In advance of a trip to Siena tomorrow I gave a chat about St. Catherine, daughter of the city, patron saint (along with Francis) of Italy, firefighters, sickness, those mocked for their piety, sexual temptation, Allentown Pennsylvania and a host of other things. A complex woman, shaped by a strange mix of really troubling ascetic practices and ecstatic visions and experiences. She learnt to fast through her older sister and used it as an act of defiance against those who sought to bend her will to theirs throughout her life. She had a series of visions of Jesus that began when she was six years old and experienced a 'mystical marriage' to JC when not much older. Shaped by these experiences she embarked on a life of travelling and writing teaching about the 'total love of God.' But we must remember that medieval love is not the same idea that we hold about love--there are similarities but is as much about the suspension of judgment as anything else(it is a complex idea and not the place to get into it fully).
A significant female figure in the history of the middle ages, but like many of them, a deeply troubling one. She beat herself three times a day for an hour and a half at a time, slept on a wooden bench with a stone for a pillow, wore a chain around her hips that ripped her flesh and basically starved herself all the time.
It is hard to reconcile all of this and see it as anything other than some deep psychological issues at work. I think that the context of her world allowed for, even gloried in, a view of pain, both given by life and manufactured by the supplicant, as a means to spiritual growth and this accounts for some of it. Penitential approaches to religion remain alive today of course, and ascetic practices still have currency in many circles, and for many, a person like Catherine is a hero of the church, an icon, a saint. I can't really go there. I have struggles reconciling these actions with anything remotely appealing to me--I can only appreciate it by viewing it historically and contextually. For me, the content of her work is overshadowed by my concern that this behaviour is imbued with such iconic significance( this is not exclusive to Christianity of course, and I also say Christianity rather than Catholicism because I think strains of it run throughout the various arms of the faith). I do not mean any offence, it is simply one more component of the human response to the sacred that I find challenging to say the least. I must admit
to having a little bit of an existential crisis at the moment--brought on by this and a couple of other issues that are emerging here in Orvieto(agency--meaning Gods agency in the world is another one, but I'll save that for another time).
I have been following Kester's blogs brought about by our chat last weekend and have some thoughts but I will come
back to that later as well. For now it is sculpture class and England's last chance World Cup match.