Recent News from the Sisters of Saint Dominic

Reflections on Siena Pilgrimage: December 28, 2016 - January 9, 2017

When I finally arrived at the Alma Domus in Siena late Wednesday afternoon (12/28), I was initially dismayed upon entering my tiny, hot room. (How petty of me!) Then I pulled back the drapes, opened the windows, and realized I was in paradise! One wall is entirely windows and a double door (all with wooden shutters) to a tiny balcony, and I have a charming view of Siena——rooftops and tiered gardens, the top of the Duomo (Cathedral) right in front of me, and when I lean out, I can see the huge statue of Catherine at the entrance to her Casa (Sanctuary) to my immediate left. San Domenico is up the hill from the front entrance of the Albergo (hotel), which is in the middle of a long flight of wide stairs. The Alma Domus, or Santuario Casa di Santa Caterina is built into a hill and connected to the house that was Catherine’s family home. Much of the home has been transformed into Oratories commemorating important spots. For example, the Kitchen Oratory and the Oratory of the Crucifix. Under the Kitchen Oratory, behind a locked grate, Catherine’s cell is preserved just as it was in her time. It is a tiny space under what was the family’s kitchen, and the stone she used as a pillow is preserved there.

Late on the day of my arrival, I did a quick perusal of the Sanctuary and peaked into San Domenico. The next day, after studying Suzanne Noffke’s account of Catherine’s World, I set out to examine both places in meticulous detail. If you come to Siena, you must bring along Noffke’s Catherine of Siena: Vision through a Distant Eye, or at least photocopy the chapter, “The World of Catherine of Siena” (about 80 pages). I am deeply grateful that Cathy Hilkert encouraged me to do this; I have it with me wherever I go.

Exploring Catherine’s Casa entailed slowly perusing the art that is really a reflection of her influence on the culture of both her time and the ensuing centuries. I was especially attentive to those places connected with her personal presence, such as her cell beneath the kitchen, and the Oratory of the Crucifix that, though built after Catherine’s time, enshrines above the altar the crucifix before which she was praying in Pisa when she received the stigmata. This Oratory is the Chapel of the Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who run the Sanctuary and the Alma Domus. They have a beautiful, simple evening Eucharist combined with Vespers. One sister plays a classical guitar and leads singing from her pew. The chapel was quite full on New Year’s Eve, and everyone seems to join in the singing, especially of Italian Christmas Carols. When I approached an older sister after Mass, she brought me to the singing sister, who seems to be the only one who speaks English. There are four sisters in the community here. (It is not clear to me if they are nuns or sisters.) Addendum: I have learned they are Sisters, connected to the Motherhouse in San Sisto, Rome.

Later on my first full day here, I made a careful pilgrimage through San Domenico, beginning with the Vault in the back where the Mantellate and the Sisters prayed, with the worn steps that Catherine climbed to get there, and the brick pillar upon which Noffke says she often leaned when she prayed. As everyone knows, Catherine’s head is enshrined on a side altar; I did not know that her thumb is also preserved with other items in a glass case outside that chapel. The thumb appears marvelously intact; the head shows signs of decay, and is reportedly covered in a thin film of material (Noffke).

Strange as the medieval penchant for saving body parts seems, it reveals a very concrete practice of reverence for the flesh, for the sanctity of the body, and a belief that somehow the whole of the person is present in a single body part. (I don’t know about the accuracy of this, but I overheard an English speaking tour guide telling her group that the thumb was significant because of the importance of Catherine’s writing, confirmed in her being declared Doctor of the Church).

A lot to reflect on, theologically, in this Season of Incarnation. Today we would also reflect on the holiness of our bodies returning to the earth from which we have come, nourishing the continuing evolution of creation. The unity Catherine sought for the Church we now understand and seek in the emerging unity of Creation and Cosmos—“from the I to the We to the One.” (National Dominican Convocation in Blauvelt, June 2015) And how we yearn for the Church to be an effective instrument in that emergence! Just a new way of speaking of the Church’s mission of bringing about the One Reign of God. Like Catherine, we Dominicans are called to challenge the ecclesial (and political) structures impeding that Oneness.

Catherine herself, though, is not at all unaware of creation. She invokes Creation throughout her writing as a manifestation of the Divine. In fact, she was ingenious at engaging the material around her to teach and preach about our life in God. Sometimes it was the natural world (Just as the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea, God is in us and we are in God.), and sometimes it was the human-made marvels in collaboration with creation, like the Fountain--Fonte Branda.

