Catherine of Siena's
Wisdom and Spirituality
by Nadine Foley

Fall 1991, Vol.43 No.3, pp. 204-219

Nadine Foley, OP is presently the Prioress of the Adrian Dominican CongregationPublished widely on women in the church, she was president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1988-1989.

This article, originally delivered at Aquinas Institute in September, 1990, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the proclamation of Catherine of Siena as a Doctor of the Church, portrays Catherine's wisdom and its message for today's spirituality.


In 1970 when Pope Paul VI declared our sister Catherine of Siena to be a Doctor of the Church, he gave her the unique title Doctor of Wisdom. Doctors of the Church have traditionally been distinguished by their learning their personal sanctity, and the orthodoxy of their teaching,(1) and such qualities can certainly be attributed to Catherine. Still, compared to the great doctors of the Church in the patristic era and subsequent times, Catherine's entitlement stands, along with that of Teresa of Avila, in marked contrast, not just because she is a woman, but because of the nature of her kind of legacy.

While doctors of the Church are no doubt singled out for the orthodoxy of their doctrine, and Catherine is not to be discounted on that criterion, I believe that as we look to her from our vantage point six centuries later we see her as exemplifying, more than doctrine, or teaching. Her doctrine, what we might call her preaching, is a total life experience that unifies belief, conviction, devotion and service within her profound mystical experience of God. God's presence to her is so intense that God's mind and will become her own as she looks out upon the people and events that make up her world. In that respect, then, Catherine's contribution to our Christian and Dominican heritage is more than doctrinal orthodoxy found in her writings. It is a unique spirituality, an unexampled fusion of intellectual and existential truth in her whole being, one that we can profitably explore through the motif of wisdom.

A number of strains of thought and interest have come together in my reflections about Catherine: first of all, there is Catherine herself, a truly extraordinary woman for any period of time, but one who must be understood in terms of her own; (2) secondly, the emergence in our day of a remarkable interest in spirituality, evident in a variety of trends, notable among them the spirituality of women; thirdly, a focus in biblical studies on the Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the personification of the Wisdom figure as Sophia; fourthly, the challenges, that face us as Christians in the global society and at our particular point in history. I think that Catherine can speak to these areas of interest.


There are a number of ways in which we can understand wisdom. Philosophically, we have understood it as the highest of the intellectual virtues, the goal to be achieved in a lifelong Pursuit of leaming. Theologically, it is the knowledge of divine things, a gift of the Spirit of God, whose beginning is found in faith and which directs the movements of mind and will (Summa Theologica, I-II, 68, 4, ad 5). Wisdom, in these senses, enables the one who possesses it to rise above the limitations imposed by divisions and categories of knowledge to see the integration and unity of truth ultimately in God - the Supreme Wisdom.

We can also understand wisdom in a mythic sense. Among the high gods of the ancient Asian religions there was always a figure distinguished by superior knowledge who was in possession of the divine plan of salvation. In Egyptian lore Isis and Osiris embodied this understanding, and their influence is found in the Canaanite and Aramaean forms which in turn influenced the Hokmah of the Hebrew scriptures. This feminine principle was originally understood as experience and skill gained in active contact with human beings and things. It had a practical bent and is expressed in the wealth of the often paradoxical maxims with which the Wisdom literature abounds. But in the post-exilic period of ancient Israel's history the elements of revelation and divine gift were embodied in the connotation of Wisdom. Wisdom was endowed with the character of governance and careful guidance and became an hypostatis or personification endowed with divine insight and power.

