A Reflection on Prayer, given by one of our sisters yesterday, for first day of the Novena to St Catherine of Siena

Taken from a letter to Catella, Checcia and Caterina Dentice of Naples, c May 1379

Dearest sisters and daughters in Christ gentle Jesus,

I Caterina, slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you enjoying the food of angels, since you were made for nothing less. To make it possible for you to enjoy it, God brought you back with the blood of his Son.

But reflect, .. that this food is eaten not on earth – that is, in earthly affection, but on high. This is why God’s Son was lifted up on the wood of the most holy cross, so that up there, at this table, we might eat this food. But you will ask me, ‘What is this food?’ Here is my response. It is the longing within our soul’s affection. This longing draws God’s desire to us, and the two become one same thing, the one with the other. … With force and violence we seize the realm of our soul, which is called heaven because it holds God within it by grace.

To this I am inviting you

– to dwell always in [the] house of self-knowledge. There we find the angelic food, the impulse of God’s desire for us. And I am inviting you to the physical cell of keeping vigil with humble, faithful, continual prayer. Strip your heart and affection of every created person and thing, of every love that is outside of God, and clothe yourself in Christ crucified.

There are three ways of praying.

The first is continual prayer …

The second way is vocal prayer …

The third and final way, mental prayer. .. We rise above our gross sensual feelings and with angelic spirit join ourselves in an impulse of love with God. And by the light of understanding we see and know and clothe ourselves in truth. We are made sisters of the angels and stand with our Bridegroom at the table of crucified desire, finding our joy in seeking God’s honour and the salvation of souls.

Where do you find the light that guides you along the way of truth? In prayer.

Where do you show love and faith and hope and humility? In prayer. … Because you love, you want to be united with the object of your love by means of prayer. We ask God for what we need because in the self-knowledge in which true prayer is grounded we see that we are needy and sense that we are surrounded by our enemies – by the world with its hurtfulness, the devil with all his temptations, and the flesh that fights against the spirit and rebels against reason. And we see that of ourselves we are not, and being nothing, we cannot care for ourselves and so with faith run to the One who is, who can and knows how to and wants to help us in our every need. And with hope we ask and expect his help.

Where will we catch the fragrance of obedience? In prayer. Where will we strip ourselves of the selfish love that makes us impatient when we are hurt or otherwise suffering, and clothe ourselves in a divine love that will make us patient, and where will we glory in the cross of Christ crucified? In prayer. Where will we sense the fragrance of continence and purity, and the hunger for martyrdom that makes us ready to give our life for God’s honour and the salvation of souls? In this dear mother, prayer.

Prayer makes us observant of God’s holy commandments and sets the seal of his counsels on our heart and in our spirit, leaving the imprint of longing to follow him even to death. Prayer raises us above the society of creatures and makes us companions of our Creator. Prayer fills the vessel of our heart with the blood of the humble spotless Lamb and envelops it in fire – because the blood was shed with blazing love.

We receive this mother, prayer, more or less perfectly depending on how we feed on the food of angels, on holy desire for God, by rising up to eat this food at the table of the dearest cross. In no other way do we receive it. This is why I told you that I long to see you being nourished on the food of angels, since there is no other way you could have the life of grace or be true servants of Christ crucified.

(From: ‘The Letters of St Catherine of Siena’ Vol. IV, transl. by Suzanne Noffke O.P. – Vol. 355 of the series ‘Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, Arizona, 2008)