In The Dialogue, by St Catherine of Siena, we read of a very intimate and personal relationship between St. Catherine and God. In this dialogue between the two, she addresses God as the Eternal Father, while He addresses her as my dearest daughter. She first petitions God on a question, He then responds, and she finally ends the dialogue in thanksgiving. In Chapters 154 165 of The Dialogue, Catherine asks the Eternal Father about the question of obedience. In particular, she asks where obedience is found, what takes it away, and how one keeps it and nourishes it. The Eternal Father responds to these petitions and then expounds upon what is called, most perfect obedience and how to live it. Let us now look at this dialogue between the Eternal Father and his dearest daughter, Catherine, on the question of obedience in hopes that we ourselves may grow in this great counsel.
I) Origin, Enemy, & Companions
Catherine begins the section on obedience with God the Fathers response to her petition on where obedience is found. The answer is quite simple and to the point. The Word, the only begotten son, displayed perfect obedience by His death on a cross. This is the starting point and origin for all who wish to live in obedience to the Father. The gates of heaven were opened for all by the death and resurrection of Christ, and this is why Jesus is referred to in The Dialogue as the doorman. Jesus possesses the key of obedience and has reopened the gate of heaven. Catherine uses the image of the key throughout this section on obedience, but always with reference to Christ. Catherine was very involved in the lives of the Popes of her time and it is fitting that she mentions the role of the pope in regards to obedience. The Father says the following to Catherine about the papacy:
"As you know, he left it (the sweet key of obedience) in the hands of his vicar, Christ on earth, whom you all are obliged to obey even to the point of death. Whoever refuses to obey him is, as I have told you elsewhere, living in damnation (D 154)."
Catherines loyalty and obedience towards the Pope is apparent in this dialogue with the Father. She serves as a great reminder of the respect and obedience that we are to have towards Christ on earth, his Vicar, the Pope.
B) The Enemy
Catherine is told how obedience can be lost as well. The Father reminds her of
Adams disobedience in the Garden of Eden. The loss of obedience comes by way of
pride. By Adams "selfish love and his desire to please his companion (D
154)", disobedience was manifested and sin and death were introduced into
humanity. Adams disobedience is shown in relation to Christs perfect
obedience. Adams pride was manifested in disobedience and brought forth death while
Christs humility manifested obedience and brought us all life. Adam locked the doors
of heaven while Christ reopened the gate with his key of obedience.
The companions of obedience are shown in a relational image. Charity is the source of the Words obedience to the Father. Charity, as the source of obedience, is the mother in this relational image. Charity is the mother of two sisters, patience and obedience. In fact, one knows if they have obedience, if they have patience first. The two are "so joined together that the one can never be lost without the other. Either you have both or neither (D 154)." In addition, humility, which surfaces again later in this section on obedience, acts as the wet nurse for obedience as well as charity.. "She ( humility) nurtures the virtue of obedience with the very same milk (as charity) (D 154)." Christ possessed all these virtues to the fullest. There was never anyone who was more humble and patient. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and as such is the fullness and perfection of love. The source of this love was "the light of his souls clear vision of the divine Essence and eternal Trinity, for he always saw me, God eternal (D 154)." Here we see a brief reference to the Beatific Vision possessed by Christ while on earth. Catherine is in keeping with the Dominican tradition by holding this truth that the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, held before Catherine
(ST, III, Q 9, art.2).
II) Obedience v.s Disobedience.
The key is used to describe the obedience of Christ in comparison to the disobedience of Adam. As mentioned earlier, the key was handed on to the vicar of Christ, the Pope. However, by our baptism we have been handed the key to the gate of heaven as well. In our baptism we put on Christ and promise to obey the Father. Catherine is told by the Father, that "I will not save you without your help (D 155)." We are called to be active in the sanctification of the world and to not be simply spectators. Catherine affirms this in her dialogue with the Father, when he tells her that "you must walk, not sit walk along the way of my Truths teaching and not sit down by setting your heart on finite things as do those fools who follow the old man, the first Father (D155)."
The disobedient follow the first father by throwing the key into a "filthy mire and smashed it with the hammer of pride and let it get rusty with selfishness (D 155)." This act of disobedience is contrasted with the obedience of the Word. Jesus, took the rusty key and purified it in the fire of his love, washing it with his own blood. "With the knife of justice he straightened it and on the anvil of his body and hammered out your iniquities (D 155)." Catherine uses vivid imagery to describe the recapitulation of Adam in Christ.
