April 29 is the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena, one of the four female Doctors of the Church and a woman remembered for her fiery personality and truth-filled words. From a young age, Catherine was favored with mystical visions, the earliest taking place when she was only six or seven. She was out with her brother, running an errand, when she looked up and saw saints in the sky. She saw Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by saints John, Peter, Paul and others. To her great delight, Jesus smiled at her, then raised his hand and blessed her. This vision had a profound influence upon Catherine and she remembered it the rest of her life.
Jesus is Our Bridge
The desire to dedicate her life to God grew stronger as Catherine grew older, and she eventually became a Third Order Dominican, taking on the black and white mantle of the Sisters of Penitence of St. Dominic in 1363. St. Catherine left many writings to us, but her most well known is The Dialogue, written in a very short period of time while she was in ecstasy, around 1377. It records conversations between herself and God, dictated by St. Catherine and written out by her secretaries. Catherine saw that Jesus, through obedience to his Father, made himself into the bridge between Heaven and Earth - the only bridge that could ever cross the huge chasm separating us from God. Journeying back to God along this bridge happens in three different stages. The following excerpt reveals God instructing Catherine in this idea:
I want you to look at the bridge of my only-begotten Son, and notice its greatness. Look! It stretched from heaven to earth, joining the earth of your humanity with the greatness of the Godhead. This is what I mean when I say it stretches from heaven to earth.
God also explains to Catherine why it was necessary for Jesus to make himself into this bridge. The Dialogue records:
This was necessary if I wanted to remake the road that had been broken up, so that you might pass over the bitterness of the world and reach life. ..Your nature had to be joined with the height of mine, the eternal Godhead, before it could make atonement for all humanity. . . so the height stooped to the earth of your humanity, bridging the chasm between us and rebuilding the road.
But why should Jesus have made himself into this bridge?
So that you might in truth come to the same joy as the angels. But my Son’s having made of himself a bridge for you could not bring you to life unless you make your way along that bridge.
The Three Stages of Crossing the Bridge
The Dialogue states that it is only by staying securely on this bridge of Christ that souls are able to pass safely over the stormy sea below, as they journey through three different spiritual stages to reach Heaven. The three stages are described in this way: “On the first step, …the soul strips itself of vice, on the second it is filled with love and virtue, and on the third it tastes peace.”
The first stage is referred to as “the feet,” when the person decides to turn from sin. Using the body as an image, it is the feet which carry us towards or away from God, to virtuous actions or to sinful occasions. God tells St. Catherine that walking with purified, cleansed feet “are the steps by which you arrive at his side, which manifests to the secret of his heart.”
The second stage is closely linked to the first. It is when we replace sin with virtue. Sinful habits and behaviors have to be replaced by virtuous and good habits and behaviors. A soul who stops sinning must be careful to fill the cleansed area inside with the light of God, otherwise she can find herself in an even worse state later on. In the second stage, the person climbs to “the heart” - “the soul, gazing into that open heart with the eye of the intellect, finds it consumed with ineffable love.”
The first and second stages “were made with the wood of the cross.” The cross is made of two pieces of wood - the vertical and the horizontal planks. The vertical plank represents the connection between earth and heaven (love for God), while the horizontal wood refers to what we do on earth (love for neighbor). God repeatedly reminds St. Catherine that we cannot say we love God but ignore our neighbor. Love for God is shown through our love for our neighbor, and both aspects are represented by the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Christ’s cross. In these two stages we turn from sin and learn to love as Christ loves.
The third stage, “still retains the great bitterness Jesus tasted when he was given gall and vinegar to drink.” During this last stage, the soul participates in some of the suffering of Christ’s passion. However, this is also when the soul finds peace. Represented by “the mouth”, the soul now is able to “find peace from the war it has been waging with sin.”
Even though the body of Jesus himself has been lifted up and returned to Heaven, God tells Catherine that “there remains the bridgeway of his teaching, which, as I told you, is held together by My power and my Son’s wisdom and the mercy of the Holy Spirit.” The teachings of Christ have been illuminated and reflected on for us by”the apostles and evangelists, the martyrs and confessors and holy doctors, who have been set like lamps in holy Church” to light the way across the bridge of Christ, to shine light into the darkness of our lives.
Those Under the Bridge
One of the more touching aspects of The Dialogue is the glimpse we get into the personality of God the Father. Far from being angry and vengeful, he says to all of us, through St. Catherine “I tell you, my dearest children, travel on the bridge, not under it. For the way beneath the bridge is not the way of truth but of falsehood. It is the way of wicked sinners, and I beg you to pray to me for them. I ask for your tears and sweat on their behalf so that they may receive mercy from me.” God does not want to lose a single soul, every person is of immense importance and he does everything he can to bring souls back to him.
So the next time you are crossing a bridge, think of St. Catherine and the three stages of the spiritual life. Maybe even send up a small prayer asking for help in “staying on the bridge of Christ.” And don’t forget to offer up some thoughts for those who have fallen under the bridge, as well. St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!