Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Transforming Love

In my recent theological studies, I have spent some time examining the writings of two great spiritual figures in Church history. One of them is quite well known to the modern Catholic; the other is all but forgotten, as a person, in our day and age, yet his influence has found its way to our current understanding, especially in a Pauline context. Those two holy people are Saint Catherine of Siena and Blessed Guerric of Igny. 

Saint Catherine of Siena, Both Mystic & Political Arbitrator

"Saint Catherine of Siena writing" by Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti
This is a faithful photographic reproduction
of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.
This week, we celebrate the feast of Saint Catherine of Siena. She was born in the middle of the 14th century, an era of great turmoil in the Church and the world in general. Catherine is known as a great mystic and spiritual writer. She also is famous for her letters and visits to Pope Gregory XI, convincing him to return the papacy to Rome and end what became known as the Avignon Papacy. She was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970, because of her exceptional holiness and her accomplishments as one of the greatest spiritual and theological writers of the Church.

While we are focusing here on some of her spiritual ideas, it is interesting to note some biographical information about the extraordinary Saint Catherine of Siena. She is another of those saints well known to most of the faithful, yet their knowledge of her usually does not go beyond the barest outlines of her biography.
She was an exceptionally devout woman who generously worked to help the poor and sick. She lived at a time when the Black Death was ravaging her home town of Siena and most of Europe. In her practices of deep contemplative prayer, she had many visions and other mystical experiences. Even as a small child, she reputedly had visions of Jesus, his mother and a number of biblical saints, including Saint Paul. We can see commonalities between Saint Paul and Saint Catherine in many of her writings, including two of her most famous sayings, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire." and “The human heart is always drawn by love." (From her Dialogue  #26).

Her influence and accomplishments also extended to the political sphere of her era, where she earned a reputation for political boldness with the courage and determination to effect reform by “speaking truth to power.” Such boldness was especially remarkable for a woman of the 14th century!

Throughout her adult life, she became a well-known personality and developed a certain power base in the political world of her turbulent times. Yet, among her contemporaries of her home town of Siena, Catherine was known as a saintly woman and often called by a kind of nickname, Beata Popolana, “Blessed Child of the People”. This was a time in history when people known for holiness and great works of mercy became popular heroes and were treated as such by a devout and cheering public. Her popularity with the public grew and spread through Europe, and it was common for her to be met by crowds of devout "fans" during her travels.

Catherine wrote, "Love transforms one into what one loves." (From Dialogue #60) These words echo the Pauline sentiment of our founder, Blessed James Alberione. He said, “That my thoughts and my affections become always more humble and united to those of Jesus. Unite myself to him; let myself be transformed into Him. ” (1931)

Blessed Guerric of Igny, Monastic Evangelist of Citeaux

"Blessed Guerric of Igny",
attribution unknown.
Next, let me introduce you to Blessed Guerric. He was a Cistercian abbot and theologian who wrote 54 sermons on a variety of theological topics, including a variety of meditations in Christology, Ecclesiology, and Spirituality. He demonstrated a strong Mariological point of view in his writings.

At first glance, Blessed Guerric seems far removed from the realities of the 21
st century. Yet, he actually developed key Pauline concepts to provide a beautiful and fascinating understanding of faith and ongoing personal conversion to increasing holiness. His sophistication can have great appeal to the post-Vatican II believer.

Let us begin our brief visit with Blessed Guerric by journeying to a little town in Belgium, Tournai, near the modern-day French border. Tournai is known for its great cultural history, partly because of its architectural sites and because it is one of the oldest cities in Belgium. It was established by the ancient Romans as a stopping point on the road between Cologne and France. Later, in the early Middle Ages, it was chosen by the Frankish kings to be their capital. It was in this town where Blessed Guerric of Igny was born between 1070 and 1080 AD.
As an intellectual in the academic community, he became a believer in the monastic reform movement. After he heard about the reform work of Saint Bernard at Clairvaux, he journeyed there in 1120 to meet Saint Bernard. He ended up staying there and becoming a loyal protégé of Saint Bernard, who eventually assigned him to the Abbey of Igny, near Rheims, as its second abbot. Along with Saint Bernard, Aelred of Rievaulx, and William of St. Thierry, Blessed Guerric has been dubbed one of the “Four Evangelists of Citeaux.”
Guerric’s writings brought out his highly developed understanding not only of the Spiritual Maternity of Mary, but also of the maternity of the Church to the believers and the maternity and “birthing” of the believer through evangelization together with the action of the Spirit. "Faithful soul," writes Guerric, "open your breast very wide, expand your affection, fear to be confined in your heart! Conceive the one whom no creature can contain" (Sermon on the Annunciation.) He echoes Saint Paul when he speaks of the formation of the believer in terms of the spiritual maternity of the evangelizer and of the disciple being conceived and born in faith. In his sermon on the Nativity, he writes, "The child Jesus was born not only for us but in us. We have 'to conceive' God in our heart."

Catherine of Siena used the language of marriage in her descriptions of mystical experience. Blessed Guerric of Igny employed concepts of maternity and birthing to describe the soul's relationship with Christ. Both of these great figures lead us into the mind and heart of God through contemplation of the spiritual meaning of the commonest and most incarnational of human activities. What does that tell us about our human lives?

May my prayers, work, and study draw me ever closer to you, Lord, so that your presence will continue to grow in me and transform me to be more and more like you each day. Amen.


Marie-Louise Handal has been a Pauline Cooperator based in Manhattan, New York City, for 15 years. She has participated in organizing and hosting a number of Pauline Family special events, media presentations, and educational programs in the New York Archdiocese and environs. Her professional work experience encompasses 20 years in international banking and finance, followed by a second career as a mathematics educator in Manhattan. Marie-Louise is a native New Yorker, born and raised in New York City.

        Her advanced degrees include a Master’s Degree in Theology from St. Joseph's Seminary, a Master of Science in the Foreign Service (MSFS) from Georgetown University, and a B.A. in Mathematics & Science from Hunter College. She is currently a candidate for the S.T.L. from the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. She also holds a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the New York Archdiocesan Center for Spiritual Development.

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