B) Cord of Lowliness
The key of obedience has to be attached to a cord. This cord is referred to as the cord of lowliness. "Tie this key on tightly with the cord of lowliness and contempt for yourself and the world (D 155)." The key is attached to this cord of lowliness and the cord is fastened to a belt. The belt is called the belt of desire. This desire must seek to always please the Creator and not oneself or another. If one doesnt have this desire to please the Creator and seeks to please others or oneself, than they run the risk of losing the key of obedience. If the key is lost, than disobedience will arise and one will be following the first father, Adam, instead of the Word. Catherine reminds us that if the key is lost and we disobey, we can always "leave deadly sin behind by a holy confession with heartfelt contrition, satisfaction, and resolution to sin no more (D 155)." Catherine is always focusing on Gods ineffable mercy towards the sinner.
III) Most Perfect Obedience
In her dialogue with the Father, Catherine is told of ordinary obedience. This is the obedience that everyone is called to follow. The baptized hold the key of obedience since they have put on Christ, who has opened the gate of heaven. Ordinary obedience is the obedience to the commandments of the Lord in our daily lives. To do the will of the Father and not our own, as the Word did perfectly, is the way of obedience. This is proper to all created in the image and likeness of God and as such this obedience is called "ordinary obedience." In the dialogue with the Eternal Father, Catherine petitions to know the difference between the two ways of observing obedience. The Father tells her of ordinary obedience briefly and then expounds a great deal upon what is called most perfect obedience. Most perfect obedience enables a person to, "bind themselves to the yoke of obedience in a religious order, or they submit their will outside religious life to some other person so as to advance more speedily to unlock heaven (D157)." In fact, Catherine uses the term most perfect when she speaks of others counsels as well. "Open your minds eye and watch how these pilgrims travel: some imperfectly, some perfectly in the way of the commandments, and some most perfectly by keeping and practicing the way of the counsels No matter what your state in life, it is essential to kill this selfish love in yourself (D 56)." Those who live most perfect obedience, whether in a religious order or not, must remember an important point. The question is posed
" Who has the greater merit: those who belong to an order or these others? I answer you that the merit of obedience is not measured by the act or the place or the person commanding (that is, good, bad, lay or religious), but by the measure of love in the person obeying. This is the measure with which it is measured (D 164)."
All virtues are measured by love and this is the means to measure obedience. In fact, The Dialogue continues later on "If a layperson loves more than a religious, that layperson receives more, and vice versa. And so with all others (D 164)." Catherine is very clear and quick to point out that thought there is a difference between the two, they are united and both bound by the measure of charity.
In this most perfect obedience, there is a ship on which all whom seek most perfect obedience are called to live on. On this ship of most perfect obedience, the captain is the Holy Spirit. Catherine is quick to point out that there are also "miserable wicked shepherds", whom are appointed at times to pilot the ship. Unfortunately, when this happens, the ship runs into waves and tough times. However, there are great saints as well, whom piloted ships. Catherine uses Ss. Benedict, Francis, and of course Dominic. On all these ships, poverty, along with charity and patience, was the success to the blossoming of their religious orders. Dominic "set his ship in order by rigging it with three strong ropes: obedience, continence, and true poverty (D 158)."
Catherine is instructed as to how those who wish to enter the ship are to walk in life. Poverty is a key part of this walk, but I will speak on that by itself later. It is by the light of faith that they are to walk. Once again, patience and her sister obedience are mentioned, along with the wet nurse, humility. To enter the ship, one must deny themselves or "slay their selfish will (D 159)" as its referred to in The Dialogue. The dialogue gets specific with life on the ship. In choir, the ones who seek the most perfect obedience are first to enter and last to leave. In fact, Catherine refers to holy envy when discussing other religious competing to get to choir first. It is called holy because they do not wish for the other religious to be lessened in their holiness or obedience in anyway. The disobedient, on the contrary, seek to enter last and leave first. In regards to eating in the refectory, the most perfect obedience seeks to enjoy the most meager of food and simply eat in common with others. On the contrary, the Dialogue is harsh to those who seek eating elsewhere. The disobedient, "if they have nothing to spend, necessity brings them there" and "they are not concerned about cooking or providing for themselves as are these wretches who find the refectory bitter to their taste and therefor avoid it (D 161)." This is shown, as well as, there living quarters, in relation to poverty and the need to be free from worldly things and possessions. The disobedient are referred to as devils incarnate in the Dialogue because they break the three vows due to their selfish pride. The Dialogue speaks strongly against the disobedient. They are said to "wear the habit on their bodies but not on their hearts. They are not religious but people in costumes (D 161)." However, the Father is always ready to offer his mercy and have the disobedient turn from their ways.
