“Jousting With Death Against Life and With Life Against Death”

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) as a source of spiritual insight and an example for piety. But the following mini-discourse of hers on salvation is really striking for its evangelical warmth and Christ-centeredness. Writing to Pope Gregory XI, Catherine says:

…[I] beg you on behalf of Christ crucified to learn of Him how His ardent love delivered Him to shameful death on the holy cross in order to draw this lost lamb of human kind from the grasp of the evil spirit that possessed it because of man’s rebellion against God.

At length, the infinite Goodness has come and has seen the misfortune, damnation, and ruin of this lamb and has seen that it is unable to be rescued because of wrath and war; nonetheless he is outraged on her account (because the rebellion that makes man disobedient to God merits infinite punishment). The high and eternal Wisdom does not wish to punish, but prefers a better way, the gentlest and most loving way that can be found. It shows that nothing so draws the heart of man as love because he has been made by love. For this reason he loves much; man is made for love in body and soul. Through love, God has created him in his image and likeness; and through love his father and mother conceive and sustain him. God, seeing he is so drawn to love, sets the lure of love for him by giving him the Word, his Son, who takes on our humanity to give a great peace. But divine justice wills that the injury done God should be punished. Then the divine mercy and ineffable charity appear and to satisfy both justice and mercy He condemns his son to death, having vested Him in our humanity, that is, in the flesh of Adam which had offended Him. This death appeased the anger of the Father, for justice was satisfied and he satisfied mercy by rescuing man from the hands of the demons. With his arms on the wood of the cross, this gentle Word jousted with death against life and with life against death. Through his death, he destroyed our death and restored our life while losing the life of his body. It is by love that he has won us and by his goodness conquered our malice, thus all hearts should be drawn to him. One cannot show greater love (as He has said) than to give one’s life for one’s friend. And if He commends the love that gives a life for a friend, how much more ardent and complete is the love that gives a life for an enemy? For by sin we have become the enemies of God. Oh, gentle and living Word, that with love redeems the lamb and gives it life; you return it to the sheepfold and render it the grace that had been lost. [From "Letter 32," in Robert Coogan, trans., Babylon on the Rhone: A Translation of Letters by Dante, Petrarch, and Catherine of Siena on the Avignon Papacy (Potomac, Maryland: Studia Humanitatis, 1983), pp. 111-113]

Wonderful rhetoric, that, and it only serves to make the truth more appealing. The parallel between the lamb (humanity) that was lost and the Lamb that restored (Christ), the emphasis on Christ’s propitiatory death satisfying both divine justice and mercy, the death of death itself in the death of Christ, the supreme act of love not for friends, but for enemies – all of this is truly “Good News” and would be just easily comfortable in a Reformation book on salvation as in a letter of an otherwise rather unbalanced and ardently papalist Medieval mystic.

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