hand felt for the rosary which hung at her side, for in every trouble she ever turned in prayer to her dear Lord. Then as her fingers touched the beads, she suddenly remembered that here was at least one thing which was her very own – a small silver crucifix which she had had since she was a child, and which she had touched so often as she prayed that it was worn smooth and thin.

Still it was silver and would buy the sick man a meal, and she quickly unfastened it from the rosary and put it into his hand. The man’s blessings followed her as she went, and though she had parted with the thing she loved best, she counted the blessings more precious than the gift.

And as she knelt in the dim church, after the mass was over, God sent a heavenly vision to reward His servant.

Catherine thought she stood in a great hall filled with things more beautiful than words can tell, and in the midst stood our Blessed Lord, holding in His hand the most beautiful thing of all – a cross of beaten gold, set with jewels of every hue sparkling so brightly that it almost dazzled Catherine’s eyes as she looked.

“Dost thou see these shining gifts,” He asked, “and wouldst thou know whence they came? They are the noble deeds which men have done for My sake.”

And Catherine kneeling there with her empty hands could only bow her head and say: “Lord, I am only a poor sister, as Thou knowest, and have nought to give Thee. The service I can offer could not find a place among these glorious gifts.”

Then it seemed as if Christ smiled upon her, and holding out the golden cross He asked: “Hast thou not seen this cross before, Catherine?”

“No, Lord,” she answered, wondering, “never before have mine eyes beheld anything so lovely.”

But as she gazed upon it, her heart was filled with a sudden gladness, for in the midst of the gold and jewels, in the heart of the glorious light, she saw the little worn silver crucifix which she had given to the poor man that morning for the love of Christ.

And as the vision faded there rang in her ears the words she knew so well: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me.”

As time went on the fame of Catherine spread to other towns, outside Siena, and when there were disputes between the great cities of Italy they would send for Catherine, and beg her to act as peacemaker, and she helped them all just as she did her own poor people of Siena. Even the Pope came to her for advice.

In the midst of all this busy life Catherine fell ill. Her love for Christ was so real, and her sorrow for His sufferings so great, that she prayed that she might bear the pain that He had borne. We do not know how our Lord granted her request, but in her hands and feet and side appeared the marks of nails and spear.

All her sufferings she bore most patiently, but her heart was glad when the end came.

The same vision that had smiled on her that summer evening when she was a child, appeared in the sunset sky again, this time never to fade away, as Catherine, the bride of Christ, was led by the white-robed angels up to the throne of our Lord.

- Amy Steedman