St. Catherine of Siena was born in 1347, the twenty-third of twenty-five children. Being placed in a convent was not unusual for girls in such large families. In her eighteenth year, she became a Dominican. As part of her devotion, she would fast for weeks, eating nothing but the Blessed Sacrament. In 1366 she experienced what she calls a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus and set out on a life of tending to the sick and poor. In 1370 she received a serious of mystical visions of the afterlife, which she entered in 1380.
In the Advent spirit, Catherine vividly describes God coming to her, the “fire of love Who burns me! The recurring images of fire we’ve seen in the writings of some of our Advent mystics remind me of one of my favourite Christmas poems, Blessed Robert Southwell’s “The Burning Babe” which follows Catherine’s “Inebriated Soul in Love”.
Inebriated Soul in Love
Then that soul, even as one drunk,
appeared to be beside herself,
parted from her bodily senses due
to union with her Creator.
She raised her spiritual eyes, her nous,
and gazed into eternal Truth.
As she now came to know the Truth,
she knew herself to be in love with it.
She said aloud: O high
eternal Goodness, O my God!
What am I–the wretched one–to You,
O soaring, everlasting Father,
that You have shown Your truth to me?
that You have shown the snares my own
selfish heart lays out for me?
What moved in You to do such things for us?
Love alone, love unreturned, You have poured out
Your love without my answering love!
O fire of love Who burns me!
…Catherine of Siena as arranged by poet Scott Cairns in his Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Paraclete Press, 2007)
THE BURNING BABE
By Robert Southwell (from St. Peter’s Complaint, 1595)
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames
which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts of feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood,.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
source: Poetry of the English Renaissance 1509-1660.
J. William Hebel and Hoyt H. Hudson, eds.
New York: F.S. Crofts & Co, 1941, p. 238.
Our final Mystic for Advent will be St. Therese of Lisieux.
Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blog master for New Westminster Anglican Blog. Your comments and contributions are always welcome.