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The Writings of This Mystic Changed How I See God

Published:
January 22, 2024
January 22, 2024
Read this article about one woman's connection with the writings of a Christian mystic and the deeper connection with God that she developed as a result.

One of the first things I noticed when I visited St. Catherine of Siena’s house in Italy was how very ordinary it was.

Along with some classmates, I toured her family’s well, walked through the kitchen, and peered into her bedroom under the stairs. It was a beautiful home — as her father was a successful merchant in the 12th century — but it was also just like any other house. There weren’t many hints there of the extraordinary way that St. Catherine saw God. 

Many people refer to St. Catherine of Siena as a mystic. While some may think of a mystic as someone who is out of touch with reality or someone who can see the future, in the Christian tradition, a mystic is someone who experiences a profound union with God. This union can take many forms but often involves entering into deep contemplation and letting go of all the other things that can distract and worry. This leaves room for the soul to taste what it was made for all along — being connected to the divine.

“Reading the work of mystics can open our own eyes to new facets of God that we may have never considered before.”

Sometimes mystics, like St. Catherine of Siena, experience this union with God in such a way that it can take physical form. There are reports of St. Catherine looking limp or lifeless after spending time in prayer. Other mystics, like St. Padre Pio, were allegedly able to levitate.

While most of us won’t be able to relate to the experience of a mystic, we can get an inside look at what they experienced through their writings. Mystics, such as Teresa of Ávila and Julian of Norwich, often attempted to record and share what they learned while united with God. Reading the work of mystics can open our own eyes to new facets of God that we may have never considered before.

After visiting St. Catherine’s ordinary home in Siena, I was curious to discover how she described her extraordinary experiences of God. So when I got home, I dove into her book called The Dialogue, which is written as a series of conversations between God and St. Catherine.

I noticed right away that St. Catherine has a hard time putting her experience into words. Often writing in a stream-of-consciousness style, she relies heavily on metaphors to describe what she learns. These metaphors can feel a bit perplexing for the modern reader because they challenge some of our contemporary images of God: that God is an all-knowing superior being who finds us lacking and is uninterested in our personal lives.

One metaphor that has stuck with me over the years involves comparing God to a bridge. In The Dialogue, St. Catherine describes an old, covered bridge made of stone. Dangerous water rushes beneath the bridge, and rain falls on top of the bridge, but the bridge itself is sturdy, warm, and dry. Its stone construction provides a safe passage for travelers trying to cross the river and the hostels built into the bridge provide sustenance for the journey.

Reflecting on this metaphor helped me to see God in a new way: rather than a judge who is disappointed in my failures, God can and does provide the help that I will inevitably need to do the hard work of pursuing a good life and a higher calling. Just like the bridge provides trustworthy shelter and sustenance for travelers, God can protect and sustain me as I attempt to be the person I’ve been created to be.

Another metaphor that St. Catherine uses to describe God is a wooden table set with a feast. The souls who sit at the table and enjoy the feast are only satisfied when additional souls come to join them. In other words, if someone loves their neighbor and wills their good, they will rejoice when that person chooses to join them in a place that is good and satisfying. Additionally, if God is the table that hosts the feast, then he too is interested in satisfying the deepest longings of our hearts and offering a space for us to be in communion with others. Instead of being removed or uninterested in our personal lives, St. Catherine’s description of God showed me quite the opposite: God is concerned about our desires and gently invites us to take our seat at the table.

While it may seem odd to think of God as a bridge and a table, these metaphors have expanded my imagination and understanding of who and what God is to us. Perhaps most importantly, looking at God through these lenses has revealed attributes of the divine that I hadn’t considered before. Since then, these attributes have been guideposts for me on my own spiritual journey. And it’s comforting and inspiring to know that at one time, these same metaphors were a guidepost for a mystic in a small Italian town.

Creators:
Catherine Sullivan
Published:
January 22, 2024
January 22, 2024
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