Sunday, 31 May 2015

Chartres Meditation 5: St Louis and St Catherine of Siena

St Louis and St Catherine of Siena

On this second day of our pilgrimage, by meditating on the historical events of the Passion of Our Lord, we are able better to understand the Church’s teaching on the Redemption. We benefit from the Redemption by way of the sacraments, and in particular the sacrament of the Mass, the un-bloody re-presentation of the Unique Sacrifice of Christ. Such is the importance of this day.

To help us, today’s march is placed under the patronage of two great saints. The first of these is Saint Louis, king of France (1214 – 1270). Jacques le Goff, the author of a powerful study of this saint and king, asserts that in the 13th century ‘the king was Christ crucified, wearing the crown.’ We will see how accurate that judgement is.

The second of our patrons today is Saint Catherine of Siena. Born in 1347, she died in 1380, at the age of 33: the age of Christ.  She received great graces from Our Lord, of which the most important was the reception of the Stigmata: the marks of the Passion. The Dominican missal says about this great saint: Saint Catherine, a faithful instrument of the Spirit who animated her, gave life to everything she touched.’

But what is it that unites these two people, canonised by the Church? We know that many forms of sanctity co-exist, for the richness of God’s grace is infinite. The common element is abandonment to the will of God. But in this case, even though they triumphed in different centuries, both expressed the same veneration, the same understanding of the divine work. One of them had the Sainte Chapelle built, to venerate Our Lord’s Crown of Thorns. The other received in her body the stigmata: the marks of her Master. Both of them raised the teaching of the Church, and their love of that teaching, to the highest level.

If we consider St Louis first, we find that history speaks for him: in 1237 Baldwin II, the last Latin Emperor of Constantinople, was welcomed to France by the king. During his stay in the kingdom, he learned that the Latin barons of Constantinople planned to sell the most precious of all relics, the Crown of Thorns,  which had been kept safely in Constantinople for centuries. The need for money was desperate. So Baldwin appealed to the king and to his mother, Blanche of Castille, to ensure that the relic should not fall into the hands of foreigners.

St Louis was enthused: he had never imagined that his devotion to the Passion of Christ would one day allow him to acquire the Crown of crowns, the crown of the Son of God made man, the King of kings. That crown is the symbol of the most absolute poverty, and eventually came to rest in the kingdom of the lilies. (Translator’s note: the fleur de lys is the symbol of French monarchy).

But its coming would be complicated! After having sent two Dominicans to verify the authenticity of the holy relic, and assure its safety, St Louis was forced to allow it to stay in Venice for a while; the Latin barons having taken a load from the Venetian bankers – a loan using the Holy Crown as security – Venice demanded that the crown at least stay there for a while, with the king of France underwriting the repayment of the loan from his own funds.

Moreover the voyage was risky. The Greeks were setting ambushes by sea, and the overland routes were not secure either. Nevertheless, the Holy Relic arrived in France without misadventure. On the 9th August, Saint Louis, surrounded by his mother, his brothers, numerous nobles and knights, along with the bishops of Sens and Auxerre, welcomed the holy crown of thorns at Villeneuve l’Archevêque, in Burgundy. From there, in the midst of intense popular piety, it was taken to the Château de Vincennes.

It was for this relic that the saintly king had the Sainte Chapelle built: as a monumental reliquary, a work of great beauty, allowing the king to ally his glory to the glory of God.

Dear pilgrims, next time you have the chance to go to Notre Dame de Paris, remember Saint Louis: may he grant us, during this day of our pilgrimage, a devotion to the Passion of Christ, and true penitence for our sins.

A century later, Saint Catherine of Siena was born, who, as we have said, only had a very short life. What we know best about her life are the conversations she had with Our Lord, in the course of numerous apparitions. We also know about the great mission with which our Lord entrusted her: to make the Papacy return to the See of St Peter, at a time when the Pope, due to historic circumstances, was living in Avignon.

From the earliest age, St Catherine received the grace of a mystic’s life: having been granted a vision of Christ, she chose Him as her husband. From that moment, she lived her virginity as a marriage with Christ, in the midst of the perils of the world. In order better to pursue that goal, she was admitted as a tertiary member of the Dominican Order, at the age of 17.

Although she wanted above all to live the life of a contemplative, Christ urgently called her to the active life, in the service of Christendom. At that time, there was talk of a new Crusade: since 1291, the kingdom of Jerusalem no longer existed in practice, and the advance of the Turks was ever more pressing. But in order to achieve a new Crusade, the Pope’s return to Rome was absolutely essential. However, the political situation in Italy was very delicate, and St Catherine was obliged to undertake many voyages, along with an intense correspondence, in order re-establish peace between the Papacy and the various cities of Italy.

That was how she became the instrument of Christ: both by her union to Him, and by the role she played in the political plan.  As a result, she was misunderstood, and even rejected by many, including many ecclesiastics. She went to Avignon and managed, not without difficulties, to meet Pope Gregory Xl. Strengthened by her relationship with Christ, she dealt with him with great firmness, in order to give him the courage to leave Avignon, which he did in January 1377.

St Catherine of Siena accomplished the highest level of contemplation in the service of action. She was torn between her absolute love of Christ and the necessity of intervening in the affairs of the world. She, who lived the most ascetic life possible, only desired union with Our Lord.

She was given her reward on 1st April 1375 at Pisa when, as a sign of her total unity with Our Lord, she was given the stigmata.  A sign of her great humility was that she kept the marks of the stigmata hidden and therefore secret. The love of God goes by the way of the Cross, and by way of forgetting the self.

May St Catherine of Siena give us a great love of Christ and His Passion, so that we may better serve the Church, and with the Church always move closer to what is truly essential.

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