THE SCHOOL OF LOVE
The most startling moment in Mel Gibson’s film about the Passion of Jesus was when the soldier pierced the side of Christ and, as we are told in St John’s gospel, ‘immediately there came out blood and water’ (19.34). I had always imagined it as a trickle and many artists represent it in that way, but in the film it was a shower, bursting out to wash the faces of those standing at the foot of the cross. It is the saving fountain spoken of in the prophecy of Zechariah (13.1), what the liturgy refers to as ‘the fountain of sacramental life in the Church’ (Preface of the Sacred Heart).
The early Dominicans were not afraid of the physical aspects of the passion of Christ. The Order was founded at a time when devotion to the passion was growing strongly. When they prayed their preferred icon or focus was the crucifix. We see this, for example, in a set of illustrations from the 14th century that show St Dominic at prayer before the crucifix. Many of the frescoes of Fra Angelico at Florence show the blood of Christ flowing from his side in great abundance and pouring down the trunk of the cross to wash and water the earth.
St Catherine of Siena, whose feast we celebrate today, also directed her prayer to Christ crucified and had much to say about the power of his blood. In fact, she says, the ways in which we dispose ourselves physically in relation to the crucifix express different moments or aspects in our relationship with Christ.
We may kneel to kiss his feet, for example. This is the attitude of the creature and sinner, bowing before her Creator and Lord, still living somewhat in fear, anxious about punishment and loss.
Or we may stand to kiss his side, Catherine says. This is the position of one who is growing in love for her Lord, standing now instead of kneeling, kissing his breast rather than his feet, and therefore beginning to enter into the ‘perfect love which casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18). But at this point our love is still ‘interested’, she says, we tend to look to the gifts Christ can give us and not yet simply at the giver of those gifts, Christ himself.
The third stage or aspect is when we reach up to kiss the lips of Christ. Now we can speak about the love of friendship, Catherine says. She even speaks of a union with Christ and with all creation (what the Christian tradition refers to as ‘mystical’ experience). We are no longer servants but friends (John 15.15). We have grown to maturity in the Christian life. No longer do we love God out of a kind of fear. No longer do we love God for what he can do for us or for what he can give us. But we are brought to love God for himself and this is what holiness means.
Catherine teaches us that the school in which we learn these things is prayer, a prayer focused on the cross of Jesus and on the blood flowing from his side. She writes that ‘we learn every virtue in constant and faithful humble prayer’. We learn about ourselves when we pray. This is one of the reasons why it is very difficult to persevere in prayer. It takes us into what Catherine calls ‘the cell of self-knowledge’ and often we do not like what we see there. But prayer is also the place where we meet God and learn how to relate to God and become like God, loving as God has loved us.
St Thomas Aquinas, a century before Catherine, says similar things. In a conference on the Creed he writes that ‘the passion of Christ is sufficient in itself to instruct us completely in our whole life’.
These saints were not suggesting that the purpose of Christian life was to find our way to some personal ‘peak experience’ which would take us inside ourselves and away from others. The Dominicans soon took as one of their mottos ‘to contemplate and to pass on to others the fruits of contemplation’. Maturity in the Christian life brings with it a new sense of responsibility for people and a new sensitivity to the sufferings and needs of the world. Maturity in the Christian life – what St Paul calls ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13) – means being compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate (Luke 6.36).
Catherine of Siena is one of the greatest teachers of this wisdom in the history of Christianity. This is why we honour her as a Doctor of the Church.