To Sister Eugenia, Her Niece at the Convent of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano
Two nieces, daughters of Bartolo Benincasa, were nuns in the Convent of Montepulciano. To one of them the following letter is addressed. One can read between the lines a lively solicitude. Never cloistered herself, Catherine had a close intimacy with cloisters, and knew their best and worst. She held in hearty and loyal respect the opportunities which they offered for leading an exalted life; to this Convent of St. Agnes she was peculiarly attached. At the same time, she was well aware, as other letters beside the present show, that even the best of cloisters afforded at this time scant shelter to young girls from emotional temptation, gross or fine. Her warnings to her niece have the authoritative tone of anxiety. Let us hope that Eugenia took them to heart; and that, leading the disciplined life of Catherine's desire, she became not unworthy to receive and apprehend in its full beauty the penetrating meditation on Prayer which forms the second part of the letter. The thoughts of this meditation, like many others in Catherine's letters, will be found amplified in her Dialogue -- a colloquy between God and her soul, composed and dictated in trance during the year 1378. The following quotation illustrates an interesting passage of the letter: --

"In this way, vocal prayer can be useful to the soul and do Me pleasure, and from imperfect vocal prayer it can advance by persevering practice to perfect mental prayer. But if it aims simply to complete its number (of paternosters), or if it gave up mental prayer for the sake of vocal, it would never arrive at perfection. Sometimes, when a soul has made a resolution to say a certain number of prayers, I may visit its mind, now in one way, now in another: at one time with the light of self-knowledge and contrition over its lightness, at another, with the largesse of My charity; at another, by putting before its mind, in diverse manner as may please Me, and as that soul may have craved, the Presence of My Truth. And the soul will be so ignorant that it will turn from My Visitation, in order to complete its number, from a conscientious scruple against giving up what it began. It ought not to do thus, for this would be a wile of the devil. But at once, when it feels its mind ready for My Visitation, in any way, as I said, it should abandon the vocal prayer. Then, when the mental has passed, if there is time it can resume the other, which it had planned to say. But if there is not time it must not care nor be troubled or bewildered."

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood, with desire to see thee taste the food of angels, since thou art made for no other end; and that thou mightest taste it, God bought thee with the Blood of His Only-Begotten Son. But reflect, dearest daughter, that this food is not taken upon earth, but on high, and therefore the Son of God chose to be lifted up upon the wood of the Most Holy Cross, in order that we might receive this food upon this table on high. But thou wilt say to me: What is this food of angels? I reply to thee: it is the desire of God, which draws to itself the desire that is in the depths of the soul, and they make one thing together.

This is a food which while we are pilgrims in this life, draws to itself the fragrance of true and sincere virtues, which are prepared by the fire of divine charity, and received upon the table of the cross. That is, virtue is won by pain and weariness, casting down one's own fleshly nature; -- the kingdom of one's soul which is called Heaven (cielo) because it hides (cela) God within it by patience, is seized with force and violence. This is the food that makes the soul angelic, and therefore it is called the food of angels; and also because the soul, separated from the body, tastes God in His essential Being. He satisfies the soul in such wise that she longs for no other thing nor can desire aught but what may help her more perfectly to keep and increase this food, so that she holds in hate what is contrary to it. Therefore, like a prudent person, she looks with the light of most holy faith, which is in the eye of the mind, and beholds what is harmful and what is useful to her. And as she has seen, so she loves and condemns -- holding, I say, her own fleshly nature and all the vices which proceed from it, bound beneath the feet of her affections. She flees all causes that may incline her to vice or hinder her perfection. So she annuls her self-will, which is the cause of all evil, and subjects it to the yoke of holy obedience, not only to the Order and its chief, but to every least creature through God. She flees all glory and human indulgence, and glories only in the shames and sorrows of Christ crucified: insults, outrage, ridicule, injuries, are milk to her; she joys in them, to be conformed with the Bridegroom, Christ crucified. She renounces conversation with fellow-beings, because she sees that they often intervene between us and our Creator, and she flees to the actual and to the mental cell.

To this I summon thee and the others: and I command thee, dearest daughter mine, that thou abide for ever in the cell of self-knowledge, where we find the angelic food of the eager desire of God toward us; and in the actual cell, with vigil and humble faithful continual prayer, divesting thy heart and mind of every creature, and clothing them with Christ crucified. Otherwise thou wouldst eat upon the earth, and there I have already said to thee, one should not eat. Reflect that thy Bridegroom, Christ sweet Jesus, wishes naught between thee and Him, and is very jealous. So as soon as He saw that thou didst love any thing apart from Him, He would go from thee, and thou wouldst be made worthy to eat the food of beasts. And wouldst thou not truly be a beast, and food for beasts, didst thou leave the Creator for the creature, and infinite good for finite and transitory things that pass like the winds, light for darkness, life for death, Him who clothes thee in the sun of justice with the clasp of obedience, and pearls of living faith, firm hope, and perfect charity, for him who robs thee of them? And wouldst thou not be foolish indeed to depart from Him who gives thee perfect purity -- so that the closer thou dost cling to Him, the more the flower of thy virginity is refined -- for those who many a time and oft shed a stench of impurity, defiling mind and body? God avert them from thee by His infinite mercy!