At the end of the day on Thursday (12/29) I made my way down to Fonte Branda, the fountain at the heart of Siena’s medieval life and wool production, the fountain Noffke is sure Catherine must have come to frequently to draw water. It is at the bottom of the long staircase outside the Alma Domus, directly beneath San Domenico. It is a large, large affair—a pool covered in arches, whose stillness Noffke believes led Catherine to reflect on the mirrored image: how we see ourselves reflected in God, the water of Divine life. Who we truly are can only be seen in God. And yet that wide, still pool is constantly sourced by a spring that can be heard bubbling loudly even today. Catherine makes so many creative uses of the fountain image, such as keeping our vessel within the fountain (of God) as we drink so that it never becomes empty.

I also walked, earlier that day, to the monument of Catherine erected by the city when she was declared Doctor of the Church in 1970. There are images of and references to Catherine everywhere in this city. Even the non-religious are aware of her and proud of her importance to their history and culture.

Back to San Domenico: As I perused the art glorifying Catherine, I found myself thinking that what she would really want is for us to be tending with her same passion the crying needs of our own Church and world.

Underneath the Basilica of San Domenico is the Crypt Church, built after Catherine’s time. Originally, Catherine’s family was buried in the crypt, and Niccolo di Tuldo was also believed to have been buried there. But that was before it was all dug out and the Crypt Church was built. (Catherine’s parents are now beneath the steps of the side altar in San Domenico where her head is enshrined.)

When I attended Mass in the Crypt of San Domenico my first Thursday, the Friar I met pointed to the traces of the burial places in what is now the cavernous arched roof.

Prior to Mass that evening, I was captivated by a massive Nativity scene. It is a sprawling affair, situated on real grass, with Dominic and Catherine prominent among the adorers of the Christ Child. Most captivating, though, is the diverse array of adorers, each with implicit symbolism: Besides the Shepherds and Magi, there are men carrying logs of wood (perhaps signifying Joseph’s and eventually Jesus’ craft of carpentry? And heralding the Cross?), musicians of various kinds worshipping with their gifts, women of regal stature and women of the land bearing gifts, and most intriguingly, a figure that seems like a modern homeless person—sitting in his rags holding up a fork in his hand—(Coming before the Christ Child with his hunger?).

As I settled into Mass, I was taken in by the huge Crucifix over the altar, with a more than life-size painted corpus, beautiful and life-like. And at the foot of the cross, the Baby Jesus in a manger, resting upon the tabernacle. Evocative of the logs of wood born by several adorers in the Nativity scene. The birth in the shadow of the cross through which somehow, mysteriously, comes life. We can never simply rest in the joy of the Christmas scene. Long before the Crucifixion, that Inbreaking of Love in the Flesh immediately drew the jealous wrath of Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents.

On New Year’s Day, I explored the Art Museum in the Palazza Publico, guided both by Noffke's book and an e-mail from my young colleague in the History department at UP who is an expert in Siena. Both directed me to a 14th Century mural by Lorenzetti which is an Allegory of Good and Bad Government. The Allegory of Bad Government, government by corrupt leaders interested only in their own power and wealth, depicts ravaged streets, fruitless farmlands, burnt out buildings, massive numbers of ill-treated prisoners, violence, hunger, and homelessness.  The Allegory of Good Government depicts well-balanced scales of Justice and leaders concerned with the Common Good, resulting in a well-ordered society where people are productively employed in the city and supported in fruitful agriculture in the countryside. Lorenzetti painted this during the lifetime of Catherine at the behest of the Council of Nine, which really was committed to being a “good” government in service of the Common Good, despite all the struggles and factions of the time. The “Allegory” certainly provokes solemn reflection on our political scene today.

Earlier on New Year’s Day I stopped into a little convenience store to attempt to buy a phone card. Despite purchasing Global Minutes from Verizon, I have had no cell phone service since arriving in Italy, and all I want to do is call my mother. (My siblings are reporting to her from my e-mails.) The store, like several others where I had inquired, had no phone cards. A young man there, however, offered to let me use his cell phone to call my mother! After I did so (she was thrilled), I learned that the young man, Hasan, is from Pakistan. He is a graduate student in Siena, and he is a Muslim. I wanted to give him a few euros, but he wouldn’t accept them. He said he is a foreigner in Siena, and he wanted to help another foreigner. I give thanks for him! ______________________________________________________________________ Monday’s Gospel (1/2/17) has everyone asking John the Baptist who he is, demanding to know: Why do you baptize? What’s your authority? Your role? They need to know how to categorize him, measure him, measure his worth. His answer, pointing to the Christ, still holds today:

“ ‘There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.’” “This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”

That is to say, “this happened” in a very particular and concrete place. Just as Jesus would appear amidst the concrete circumstances of his day. Just so today. The Christ appears as one among us whom we do not recognize, before whom we are called to humble reverence. One Among Us. God Among Us. Who has escaped our recognition lately? In whose presence have we been deaf to the call to humble reverence? What light and dignity lay dormant waiting to be summoned ablaze by our attentive gaze and listening ear? What glorious epiphany of encounter are we missing?

