Tuesday, March 8, 2011

St. Catherine of Siena

My friend Sue will be surprised to know what I found blogworthy about the book on the plague that she loaned me. While it is full of the history and horrors of the medieval pandemic, what I came away with is the fact that patron saint of Italy St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) went months without having a bowel movement!

As I found out, Catherine had learned the power of fasting from her older sister. Practicing it after Bonaventura died in childbirth, 16-year-old Catherine dissuaded her parents from their wish that she marry her brother-in-law. She took Dominican vows, but lived at home with her family, giving much of their food to the poor rather than eating it herself. Catherine's idol was Mary Magdalen, who is said to have fasted for 33 years. Over the years - during which she traveled, advocated papal reform, and corresponded with Pope Gregory XI - Catherine ate less and less. She took Holy Communion daily, finding no nourishment in earthly food. Her sisters and confessor found her extreme fasting unhealthy and ordered her to eat, but Catherine described her inability to eat as an illness which caused her to throw up what she swallowed and suffer severe stomach pains.

We look back on the female ascetics of the Middle Ages who starved themselves in the name of God as suffering from anorexia mirabilis, the Latin term for a miraculous lack of appetite. Contemporary Italian scholars reason in Catherine's case:
To yield to food was to yield to sin, to deceive God, to lose all the power that she had laboriously garnered, erasing the sense of identity gained from the victory over her opposition to family regulation. It is of little matter, then, if she did not feel understood by her opponents (in the medieval time compared to ours). Indeed, incomprehension provided the stimulus to go on. The challenge continued to provide a way for her to confirm her true sense of identity. In doing so she won more than mere Holiness, but as well became Doctor of the Church and Patron of Italy and Europe.

As if her infrequent pooping were not miraculous enough, Catherine also saw visions and experienced stigmata (note the wounds on her hands in the 1st image). But she saved perhaps her best miracle for last. When she died in Rome, the people of Siena wanted to bury Catherine in her hometown. They had to settle for her head, which they smuggled in a bag. Stopped by the guards, they prayed to Catherine to protect them. When the guards looked in the bag, it contained hundreds of rose petals! Her head rematerialized when they reached Siena, and it was enshrined in a reliquary in the Church of San Dominico, where it can still be seen today (2nd image).


  1. Women had so few choices then, (and for so long afterwards) no opportunity to have an individual identity.

  2. While St. Catherine experienced the stigmata, it wasn't actually visible until after her death. In life she suffered the pain of it but asked God to spare her from having it revealed to others until after her death.

    St. Raymond of Capua was her spiritual director and recorded the miraculous occurrances.

  3. I never heard of this before so I was reading more on wikipedia and came across this creepy fact : Both Angela of Foligno (1248–1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) were reportedly anorexia mirabilis sufferers. They both refused food, but drank the pus from the sores of the sick. Angela of Foligno is reported to have said it was as "sweet as the Eucharist", and also to have eaten the scabs and lice from those same patients, though precious little else.


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