Discernment in Catherine of Siena

By Villegas, Diana L. | Theological Studies, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Discernment in Catherine of Siena


Villegas, Diana L., Theological Studies


Catherine of Siena's writings contain a rich theology of discernment worthy of her title Doctor of the Church. However, this theology is not easily accessible since it is based on her mystical experience and communicated in an intricate literary style.(1) Her wisdom regarding discernment is inextricably connected to her teaching about growth in charity, which involves both growth in union with God and growth in the capacity to practice unselfish care for self, others, and created reality. Capacity for discernment depends on charity.

While Catherine lived after the 12th-century controversies contrasting knowledge acquired through mystical contemplation and knowledge acquired through reason and dialectics, the knowledge for which she was rightly named Doctor of the Church is mystical. This knowledge reflects the gift of wisdom described by Thomas Aquinas, a knowledge infused by the Holy Spirit through union of love with God.(2) In his homily proclaiming Catherine Doctor of the Church, Paul VI made this point: "What strikes us most about the Saint is her infused wisdom. That is to say, lucid, profound and inebriating absorption of the divine truths and the mysteries of the faith contained in the Holy Books of the Old and New Testaments. That assimilation was certainly favored by most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit, a mystic charism."(3) Catherine saw her wisdom as bestowed on her directly by God.(4) Her mystical knowledge was combined with a theological formation that was the fruit of spiritual direction, spiritual reading, and the preaching she heard. Catherine was not a trained theologian; as a 14th-century lay woman, she had little education.(5)

Since the Church has recognized that Catherine's writings were illumined by the Holy Spirit, they represent an important source for theological study.(6) However, her teaching is difficult to study and to present in contemporary terms that contribute to reflection on spirituality and theology. Catherine did not present her wisdom in the language and style of the systematic theologian; rather, the logic of her exposition reveals the interconnected and intuitive understanding of the mystic. Her writing style is that of the novelist or poet who communicates through images and metaphors. In Catherine's case, these often overlap or carry multiple meanings. She writes in spirals of metaphor, often repeating herself, while adding a key new aspect in the midst of her repetition.

The purpose of this article is to thematize Catherine's spirituality of discernment through a study of the images, metaphors, and themes related to this topic. A study of Catherine's teaching on discernment based only on passages where she explicitly alludes to discernment would not yield the depth of her teaching on this theme. Besides using multiple words to refer to discernment,(7) she used images to develop her teaching. It is Catherine's metaphors and images that most clearly point to the interconnections between discernment and other aspects of her spirituality. The depth of her spirituality of discernment emerges as these interconnections are understood.

Catherine's teaching on discernment is primarily developed in a number of her letters(8) and in her main work, The Dialogue,(9) which is presented as God's response to four petitions that Catherine addressed to God for herself, for reform of the Church, for the world and peace among human beings, and for the unfolding of God's providence.(10) Several of her prayers(11) reflect aspects of the teaching on discernment found in The Dialogue and in her letters.

CATHERINE'S TEACHING IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

In the 14th century the most influential and dominant centers of spirituality shifted from the Latin to the Germanic countries where the Rhineland school of speculative mysticism flourished with writers such as Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Henry Suso. …

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