Spiritual Surgeons—Saint Catherine of Siena


Editor’s note: Article originally published on March 28, 2019.


Healthcare has become a hot-button issue over the past several years. Is it a privilege or a natural human right? Should you vaccinate your children or allow their body’s immune system to fend off diseases naturally? Is surgery better or experimental non-evasive treatment better? The list of questions goes on and on. Because I am not a doctor, I will not be discussing healing of the body in this article. Instead, as a Catholic and student of theology, I will examine the best practices to combat spiritual sickness—sin!

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1501,

Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more nature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.

Icon of Christ the Divine Physician

The Healing Mission of Christ and the Church

A common title given to Jesus is Divine Physician because he heals humanity from sin and death. While our ultimate trust focus on God as healer of souls, He has employed various men and women over the centuries to stand as great witnesses to the truth. Such saints are called Doctors of the Church.

Not to be confused with medical doctors, Doctors of the Church are, “certain saints whose writing or preaching is outstanding for guiding the faithful in all periods of the Church’s history. To view a complete and detailed list of all saints with this honor please refer to Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s Doctors of the Catholic ChurchComplete List.

Working for God

Saints Work for the Divine Doctor

Because of the incredible need for healing and hope in this fallen world, today will mark the beginning of a weekly blog series Spiritual SurgeonsCo-workers with the Divine Physician. Every week we will focus on a different saint. We will examine key themes and advice from their writings to help us root out sin and grow in our relationship with God and neighbor. St. Catherine of Siena will be the focus of this inaugural Spiritual Surgeons installment.

Corruption of Sin

Catherine lived in the 14th century during a period of grave clergy corruption. She famously wrote to Pope Gregory XI urging him to return to Rome and clean up the abuses going on within the Catholic Church hierarchy. At that time, the papacy succumbed to the powers of the world (France) and the pope lived in Avignon to appease the French rulers. Catherine petitioned to the pope by declaring, “But, I hope, by the goodness of God that you will pay more heed to His honour and the safety of your own flock than to yourself, like a good shepherd, who ought to lay down his life for his sheep” (Letter to Gregory XI). Her brave and consistent witness to the Truth even against those in power brings us hope.

Cleansing fire

Furnace of Divine Love  

Along with Catherine’s teaching on the corruption of sin, she teaches sin decays the soul. Similar to how disease infects the body, so too, sin infects the soul. Physical surgery involves pain. Both in the actual procedure and the healing process afterwards. Spiritual surgery necessarily contains suffering as well. St. Catherine’s remedy includes the fire of God’s love.

Catherine warns against non-evasive spiritual treatments in fighting sin. According the Sienese saint in a letter to Pope Gregory XI, “If a wound when necessary is not cauterized or cut out with steel, but simply covered with ointment, not only does it fail to heal, but it infects everything, and many a time death follows from it.”  Her advice matches what Jesus taught on the Sermon of the Mount. In Matthew 5:29-30,

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.s It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go to Gehenna.

Purification by Flames

Fire acts as a destructive or purifying agent. Catherine speaks of God’s love as a fire cleansing the soul from sin. The word fire occurs 94 times in The Dialogues of St. Catherine. Phrases such as fire of Divine love and fire of Divine charity occur 5 and 3 times respectively. Although the first man muddied himself with the disobedience of sin, Catherine reminds us that God became man to show us the path of salvation. She wrote in her Dialogues, 

So that each man has in his own person that very same key which the Word had, and if a man does not unlock in the light of faith, and with the hand of love the gate of heaven by means of this key, he never will enter there, in spite of its having been opened by the Word; for though I created you without yourselves, I will not save you without yourselves…My only-begotten Son, the Word, come and taken this key of obedience in His hands and purified it in the fire of divine love, having drawn it out of the mud, and cleansed it with His blood, and straightened it with the knife of justice, and hammered your iniquities into shape on the anvil of His own body.

Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena lived a profoundly holy life of faith. Her ability to correct clerical abuses with charity was second to none. According to St. Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Three Co-patronesses of Europe, “Catherine addressed churchmen of every rank, demanding of them the most exacting integrity in their personal lives and their pastoral ministry. The uninhibited, powerful and incisive tone in which she admonished priests, Bishops and Cardinals is quite striking.” Learning from this great Doctor of the Church not only deepened my knowledge about God but strengthened my personal relationship with God.

Related Links

Catherine of Siena—Pious Paladin for Today’s Current Clergy Corruption

Doctors of the Church— Definition and Complete List

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Saint Bonaventure’s Good Venture to Know God

God works in mysterious ways. I truly believe he puts you in specific situations at precise times to allow you to grow in trust and faith in Him. As members of the Church Militant, we are called to be in communion with the saints in Heaven—the Church triumphant. Over the course of the past several months, I believe God called me to learn more about Saint Bonaventure. Having a background in theology, my inclination towards the Seraphic Doctor of the Church makes sense.

