Practical Love (Or, How I Got Schooled by St. Catherine of Siena)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

 Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

I’ve been doing quite a bit of spiritual reading over the last year to help develop and inform my growing Catholic faith. And maybe it’s my bookworm inclinations, or my contemplative, introverted tendencies, but curling up in my bed or perching on my window seat with the writings of the saints, or of modern-day clergy and laypeople, has become one of my favorite pastimes.

Highlighter poised, pen in hand, I mark anything that resonates with me – sometimes with hearts or a “wow” or a “yes!” or a question mark, or my own comments on the material. The process isn’t so different from how I approach a close reading of any other memoir, novel, or treatise, except for one thing…

I can’t help but feel that through some sort of osmosis, this process is making me holier…?

(I put a question mark there for a reason. In case you were wondering.)

It’s a nice thought. And we do, to an extent, become what we read.

But. Underlining a couple of sentences written by a saint (“saintences”? Hehehehe ;)) doesn’t actually make me a better person. And yes, I might be able to feel my heart swelling in my chest, or find myself nodding along with an especially sage “saint”iment (okay, okay, I’ll stop)… but those things don’t really change me, either.

The real work comes when we leave our bedrooms to engage with other people. And St. Catherine of Siena has some thoughts on this in her Dialogue:

“You test the virtue of patience… when your neighbors insult you. Your humility is tested by the proud, your faith by the faithful, your hope by the person who has no hope. Your justice is tried by the unjust, your compassion by the cruel, and your gentleness and kindness by the wrathful. Your neighbors are the channel through which all your virtues are tested and come to birth…” (38).

Ain’t that the truth. It is so easy for me to get into “holy mode” when I am reading a book. It is so easy for me to feel, in that moment, that I’m doing something good, that my heart is changing, that my mind is transforming. And they are. I don’t mean to deny the value of the pursuit, because it does help anchor our souls in truth and goodness.

But if we don’t make good on those feelings? If we don’t “walk the walk,” so to speak, and love when it’s most challenging, when our neighbors try us in every possible way and push allll of our buttons?

Then it doesn’t really matter, does it?

I feel like a lot of modern, secular talk of love, in the sense that we should love everyone, is boiled down to a palatable feeling. And what Catherine is pointing to is something more: we should start with the feeling, but let the people God has placed in our lives be the places where we can sharpen that love on a more practical level. When it’s difficult. When it wounds our pride. When selfishness dominates our motives.

How the world would be different if we loved like that.


For anyone who's curious, the edition of The Dialogue I cited is this one:

Catherine of Siena. Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue. Trans. Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist, 1980. Print.

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