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Catholic Activity: St. Catherine of Siena on Loving Your Neighbor, the Poor, and God's Omnipresence

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From the life and writings of St. Catherine of Siena is a wonderful teaching tool for parents. We can teach them on loving our neighbor, the poor and about God's Omnipresence.

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St. Catherine of Siena is a saint most children know very little about; in fact she is rarely thought of as one of the "children's saints." But truthfully she is theirs in a special way because her story has all the enchantment of a fairy tale and she is the kind of heroine children wish would come true — and she did!

She promised herself to her Prince when she was but a young girl, endured suffering for His sake at the hands of her mother, father, sisters and brothers, worked as a slavey and sat in the corner, if not in the cinders, loved virginity, was vindicated in the end and her unworthy suitors forever put to rout. She lived in the silence of her cell preparing herself for her Beloved as princesses do in their arbors, their gardens, their towers. She went forth after her nuptials as a queen with her bounty, giving alms to the poor, succor to the sick, clothing, feeding, teaching, blessing, and each night she returned and held converse with her King whose wedding band adorned her finger and whose jeweled raiment and rare repasts she enjoyed in the silence of the night. Offering her life for Him, she bore on her person the wounds of His suffering to buy back sinners, to win repentance for the condemned and virtue for the lukewarm. And then she died and went to heaven and lived happily ever after.

All this happened to Catherine, the twenty-fifth child of the Benincasas. One day, when she was only six, she was returning home with her brother when suddenly she saw in the sky over Siena a vision of Christ. Spellbound, this small girl with the cheery face and the amber-colored curls stared at the figure in the sky and He gazed back at her with such love that her heart was lost forever. Smiling, He reached out His hand and made the sign of the Cross, blessing her; then, shockingly, her brother pulled at her hand and cried sharply to her to come — and the vision faded. She cried out bitterly: "Oh! If you had seen what I saw, you would never have done that!" And that was how it began.

In her early teens, she realized that to convince her family that she would not marry was impossible, so she cut off her lovely hair. Her mother raged, wept, stormed in vain. Catherine would not and could not be made to adorn herself suitably in order to attract eligible young men. No appeal to reason or loyalty could change her mind. Her mother took to persecution and, dismissing the maid, set Catherine to serving the tremendous household. She took away Catherine's room, her very privacy, making her share a room with a younger brother, yet far from discouraging Catherine these trials were fruitful, for the Holy Spirit Himself taught her to bear them.

Since she had no privacy, He taught her how to build a cell within her own soul that no one could force her to leave. Since she was tormented endlessly by her family, He taught her to imagine her father was Our Lord Jesus Christ, her mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, her brothers and sisters the apostles and disciples, and thus she was able to serve them with such patience that they were at a loss to explain it. (We can ask St. Catherine to help our children as they struggle to see Christ in one another.) When at last her family was convinced that this strange daughter did indeed have a unique vocation, she was allowed to live in complete seclusion, eating almost nothing and spending all but an hour or two a day in prayer and penance. Daily she received visits from Our Lord in her little room and in this way He taught her divine wisdom. Several years passed and one day He asked her to go our into the world to undertake her apostolate there. Frightened of her weakness and of the power of the devil to ensnare her, she begged to remain in solitude but He answered,

"I wish you to use the love of neighbor to unite you more closely to Me. You know that my commandment of love is twofold: love of Me and love of neighbor. In this double commandment are contained the law and the prophets. I wish you to fulfill these two precepts so that you will not walk with one foot but with two; that you will have two wings to fly to heaven."

How delightful to hear how God has put these things to His saints. It is so hard to love others as well as we love ourselves. But to try to reach Jesus without this love for His others, He says, is like trying to reach heaven by hopping there on one foot, while with love of neighbor we will truly fly to Him. It helps a child who has great difficulty loving someone, even if only with an act of his will, to see the issue set forth in the warmth of Christ's own illustration to this lovely saint.

Like our children, St. Catherine also imitated the saints, and she herself had an adventure much like St. Martin of Tours with his beggar by which she learned how our treasures are stored in heaven. On day she came out of the Dominican church in Siena to find a poor man begging alms "for the love of God." As she had nothing with her of much worth, she asked him to return to her home where she could help him. "If you have anything to give me, give it directly, I beg you, for it is impossible for me to wait," he said. But she had nothing except a little silver cross for saying Pater Nosters which was tied on a knotted string. She broke the cord and gave the man the cross which he joyfully received. That night as she prayed Christ appeared holding in His hand the little cross studded with precious stones. "Daughter, dost thou recognize this cross?" "Perfectly well," answered Catherine, "but it was not so handsome when it belonged to me." "Yesterday," said Our Lord, "thy heart gave it to me as an offering of love; these precious stones represent thy love. And I promise thee on the day of judgment in the presence of the angels and of men, I will return it to thee as it is now, so that it may be shown to thy glory. How really and truly is Christ in the poor. What a glorious thing it will be to see Him present the jeweled cross to St. Catherine on the day of judgment. Will we find some of our possessions stored there as well, jeweled and resplendent in the sight of angels and men?

There are so many beautiful stories from the life of this saint that Blessed Raymond of Capua, her confessor and biographer, said if he were to attempt to put them all down one lifetime would not be enough. Added to these are the pages of her Dialogue in which are recorded her conversations with Our Lord and the wisdom He imparted to her during her ecstasies. From the latter comes an explanation of how God is everywhere, so important to children as they begin to grow in consciousness of Him and His immensity.

"Where is God?" they ask. "Everywhere," we reply. Oh. "Is He in the fireplace?" "Well — yes, you can say He is in the fireplace, I suppose; because He is everywhere." But it disturbs us to hear one child inform another: "God is in the fireplace." This will not do. It is not enough. We try again.

"God is not just in the fireplace, dear. He is everywhere. There is no place where God is not." This is a very big thought, leaving the littlest ones far behind, but the bigger children hear us out. "Well," says one after a few moments of intense thinking, "if there is no place where God is not, is He in hell?"

Oh dear. One must say yes, in a way He is because whatever exists is present to Him, but we cannot bear having them repeat in horrified tones: "God is in hell!" It is very difficult explaining how God is everywhere.

St. Catherine of Siena comes to our rescue. She has said it beautifully, simply, conclusively. We can never mistake again how God is everywhere. She was not pondering at the time that He is everywhere, but how unworthy she was that He should be in her at Holy Communion. As the priest held up the Host and she was saying, "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof . . ." she heard His voice answering her: "But I, I am worthy of entering thee." And it seemed to her that as the fish which is in the sea is full of the sea, so her soul was in God and God in her soul.

Is this not the way God is everywhere? Are we not swimming in God as the fish swims in the sea? And are we not full of God as the fishes are full of the sea? And is not the sea everywhere full of the sea? So God is everywhere. There is no place where God is not. Very little children can grasp this in their little child's way. One we know who is five years old was heard to say on the way to Holy Mass, "This car is moving in God, and those mountains are in God, and that squirrel and the trees, and us — we are all moving in God."

And so we were.

Activity Source: Saints and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York; reprinted by TAN Publishers, 1958

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