In the Christian scriptures Wisdom is related to Christ. In the synoptic gospels words from the Wisdom literature are found on the lips of Jesus. Paul formally identified Jesus with divine wisdom (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:24 et passim). John's portrait of Jesus as self-proclaiming teacher echoes in a striking way the portrait of Sophia in the Hebrew scriptures. (3) Christian instruction becomes "sapiential"; and preaching is the announcement of the manifold wisdom of God for which the spirit of wisdom and revelation enlightens the eyes of the heart. (4)

To reflect upon meanings of wisdom allows us to consider in what respect we may attribute to Catherine her title Doctor of Wisdom. It opens up as well the question of how we might characterize in a general way her contribution to the history of Christian and Dominican tradition. Others, Thomas certainly, are distinguished for us by syntheses of theology, marvelous systematic summations of theological truth to be studied and assimilated and through which we can come to grasp all of the elements of creation in relation to God. But such is not Catherine's legacy. Hers is for us an entree into a medieval woman's relationship to God in words that lead us directly into her experience of God and her relationships with people in many walks of life. While a Thomas may give us a framework within which to understand and to cultivate spirituality, Catherine bequeaths her spirituality to us in as direct a way as possible. She allows us to enter into her experience.

Catherine exemplifies truly what spirituality is, at a time when many of our contemporaries, many of us to be sure, exhibit fascination with spirituality, its history, the Christian mystical tradition and its contemporary expressions, particularly from a feminist perspective. I emphasize the latter because, while writings on spirituality are proliferating, they are particularly evident in the corpus of feminist literature. Exploration into what spirituality is continues to be a preoccupation both within and outside of established religious traditions.


What many are calling spirituality today is not the special preserve of persons who opt for a specifically religious way of life. It is not identified with one side of a matter/spirit duality that divides reality and calls for separatism, exclusion and privilege. It is not synonymous with asceticism or special kinds of spiritual exercises that were typical of Catherine and others. Rather as we look at the various efforts to define spirituality today we detect the constant elements of unification, integration,

relationship, self-transcendence. When spirituality is perceived within a religious faith tradition it includes the experience of the actualization of self-transcendence by the Holy. When the milieu is Christian, it involves the actualization of the human capacity for self transcendence through the experience of God, in Jesus the Christ, through the gift of the Spirit. Joann Wolski Conn says, "Because this God, Jesus, and the Spirit are experienced through body-community-history-influenced human life and symbols Christian spirituality includes every dimension of human life."(5) Sandra Schneiders, in a similar vein, comments that "the term has broadened to connote the whole of the life of faith and even the life of the person as a whole including its bodily, psychological, social, and political dimensions" (679). It is "the experience of consciously striving to integrate one's life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives" (684).

We look today, not only to define spirituality, but to find models of spirituality in persons who exemplify what it is in lived experience. Catherine of Siena uniquely offers us such a model. In her Dialogue we can enter with her into her intimate communications with God; in her prayers we can join in her loving response to God speaking to her in the scriptures; in he letters we can participate in her anguish and care for people, government and the Church in her day. Through these means and through her biographers we experience her spirituality and we can view it from the perspective of Wisdom, Sophia.


The wisdom of Catherine encompasses the philosophical, theological and mythical connotations of wisdom, but also the psychological, social and political integration that is the current ideal of spirituality. But if I have preference it is to see Catherine as reflecting the Hokmah or Sophia of the Hebrew scriptures as embodied in Jesus. This feminine principle in the Godhead is at the heart of the creative act, as well as the one who recreates and renews.

The whole of chapter eight of the Book of Wisdom speaks of Sophia's qualities. She is the one who instructs, teaches moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude, understands language solutions of riddles, signs and wonders. Throughout the Wisdom literature,

Sophia is called sister, wife, mother, beloved, and teacher. She is the leader on the way, the preacher in Israel, the taskmaster and creator God. She seeks people, finds them on the road, invites them to dinner. She offers life, rest, knowledge, and salvation to those who accept her. She dwells in Israel and officiates in the sanctuary. She sends prophets and apostles and makes those who accept her "friends of God."