Reading (anew) Noffke’s Vision Through a Distant Eye:

It is interesting that in the first pages of her Introduction, Noffke describes Catherine both as “uncompromising” when it came to truth, regardless of her own or anyone else’s comfort, and as having a gift for mediation.

What a delicate balance. What an excruciating combination of gifts, a combo desperately needed in today’s world and Church.

Monday afternoon I visited Santa Maria della Scala, the hospital where Catherine ministered to the sick. It is now a museum and cultural center, but the tiny place in the bowels of the building where Catherine used to rest and pray at night when her ministrations kept her at the hospital past the city curfew is enshrined off the side of a chapel, “Santa Caterina della Notte.”  That’s all I really went to see, but then became captivated by the hospital-turned-art center itself. The artistic depictions of the hospital’s functions during Catherine’s time and in the following centuries (up to the 1970’s!) are truly edifying, and bring to mind the mission of Mother Mary Ann: Murals depict the care of foundlings, feeding the hungry poor of the neighborhood, welcoming the homeless, sheltering pilgrims, all in addition to healing the sick. The representation of Sienese society and its values during Catherine’s 14th century is consonant with Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Good Government,” and so very consonant with our contemporary Dominican concerns, and our particular Blauvelt history.

On Tuesday I set out for the Piazza Mercato to have lunch at a place run by friends of my UP Medievalist colleague, Brad. His English speaking friend, Amadeo, has visited Brad in Portland, and had much to talk about, as well as wonderful food to serve. (I have discovered pici, freshly made pasta!)

But I was also interested in what Suzanne Noffke had to say about the Piazza vis-à-vis Catherine: Through her research, Noffke has discerned that Catherine’s friend, Alessa, with whom she stayed for awhile, must have lived in a house along the route on the east side of the Piazza—the Vicolo San Salvatore and the Via dei Malcontenti, leading into the Via Porta Giustizia, where prisoners were executed. This was where Catherine saw two prisoners being escorted who had been converted by her prayers, and Noffke believes this would also have been where Niccolo di Toldo would have been decapitated. (This was the condemned political prisoner whose head Catherine received into her hands.) I found the Viccolo San Salvatore and the Via di Porta Giustitia, and followed the approximate route. The end of the route looks out into the countryside beyond the city. It was amazing to trod in that place and imagine the 14th century scene that Catherine inhabited there.

Before leaving the restaurant and tracing the route, I re-read the passage from Catherine’s letter to Raymond recounting her ministry to the prisoner and his conversion, and I caught something I had never noticed before:

I went to visit the one you know and he was so comforted and consoled that he confessed his sins and he prepared himself very well. He made me promise for the love of God that when the time came for the execution I would be with him. This I promised and did.

We know that priests were assigned to Catherine’s entourage to be available to hear  the confessions evoked by her preaching. But here we see her in the role of Confessor herself, implicitly granting absolution, for she goes on to recount how she assured Niccolo after his Mass and Communion that he was as pure as on the day of his baptism, and heaven awaited him.

How many women who minister in prisons, hospitals, justice ministries, and even in traditional parishes have heard confessions of souls who trust them, who speak to God through them, and who are able to hear God’s tender words of mercy and forgiveness from them—perhaps, because of their experiences, only from them. The sacrament of reconciliation is taking place far more often than “statistics” reveal, and absolution is being poured out through feminine members of the Body of Christ--in persona Christi.

[Today, January 4th, is the Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who found her Catholic faith in Italy, after the death of her husband during their voyage. Responsive in the unique circumstances of her life—look what she brought into being!]

I have sought to abide here in Siena, with Catherine, as the disciples in today’s Gospel seek to “abide” with Jesus. Jesus: “What are you looking for?” Disciples: “Where are you staying?” Jesus: “Come and see.”

And they went and stayed, or abided, with him that day, learning who he was and what he was about. Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, and they all made a decision to follow him.

