Catherine of Siena, Our Lenten Guide

During Lent, we all need mentors who can guide us down this twisting and arduous 40 day path. Let me suggest that you may have to look to church history to find those mentors. I have been helped immensely by Catherine of Siena as I walk through this holy season of Lent, because she models for us the pathway out of all kinds of temptations.

Catherine of Siena, or I should say, Saint Siena, lived in the 14th century. She was born in 1347, the 24th of 25 children! She was declared a saint by the church, and, in fact, was given the title Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, the first woman to receive that honor in the history of the church. There are now only a handful of people in the Roman Catholic and Anglican tradition who have been formally given the title of “Doctor” of the church, huge, larger-than-life figures like Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas—all men who were educated at the highest level in their day. But, Catherine of Siena was the first woman to be given this revered title, despite having no formal education. She achieved it through the sheer force of her life. Additionally, she is regarded, along with Francis of Assisi, as co-patron of the city of Rome. It is a remarkable story for a young woman with no formal education and who died at the age of 33.

If you were a woman called into full-time ministry in the 14th century, the only real option before you was to become what was known as a cloistered nun. This would involve a life of isolation from the world, so you could give yourself completely to contemplation and prayer. If you did not become a cloistered nun, then you were expected to marry and have children. In the 14th century, there was no ecclesiastical space for a single woman who rejected the life of a nun, but wanted to serve God actively in the world. Catherine of Siena would change all of that. At a very young age, probably around seven, she had a vision of Christ and felt called to celibacy, poverty and prayer, but without becoming a cloistered nun. She went on to become one of the great mystics of the church. This is the time of the Plague, or Black Death in Europe—the deadliest pandemic in human history. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 million people died of the Plague. To put a point on it, during the Plague, the Black Death killed almost half of the entire population of Europe. The Plague originated in Asia and it is estimated that world population actually decreased from around 450 million to 350 million. Modern day epidemiologists believe that the plague was a rat-borne organism which created an illness now known as Yersinia pestis—and they believe that this was actually the third major pandemic caused by this coccobacillus organism. But no one knew any of that. They just witnessed people dying at every turn. The suffering and fear was beyond our imagination.

Catherine wanted to care for these sufferers, and to listen to the voice of God in the midst of all of this suffering. She developed not an other worldly concentration, but the ability to have in world concentration on the Lord. Probably as much as anyone who has ever lived, she embodied the admonition, “pray without ceasing.” But she did it immersed in the world—living, acting and serving.

Lent is not about escaping from the world, but acting with holiness in the world. Catherine developed a strong sense of the mystical presence of Jesus. She managed to turn on its head the very notion of ecclesiastical power, which was not in Rome, nor in the bishops who were formally vested with power, but in the simplicity and deep spirituality for which she was revered by all who knew her. How can this amazing woman help us in our Lenten journey?

First, Catherine of Siena norms the unseen spiritual world for us. She breaks us out of our spiritual slumber to see the spiritual world. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with Jesus speaking with Satan, casting out demons, and Jesus’ affirmation of the reality of the spiritual world. It is a world we scarcely recognize because we are spiritually asleep.

Second, Catherine of Siena teaches us that the greatest ascent into the presence of God always leads us into the greatest descent into the sufferings of the world. Her communion with God led her to a deep engagement with the world’s pain, not as a cloistered nun who lives apart from the world, but as a saint fully engaged with the world. The cloistered nuns are, of course, magnificent models of prayer and devotion as well. But, Catherine was a pioneer in modeling for women an alternative path which is fully engaged in the world.

Third, Catherine of  Siena teaches us how to live with a single-minded awareness of the presence of Christ. Rise in the presence of the Risen Lord. We don’t read scripture alone—sola scriptura is about the authority of Scripture, but it is not about our solitude in the presence of Scripture. One of the great Trinitarian blessings of the church is, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” This blessing goes back to 2 Corinthians 13 and finds its way into liturgies across the life of the church. It was a well-known blessing in the 14th century as well, but Catherine did not say it that way. She famously would say,

“In the Name of the Father, and of Thee, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

She didn’t use the phrase “and the Son” because that implied that Jesus was somewhere else. But, for Catherine, Jesus was right there—signified by “and of Thee.” What would happen if Lent was the season where we lived our lives in the presence of the Risen Christ—and He was right there with us all the time?

This is what Lent calls us to: Deeper awareness of the spiritual world, deeper into the sufferings of the world, and deeper into a single minded awareness of the presence of Christ.

The Temptations of Jesus

Lent, by its nature, is a desert time—a time of purification. This is why the lectionary starts Lent today with Jesus in the wilderness. There we meet all the elements of Lent: 40 days, fasting, wilderness and meeting the Devil face to face. We have an enemy of our soul, and Lent is the time we face it again, so that what is really fundamental rises to the top, and all that which distracts us falls away.

I think the church fathers were right when they asserted that Jesus endured many temptations, but these particular three temptations are highlighted in the Gospels because they represent different categories of the temptations we all face.

First, “turn these stones into bread.” At the most basic level, this is the temptation of the flesh. John Wesley taught the goodness of creation, and we know that food, drink, and sex are all God’s precious gifts to us. But, when food or other fleshly desires take on a deviant twist, they become evil. This would include all the ways our flesh becomes malformed or misdirected, whether it be lust or a desire for material things. God provides us with a family, and material possessions, but once we start trusting in our food and material possessions, or allowing any fleshly desire to be misdirected, then it can become an evil. We all can become preoccupied with our daily needs—bread, money, paying tuition, retirement income, etc. This is the temptation which lies at the base of our human existence.

Satan then takes Jesus and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and promised them all to him. This is the temptation for position, for power, and name. It is the temptation for status, and glory. Ministry is no different from any other position in that it carries with it the temptation or the malformed desire to make a name for ourselves. We long for reputation. We long for status. Our affections get malformed and directed towards our own power or glory. Jesus, alternatively, points us worship the Lord alone. Notice that Satan controls all the kingdoms of the world. We cannot put our hope in Washington, D.C. or any other political system to achieve kingdom ends.

Finally, Satan takes him to the highest pinnacle of the temple and commands him to throw himself down and Satan quotes scripture—Psalm 91. Satan takes the verse out of context—“for his angels will protect you so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” It is a promise for those who have made the Lord their refuge. It is not a verse which should be used to test the Lord in some presumptuous way. This is the temptation to not trust the Word of God. It is that temptation to make the Scripture say what we want it to say, rather than what it actually says. This is why Jesus replies with Scripture, “you shall not test the Lord your God.” All three times Jesus brings the focus back to the Lord and the call for us to keep a single-minded focus on the Lord.

I pray this Lent that your life will be cleansed and renewed for the season ahead.