And in order that no such thing may ever happen to thee, be on thy guard: let not thy misfortune be such as to enter into any private conversation, with monk or layman. For if I were to know or hear it, even if I were much farther away than I am, I would give thee such a discipline that it would stay in thy memory all thy whole life; never mind who may be by. Beware neither to give nor receive, except in case of need, helping every one in common within and without. Be steadfast and mature in thyself. Serve the sisters tenderly, with all vigilance, especially those whom thou seest in need. When guests pass by and ask for thee at the gratings, abide in thy peace and do not go -- but let them say to the prioress what they wanted to say to thee, unless she commands thee to go on thy obedience. Then, hold thy head bowed, and be as savage as a hedgehog. Keep in thy mind the manners which that glorious virgin Saint Agnes made her daughters observe. Go to confession and tell thy need; and when thou hast received thy penance, run. Beware, moreover, that thy confessors be not from the men who have brought thee up. And do not wonder because I talk so; for many a time thou mayest have heard me say, and it is the truth, that the talk of so-called pious men and women, full of depraved expressions, ruins the souls and the habits and practices of Religious. Beware that thou bind thy heart to none but Christ crucified; for the hour would come when thou wouldst wish to set it free and couldst not, which would be very hard for thee. I say that the soul which has tasted of the food of angels has seen in the light that this and the other things we were speaking of are an obstacle between itself and its food, and therefore flees them with the greatest zeal. I say that it loves and seeks what may increase and preserve it. And because it has seen that this food is better enjoyed by means of prayer offered in self-knowledge, therefore it exercises itself therein continually by all the ways in which it can hold closer to God.

Prayer is of three sorts. The one is perpetual: it is the holy perpetual desire, which prays in the sight of God, whatever thou art doing; for this desire directs all thy works, spiritual and corporal, to His honour, and therefore it is called perpetual. Of this it seems that Saint Paul the glorious was talking when he said: Pray without ceasing. The other kind is vocal prayer, when the offices or other prayers are said aloud. This is ordained to reach the third -- that is, mental prayer: your soul reaches this when it uses vocal prayer in prudence and humility, so that while the tongue speaks the heart is not far from God. But one must exert one's self to hold and establish one's heart in the force of divine charity. And whenever one felt one's mind to be visited by God, so that it was drawn to think of its Creator in any wise, it ought to abandon vocal prayer, and to fix its mind with the force of love upon that wherein it sees God visit it; then, if it has time, when this has ceased, it ought to take up the vocal prayer again, in order that the mind may always stay full and not empty. And although many conflicts of diverse kinds should abound in prayer, and darkness of mind with much confusion, the devil making the soul feel that her prayer was not pleasing to God -- nevertheless, she ought not to give up on account of those conflicts and shadows, but to abide firm in fortitude and long perseverance, considering that the devil so does to draw her away from prayer the mother, and God permits it to test the fortitude and constancy of that soul. Also, in order that by those conflicts and shadows she may know herself not to be, and in the goodwill which she feels preserved within her may know the goodness of God, Who is Giver and Preserver of good and holy wills: such wills as are not vouchsafed to all who want them.

By this means she attains to the third and last -- mental prayer, in which she receives the reward for the labours she underwent in her imperfect vocal prayer. Then she tastes the milk of faithful prayer. She rises above herself -- that is, above the gross impulses of the senses -- and with angelic mind unites herself with God by force of love, and sees and knows with the light of thought, and clothes herself with truth. She is made the sister of angels; she abides with her Bridegroom on the table of crucified desire, rejoicing to seek the honour of God and the salvation of souls; since well she sees that for this the Eternal Bridegroom ran to the shameful death of the Cross, and thus fulfilled obedience to the Father, and our salvation. This prayer is surely a mother, who conceives virtues by the love of God, and brings them forth in the love of the neighbour. Where dost thou show love, faith, and hope, and humility? In prayer. For thou wouldst never take pains to seek the thing which thou didst not love; but he who loves would ever be one with what he loves -- that is, God. By means of prayer thou askest of Him thy necessity; for knowing thyself -- the knowledge on which true prayer is founded -- thou seest thyself to have great need. Thou feelest thyself surrounded by thine enemies -- by the world with its insults and its recalling of vain pleasures, by the devil with his many temptations, by the flesh with its great rebellion and struggle against the spirit. And thou seest that in thyself thou art not; not being, thou canst not help thyself; and therefore thou dost hasten in faith to Him who is, who can and will help thee in thine every need, and thou dost hopefully ask and await His aid. Thus ought prayer to be made, if thou wishest to have that which thou awaitest. Never shall any just thing be denied thee which thou askest in this wise from the Divine Goodness; but if thou dost in other wise, little fruit shalt thou receive. Where shalt thou feel grief in thy conscience? In prayer. Where shalt thou divest thee of the self-love which makes thee impatient in the time of insults and of other pains, and shalt clothe thee in the divine love which shall make thee patient, and shalt glory in the Cross of Christ crucified? In prayer. Where shalt thou breathe the perfume of virginity and the hunger for martyrdom, holding thee ready to give thy life for the honour of God and the salvation of souls? In this sweet mother, prayer. This will make thee an observer of thy Rule: it will seal in thy heart and mind three solemn vows which thou didst make at thy profession, leaving there the imprint of the desire to observe them until death. This releases thee from conversation with fellow-creatures, and gives thee converse with thy Creator; it fills the vessel of thy heart with the Blood of the Humble Lamb, and crowns it with flame, because with flame of love that Blood was shed.

The soul receives and tastes this mother Prayer more or less perfectly, according as it nourishes itself with the food of angels -- that is, with holy and true desire for God, raising itself on high, as I said, to receive it upon the table of the most sweet Cross. Therefore I said to thee that I desired to see thee nourished with angelic food, because I see not that in otherwise thou couldst be a true bride of Christ crucified, consecrated to Him in holy religion. So do that I may see thee a jewel precious in the sight of God. And do not go about wasting thy time. Bathe and drown thee in the sweet Blood of thy Bridegroom. I say no more. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.

to monna agnese who was
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