By Mac Stewart
When I was a kid, I wasn’t so crazy about the date of my birth: April 29. It was toward the end of the school year, which meant I was always one of the last students in the class to move up to the next age. Combine that with my last name being close to the end of the alphabet, and I usually found myself toward the end of the line for lunch or recess.
Adulthood — and Christian adulthood in particular — has changed my attitude toward it entirely. I love my birthday. It is always in the final days of the academic year — sometimes even the last day of school. It is always in Easter. It is on the threshold of May, that most glorious and Marian of months. It’s warm. And it is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena.
I went to Mass on my birthday last year, and the preacher opened his homily with a review of some “famous last words” — things like Winston Churchill — “I’m bored with it all” and Bob Marley — “Money can’t buy life.” St. Catherine’s reported final words, he said, were particularly dramatic: “The blood! The blood!”
Anyone who has read a bit of St. Catherine’s writings would not be surprised to learn this. The blood of Christ is a constant theme of reflection and exhortation for this God-intoxicated soul. She regularly sends greetings “in the precious blood of God’s Son.” She writes to her spiritual director, Raymond of Capua, “I long to see you engulfed and drowned in the sweet blood of God’s Son,” “This is what my soul desires: to see you in this blood,” and, finally, “unless you are drowned in the blood you will not attain the little virtue of true humility” (Letter 31). And in her Dialogue, she says that the saints and all souls who have eternal life “will pass through the narrow gate drunk, as it were, with the blood of the spotless Lamb, dressed in charity for their neighbors and bathed in the blood of Christ crucified” (Dialogue, §82).
In Catherine’s biblical symbolic cosmos, where blood is life, the blood of Christ is the life of Life, and it should be the unceasing aspiration of the Christian to be immersed in that life, by an immersion that becomes an ingestion, even an inebriation: “I want you to shut yourself up in the open side of God’s Son, that open hostelry so full of fragrance that sin itself is made fragrant. There the dear bride rests in the bed of fire and blood” (Letter 31). St. John attests that it was blood and water which came forth from the side of the Crucified, thereby making of the Church through her two greatest sacraments the New Eve precisely fitted from and to the open wound in the body of the New Adam. But for a Christian imagination like Catherine’s, the water of baptism is fire: “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”; “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled.” The bed of fire and blood, then, is the place where a lively desire for God is poured forth, purified as issuing from God’s Son himself.
For us to desire God, however, we must first understand who God is, and an understanding of who God is necessarily entails an understanding of who we ourselves are. In short, for Catherine, God is the All, the “peaceful sea” of Being “from which come all things that have being” (Letter 1). We, by contrast, are agents of nothingness, of the negation of Being, insofar as our self-will sets itself up against the Love that moves the sun and the stars. “I want you to want,” she writes to a sister religious, “things to go not your own way but the way of the one who is. You will then be stripped of your own will and clothed in his” (Letter 1). The concrete means to this eradication of self-will in favor of God’s will is the “yoke of holy obedience” (ibid.).
But the supernatural medicine that makes this possible is the divine blood: “I beg you in the name of Christ crucified: let this stone [i.e., the stubborn heart] be melted in the hot overflowing blood of God’s Son, in that blood whose warmth is enough to melt the hardness and frigidity of any heart” (Letter 1). When we are immersed and inebriated in this blood, then we recognize, first, that “God cannot will anything but our good,” and, second, that “truly nothing happens to us except by God’s will and permission” (Letter 12).
Such lively faith and hope unite us to God’s sweet will such that we lose ourselves in him in a kind of ecstasy:
Do as a heavy drinker does who loses himself and can no longer see himself. If he really likes the wine he drinks even more, till his stomach becomes so warmed by the wine that he can no longer hold it, and out it comes! Truly, son, here is the table on which we find this wine: I mean the pierced side of God’s Son. This is the blood that warms, that drives out all chill, clears the voice of the one who drinks it, and gladdens heart and soul. For this blood is shed with the fire of divine charity. It so warms us that out we come from our very selves — and from that point on, we cannot see ourselves selfishly, but only for God, and we see God for God, and we see our neighbors for God. And when we have drunk enough, out it comes over the heads of our sisters and brothers (Letter 6).
This last (admittedly rather raw) image shows us where Catherine’s love for God landed in her day-to-day life in the world. She longed for the salvation of souls, and her ecstatic immersion in the ocean of God’s love led her to expend herself tirelessly to exhort and pray for others to immerse themselves in the same ocean. She wanted the holy blood to rush over the cold, stony hearts of all men and women, each made for such infinite nobility as to be filled with all the fullness of God.
This is why Catherine fearlessly challenged the profligate clergy of her day to stand once again at attention as watchmen and stewards of the Lord, to lay aside their greed and selfishness, and faithfully to tend the flock purchased by the blood of God’s Son. Doctors, bishops, and popes recognized that the fire in her was genuine, that her ecstasy was divinely elicited; her exhortations were successful, for instance, in bringing Pope Gregory XI back from Avignon to Rome where he belonged. She is herself a Doctor of the Church, and her unimpeachable doctrine shows that a total consecration of one’s soul to the glory of God and a total giving of one’s self for the salvation of others are two sides of the same coin.
What can we learn from Catherine’s devotion to “the Blood”? The New Testament and especially Saint Paul teach us that the redemption of the world and the salvation of our souls come through a Body — the Body that was bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities; the Body that now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high making perpetual intercession for us; the Body that touches and purifies our lips like coal from a burning altar; the Body that — hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick, and estranged — awaits our mercy. But what St. Catherine reminds us in her sanguine soul is that this Body is the Body of the One who Lives. The Blood is the Life, and the Life that was spilled out from the Body of the Crucified has been restored to him in his bodily glory. Christ is risen, ascended high above all things, and he takes with him not only the Body that bore our sins, but the Blood that brings us to life.
Our life’s work must be — as Catherine so ardently desired for all her friends — to immerse ourselves in this Blood. Look at the supernatural life that coursed through Jesus’ veins. Study his words, his deeds, his movements, his prayers. Find in him the source of all liveliness, all activity, all joy. Drink deeply from the ocean of his love. Lose yourself in this abyss of peace, and find yourself as his beloved forever.