Listening to the Experts | Anthony Esolen | Catholic World Report
Catherine of Siena was the most important and influential person in Europe during the latter part of the 14th century. It could not happen now.
When the novelist Sigrid Undset was making her way from atheism to the Catholic faith, her most powerful guide was the Dominican laywoman Saint Catherine of Siena. The central moral insight in Undset’s most renowned works, the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter and the tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, is that self-love—egotism—is the seedbed of all of the evil in the world, as it crowds out of the heart any room for love of God and neighbor, as weeds choke a garden. It is not an insight that requires a doctorate in philosophy to arrive at. That makes it all the more likely to be true, since the Father, says Jesus, has hidden his truths from the wise and the prudent in this world, and has revealed them unto innocents and fools, whose hearts are not clotted with pride. And no woman in 14th century Italy was more innocent than Catherine of Siena.
Undset’s biography, Catherine of Siena, is a fascinating book, not only for its meticulous account of the life of Saint Catherine, based upon the remarkable memoirs of Blessed Raymond of Capua, Catherine’s long-time confessor and close friend, and upon the hundreds of letters which Catherine dictated to popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, governors, warlords, kinsmen, and friends. What really sets it apart from any hagiography I know of is Undset’s continuing comparison, usually implicit but sometimes bold and clear, of the Middle Ages with our own times. Now, Undset’s greatest novels are set in those same centuries, and she is under no illusion about their waves of cruelty and brutality. Indeed, Catherine was born into a world of bitter strife, the same world against which the aged Dante inveighed. The cities of Italy were economic and military rivals, the pope had moved the Curia to Avignon—across the Rhone from the kingdom of France—and French legates governed the Papal States, earning the hatred of the native Romans. It was a century of ever-shifting military alliances and civil war, with bands of robbers and murderers under mercenaries like Sir John Hawkwood helping to stoke the flames.