This summary of the characteristics of Sophia is taken from Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza who goes on to summarize pertinent biblical texts:

"She is but one but yet can do everything, herself unchanging. She makes all things new" (Wis 7:27). Wisdom sought a dwelling place among humanity, but found none. Therefore she has withdrawn again and "has taken her seat among the angels" (1 Enoch 42:1-2). She is a people-loving spirit (philanthropon pneuma, 1:6) who shares the throne of God (9:10). She is an initiate (mystis) of God's knowledge, an associate in God's works, and emanation of the God of light, who lives in symbiosis with God (8:3-4), an image of God's goodness (7:26). (6)

In the Christian scriptures she is also the inclusive graciousness and goodness of God spelled out again and again in the parables of Jesus. The parables of the creditor who freely remits the debts of those who cannot pay, of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, of the woman searching for her lost coin, of the laborers working in the vineyard all speak to the equality of all rooted in the gracious goodness of God. The God image in the parables and in Jesus' relationships with people is always distinguished by mercy and compassion. Says Elizabeth Fiorenza, "The earliest Jesus traditions perceive this God of gracious goodness in a woman's Gestalt as divine Sophia (wisdom)" (261-263). And in that respect Catherine's frequent use of the word "gentle" in describing God is consonant with the images of God portrayed in the parables. (7)

Other scholars have studied the evidence of Jesus' identification with Sophia in his manner of self-proclaiming teacher, in his words which often reflect the Wisdom passages, in his bearing the message of God. It is evident in texts from John, Matthew, Luke and Paul. That the Sophia tradition does not come through more explicitly in the New Testament is attributed to the gnostic controversy. ". . . the New Testament churches could not proclaim Jesus as Sophia directly or develop the figure of Jesus Sophia further without being identified with the gnostic rejection of Jesus' humanity and crucifixion" (Cady, 52).

These insights into the Jesus Sophia tradition come to my mind as I re-read Catherine of Siena. I do not say that Catherine was preoccupied with this kind of biblical interpretation and criticism. It is quite clear that she was not. But I do say that Catherine, aware of God's total possession of her in Jesus, reflects the Sophia strand of the Jesus tradition in remarkable ways and that we are entitled to look at her in such a way.


It is interesting that Catherine in her prayers consistently identified Jesus as Wisdom. Her Trinitarian formula initiates her prayer in a familiar pattern.

Power of the eternal Father, help me!
Wisdom of the Son, enlighten the eye of my understanding!
Tender mercy of the Holy Spirit, enflame my heart and unite it to yourself! (Prayers, 48)
And in a longer variation:
You, Godhead, one in being and three in Persons,
are one vine with three branches
if I may be permitted to make such a comparison.
You made us in your image and likeness so that,
with our three powers in one soul,
we might image your trinity and your unity.
And as we image so we may find union:
through our memory,
image and be united with the Father,
to whom is attributed power,
through our understanding,
image and be united with the Son,
to whom is attributed wisdom;
through our will,
image and be united with the Holy Spirit,
to whom is attributed mercy,
and who is the love of the Father and the Son. (Prayers, 42)

This prayer also reveals the three divinely bestowed powers of the soul as Catherine identifies them -- memory, associated with power; understanding, with wisdom, and will, with mercy - reflecting the trinitarian image of God in the human person. These are qualities Catherine claims for herself as one bearing God's image. We can see her memory of all that God communicated to her becoming the motivation of her entire being. We can see power being assumed by her in the authority she exercised in fearlessly pursuing the designs of God. And we can see God's mercy reflected in her caring service of the poor and afflicted.

Catherine undoubtedly reflects Paul's identification of Jesus as Wisdom and she says explicitly of Paul:

You joined your power of understanding with the Son,
the Word,
understanding perfectly the whole order
ordained by wisdom itself,
the Word,
the order that is to lead created things to their goal
and their goal is the same as their origin." (Prayers, 42)

Strikingly, here Catherine's words emphasize the order of the whole of creation and its ordering to its goal which is also its origin. Paul has come to his knowledge of that ordering through his power being joined to that of Jesus, she says. The concept elicits various resonances with the description of Sophia. "She deploys her strength from one end of the earth to the other, ordering all things for good . . . Yes, she is an initiate in the mysteries of God's knowledge. She makes choice of the works God is to do." (Wisdom 8:34)

What is all the more remarkable, it would seem, is that Catherine sees that what is possible for Paul is also possible for her, despite her often-proclaimed sense of nothingness in the face of God who is all, (8) and with seemingly no internalization of the notion that as a woman she is in any way circumscribed. Over and again Catherine claims her own authority, assumes a teaching, guiding and correcting role, exercises leadership in the arenas of church and state.

