Yesterday was the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena. She was a medieval mystic, and one of the first female Doctors of the Church. Her influential writing on prayer and politics transformed the Church of her time and continues to inspire us today. She even wrote letters chastising the pope and changed his mind. Basically, St. Catherine was a badass.
She also had issues. For lengthy periods of her life, she could eat nothing but the Eucharist. Eating caused her great pain, so she abstained from it for lengthy periods of her life. At times, she found herself forced to eat, and used herbs to induce vomiting. What does that sound like to you?
Different voices have different takes on this. I’ve heard pious people reflect on St. Catherine’s ailment as a sign of great holiness. They regard her ability to be satisfied in God alone an inspiration. A grad school professor insisted that it would be anachronistic to call it an eating disorder; Catherine’s behavior ought to be interpreted in the context of her medieval culture which viewed women’s bodies and the spiritual significance of food in ways we would consider to be very peculiar today. Either way, Catherine’s relationship with food was troubled. Her first spiritual director certainly thought so. St. Catherine herself and her subsequent spiritual director and biographer, Raymond of Capua, viewed her affliction as a gift from God. It’s possible that St. Catherine’s behavior was an eating disorder, one she understood not as related to body image issues, but in the context of her own time.
I realize that this interpretation might make some people nervous, that it might somehow seem disrespectful to insinuate that a great saint struggled with this issue. I don’t think that kind of apprehension is necessary. St. Catherine’s difficulties with eating don’t make her less holy. Her human struggles are just that – a sign of her humanity. There is only one man who was perfect. That’s all we need.
St. Catherine’s difficulties with eating don’t make her less holy. Her human struggles are just that – a sign of her humanity. There is only one man who was perfect. That’s all we need.
Being unable to consume food is certainly not something we ought to call “good” in itself. But recognizing God’s power in the midst of our weakness is a central truth of Christianity. St. Paul viewed his own affliction in similar terms:
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ).
We don’t need saints because they are perfect. Quite the opposite. They give us something that Jesus can’t: a vision of what holiness looks like in the lost and in the broken. We need imperfections in our saints. We need them in ourselves. We need to give each other the freedom to be small and to be broken. How else can we invite God to pick up the pieces?
Our weaknesses remind us that we are not God. Without them, there could be no saints; we are too susceptible to the temptation to make of ourselves our own gods. Our imperfections keep us from spiritual blindness. They open our eyes, again and again, to the truth that we need a savior.
Walking with the saints has been one of the great gifts for me in embracing Catholicism. It is inspiring and edifying to hear stories of people who have overcome tremendous obstacles and done so with great humility, holiness, courage, and self-sacrifice. They model faithfulness to Christ in all circumstances, and that model is encouraging to my in my walk of faith. Knowing that St. Catherine, in all her spiritual wisdom, struggled with this affliction and yet became one of the great Saints of our Church reminds me that it is not by eliminating our human frailty that we become holy. Rather, it is the continual surrender of that frailty to Christ. It is he who sanctifies.
God works in our weakness. Our struggles and our failings are not things to cover up; they are ways we can uncover God hiding in ourselves. If we can befriend our faults – admit them, love ourselves in them, and give them to God – we can begin to live more authentically. We can face the world with the humility of being and loving exactly who we are – in freedom. Freedom from anxiety about its perception of us, freedom from our own neurotic cultivation of a false image of ourselves, freedom from striving to be perfect. Freedom to be who God made us to be. Freedom to be good.
“Be who God made you to be and you will set the world on fire.”St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.
How do the saints inspire you to holiness? How does learning about a weakness or imperfection affect your view of a role model?