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​Catherine’s vision

· Consecrated women ·

Today we are witnessing an extraordinary reawakening of mystical theology and mysticism in various forms. The persistence of the mystical event even in advanced cultural milieux has a significant voice in the postmodern epoch. Prophecy of Karl Rahner’s kind – who proclaimed that being a mystic was the only way forward for the religious person, touched by the experience of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and risen – is coming true. The alternative, Rahner continues, is the simulation of being religious. In the 1970s Martin E. Marty, the American historian who devoted many years to the study of mystical literature, was already speaking of a recovery, with a broad dissemination and fruition of the classics. The fil rouge which links the experience and the narrative description of this mystical patrimony is the gaze: “I have found Love, Love has let himself be seen!... Tell everyone about it, tell everyone”, Veronica Giuliani affirmed (Summarium beatificationis, 115-120).

While in the Jewish and Islamic worlds knowledge followed the modality of listening, the Greek world instead linked knowing with seeing (eidon, I see, oida, I know), for which reason the concept is also thought of as an interior vision (eidos, idea). Let us remember that Aristotle’s Metaphysics opens with the statement: “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves, and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things”.How can we not think of John’s Gospel with the Greeks’ demand to Philip (“we wish to see Jesus”), with Philip’s request “Lord, show us the Father” and Jesus’ disturbing answer: “He who has seen me has seen the Father”. Marco Vannini reflects that it is precisely in the Gospel according to John – in which is affirmed the notion of God as Spirit, who is not worshipped either in temples or on mountains, or, essentially, who is not in images and representations and thus cannot be seen or in any case cannot be experienced through the senses – that is also present the idea that the Spirit is not a pale, impalpable, indistinct entity, but instead is manifest in the human being, and in all creation, since the Logos, who is God, and in whom all things were created, took flesh and came to live among us.

One of Meister Eckhart’s best known texts declares: “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge and one love” (Sermon 12). Seeing, knowing and loving are closely linked here, indeed they are one and the same act.

It is the mystic gaze of Catherine of Siena: intelligence and love, two eyes of the soul that nourish the “simple” gaze, according to the well-known image taken up by the people of the Middle Ages.

To use Montale’s phrase, Catherine’s word is like a “crystallizing flash of lightning”, more a gaze than words. Her speaking opens up visions, unexpectedly introduces us into dizziness, almost a sort of blinding explosion, a laceration in the night, a luminous wound in the darkness. A dizzying gaze, Kierkegaard suggests: those who look into the bottom of an abyss are overcome by vertigo. But the cause is no less in their eyes than in the abyss: because they must look down into it. Thus anguish is the vertigo of freedom, wherever, looking downwards into its own possibility, it grasps the finite in order to remain in it. Freedom falls into this vertigo.Catherine’s gaze enables us to glimpse, to intuit, what we are and what we are called to be: it leads us into the vertigo of the actus fidei which although, in some way heals the anguish of being, leaves us suspended in a sort of spiritual physicality in our sense of the abyss.

Thus we do not find ourselves facing an indiscreet immediacy, a simplistic and soporific elimination of the infinite distance, but rather a gaze that becomes unconditional trust; a gaze which even across that infinite distance does not eliminate the sense of the abyss.

With her vision Catherine introduces us into the high points of the human spirit where faith is not only an aesthetic emotion or an immediate impulse of the heart but a paradox of existence. She lives the gaze in the nakedness of faith and spurs us to “see” the infinite density of the qualitative difference: this is the Catherinian quaestio, “the relationship of this God and this human being, the relationship of this human being and this God”.

Catherine was granted a gaze which enabled her to share in so much mystery. She was in other words “focused on a presence”: this was mystical passivity, in the sense that the mystic is subjected to this presence but does not produce it. Passivity not passiveness: a clear perception of the presence of someone on whom one focuses with the totality of one’s being. It is not necessarily a vision or an ecstasy but a gaze that participates in the divine gaze. And St Thomas declares: Actus fidei non terminatur ad enunciabile sed ad rem.

Her mystic gaze revealed to Catherine the event of grace that is hidden in the most human events of life in which the fact that “love is as strong as death, a spark of Yah”, becomes real.

Thus in the letter to Fra Raimondo of Capua, Catherine writes “[I] write to you, commending myself to you in the precious Blood of the Son of God; with the desire to see you inflamed and drowned in that His sweetest Blood, which is blended with the fire of his most ardent charity…. I went to visit him whom you know” [Niccolò da Toldo, a young man from Perugia who had been arrested in Siena and, accused of spying for Perugia, was condemned after a short trial to death by decapitation], “whence he received such comfort and consolation that he confessed, and prepared himself very well. And he made me promise by the Love of God that when the time of the sentence should come, I would be with him. So I promised and did.... His will was accorded and submitted to the will of God; and only one fear was left, that of not being strong at the moment: ‘Stay with me, and do not abandon me. So it shall not be otherwise than well with me. And I die content’. And he laid his head upon my breast. And he said: ‘I shall go wholly joyous, and strong, and it will seem to me a thousand years before I arrive, thinking that you are awaiting me there’…. Then he came, like a gentle lamb; and seeing me, he began to smile, and wanted me to make the sign of the Cross. When he had received the sign, I said: ‘Down! To the Bridal, sweetest my brother! For soon shalt thou be in the enduring life’. He prostrated himself with great gentleness, and I stretched out his neck; and bowed me down, and recalled to him the Blood of the Lamb. His lips said naught save ‘Jesus!’ and ‘Catherine!’. And so saying, I received his head in my hands…. I have just received a Head in my hands, which was to me of such sweetness as heart cannot think, nor tongue say, nor eye see, nor the ears hear. Then was seen God-and-Man, as might the clearness of the sun be seen. And he stood wounded, and received the blood; in that blood a fire of holy desire, given and hidden in the soul by grace. He received it in the fire of his divine charity. Oh, how sweet and unspeakable it was to see the goodness of God! With what sweetness and love he awaited that soul departed from the body!”.

A mystical experience as a sweet-tasting gaze of love: amor ipse notitia est [love is itself a kind of knowledge] (Gregory the Great).

Nicla Spezzati

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