Academic journal article Magistra

Transplanting the Hortus Conclusus: The Cultivation of Power by Catherine of Siena

Academic journal article Magistra

Transplanting the Hortus Conclusus: The Cultivation of Power by Catherine of Siena

Article excerpt

n 1365, after having become a mantellata, or lay Dominican, at the age of 18,1 Caterina Benincasa imposed upon herself a period of reclusion. It culminated in a mystical espousal with Christ,2 who then ordered her to change her way of life and go out into the world. Previous to this period of reclusion, at the age of 16, Catherine had been forced to perform the duties of a house servant by her family in reaction to her growing ardor for the religious life. Her parents tried every possible means to dissuade her: she was denied her own room, and never had any time alone to pray.

In response, she created an interior space, una celia, where she could dwell intimately and continuously with Christ regardless of her demanding chores. During the time spent in her interior cell, she cultivated a hortus conclusus,3 a garden of self- knowledge, and transplanted the authority and power that came with self-knowledge to the public sphere. Her garden expanded beyond the walls of self and spread into a source of worldly authority and power: a hortus apertus.

If she, secure in knowledge of self, reached beyond her enclosed garden of Paradise, wherein she found the fruit of consolation, peaceful repose, drink for her thirst and strength for her earthly trials, so did the world encroach upon her life: a life of service and suffering for the church. Her body itself bore battle wounds and scars, and she "tortured herself' with a twig. Indeed, she ate bitter herbs found in the world while simultaneously drinking from the fountain of life in her metaphysical garden space.

If it is established that the word "space"4 stems from the Latin celia, then, as Isidore of Seville says, one may further refine "celia" as "a chamber," called so because it "hides and conceals {celare) us."5 It is precisely this word celia Catherine uses to describe the inner dwelling space wherein the relationship between her soul and God unfolded. Her hagiographer, Raymond of Capua, says

...by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she created a secret cell in her soul from which nothing in the world could make her leave. So it happened that, while before she had a room in the house from which she could leave or remain inside, having now made for herself an interior cell that no one could take from her, she could stay there always rapt [in God].6

The psychological construction of a separate area in which to reside clearly shows Catherine's strong will, confidence in her belief in Christ, and the unique ability to compartmentalize her experiences. Within this secret cell, or closed garden, she dwelled in consistent uninterrupted unity with God, perhaps a self-preservation mechanism to counteract the controlling ways of her family and others around her.

Unlike the Aristotelian dichotomy of opposing an active life against passive withdrawal - or the biblical symbolism of Rachel and Leah's roles - Catherine's act of inner dwelling was an active relationship. In this non-material place, Catherine simultaneously lived while she went about her mundane tasks. She was spiritually, emotionally and intellectually wrapped in her privileged space with Christ while she functioned in the world in a seemingly fully engaged, focused manner. Within this privileged space where her relationship with Christ deepened, Catherine began to learn about herself.

Speaking of herself in the third person in the prologue of the Dialogue, she says, "She ... has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God's goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and close herself in it."7 By adopting linguistic distance from herself by employing the third person, she once again demonstrates her psychological ability to compartmentalize. Furthermore, the stylistic technique lends authority to her teaching since it seems to come from another, more objective source. This use of illeism also lends the possibility of Catherine being used as a vessel or mouthpiece for another, as if God were speaking about her, rather than she about herself. …

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