Saint Bonaventure

Rarely, does God act in such a plain or shallow sense. Along with being elevated to the status of Doctor of the Catholic Church, St. Bonaventure is also the patron saint of something quite ordinary, yet awkward at the same time—bowel movements. As a young child Bonaventure had a life-threatening sickness affecting his bowels. This sickness almost took his life. The intercession of St. Francis of Assisi cured him. Because of this, the Catholic Church recognized Bonaventure as the patron saint of individuals suffering similar illnesses.

My youngest son struggles with digestive and bowel issues. During a particularly rough evening, my wife and I prayed to St. Bonaventure, as we tried everything else medically to help our son. Our pleas for help to the 13th century saint forged the beginning of what I hope to be a lifelong friendship.

While St Bonaventure wrote on various subjects this article will solely focus on arguably his greatest work—The Journey of the Mind into God. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St. Bonaventure: Literary Work and Doctrine calls this work, “a manual for mystical contemplation.” Providentially, Bonaventure pondered this work at the same place whereby St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata—Mount La Verna in Italy!

Stepping up the Ladder of Learning

Ladder to Heaven

As a teacher of theology, St. Bonaventure provides a gradually and steady path, specifically six steps, to grow in awareness and knowledge of God. Bonaventure puts it this way,

For through those six wings there can be rightly understood six suspensions of illumination, by which the soul as if to certain steps or journeys is disposed, to pass over to peace through ecstatic excesses of Christian wisdom.

no 3. The Journey of the Mind Into God

A prerequisite for beginning this journey is praying through Christ crucified. Jesus acts as a bridge; or, to use the imagery of Bonaventure, a ladder connecting us to the Holy Trinity.

Creation as Reflection of God

God and Creation

In Chapter 1 of The Journey of the Mind Into God, the Seraphic Doctor tells us that the first rung of the ladder to God is the created world. When we don the glasses of faith, we see nature pointing to the glory of God. Bonaventure refers to the created world as “the university of things” as a kind of stairway to climb toward God (Chapter 1 no. 2). Later in the chapter he describes the world as “a mirror through which we pass over to God. Plants, animals, mountains, oceans, the moon and stars above point to a Creator—because of the beauty and order within nature.

Bonaventure draws us up the holy ladder in his next chapter.

It must be noted that this world (the universe), which is called the macrocosm, enters our soul, which is called the microcosm, through the gates of the five senses…Man, who is called the microcosm, has five senses like five gates, through which acquaintance with all things, which are in the sensible world, enters into his soul.

(Chapter 2, no. 2)

Catholicism values the created order as not something to be jettisoned. The sacramentals utilize various forms of matter (things) because they hold intrinsic value and point had a higher order of being.

Human Mind—Mirror of the Trinity

Bonaventure brings the reader up another rung on the ladder of mystical contemplation by focusing on the natural powers of the human soul. According to the 13th century saint, the three highest faculties of humanity are memory, intellect, and will. He saws these three powers as a natural reflection of the Holy Trinity.

Holy Trinity Icon

The Seraphic Doctor plainly declares, “According to the order and origin and characteristic of these powers (the soul) leads into the Most Blessed Trinity itself!” (Chapter 3 no. 5). As a perfect spirit, Bonaventure argues, God has memory, intelligence, and will. In the remaining chapters of The Journey of the Mind Into God, Bonaventure details how grace guides the soul in knowing and growing in knowledge of God, seeing God’s unity through His being, and finally viewing God as a communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity.

I had to read this work at least three times before I could write this reflection on St. Bonaventure’s gem of a work. This is not an indictment on his ability to write clearly or my ability to discern (at least I hope not!) Instead, any and all writings on the subject of God, in particularly a Trinitarian understanding of God has to be mysterious. “When you contemplate these, see, that you do not consider yourself able to comprehend the incomprehensible (The Holy Trinity). For in these six conditions (steps) you still have to consider what leads the eye of our mind vehemently into the stupor of admiration (Chapter 6 no. 3).

Journey with Bonaventure Today

Journeying into God is not an easy task, but it will certainly end with both wonder and awe. St. Bonaventure’s closeness to the God is quite evident in this spiritual treatise. If you are a parent of young children, such as myself, perhaps you may not have time now to read this holy book. Bonaventure can still help you on your spiritual and parental journey, because at some point your kid will get severely constipated. Ask the Seraphic Doctor for help. Believe me, it arrives.

If you have more time available for spiritual reading, I strongly recommend you add The Journey of the Mind Into God to your top ten list!

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