I recently met Catherine of Siena at her basilica—Basilica Cateriniana— also known as the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, Italy. It feels as if I actually met her, because her head is enshrined on the right side of the nave, along with her thumb. I had missed her feast—a highlight of the Sienese civic and religious calendar—by a mere five days. In learning more about Catherine, she has become one of the most elusive and complex saints I’ve ever encountered. Between her mystical marriage to Christ with his foreskin as a ring, her preaching to popes and political activism, and dying from fasting, I’ve been forced to give up my generalizations about female saints in the medieval period. Were they confined to an oppressive definition of femininity where female = body, and body = sin? Did their devotion to the Eucharist and practice of virginity and fasting subvert male-dominated culture, or play into it? Catherine’s life and legacy are good reminders that in trying to decode and understand religious experience, generalizations are often misleading.
From my perspective as an American Catholic, medieval Christian practice was extraordinarily tactile and somatic. Medieval scholar Caroline Walker Bynum is perhaps the authority on Christian medieval religious experience, particularly for women. She reminds us that medieval thinkers, generally, used gendered imagery “fluidly, not literally”, and that the body was the means of spiritual ascent, not an obstacle to it . Although there were strains of medieval thought that adhered to a rigid association of the feminine with the body and the masculine with the soul, she argues that in reality the medieval understanding of gender and the body was considerably more complex and unsolidified . Although female medieval writers were not what we might today call feminists, their writings are an early example of a distinctive, discernible female ‘voice’ .
St. Catherine of Siena’s life and legacy exemplify the complexity of religion, gender, and the body in the medieval period: what we know about her comes from a mixture her own dictated writings and the hagiography of her Dominican confessor Raymond of Capua. Catherine and Raymond tell the story of a single life from two vantage points: Catherine was practical, active, and political while Raymond emphasized her mysticism . Catherine’s accounts are intellectual and “sober”, while Raymond stresses the “visionary experiences of drinking from the wounds of Christ’s side, or exchanging her heart with Christ,” all experiences that are notably absent from Catherine’s own account . Karen Scott argues that Raymond’s account is shaped by his “hagiographic agenda and spiritual theology”, in particular his lobbying for her canonization in order to promote the unity of the papacy . Raymond also described Catherine’s mystical marriage to Christ as represented by a gold ring, while her own account indicates that it was a ring of his foreskin .
Bynum argues, generally, that “female saints are not canonized or revered unless they are in some way religiously useful to men” . Catherine herself thought that she needed to become more male in order to live out her spiritual mission, but God answered back to her: no . In The Cult of Saint Catherine of Siena, Gerald Parsons argues that the cult of St. Catherine is one of the greatest expressions of ‘civil religion’: it promotes a shared “sense of history and destiny” and bolsters particular cultural values relevant to Siena, Italy, and Europe (she is a patron saint of each) . Parsons focuses his attention on the myth of St. Catherine and how interest groups from the 14th to the 20th centuries have manipulated it for political ends. The earliest form of her cult, when Raymond of Capua was still living, emphasized her spirituality and downplayed her political activism as a means of feminization . Catherine became the patron of Italy in the time of Mussolini: St. Catherine could be for Italy what Fascism promised to be for it .
One of the most difficult tasks I have as a religious studies teacher is to help separate for students different kinds of questions and the extent of their usefulness. When I introduce the ‘weirder’ stories of the medieval saints, whose bodies are in bits all over Europe, in my courses I get two words, predominately: ‘gross’ and ‘creepy.’ Once the class recovers from the initial shock, students’ next focus tends to be: but is it real? Is her head really not rotten? Did she really get the stigmata and see Jesus? My students hate it when I have to confess that there is no way for me—and probably anyone—to answer those questions. And they hate me even more when I try, unsuccessfully, to convince them that those aren’t even the important questions. Rather, they are distracting questions. What we can know, examine, and integrate into our own lives are the questions about why the lives of such women have been so compelling and powerful over the course of centuries. But ultimately, what we are often concerned about and cannot help but interrogate are the questions of basic reality: did it or did it not actually happen?
On a trip to Montréal as a child, my family visited St. Joseph’s Oratory, the basilica built by St. André Bassette. In it is Bassette’s heart entombed in a transparent reliquary, which I stared at for a long time, and contemplated death. I also vividly remember standing slack-jawed in front of the doors to the basilica where both sides of the nave, floor to ceiling, were covered in battered antique crutches. (Google images has since proven to me that my memory is definitely exaggerated, but the crutches are in fact there.) I turned to my extremely sceptical father and asked, “were those for all of the people he healed?” He answered ‘yes’. And I remember thinking—how can that be true?—and telling myself, “well, if the crutches are here, it means that for some reason sick people didn’t need them any more… that’s good enough.”