Catherine's appeal to Pope Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome is forthright, persuasive and commanding in her own right. She writes in part:

Ah, my dear father! I am begging you, I am telling you: come, and conquer our enemies with the same gentle hand. In the name of Christ crucified I am telling you. Don't choose to listen to the devil's advisors. They would like to block your holy and good resolution. Be a courageous man for me, not a coward. Respond to God, who is calling you to come and take possession of the place of the glorious shepherd, Saint Peter, whose representative you still are. (Letters, 202)

She has the temerity, at least as we look at her from our vantage point today, to give the Pope lengthy discourses on who Jesus is, how God acts in our human affairs, what the demands of mercy, justice and charity are, what the role of the papacy is and more. She speaks in her own name but with the certainty that comes from her union with God whose interests she has made her own (Letters, 203-208).

When we read the description of Wisdom in Chapter 7 of the Book of Wisdom it is easy to think of Catherine.

For in her is a spirit
intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile,
clear, unstained, certain,
Not baneful, loving the good, keen,
unhampered, beneficent, kindly.
Firm, secure, tranquil,
all-powerful, all-seeing,
And pervading all spirits,
though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.
(Wisdom 7:22-23)
Catherine's wisdom spirit with its own claim to personal authority is quite as evident when she writes to the political powers of her day, as in her words by letter to Charles V, King of France. Her directness is typical. She writes in part:

There are three specific things I am asking you, in your position, to do for love of Christ crucified. The first is to make light of the world and of yourself and of all earthly pleasures. Hold your kingdom as something lent to you, not as if it were your own....

The second thing I am asking is that you uphold true holy justice. Let it not be adulterated by selfish love for yourself or by flattery or by human respect. And don't pretend not to see if your officials are inflicting injustice for money, denying the poor

their rights. No, be a father to the poor as a dispenser of what God has given you.

The third thing is to follow the teaching given you by this Master on the cross, which is exactly what my soul most longs to see in you: friendship and love between you and your neighbor with whom you have been so long at war.

Her ardent desire to win the Holy Land for Christ, and to extend his salvation to those who have never heard of him, is evident as she continues:

I beg you to stop being the agent of so much evil and the obstacle to such a good as the recovery of the Holy Land and of all those poor souls who have no share in the blood of God's Son. You and the other Christian lords ought to be ashamed of such a thing. What a scandal, humanly speaking, and what an abomination before God, that you should be making war against your brother and leaving your enemy alone, and that you should be seizing what belongs to another and not get back what is yours! Enough of this stupid blindness! (Letters 238-9)

Of Wisdom it is said,

For she is instructress in the understanding of God, the selector of God's works.
And if riches be a desirable possession in life,
what is more rich than Wisdom, who produces all things?
And if prudence renders service, who in the world is a better artisan than she?
Or if one loves justice,
the fruits of her works are virtues;
For she teaches moderation and prudence,
justice and fortitude,
and nothing in life is more useful [for men] than these.

It would be difficult to find a more perfect mirror image of Sophia, depicted in this way, than we have in Catherine.

But despite the identification of Catherine with the holy wars, something we can only understand in the kind of Christian theocracy that was an ideal for her in her medieval setting, she was also a paragon of mercy. Surrounding her were victims of the plague, of the petty wars between the cities and states, of pervasive poverty. We know of her compassion for suffering people. Mary Ann Fatula writes, "She served those whom no one else would touch: the leprous and reviling Tecca; the abusive Palmerina; the dying Andrea, still strong enough in her cancerous illness to slander Catherine's reputation by accusing her of impurity" (27-28). And she could minister to one condemned to death, internalizing the terror of impending violence but sublimating it to the absolute certainty that a loving God awaited him in a glorious life beyond human comprehension.

