Saint Catherine of Siena spent her life encouraging a deeper obedience to God the Father. Although the earthly life of this Doctor of the Church ended over six hundred years ago, her spiritual teaching has passed into the universal patrimony of the Church. In particular, the personal relationship she enjoyed with the eternal Father through her faith in Christ crucified can help us reassess our own attitudes toward the Fatherhood of God, the obedience of Christ and suffering for the Lord.
In The Dialogue, the Mystic of Siena shares with us her conversations with the Eternal Father. She dictated this teaching while in a state of ecstasy, and later edited it with her own hand. The result is a tender but dramatic dialogue where the Father responds to her deepest questions by helping her see His perspective on the world, the Church and His own desires for humanity. At the end of this work, Saint Catherine shares the Father’s perspective on the mystery of obedience in the Christian life.
Contemporary assumptions about obedience, suffering and fatherhood are challenged by her teaching. We have been taught to believe fatherhood as little more than a chauvinistic institution of a bygone era. We blindly assume obedience is exhausted by the demeaning submission of our freedom to an extrinsic imposition of an authority figure. We tend to look at any suffering that results from obedience as something to be avoided at all costs. In her teachings, the Father asserts the direct opposite.
In the wisdom of Saint Catherine we see, as a result of these prejudices, our hearts are not able to receive the secret code that unlocks the Truth by which we have access to heaven. Without this hidden key, we are locked in ignorance about our own hearts, and the heart of the Father, and the greatness for which He fashioned us. Without this mysterious password, our ignorant selfishness renders us impatient with ourselves, with others and with life. Even still, Saint Catherine’s teaching are less condemning than they are encouraging.
Throughout The Dialogue but especially in the section on obedience, this daughter of St. Dominic explores how the Father does not desire us to be trapped in resentful impatience but longs for us to know the freedom to love. He knows our freedom to love can only be found in Him and He is eager that we should find it. If His love is our true home, the freedom of heaven’s love requires that we step through the door of truth and the only way to open this door is with the key of obedience. St. Catherine helps us see the Father as the One who so desires our homecoming that He sent His Son to suffer and die in order that we might have the key of obedience.
For Saint Catherine of Siena, the painful but beautiful mystery of Christian obedience is rooted in the truth about the Father revealed in Christ. The Father is not indifferent to our plight and He is not removed or far away from the hardships we must endure. In the wisdom of Saint Catherine, He is completely aware of us and knows the truth about who we are. He knows the peril we face and ever hopes for our return to Him, even as we demean and hurt one another in ways He finds completely unacceptable.
In the Father’s tender concern, He sent Word to humanity that we might have the key of obedience, a key that unlocks the truth, the truth that gives us access to the fullness of life He yearns for us to know. In the way Jesus hastened to his shameful death on the Cross, we are able to discern the truth about obedience. Rather than a mechanical response to the extrinsic imposition of a distant authority, Saint Catherine invites us to enter into a loving surrender of heart in humility and trust.
The Father desires that we obey His Eternal Word and this requires us to be obedient to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is as true in the obedience rendered in religious life as it is in the obedience we owe one another in our marriages and in our families. When we respond to one another with an impatience unbecoming of the Lord, we glimpse our lack of trust in God. There is an abyss that yawns between the impatient power games we play with each other and true Christian obedience. If it is painful at times, the obedience of Christ is always open to friendship and salvific solidarity in the most unexpected and beautiful ways.
Obedience is a mysterious form of hospitality whereby I welcome the heart of another into my heart to discern the truth that is there. This kind of attentiveness suffers the differences between where we are with each other and, for the sake of love, constantly finds ways to surrender one’s own plans so that the noble desires of another and the truth by which they live might be realized and made known. As I listen to the needs, desires and plans of the one I love, Christian obedience means that I choose to respond with the fullness of my freedom to share in what Christ is asking of us together – both in things that are said and in things that are not said, things that are understood and sometimes in things we do not understand, even very difficult things that can only be accepted with humility and trust in God.
When we render one another the obedience the Lord asks of us, Saint Catherine invites us to draw from the same mysterious font that flowed in the Heart of Christ. If He obeyed the Father with zeal, the source of this eager obedience was the Son’s love for the honor of the Father and His desire for our salvation. He knew the goodness and love of His Father. He knew His Father’s desire that this goodness should be revealed to desperate humanity. In welcoming the Heart of the Father into His own Heart, the truth Jesus contemplated reverberated from the depths of his sacred humanity, moving Him to offer Himself in the humility of suffering love, no matter the cost. If we are to follow our crucified Master, we too must take on the anguished love of such obedience and allow this love to renew the depths of our own hearts.
Because our nature is so unfamiliar with it, this kind of suffering obedience is not something we can simply attain by our own effort. It is not the product of a nice wish. It is not a matter of a simple change in behavior. It is a reality of the heart. But we do not know our hearts and we have so little control over what they contain. How, then, is Christian obedience possible?
For Saint Catherine, it is the life Blood of Jesus that allows us to live by this same love, an obedience of love that is vulnerable to suffer anything for the glory of the Father and the salvation of souls. The Blood of Lamb is the food of contemplation — a contemplation of the heart that shows hospitality to the Heart of the Lord. Through pondering on the Blood of Jesus, on His work of redemption, we discover in Christ the truth about the Father, the truth about obedience and the truth about the anguished love to which Christian obedience opens us. To know this truth is to have access to a fullness of life, a joy too great for this world to hold. Inebriated in the Blood of Christ and pierced to the heart by the truth about the Father, our gratitude for what Christ has done disposes us to welcome as our own the mystery of obedience, the key He was sent to give.
Art for this post on Catherine of Siena and the Key of Obedience: Saint Catherine of Siena, anonymous painter, 19th century?, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.