Letters Describing the Experience Preceding Death
"Fightings and fears within, without," had long been Catherine's portion. Now the end was at hand. From girlhood she had confronted a great contradiction. The sharpest trial to Christian faith throughout the ages is probably the spectacle presented by the visible Church of Christ. This abiding parable of the contrast between ideal and actual was perhaps never more painful to the devout soul than in Catherine's time, and perhaps we are safe in saying that no one ever suffered from it more than she. Her whole life was an Act of Faith: faith the more heroic because maintained against the recurrent attacks of spiritual doubt and despair. At more than one point in her career we see her, overwhelmed by the seeming failure of the divine purpose, lifting her whole being into the Presence of God, there to receive reassurance, none the less satisfying to her vigorous intellect because conveyed through the channel of mystic ecstasy.

One such experience may be quoted here. It dates apparently from the time of her greatest disappointment in Gregory; we can judge of its significance and depth from the fact that she afterward recorded it more fully, and used it as the basis for the first book of her "Dialogue." "Comfort you, dearest father," she writes to Raimondo: "Concerning the sweet Bride of Christ: for the more she abounds in tribulations and bitterness, so much the more Divine Truth promises to make her abound in sweetness.... When I had thoroughly understood your letters, I begged a servant of God to offer tears and sweats before God, for the Bride and because of the 'Babbo's' weakness.

"Whence instantly, by divine grace, there grew in her a desire and gladness beyond all measure. She waited for the morning to have Mass, it being the Day of Mary; and when the hour of Mass had come, took her place with true self-knowledge, abasing herself before God for her imperfection. And rising above herself with eager desire, and gazing with the eye of her mind into Eternal Truth, she made four petitions there, holding herself and her father in the Presence of the Bride of Truth.

"First, the reform of Holy Church. Then God, letting Himself be constrained by tears and bound by the cords of her desire, said: 'Sweetest My daughter, thou seest how she has soiled her face with impurity and self-love, and become swollen by the pride and avarice of those who feed at her bosom. But take thy tears and sweat, drawing them from the fountain of My divine charity, and cleanse her face. For I promise thee that her beauty shall not be restored to her by the sword, nor by cruelty or war, but by peace, and humble continual prayers, tears and sweats, poured forth from the grieving desires of My servants. So thy desire shall be fulfilled in long abiding, and My providence shall in no wise fail you.'

"Although the salvation of all the whole world was contained in this, nevertheless the prayer reached out more in particular, entreating for the whole world. Then God showed in how great love He had created man, and He said: 'Now thou seest that every one is striking at Me. See, daughter, with what diverse and many sins they strike at Me, and especially with their wretched abominable self-love, whence issues every evil, with which they have poisoned the whole world. Do you then, My servants, adorn you in My Presence with many prayers, and so you shall mitigate the wrath of divine justice. And know that no one can escape from My Hands. Open the eye of thy mind and gaze upon My Hand.' And lifting her eyes she saw held in His grasp all the universal world. Then He said: 'I will that thou know that no one can be taken from Me; for all are under either justice or mercy; therefore all are Mine. And because they came forth from Me, I love them unspeakably, and shall show them mercy by means of My servants.' Then, the flame of desire increasing, that woman abode as one blessed and grieving, and gave thanks to the Divine Goodness: as perceiving that God had showed her the faults of His creatures that she might be constrained to arise with more zeal and greater desire. And so greatly increased the holy fire of love, that she despised the sweat of water she poured forth, through her great desire to see a sweat of blood pour from her body: and she said to herself, 'Soul mine, thou hast wasted thy whole life. Therefore have so great losses and evils fallen on the world and on Holy Church, in general and in particular. So now I wish thee to atone with sweat of blood.' Then that soul, spurred on by holy desire, arose much higher, and opened the eye of her mind, and gazed into the Divine Charity: where she saw and felt how much we are bound to seek the glory and praise of the Name of God in the salvation of souls."

In this remarkable passage we see Catherine's high and increasing sense of responsibility. Her tears and sweats are to cleanse the face of the Church, and through the grieving desire of the servants of God, redemption is to be accomplished. She was never, as we know, one of those Christian fatalists whose optimism leads them to inaction. From the day when, reluctant, she left her little cell, she threw her power with unwearied constancy and courage into the life of her day, repugnant though its problems might be to her natural temper. Catherine was, however, profoundly convinced that social salvation was to be wrought, not by work alone, but also by prayer; or rather, for the antithesis is false, that the forces which re-create society are set in motion in the invisible sphere. Constant intercession, and the uplifting of that "holy desire" which is the watchword of her teaching into a sacrificial passion -- these are the means from which she hoped for reform and purification. In younger life, she is said to have prayed that she might be made a stopper in the mouth of Hell to prevent other souls from entering; through the quaint mediaeval figure one reads the prevailing impulse of her life.

The longer Catherine lived, the darker became the religious prospect. She saw her aims in practical politics realized one by one, only to mock her by spiritual failure. Those whom she best loved disappointed her ideal. She witnessed iniquity in high religious places, violence and corruption enlisted in the defence of truth. As she watched these things, the sense of an inward expiation to be accomplished became overpowering. It summoned her to death, and at the same time offered her a unique consolation.

These letters must now speak for themselves. They were written shortly before her death to Fra Raimondo, who, sadly though he had failed her, remained her most trusted friend. We have impressive accounts from other sources of Catherine's slow transitus -- of the long weeks during which she was literally dying, and by her own choice, of a broken heart. They corroborate many of the details here given. But of still higher value is this transcript by the woman herself -- minutely painstaking, while yet obviously composed under strong excitement -- of the experience in the secret places of her soul. The first of these letters is written under stress of emotion so intense that coherence is hardly possible. The mind is baffled in seeking to find human speech which shall even adumbrate reality. What Catherine has to describe is the culmination of her earthly life: the final triumph of faith over despair, the final offering of herself as a sacrificial victim, in obedience, as she believes, to the express Voice of God. The second letter is more calm. The sacrifice has been accepted. She is dying, not indeed by the violence of men, like the martyrs for whose fate she has yearned, but by the agony of her own heart, breaking for the sins of Holy Church. "I in this way," she writes exulting, "as the holy martyrs with blood." And her agony is serene and joyous; her last thoughts are for others; her soul is full of the victory of peace. Outwardly, all was confusion around her; but her own life -- the only region in which unity is within our reach -- was rounded into a harmonious whole. To read the expression of that life in her letters is to follow one of those tragedies that are the salvation of the world.

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