St. Catherine of Siena, A Patroness of Tears

One of the most striking aspects of the writings of St. Catherine of Siena is her attention to bodiliness. Her visual metaphors are often punctuated by reference to things such as hunger, blood, and tears. What she writes is always beautiful, but also a bit unsettling. In a favorite passage of mine, from The Dialogue, the Father says:

"Therefore I give My servants hunger and desire for My honor, and the salvation of souls, so that, constrained by their tears, I may mitigate the fury of My divine justice. Take, therefore, your tears and your sweat, drawn from the fountain of My divine love, and, with them, wash the face of My spouse.”

An important lesson we learn through Catherine’s complex interplay of metaphors throughout The Dialogue is what she describes as stages of various kinds of tears. The tears of the wicked; of fear (for those who repent, though imperfectly); tears of sweetness; of love; she even speaks about tears of fire. 

St. Catherine of Siena by Carlo Dolci

Time does not permit a full exposition of Catherine’s various tears, but I would like to highlight this one crucial aspect. We understand from her writings, and from all the spiritual masters, that the life of grace is often one punctuated by moments of tremendous sorrow. In particular, the saints teach us that as we grow closer to God we will pass through purgative nights in which God’s presence feels more remote than ever.

God in his loving wisdom withdraws himself in this way in order to prompt us onward to a more ardent love for him. He seeks to detach us from our feelings of God, so that we may grow more deeply in love with God himself. Scripture itself uses this metaphor of being weaned from milk, so that we may mature toward solid food. (1 Cor. 3:2)

This feeling of absence, often called a darkness, may also be described as a kind of spiritual thirst: “O God, you are my God—it is you I seek! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, in a land parched, lifeless, and without water.” (Ps. 63:2) Once we are weaned from the spiritual milk, we can say with the Psalmist, “I eat ashes like bread, and tears have become my drink.” (Ps. 102:10)

St. Catherine can teach us that our very yearning for God’s presence, in those moments of deep spiritual pain, can itself be God’s very mode of presence to us. Our soul may feel dried out, but only so that we may be better kindled by the divine love--and perhaps to begin shedding tears of fire.

Br. Anthony Maria Akerman, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE