St. Catherine of Siena: Universe Disturber; World Imaginer 

Remember what I said yesterday about Odyssey Florence campus? I meant Odyssey Siena campus. This place is nuts.

In the book I read earlier this summer about St. Catherine of Siena, time and time again I learned that in her lifetime, Catherine longed for home and loved Siena dearly. 

Today I could see why.

The medieval town is absolute magic. From the Piazza del Campo’s wide and overwhelming space to the brightly colored Duomo whose expansion stands partway done for eternity to the watercolor-sequel views from hilltop to hilltop, there’s no denying this place in enchanting. 

Once in the city, the first stop was St. Catherine’s home. It was a larger structure than I expected, and nearly every room had been turned into an ornate and opulent chapel or a gift shop. We then went to the Basilica of San Dominico to see her shrine which includes her embalmed head and thumb. (The legend is that the Sienese stole these two things from her burial in Rome, and when they were stopped, the Romans looked inside their bag and only say rose petals. Once in Siena, the head and thumb returned.) We went to her oratory but it was closed for the day. We walked by the hospital where she tended to the sick and down the steps by the Duomo where she walked each day, dubbed the St. Catherine steps. Nearly every small chapel we went into and every gift shop included St. Catherine in some way. She loved this sweet city, and certainly Siena loves her.

It felt odd though, that this is the way we choose to honor a woman who spent her life giving away her family’s possessions and food to the poor: large rooms full of ornate decor and her image on postcards.

Yesterday as I wrote about Artemisia, I lamented to myself that so often we define people, and particularly women, by things that have happened to them and not by what their lives created. Today I thought about this as well with Catherine, and I worry about how we’re telling her story and how it affects our own.

One of the things that I appreciate about Odyssey is that we ask how our classes will affect not only our students minds, but also their hearts, hands, and feet: What is it about the narrative of science that is going to push them to care about recycling and choose vegetables for their bodies over hostess snack cakes? What in math will ask them to consider where numbers can create justice in the world when applied to economics with a heart of compassion? How do we learn history and English in such a way that we can stop killing each other?

We often ask them, what reality do you want to reject and what new world do you want to imagine?

There’s no doubt that St. Catherine has found her way into the minds and hearts of many- myself included. I am fascinated so much by the mercy she lived in and her faithfulness to her beliefs. We certainly know her in the worlds she imagined and created, and we have the paintings in the chapel in her home to prove it. But what does that mean for our hands and feet? Are we following her to new worlds and rejecting old realities?

In the book I read, the author took the title from a quote that Catherine shared in a letter: “be who God meant for you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” Oof. What words we should heed.

I’m excited to share with my students about Artemisia and St. Catherine, these ladies of Tuscany who created new stories and worlds. But I want to be clear, I do not want them to know the dates of their lives or their intellectual influence on the world and that be that. I want us to look to these women as humans who set the world on fire with passions and talents, women whose lives inspire us to be humans who are also universe disturbers as well (to borrow from my friend, Madeleine L’Engle). 

I want my students to ask, where do our hands and feet hit the pavement and we tell stories of women with autonomy or give what we have away? Are we meant to start schools like Maria Montessori or fight for political rights like the Suffragettes? Do we write stories of the world we experience like the Brontës or work like Marie Curie discovering a world of new elements and possibilities? How do we pick up their torch and continue toward new worlds imagined?

St. Catherine, be she human in all her complications, did try to make peace for many who weren’t afforded it in her time. Let us follow this path and then forge ahead to places she could not see, where we are peacemakers and universe disturbers for many more.


Tomorrow we will be on a bus to Zurich for most of the day, so I doubt there will be a new post, unless I finish this biography on Elizabeth I or go ham on a bunch of podcasts. Next time we chat, I’ll share on Heidi and Johanna Spyri!

Book Prep: St. Catherine Setting the World on Fire

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As I began mapping the women that I wanted to study and the places they would lead me, I wanted to not only know the ‘noble’ women in history and their accomplishments, but I wanted to be honest and sure in knowing their complications. If we don’t know their complications, we don’t know their humanity, and we completely miss the point.

St. Catherine, y’all.

She’s one of two patron saints of Italy, along with St. Francis of Assisi; one of six patron saints of Europe; and one of only four female Doctors of the Church. Most of what we know about her comes to us through the writings of Raymond of Capua, a close friend and spiritual director of St. Catherine who published her biography after her death.

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