When the novelist Sigrid Undset was making her way from atheism to the Catholic faith, her most powerful guide was the Dominican laywoman Saint Catherine of Siena. The central moral insight in Undset’s most renowned works, the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter and the tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, is that self-love—egotism—is the seedbed of all of the evil in the world, as it crowds out of the heart any room for love of God and neighbor, as weeds choke a garden. It is not an insight that requires a doctorate in philosophy to arrive at. That makes it all the more likely to be true, since the Father, says Jesus, has hidden his truths from the wise and the prudent in this world, and has revealed them unto innocents and fools, whose hearts are not clotted with pride. And no woman in 14th century Italy was more innocent than Catherine of Siena.
Undset’s biography, Catherine of Siena, is a fascinating book, not only for its meticulous account of the life of Saint Catherine, based upon the remarkable memoirs of Blessed Raymond of Capua, Catherine’s long-time confessor and close friend, and upon the hundreds of letters which Catherine dictated to popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, governors, warlords, kinsmen, and friends. What really sets it apart from any hagiography I know of is Undset’s continuing comparison, usually implicit but sometimes bold and clear, of the Middle Ages with our own times. Now, Undset’s greatest novels are set in those same centuries, and she is under no illusion about their waves of cruelty and brutality. Indeed, Catherine was born into a world of bitter strife, the same world against which the aged Dante inveighed. The cities of Italy were economic and military rivals, the pope had moved the Curia to Avignon—across the Rhone from the kingdom of France—and French legates governed the Papal States, earning the hatred of the native Romans. It was a century of ever-shifting military alliances and civil war, with bands of robbers and murderers under mercenaries like Sir John Hawkwood helping to stoke the flames.
Now it is true, as Undset points out, that the 20th century has not been behindhand in bloodshed. If we are weighing blood with blood, the Middle Ages may well come out cleaner. Yet that is not the most important thing. The plain fact, staring us in the face, demanding attention and explanation, is that a Saint Catherine, ever preaching the love of God and the peace of Christ, was the most important and influential person in Europe during the latter part of the 14th century, and what was she? According to her own accounts, she was nothing, just an ignorant girl, a slave of Jesus, a sinner. She had never learned to read, till the ability suddenly came to her as an adult. She dictated her letters, because she had never learned to write. She was grilled by suspicious theologians, and won them over with her wisdom. She was scoffed at by the worldly, and won them over by her persevering love. Almost single-handedly she compelled the Vicar of Christ himself, the genial but weak-willed Gregory XI, a Frenchman surrounded by French cardinals, to return to Rome after the 70-year-long “Babylonian Captivity” of the Church. The lords of Italian cities sought her assistance in brokering peace. That could and did happen in the Middle Ages. It could not happen now.
What is the difference? Here Undset is describing Catherine’s first trip abroad, from Siena to Pisa, rather early in her “political” years. The Pisans had been friendly to the pope, but their allegiance was wavering, under pressure from the strongman Bernabo Visconti of Milan. Catherine hoped to strengthen their loyalty to Gregory. Note, then, how she was greeted.
On their arrival in Pisa the nuns from Siena received a welcome such as people in the Middle Ages reserved for a guest who was generally considered a saint. The governor of Pisa, the archbishop, and crowds of other prominent personages went out to meet Catherine, and the crowds cheered her as the crowds always, everywhere, cheer their favorite heroes, whether they be victorious generals, highly publicized leaders, popular football players, or world-famous film stars. But in the Middle Ages it was chiefly saints who were popular heroes, even for people who themselves were very far from being saints, and had not the faintest desire to be saints because, as everyone knew, holiness demands heroism—heroism of an unusually severe and difficult kind.
Was Catherine a famous scientist, like Einstein? Not even Einstein could have commanded such happy crowds. Was she a famous politician, like Franklin Roosevelt? No. Had she written any great novels or poems? Not one. What made her known was her astonishing commitment to Jesus—and the marvels that attended her (duly recorded by Blessed Raymond, after he had hunted down the witnesses and received their testimony; Raymond was a most sensible man).