"take the wood of self knowledge along with contempt for their self complacency and self conceit, and put these into the fire of divine charity, espousing once again holy obedience as their bride (D 162)."
Self knowledge will bring one to see their sinfulness as well as the great mercy of God and thus will turn the creature back to the Creator in humility. Self knowledge, according to Catherine, brings us to a knowledge of God as well as ourselves and we are humbled in the process.
IV) Poverty (in relation to obedience)
Poverty is seen in relation to obedience and is the means to most perfect obedience. In addition to the Dialogue, Letter #18, takes up this relation of poverty and obedience. The life of Christ is held up as the model to embrace poverty. "For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9)." The Word, by taking on our human nature took on a lowly state. His death on the cross was a shameful and lowly death. His whole life was one of a servant and one of total humility. This humility is seen in light of his poverty. Jesus had no where to lay his head (Luke 9:58) and was born in a stable with barely enough cloth to be wrapped as a baby (Luke 2:7). In addition, he didnt even have the coin to pay the temple tax (Mat 17:27) nor a place of his own to be buried after his death on a cross (Luke 23:53). He was supported financially by many women who followed him (Luke 8:2-3)." His whole life was one of poverty and humility. Jesus is the model and example of poverty as well as obedience shown perfectly in relation to his heavenly Father. Catherine in writing this letter to a group of nuns in a Augustinian monastery near Florence, bluntly tells them that without this poverty and obedience they "would no longer be brides but adulteresses, loving something apart from God (Ronayne & Kenelm, 103)."
In this same letter, we see povertys place in relation to obedience. One seeking the most perfect obedience must first be poor in spirit. If someone is poor in spirit, they will be poor in wealth and position as well. As a result of this poverty, humility will soon follow. Humility comes when one realizes that, "you are the one who is not, and I am the one who is (ODriscoll, p 90)." Since humility is the companion of obedience, it follows that perfect obedience would come after humility. Thus, poverty comes before humility and humility comes before obedience. In fact, the disobedient are such because they have, in their own selfishness and non - communal living, decided to acquire temporal goods. Since they have desired material goods and positions of honor, they have filled themselves with pride and become disobedient. The poor obedient religious instead follows the examples of the great saints like Dominic and Francis who placed Queen Poverty first on their ship. The poor religious will set their hopes on the Heavenly kingdom and not worry about what tomorrow brings. If one wants to follow Christ, they must embrace voluntary poverty in order to live perfect obedience as he did. Christ came to serve and not be served and minister to the rich and poor alike.
"And so that they may better keep themselves humble they submit themselves equally to the lowly and the great, the poor and the rich. They make themselves the servants of all, never refusing any labor, but lovingly serving everyone (D 159)."
The Dialogue is very practical for those seeking to live in obedience in our modern day. Whether one is in a religious order or not, obedience needs to be properly understood. We are all called to live in obedience to the Father as Christ did. That obedience can only be found perfectly in Jesus, whom we are called to follow and imitate are lives after. In denying our own will and seeking the Fathers will, as Christ did his whole earthly life, we will walk in perfect obedience to the kingdom and enter the heavenly gate in possession of our keys of obedience. Imitating our Lord in a special way, in most perfect obedience are those "souls that take on a special obedience that follows on great perfection: They become observers of the counsels in fact as well as in spirit (D 157)." The virtues of patience and humility are the companions of obedience and are needed if one wishes to be obedient. Above all, however, charity is absolutely necessary. Without charity; poverty, humility, patience and obedience amount to nothing. Catherine always refers back to self knowledge acquired through knowledge of God. When we come to know God, who is love, we have a knowledge of ourselves. Love is the measure of all and must be present in any discussion on obedience. In all that we do, may we do it in perfect obedience to the Father and seek only his will, a will that demands the exercise of perfect charity.
D: The Dialogue
ST: Summa Theologica
Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue,
Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica (III, Q 9, art.2,) , Benziger Bros (Christian Classics),
NY, NY, 1981.
ODriscoll, Mary O.P., (ed.) Catherine of Siena Passion for the Truth Compassion for
Humanity (selected spiritual writings), New City Press, NY 1993.
Ronayne, John O.P. & Kenelm, Foster, O.P., "I, Catherine" Selected Writings of Catherine
of Siena, William Collins & Sons & Co. Ltd, London, 1980.
Rev Mr. John Sistare, Deacon, NAC, Rome
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