She was the channel of God's love in all of her ministrations to people and was consumed with the desire to make God's mercy known to them through her. She prayed:

Eternal goodness,
you want me to gaze into you
and see that you love me,
to see that you love me gratuitously,
so that I may love everyone with the very same love.
You want me, then,
to love and serve my neighbors gratuitously,
by helping them spiritually and materially
as much as I can,
without any expectation of selfish profit or pleasure.
Nor do you want me to hold back
because of their ingratitude or persecution,
or for any abuse I may suffer from them. (Prayers, 102)

Such prayer reflected back to God what she had learned in her dialogues where God said to her in many ways, ". . . love of me and love of neighbor are one and the same thing: Since love of neighbor has its source in me, the more the soul loves me, the niore she loves her neighbors" (Dialogue, 36). Catherine was the extension of God's mercy, a quality that she attributed, along with love, to the Holy Spirit. Praying to God in her usual Trinitarian modality, she concludes, ". . . And you gave us free will to love what our understanding sees and knows of your truth, and so share the mercy of your Holy Spirit" (Dialogue, 49).

Mercy, rahamim, "womb love," is one of the qualities of the covenant between God and God's people recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. The others are truth, justice, hesed or covenant love, and peace. Mercy among them is a uniquely feminine term, and certainly over time it may have become a quality expected of women. But it is, in fact, a quality of God and a quality necessary for the unification and strength of the people of God united in covenant. It is clearly evident in Catherine, although in her strength of conviction and assertiveness she is not to be stereotyped. Yet she prays plaintively:

... it is clear
that, though you created us without our help,
you do not want to save us without our help.
You want us, merciful and compassionate Father,
to look at your boundless compassion for us,
so that we may learn to be compassionate,
first of all to ourselves and then to our neighbors--
just as the glorious Paul said,
"All charity begins with oneself."

Catherine claimed her personhood and inner authority from her inviolable sense of union with God. In the Prologue to The Dialogue she quotes Jesus from the Gospel of John (14:21-23), "If you will love me and keep my word, I will show myself to you, and you will be one thing with me and I with you" (Dialogue, 25). And as she prayed, remonstrated, cajoled, instructed, Motivated and lived, she did so with a profound sense of God's identification with her, of God's acting through her in Jesus. And as she does these things it is not difficult to see that reflection as Jesus Sophia.


Catherine of Siena can speak to our times in many ways and she does. She is a heroine to many, especially to women who seek models within the Christian faith tradition. Her strength, her courage, her conviction, her single-mindedness are attractive and inspiring. As a woman fully conscious of her power to effect change, a power rooted in her personal identification with God, she is unsurpassed. And as a woman reflecting the feminine side of God detectable in the Sophia strain she offers an alternative to the need felt by many to seek models of feminist spirituality in other than the Christian tradition. Her extraordinary penances, fastings, ecstasies and revelations are scarcely imitable by many but her self transcendence evident in her extension of herself, as emissary of Jesus, into the personal and social lives of the afflicted, be it peasant, king or pope, is a model for all in any age, particularly in our own.

It is that self transcendence, the ideal of so many proponents of contemporary spirituality, that is especially worthy of our attention. So profound was her experience of Jesus, admittedly a gift freely bestowed, that she was able to transcend all limitations -- her youth at first, her family expectations, her socially imposed restrictions as a woman in medieval society, her initial propensity for contemplative encounter with God in solitude. And especially that she was who she was as a woman will never cease to be remarkable.

So often Catherine hearkens back to the creative act of God. Over and again as she begins her recorded prayer she addresses God with the reminder, "You made us in your image and likeness so that with our three powers in one soul, we might image your trinity and your unity" (Prayers, 42). Today there is some official questioning as to whether or not the image of God, or specifically of Jesus, can be in women. That was no question for Catherine. She was fully conscious that, as the creature and beloved of God, the trinitarian God was fully reflected in her, fully in possession of her. We know from her Dialogue that she knew of St. Thomas Aquinas (155, 339), and Mary Walter Flood points out how the doctrinal elements of her teachings reflect those of the Angelic Doctor (25-35). But if she knew of Thomas' assessment of women (ST, 1, 92, a. 1-4), she surely didn't believe it. Her own experience and her own inner authority assumed through the God who possessed her contradicted it.

