Full disclosure: I call Catherine of Siena my nemesis. This might seem unfriendly, but it’s true.

I have a friend who once described Catherine as one of her favorite saints. To find out why, I read a biography, then traveled to Rome and Siena, Italy. I hoped for some songwriting inspiration based on Catherine’s “essence.”

But, that didn’t happen right away. Even as I learned how Catherine accomplished unbelievable things during a very short life, her personality seemed distant and inaccessible. She appeared somewhat selfish, with an overly-high opinion of herself. I had trouble liking her. Or maybe, across the centuries, I was simply jealous of this formidable woman.

Who Was Catherine?

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Fresco of Catherine by Andrea Vanni (circa 1400) in the Basilica of San Domenico, Siena, Italy

On March 25, 1347, Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa was born into a Sienese family with a profitable fabric-dying business. Catherine was brought up in a time when Italy was a collection of city-states and Papal states who warred with one another. It was also the period when successive Popes had abandoned Rome and were governing the Catholic Church and the Papal states from Avignon, France.

When Catherine was just six years old, she experienced the first of many ecstatic visions for which she would become well known. She said her visions were gifts from God that she could see in her imagination and sometimes physically feel. Catherine’s first vision occurred when she was running an errand with her brother. She looked up at the sky and saw Christ smiling down at her.

In her teen years, Catherine’s family began preparing her for eventual marriage. But, Catherine, fixated on that first vision, hoped instead to devote her life to God. To make herself physically unappealing by medieval standards, she secretly cut her hair down to a stubble. Defying her parents in this manner was unheard of in Catherine’s day; a child could increase a family’s fortune with the right marriage arrangement. But, eventually convinced of their daughter’s spiritual vocation, Catherine’s parents surrendered to her wishes.

Catherine could have chosen to enter the convent at her local Dominican-led church. However, she didn’t want to lead a cloistered life, closed off from the outer community. Instead, she remained in her parents’ home and joined the female Mantellate, a religious community of women whose members wore nun-like habits and were associated with the Dominicans, but didn’t live together.

Catherine was a lot younger than the other Mantellate, had her own ideas about how she should follow her calling, and sometimes ignored the group’s activities. She often found herself at odds with the other women.

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Detail of sculpture by Neroccio di Bartolomeo de’ Landi, 1474

Catherine experienced a watershed moment at age 21. During one of her trances, she said Jesus told her to go out into the world to save souls. In the 14th Century, most women didn’t venture far from their hometowns. Yet, strong-willed Catherine soon began traveling outside of Siena, preaching in other towns and honing a new skill: negotiating peace among warring factions of nobles, politicians, and Church leaders. And, although Catherine was illiterate for most of her life, she corresponded with many dignitaries through letters she dictated to scribes.

Catherine became a celebrity in her own time. People followed her everywhere. Eyebrows raised when she allowed acolytes to kiss her hand. But, she apparently didn’t object to them doing so because she was unflattered by the attention. Her personal theology was based on confidence in her own self-knowledge — mainly that the “self” is only virtuous when activated by God; therefore, a person cannot be more virtuous than another person. Ironically, Catherine said she was less virtuous than other people.

Catherine’s work came to a climax in 1376 when she put her mind to an especially lofty goal: convincing Pope Gregory XI to reform corrupt Church leaders and also return the Papacy to Rome. Here again, it would be remarkable for a woman, especially an unlearned one, to have the ear of a pope in the Middle Ages. But, Catherine was respected by other powerful men who had heeded her counsel, and she was secure in the self-knowledge of her mission, as directed by her visions. And amazingly, in 1377, Pope Gregory left France and reestablished the Church in Rome.

Catherine followed him there. However, her health soon declined, and she didn’t live much longer. Although Catherine was a formidable force, unfortunately she also applied her strength to the practice of extreme fasting, which caused a severe, years-long eating disorder. This led to Catherine’s premature death in 1380 at age 33.

Catherine’s Legacy

Catherine achieved sainthood in 1461. And, in 1970 she and Saint Teresa of Ávila became the first women to be named Doctors of the Church for their theological writings. In addition to her many letters and prayers, Catherine’s chief written contribution is a record of one of her ecstatic conversations with God, The Dialogue of Divine Providence.

My Song for Catherine

It took me a long time to be able to write a song inspired by Catherine. I couldn’t figure out exactly why. About a year after reading her biography, I turned to that book again and noticed something I’d overlooked: Catherine had a childhood nickname — Euphrosyne, who was one of the Three Graces of Greek mythology. The Graces were minor goddesses of mirth; Euphrosyne represented the concept of joy. When Catherine was a little girl, neighbors adored her because she was a light, playful child, so they called her by a joyful pet name.

That happy, even frivolous, little girl seemed so different to me than the intense, over-achieving woman Catherine grew up to be. But, all adults have a child inside them somewhere, and seeing that part of Catherine made her more dimensional, relatable, and alive to me. Finally, I could write a song. For that, I thank both the Greek goddess and the Italian saint.

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: Statue of Catherine, Rome, Italy. Visit the gallery for more photos and other images of Catherine.