Review: Catherine of Siena


Living during the late 14th century, St. Catherine of Siena was a mystic in the medieval Catholic tradition of women "wedded to Christ." Because she so passionately pursued Christ, the Catholic Church grudgingly accepted her desired reforms. Although the reforms did not always have the effect she had hoped for, they helped make her increasingly venerated throughout Italy and across Europe. She was a peacemaker and emissary, and even managed to convince the pope to relocate from Avignon back to Rome.

In his author's note to Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life (BlueBridge, 2010), Don Brophy explains that he was more concerned with Catherine's public life than her spiritual one. He provides historical and social context for Catherine and the world in which she lived, but he neglects aspects of her spirituality that beg for more analysis: the legitimacy of her extreme fasting, her obsessive desire for martyrdom, and the validity of her ecstatic trances and visions. These elements can be rather disturbing and need much more cultural context-considering the vast difference between medieval and postmodern worldviews-than Brophy offers.

Nevertheless, Catherine alone makes the book worth reading. A spunky and passionate woman, Catherine was unafraid to push boundaries. She defied her parents' wishes that she marry because she wanted to become a Dominican tertiary married to God. She ordered popes and monarchs to do her will, saying it was the will of God. She opened convents, worked miracles, and wrote the letters and other documents that Brophy drew upon during his considerable research. He includes summaries and explanations of Catherine's literature, correspondence, and inscribed prayers, making the book a fair and contextually rounded portrayal of a fascinating woman.

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