But equally remarkable is the self transcendence in Catherine that reached out in response to the needs of her time. It would have been so easy for her to remain a recluse, it would seem. But that is not the way it was. She is an extraordinary model of a woman who entered into relationships of all kinds and who, in her pleadings with popes and kings, was an advocate of unity and community. In that respect the Pauline image of the Body of Christ was an obsession. And in that preoccupation her example is an antidote for the rampant individualism of our times that reaches even into the Church and into the life of religious groups committed to the mission of Jesus.

Recently Robert Bellah spoke to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at their June meeting in California on the subject of leadership. Bellah, well known for his book Habits of the Heart with its incisive analysis of individualism, juxtaposed the Lockean-based American society with the Hebrew notion of covenant that informs our theology of ecclesial community in his address to the bishops. He said in part:

... the covenant is not a limited relation based on self-interest, but an unlimited commitment based on loyalty and trust. It involves obligations to God and the neighbor that transcend self-interest, though it promises a deeper sense of self-fulfillment through participation in a divinely instituted order that leads to life instead of death. (219)

In describing the influence of Locke's teaching, Bellah says that "'it is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, ideologies ever invented.... It promises an unheard of degree of individual freedom, an unlimited opportunity to compete for material well-being and an unprecedented limitation on the arbitrary powers of government to interfere with individual initiative" (219). It is not my purpose to review how this ideal that has informed the history of our nation infects family life, the marketplace, all manner of social institutions including the academy, and the political arena at local, state and national levels. Suffice it to say that what is the prevailing ideology for our society also enters into our ecclesial communities. Mary Jo Leddy, whose book Reweaving Religious Life has been widely read by members of religious institutes in the past year, raises questions about the impact of individualism on religious institutes. While she organizes her analysis around liberalism, the import of her critique is compatible with that of Bellah.

For many of us how we become covenant communities as church and religious institutes is an overriding concern as we face the many alien influences that erode the foundations of our Christian faith communities. The times call for conversion and that need that seems to have been identified by so many: transformation.

To that end Catherine is an eminent model of what our times call us to be. She was an individual surely. But her individuality was not self-seeking nor self-serving. Her individuality is the expression of who she could be because of the God-life within her and it is extraordinary in its manifestation of self transcendence. She had no personal agenda other than that which she perceived to be God's -- healing, reconciling, unifying, re-establishing the order that God had put in place at the dawn of creation, always zealous for the integrity of the Christian community and its authority as she perceived them to be. That kind of self transcendence is the ideal of Christian spirituality today. It is the work of Wisdom, Sophia, the one who speaks in the words of Sirach, "I send my teachings forth shining like the dawn, to become known afar off. Thus do I pour out instruction like prophecy and bestow it on generations to come." (24-20,31.) Such is the wisdom of Catherine of Siena.


1. "Doctor of the Church," Theological Dictionary, ed. by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968),132.

2. I ascribe to the cautions noted by Suzanne Noffke, OP that we cannot read into the life and writings of Catherine answers to questions her own time and place would never have raised for her; nor can we place undue emphasis on categories and vocabulary. She says that "we must look to the totality of Catherine's life and writings to learn the patterns and principles that flow beneath the surface of her language," in "Catherine of Siena and Ecclestal Obedience," Spirituality Today, 41 (Spring, 1989), 4-5.

3.See Susan Cady, Marian Ronan and Hal Taussig, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 38-54. The endnotes of this volume are an indicator of the extent of scholarly research into Wisdom.

4. The foregoing is drawn from Eugen Biser, "Wisdom," Encyclopedia of Theology. The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. by Karl Rahner (New York: Seabury Press, (1975),1817-1821.

5. "Women's Spirituality: Restriction and Reconstruction," in Women's Spirituality:Resources for Christian Development, ed Joann Wolski Conn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 9-10.

6. "The Sophia-God of Jesus," in Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development, 264.

7. See Sheila Galligan, "Sheltered by the Mercy: St. Catherine's Gentle Way," Spirituality Today 42 (Spring, 1990), 15-36.

8. See, for example, Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, trans. by Suzanne Noffke, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 56: "God says, I am who I am, whereas you have no being at all of yourselves."


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