People’s Catholic Seminary (PCS), a seminary without walls, offers programs in theology and spirituality for groups and individuals. Program facilitators accompany groups and individuals throughout the programs.
Currently PCS is offering a 12 week program on the Christian Mystics. This program explores the life of six mystics using text from Bridget Mary Meehan’s book, Praying with Visionary Women, along with supplemental materials from YouTube and Blogger, an on-line vehicle for sharing information. Through the use of Blogger, participants post responses to assignments. Other participants are able to read the posts and respond to them. This cohort model is a great learning opportunity for those who like to work and interact in groups.
Courtney Allen is currently enrolled in the mystic’s program. Her response (below) to an assignment on Catherine of Siena is a very good example of the quality of work submitted by the program participants.
About Courtney Allen
Courtney Allen is an Italian-American Catholic with a deep and abiding love for the faith, and for the ways it can grow through the gifts of inclusive visionaries. As a former academic medievalist, she has a special place in her heart for women mystics and is delighted to explore their modern-day relevance with the ARCWP. Courtney currently resides in Southern California and enjoys a career in the museum field, while she discerns God's call regarding how she can be of most useful service.
Catherine of Siena by Courtney Allen
The treatment of body as sacred space is prehistoric. In Greek thought, the concept for development of mind, body, and spirit toward virtue was termed “arete.” Arete meant striving for the highest good, the most excellent self, that state of holiness in which one desired to dwell. This process required an integrated approach, with the improvement of all components depending on each other and leading one’s quest to the most sacred purpose: contemplation. Henri Nouwen refers to this intersection of mind, body, and spirit as “the heart,” the place within ourselves where we can best listen to God. From ancient to contemporary, mystics have offered testimony on the sanctity of self-unity.
Much medieval Christian theology builds upon the foundations of ancient philosophy; however, attitudes of body positivity did not always make the transition during this period, and were replaced in some cases with mortification practices. Catherine of Siena did not ascribe to contemplation through integration. In fact, she believed the exact opposite – that the body and spirit are in fundamental conflict, as evidenced in her Treatise of Prayer (18. Light of reason), in which she states: “the fragility of the body is a cause of humiliation to the soul.” Today, we may deem Catherine’s separation from her body as unhealthy, rather than a method of discipline to heighten the spirit. We might note in her Dialogue (particularly Treatise of Prayer, 19) the obsession to become “perfect,” as a sign of body dysmorphia. We may ask why her family would enable such behaviors, or point to them as a cause of her lack of confidence in her own control or agency. We might ponder how plague throughout her family changed her relationship to life and death, and thereby her body. We could simplify Catherine’s piety as self-loathing, pointing to her Treatise of Divine Providence (7), in which she claims that “self-love…is the principle and foundation of every evil.”
However, there is a more telling issue at the center of these discussions, and that is the aversion to our own discomfort. As people of faith, God asks us to sit with people who are in pain, including self-inflicted pain or inescapable pain that lives inside them. Places of discomfort and pain are where God is most present, and where we are most needed. Naturally, this is not as comfortable as sitting with someone like Hildegard – someone whom we, through our contemporary lens, identify with as strong and empowered. Or with someone like Julian, who encourages us to believe in our goodness by virtue of being made in God’s image. We can learn from Catherine in a different way. Catherine’s vulnerability holds up a mirror to our own souls in a way we would rather not acknowledge. Everyone feels less than worthy of God at some point, forgetting our belovedness, forgetting that God’s love is not something we can earn but rather something that is freely given. In those moments, I would hope to be reminded of my belovedness, not judged for my insecurity.
Furthermore, women are often judged by their bodies and their relationships to their bodies, while men are judged solely on their work. Rather than accuse Catherine of being complicit in her own oppression, without regard to the historical context, a feminist perspective asks us to focus on Catherine’s strengths and her offerings to us! We can glimpse this best not through her treatises, but rather her letters. Of the approximately 385 letters that remain, possibly the most powerful are her letters to Pope Gregory XI from around 1375-1378, at the end of the Avignon Papacy and approaching the Western Schism. Catherine holds the Pope responsible for the divided Church, stating in her first letter to him that “temporal things are failing you from no other cause than from your neglect of the spiritual.” Catherine believes that the Church has come to hold earthly wealth too dear, but that Catholics (including some clergy, though not all) may return by God’s healing. She encourages the Pope to let go of conflict and forgive with kindness, reminding him in her second letter that “these sheep…cannot be won back by wrath or war.” Pope Gregory XI eventually does relocate the Holy See to Rome, but does not heed Catherine’s pleas; consequently, she declares “you should use your virtue and power: and if you are not willing to use it, it would be better for you to resign what you have assumed.” Catherine masterfully walks a fine and dangerous line, writing directly about her concerns, but in a conversational tone that indicates she is trying to engage, rather than berate, the letters’ recipient. Catherine speaks truth with love, and with a long vision toward unity. She reminds the Pope that action is required for change: “If you want justice, you can execute it. You can have peace.” Justice, peace, and unity require conscientious work.
The same conscientious work is needed in the Church today. While the Church remains united and rooted in its progressive stances on such critical issues as charity, pluralism, and the environment, we are in the midst of another sort of schism. The Church is diversifying and growing globally, and yet the same system exists that enables organizational, doctrinal, and policy power to be held by a select few, while large demographics (such as women and LGBTQ folks) are not recognized as being called by God to the same leadership roles. This inequality alienates Catholics from our religious home. When we think about reform in the Church today, what we really mean is radicalism, returning to our roots: a community of disciples in which individual and differing voices are heard, represented, celebrated, and loved. Respectful, kind, and open communication is critical to building unity; however, dialogue requires a place at the table. A place at the table requires the constant presence and persistence demonstrated by Catherine. We can use her tools: initiating brave conversations with a wide range of people, including those in power; voicing our ideas repeatedly and in written form, especially when they are not solicited; and building allies for support. We do this out of love of our faith and the belief that it can and should be more inclusive. That we can do better. That the body of the Church should be striving for arete.
Catherine, you led a life peppered with self-doubt. Yet through your trials, you surrendered your heart to God. You accepted God’s call to “rise out of yourself,” from an interior life that at times was tumultuous, in order to bravely speak truth with love. Guide us to transform our feelings of brokenness into belief in belovedness, and to share the message of belovedness with others through service. Remind us to love God in our wholeness, in our bodies, and in our imperfection. Give us strength, bravery, and compassion to open difficult dialogues and to advocate for inclusion. Help us to grow each day in our understanding of the “two things [necessary to be] blessed: who we are, and who God is.”
For more information about PCS, contact Bridget Mary and Mary Theresa at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the PCS website at www.pcseminary.blogspot.com. Individual programs are available on request. Group programs begin again in the fall.