In reflecting on this staying with, abiding with, and following Jesus, I am reminded of an essay by Jon Sobrino entitled “Jesus Christ: The Absolute Mediator of the Reign of God.” In this essay, Sobrino speaks of “the following”, the active, risk-taking following after Jesus in discipleship, incarnating the Gospel in our own time and place. He asserts compellingly that without this enfleshed, justice-making “following” the Church would disappear, cease to exist. Moreover, the coming of the Reign of God depends upon our following in the footsteps of Jesus, depends upon what Schillebeeckx calls the sequela Jesu. This sequela does not mean mimicking Jesus; he lived in a different time and place. Jesus enacted the Reign of God in response to the needs of his first century Palestinian context. Catherine enacted the Reign of God in response to the needs of her 14th century context in ways that bore the marks of her religious and social culture. (And also exercised resistance to certain elements of her church and culture.) The signs of the times determine what “the following”, the sequela Jesu must look like in order to be an authentic rendering of the Gospel. Only through constant innovation can we remain faithful to the genuinely orthodox Tradition. What will our “following” look like in 2017? What Incarnation of the Reign of God is the world crying out for?

January 5, 2017

Today’s entrance antiphon: Ps 16 (15):5-6

“O Lord, my allotted portion and my cup, you it is who hold fast my lot. For me the measuring lines have fallen on pleasant sites; fair to me indeed is my inheritance.”

I have never forgotten that that was the scripture I pulled from a grab-bag during a preaching exercise in Cathy Hilkert and Jude Siciliano’s Preaching Workshop during our National Novitiate weeks in Adrian long ago, in 1987. It meant much to me then, and even more now as my “inheritance” has grown and expanded in and through my life in the Dominican Family. I am deeply grateful—for the inherited treasure of Dominican Vocation, the shared Mission, the stretching relationships, challenges, and opportunities. And the chance to reflect on it all in Catherine’s home in Siena!

Throughout these days I have explored the Duomo, Siena’s overwhelming Cathedral which was an important part of Catherine’s life, its Baptistry and Crypt with its incredible art murals, and much more. Before the Cathedral, Baptistry and Crypt, I spent an afternoon in the Museo del Duomo, which houses an incredible collection of Siena’s art, including what my Siena-expert colleague (Brad from UP) notes is Siena’s first true masterpiece: Duccio Buoninsegna’s Maestà. He said it is so religiously inspired it would take my breath away; he was right! Suzanne Noffke notes that Catherine would certainly have known this depiction of the Virgin, since in her day it was installed above the main altar of the Cathedral. From there I climbed up through a tower to the top of the Facciatone for an incredible view of Siena and beyond. (No pictures; my phone was out of juice!) The Facciatone is the arch that was to be the beginning of the expansion of the Duomo. Siena hoped to expand its Cathedral to make it the largest and most impressive in Christendom. However, with the Black Death that dream was abandoned early in Catherine’s own lifetime. The Duomo itself, however, is overwhelmingly impressive as it is!

A contemporary note: In the back of the Crypt there was a subdued video depicting firefighters’ efforts to save ancient religious art from churches decimated by last fall’s earthquake in Umbria, the province adjoining Tuscany, where Siena is located. Back in the Museo Civica of the Palazzo Publico, there was a much larger video presentation that was shown amidst the damaged sculptures and paintings that had been brought there from Umbria for safekeeping. The videos showed poignant scenes of firefighters lovingly lifting a damaged corpus of Christ from the wreckage, as well as a Christ Child from a Nativity scene. Surely these firefighters had already labored long to rescue the human victims of the quake; but here they were shown taking infinite pains to rescue centuries-old sculptures and paintings that bore the religious history and devotion of their people. It was poignant, indeed, to see those life-size pieces with significant damage, including missing body parts, in the Museo Civica.

January 6, 2017

After my usual morning of reflection, reading, and writing, in the afternoon I hiked a long way with a heavy plastic bag of dirty clothes on my shoulders (yes, I was a sight!) to the only self-serve laundromat in Siena. After happily reading the English instructions about loading the machine and inserting a debit card, I loaded the machine. Then I discovered there was no place for a debit card. Oh! But there was a change machine. Then I read the English sign that explained, “Due to our many robberies, the change machine is no longer in operation.”

