Birth of Catherine; her infancy; wonderful circumstances that take place.
Lapa became the mother of two delicate daughters at a birth (1347); but the weakness of their bodies wo not destined to impair the energy of their souls. The mother, not being able to nourish both, found herself obliged to confide one of them to the care of a stranger. God willed that the infant she herself retained, should be her whom he had chosen for his spouse; and when the infants received baptism, the mother’s choice was called Catharine, and the other Jane. Jane soon bore to heaven the name and grace that she received in baptism; she lived but a few days, and Catharine remained alone to save, in after years, a multitude of souls. Lapa consoled herself on the death of her daughter, by tending more carefully the one that was left, and she frequently acknowledged that she loved her more tenderly than all the others, probably because she had been able to nurse her herself, for it was the only one out of the twenty-five children, with which God had blessed her, to whom she had been able to give this maternal attention.
Catharine was educated as a child that belonged to God. As soon as she began to walk alone, she was loved by all who saw her, and her conversation was so discreet, that it was with difficulty her mother could keep her at home; her neighbours and relatives would bring her to their houses in order to listen to her child- like reasonings, and enjoy her infantine sweetness. They found so much consolation in her company, that they did not call her Catharine, but Euphrosyne, which signifies joy, satisfaction. Perhaps they were ignorant of tliis meaning, and did not know what I learned later, that Catharine had resolved to imitate St. Euphrosyne; and it may be, also, that in her childish phrases she uttered some words resembling Euphrosyne and those who repeated her words gave her this name. Her youth realized the promises of her early infancy: her words possessed a mysterious power which inclined the soul to God. As soon as one conversed with her, sadness was dispelled from the heart, vexations and troubles were forgotten, and a ravishing peace took possession of the soul, so extraordinary indeed that one could only imagine it to resemble that enjoyed by the Apostles on Mount Thabor, when one exclaimed “It is good for us to be here!”. She was scarcely five years old when she would recite an Ave Maria, on each step of the stairs on going up and coming down, acompanying it with a genuflexion, and she has since assured me that she thus strove to raise her mind from things visible to things invisible. The mercy of God deigned to recompense this pious being, and encouraged her by a wonderful vision, thus lavishing the dews of his heavenly grace on this tender plant which was destined to become a towering and magnificent cedar.
Catharine was six years of age when her mother sent her with her little brother Stephen, to the house of their sister Bonaventura, either to carry something, or obtain some information: their commission being executed, the children were returning by the valley known as the Valley Piatta, when Catharine, raising her eyes to heaven, saw, opposite to her, on the gable-end of the Church of the Friar Preachers, a splendid throne occupied by our Lord Jesus Christ clothed in pontifical ornaments and his sacred brow adorned with a tiara. At his side were St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John the Evangelist. Catharine stood still ravished with admiration and contemplation with love to Him who thus manifested Himself to her in order to captivate more fully her devoted heart: the Saviour gave her a look of serene majesty, smiled upon her with benign tenderness, and then extending his hand gave her his blessing in the form of a cross, as is customary with Bishops. But whilst she was looking at our Lord, her little brother Stephen, continued descending, fancying that she followed him, while on the contrary he had left her far behind. Turning around , he perceived his sister looking up to heaven; he called her with his utmost voice, but she made no reply; until at length he went to her, and taking her by the hand, said, “Come on, why do you stay there?”. Catharine appeared to awake from a profound sleep, looked at him an instant, and then said: “O! did you but see what I see, you would never have disturbed me in such a sweet vision.”, and her eyes again turned towards heaven, but all had vanished, to the great grief of Catharine, who wept and reproached herself for having lowered her eyes. From this moment Catharine seemed to be no longer a child; her virtues her manners, and her thoughts were superior to her age, and would have done honour to men of mature years. The fire of divine love inflamed her heart and enlightened her understanding; her will srengthened, her memory developed, and her every action became conformed to the rules of the Gospel. She disclosed to me since, that the Holy Spirit then taught her, without any human teaching, and without any reading, the life pursued by the Fathers of the desert, and proposed to her the imitation of some saints, particularly of St. Dominic. She experienced such an ardent desire to follow their example, that she could not dwell upon any other thought; and to the astonishment of all, she sought retired spots in order to scourge her feeble body with a little discipline. Her meditation and prayersbecame continual, and to accomplish them she forsook all the ordinary amusements of her age; she became daily more silent, and diminished her food, contrary to the habit of growing children. Catharine’s example attracted other little girls who wished to hear her pious discourses, and imitate, as far as possible, her devout practices. They assembled in an apartment remote from the house, practised corporal austeritieties with Catharine, and said as many times the Pater Noster, and Ave Maria, as she prescribed to them. This was only a prelude of the future.
Our Lord deigned to encourage these acts of virtue by sensible graces. Her mother informed me, and Catherine was obliged to acknowledge it to me, that when purposing to mount the staircase she was borne up to the top without touching the steps with her feet, and such was the rapidity of her ascent that the mother trembled least she should fall. This favour happened to her when she shunned little assemblies, above all when persons of the other sex were present.
The knowledge of the life of the Fathers of the Desert, which Catharine had received from heaven, also determined her to withdraw into solitude; but she was ignorant how to accomplish her project; and God, who destined her to another mode of life, did not furnish her the means, and left her to the dreams of her imagination. One morning, she set forth in search of the desert; after having prudently provided herself with a loaf of bread, she directed her course towards the residence of her married sister, who lived near one of the gates of Sienna. She left the city for the first time in her life, and as soon as she perceived the valley, and the habitations a little more distant from one another she thought she was certainly approaching “the desert.” Having found a kind of grotto underneath a shelving rock, she joyfully entered it, convinced that she was now in her much desired solitude. She knelt, and adored Him who had condescended to appear to her and bless her, and God who accepted the pious desires of his spouse, but who had other designs over her, would testify to her how agreeable her favour was to him. She had scarcely begun her meditation, than she was elevated little by little to the very vault of the grotto, and remained thus to the hour of None. Catherine, presuming that this was a snare of Satan to distract her, and turn her from her holy purpose, increased the ardour of her prayers.
At length, about the hour in which the Saviour completed his sufferings on the cross, she descended to the earth, and God revealed to her that the moment of sacrifice had not yet come, and that she was not to quit the house of her father. On leaving the grotto she became anxious on finding herself so far from the town, and dreaded the trouble that would arise in the hearts of her family who would imagine her to be lost; she recommended herself to God, and suddenly the holy child was transported, in the twinkling of an eye, to the gates of Sienna, whence she speedily returned home, and never disclosed this circumstance to any but her confessors, of whom I am the last and the most unworthy.
Source: The LIfe of St. Catherine of Sienna, by her Confessor, Bl. Raymond of Capua
Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He graduated from Rutgers University with an honors degree in Classics & Ancient History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Mr. Michael has worked in private education as a Classics teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is a Roman Catholic homeschooling father of ten children, and keeper of a quiet family farm in North Carolina. Mr. Michael enjoys studying ancient natural philosophy, gardening, and running.