What in our time is comparable? Elton John, a man of immense musical talent, often questionable taste, and dubious morals, can fill a stadium with devotees. Many of them will wait in line for a day or two, just as they might camp out in front of a department store, waiting for its opening on Black Friday. Elton John can at least play the piano, and has a pleasant personality. Things go downhill from there. Millions of people buy tawdry magazines to learn the latest about the sex lives of “stars,” many of them no more than professional pornographers, whores and whoremasters. What is their claim to fame? Slickness rather than talent, flash rather than beauty. I think of Hollywood and wonder if, in this world’s long and sorry tale of sin and folly, a klatsch of men and women have ever pitched their tents in deeper depravity, stupidity, luxury, and vanity, and been admired for it. It seems too ridiculous to believe. But then the title of a show like American Idol comes to mind, and I see that it is all too true.
“The Signoria of Florence,” writes Undset, relating an attempt by the Florentines to return to the papal fold, “the government of the proudest of the Italian republics, had given the power to decide all matters of vital importance for its future greatness and well-being to a young woman who was regarded as a saint.” We had a similar saint in our midst, the wizened little nun from Albania, Mother Teresa. She, like Catherine, drew to her “family” many men and women, whose lives were utterly changed by her holiness and her friendship: Malcolm Muggeridge, for instance. She too dwelt in an inner world of intense spiritual conflict, unrelieved by the protracted periods of ecstatic bliss that comforted Saint Catherine. She too challenged the worldliness of everyone about her, by a love whose fount was the radical love of Jesus. As Catherine bathed and dressed and tended people struck by the Black Plague, Mother Teresa bathed and dressed and tended the poorest of the world’s poor, the sick and the dying in the ditches of Calcutta.
How did we treat Mother Teresa? We gave her, rather late in the day, the Nobel Peace Prize. We held her up as a model of humanitarian achievement—quite mistaking what she was about. Christopher Hitchens slandered her; the slanderers you will always have with you. She was something of a celebrity for a while. President Clinton and his wife stood stony-faced while Mother Teresa urged them and all Americans to care for the weakest of the weak, the unborn child. No statesman took her advice. No statesman sought her advice. Gandhi himself could not bring peace to the Muslims and the Hindus of his country. Mother Teresa could have played in India the role that Catherine so often played in northern Italy. No one asked her to try.
We scoff at the supposed bigotry of the Middle Ages, but no woman in the last hundred years, none at all, was ever so surrounded by learned men who drank at her fountain than was Saint Catherine of Siena. Which professors of philosophy left their comfortable offices to learn from Mother Teresa? Consider a Peter Singer, the “ethicist” who argues that parents should be able to dispose of their newborns if they should have second thoughts—if the babies come out deformed or feeble-minded or otherwise imperfect. Imagine him saying to himself, “What do I know, really, about how to live a good life? I should seek out the one person on this planet who really does know. I am going to learn from Mother Teresa.” Of course, no “renowned” professor of philosophy is going to take notes from a mere nun, without the fancy credentials. It’s unthinkable. But many men as brutal and as morally stupid as Singer did go to Saint Catherine, and repented of their evils.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised if the world ignores holiness. Our world today has the attention span of a flea, and holiness requires attention at the least. But what about the Catholic Church? Mother Teresa walked among us, but the proud theologians scoffed at her lack of learning, and the proud Church officials scoffed at her simplistic championing of the unborn, and the proud nuns, in their proud orders, proudly dying away, scoffed at her submission to the male priesthood—ignoring her iron will and their own supine submission to the fads of the day. And I, proud also, salve my conscience by saying that we are not all called to be Mother Teresa. More’s the pity.
Why do we, at least, not turn out in crowds? The men of the Middle Ages made sure we could learn about Saint Catherine. But even Catholics seem disposed to make sure we will not learn about Mother Teresa. The men of the Middle Ages tried, and usually failed, to raise their politics to the height of Christian teaching; we try to lower Christian teaching to the gullies of politics, and we usually succeed.
We want to justify, not to change, our desires. We sit in judgment upon saints, and listen to the whispering of fools and devils. We want to see the credentials of the theologian, not his holiness. The world’s excuse is simple enough. The world is stupid. What is our excuse?
[Editor’s note: Mother Teresa was from Albania, not Yugoslavia as the essay orginally indicated.]