Clothes already in the machine, I felt desperate. It was a lonely street, but suddenly a family of tourists appeared, and I asked them for change. They didn’t have it. I sought change at several nearby establishments, nervous about leaving my clothes in the machine as I wandered. No luck. Finally, the proprietor of a tiny pizzeria gave me five euro coins (and a five euro bill) in return for a ten. I was on my way. As my clothes washed, a young man entered the laundromat and began to do his wash. I moved on to the dryer; two rounds didn’t begin to get the clothes dry, and I was now out of change. I asked the young man if he had change of a five. He didn’t, but wanted to give me three euros. I insisted he take my five. No, he wouldn’t. We began to talk. His name was Mohammad—another Muslim grad student from Pakistan! I told him about Hasan, and he said yes, he knew him. Mohammed’s English was not nearly as good as Hassan’s, but we had an intense conversation, mostly about the American election and Muslim fears around the world. Mohammed thought maybe Trump would be good for Americans, if not for the rest of the world. I said “No!” Not for Americans like me and the members of my Dominican Community. We are frightened, I said, that he will ruin our relationships with the rest of the world, and that the poor and the marginalized will suffer.

We finished our respective laundry and went our separate ways. And I wonder: Are not my graced encounters with Hasan (who let me talk to my mother on his cell phone) and Mohammed (who gave me needed coins for laundry, and enlightened me further about the feared impact of our President-elect on Muslims) integral to my pilgrimage in Catherine’s footsteps? Ironically, Catherine championed a Crusade against                     Muslims in hopes of uniting a divided Church and converting Muslims to Christianity. She was a victim of her own worldview, and her own “exclusivist” understanding of Christian salvation. And yet, she cared for the wellbeing of Muslims by wishing their conversion, as that was the only way she could see that they could be saved. We have a much broader and more inclusive understanding of salvation now, and we know (and Vatican II has decreed) that all people of goodwill are saved.

Today, we know that our salvation lies in being open to the ‘other’ in all of our encounters. As Christians, we hold on to the Gospel, but we engage the “following” of Jesus as a constantly innovative enterprise, responding to our own encounters with diverse others by transposing Jesus’ words and actions into effective praxis of the reign of God today.

January  7, 2017

FREEZING COLD! It has been increasingly cold in these last several days in Siena. I am grateful that the skies have been blue and the sun shining. But on this afternoon, after my contemplative morning at home in the Alma Domus, I was glad to eventually ensconse myself in the Pinacoteca, the great art museum of Siena.

Magnificent art from before Catherine’s time—thus, art she would have seen, as well as art from her own time, and after. The art from after her time features her regularly, on her own and in scenes of the Madonna and Child, often paired with St. Bernardine of Siena, peering over the Madonna’s shoulders at the Child.

St. Catherine of Alexandria figured in all of those periods (before, during, and after Catherine of Siena), and it is clear why she would have been a powerful influence on Catherine of Siena. There are paintings of Catherine of Alexandria’s Mystical Espousal to Christ that must have imprinted themselves on Catherine and foreshadowed her own Mystical Espousal, which is represented in later art.

A peaceful, contemplative afternoon, mostly alone, until a woman from the museum staff urged me into the room with the magnificent panorama of Siena, just as the sun was setting, the sky azure and rose…and a young woman with limited English mediated between us as the conversation continued. Such unexpected communion!

January 8, 2017

Epiphany in the U.S./Baptism of the Lord in Italy

I celebrated Epiphany twice when I thought I was just attending the regular weekday evening Masses at the Oratory of the Crucifix in Catherine’s Sanctuary. Thursday turned out to be the Vigil Mass for Epiphany; Friday was the Mass for Epiphany. Saturday evening was the Vigil for the Baptism of he Lord. (Decided not to repeat that today!) The wonderful thing about Italy is that the culture continues to celebrate Christmas; not merely in the Churches, but throughout the streets and in stores and restaurants, the Christmas season is celebrated in lights, Christmas trees, crèches, and continuing Christmas carols. So refreshing!

I wish I did not have to leave Siena; I feel I could stay here for a very long time! But I head to Assisi tomorrow on my way to Rome for the Jubilee Congress.

Before leaving the Alma Domus, I want to note here the warm hospitality I have received, the special kindness of the two women who always want to clean and change my room, even when I say it isn’t necessary, and the amazing woman, Alessandra, who not only oversees the breakfast room, but seems to do everything else, including overall cleaning, besides. She has been a loving angel to me, and I will miss her. It is these simple encounters, wherever we may find ourselves, that make life meaningful and truly worthwhile. Again, I am grateful.

Farewell, holy and enchanted Siena! I hope to visit you again one day.

Sister Kathleen McManus, OP

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon