When I became Catholic and picked a confirmation saint, I had two criteria. First, I didn’t want a woman—because I felt I was expected to pick one and because most women saints, who seemed to have begun their life of piety from the cradle, intimidated me. And second, I didn’t want a Dominican, because my spiritual life was already rife with Dominicans and I didn’t think I needed another. So naturally I ended up with Catherine of Siena, a Dominican tertiary who vowed virginity at the age of seven and used to lead her playmates in flagellation exercises.
As intimidating as they are, I still love these women with their enthusiastic dedication to mortification of the body. Angela of Foligno drank the water she washed lepers in and stripped herself naked before a crucifix to vow chastity. Veronica Giuliani licked walls clean. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi walked barefoot in the winter, whipped herself with a crown of thorns, and encouraged her fellow nuns to step on her. Beatrice of Ornacieux drove a nail through her palm. And Catherine of Siena—in addition to her other bodily mortifications, which were many—famously ate almost nothing.
I do not resemble these women. The priest I met with in lieu of RCIA wrote a book about how to build a healthy spiritual life. The first step: waking up with your alarm clock. I’m still stuck there. (Catherine slept on wooden planks.) The howls I let out when I stub a toe make me think that I’m not quite ready to hammer a nail into my palm. I anticipated my reception into the church by getting a nice haircut and a new dress, not cutting off all my hair (Clare of Assisi, Catherine) or scalding myself (Catherine again). But I admire and even envy them the way I love and envy snake handlers.
These wares are not for all markets, however, as André Vauchez makes clear in the introduction to his newly translated book, Catherine of Siena: A Life of Passion and Purpose. He quotes two of her previous biographers, one of whom perceives in her “a kind of overpowering spirit, an element of tyranny that put me off” and the other who believes that the saint was “not particularly pleasant.” (They prefer Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila, respectively.)
Vauchez notes that he, too, is not very fond of Catherine, who he finds self-promoting and naïve. But if we don’t let ourselves “get sidetracked by her personality,” we’ll find—well, it’s not clear. Vauchez is quick to note that Catherine is, as a theologian, not original. (Is originality the best grounds on which to judge medieval spiritual writing, I ask myself?) In any case, once he’s dispatched with her work on those grounds there’s really very little left of her except her personality.