CATHERINE OF SIENNA
A vision of St. Dominic gave strength to Catherine, but her wish to join his Order was no comfort to Lapa, who took her daughter with her to the baths in Bagno Vignoni to improve her health. Catherine fell seriously ill with a violent rash, fever and pain, which conveniently made her mother accept her wish to join the "Mantellate", the local association of Dominican tertiaries. Lapa went to the Sisters of the Order and persuaded them to take in her daughter. Within days, Catherine seemed entirely restored, rose from bed and donned the black and white habit of the Third Order of St. Dominic. Catherine received the habit of a Dominican tertiary from thefriars of the Order after vigorous protests from the tertiaries themselves, who up to that point had been only widows. As a tertiary, she lived outside the convent, at home with her family like before. The Mantellate taught Catherine how to read, and she lived in almost total silence and solitude in the family home.
In about 1368, age twenty-one, Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a "Mystical Marriage" with Jesus,later a popular subject in art as the Mystic marriage of Saint Catherine. Caroline Walker Bynum, one of the most prominent medieval historians of her generation, explains one surprising and controversial aspect of this marriage that occurs both in artistic representations of the event and in some early accounts of her life: "Underlining the extent to which the marriage was a fusion with Christ's physicality [...] Catherine received, not the ring of gold and jewels that her biographer reports in his bowdlerized version, but the ring of Christ's foreskin." Catherine herself mentions the foreskin-as-wedding ring motif in one of her letters (#221), equating the wedding ring of a virgin with a foreskin; she typically claimed that her own wedding ring to Christ was simply invisible. Raymond also records that she was told by Christ to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world. Catherine rejoined her family and began helping the ill and the poor, where she took care of them in hospitals or homes. Her early pious activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, women and men, who gathered around her.
As social and political tensions mounted in Siena, Catherine found herself drawn to intervene in wider politics. She made her first journey to Florence in 1374, probably to be interviewed by the Dominican authorities at the General Chapter held in Florence in May 1374, though this is controverted (if she was interviewed, then the absence of later evidence suggests she was deemed sufficiently orthodox). It seems that at this time she acquired Raymond of Capua as her confessor and spiritual director.
For many years she had accustomed herself to a rigorous abstinence. She received the Holy Communion almost daily. This extreme fasting appeared unhealthy in the eyes of the clergy and her own sisterhood. Her confessor, Blessed Raymond, ordered her to eat properly. But Catherine claimed that she was unable to, describing her inability to eat as aninfermità (illness). From the beginning of 1380, Catherine could neither eat nor swallow water. On February 26 she lost the use of her legs.
St Catherine died in Rome, on 29 April 1380, at the age of thirty-three, having suffered a stroke eight days earlier.
Catherine is known (1) as a mystic, a contemplative who devoted herself to prayer, (2) as a humanitarian, a nurse who undertook to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the sick; (3) as an activist, a renewer of Church and society, who took a strong stand on the issues affecting society in her day, and who never hesitated (in the old Quaker phrase) "to speak truth to power"; (4) as an adviser and counselor, with a wide range of interests, who always made time for troubled and uncertain persons who told her their problems -- large and trivial, religious and secular.