When I was a little Catholic schoolgirl, I used to scratch myself on the arm to keep awake during mandatory church services and prayer time. I struggled to stay awake during the repetitive prayers and monotone whispers. I wish grown up Kristen could tell sweet, tired, and innocent little Kristen of the 4 Saints (who were all nuns!) I know who struggled to stay awake during prayers too. That would have prevented a whole lot of guilt (and a whole lot of arm scratches).
Catherine of Bologna tempted sleep during her spiritual practices too. One of her greatest visions appeared in the midst of her service-time supernal snooze; she heard a full angelic choir singing from the heavens (that’ll wake you up!) and it’s said that she heard the choir any time the temptation to sleep arose. Or maybe it was God saying “Girl! Wake up! Here is an alarm clock since they haven’t been invented yet!” She lives out one of my favorite quotes, “I am spiritually awake, but I’d like to be physically asleep.” For that alone, she could be my patron Saint.
Catherine was a mystical theologian by experience of the divine rather than the solely intellectual. She was highly educated; as a woman could learn to read, write, and practice the arts much easier if she lived in a cloistered community of monastics rather than suffering an arranged marriage and subsequently an arranged life. She was a gifted artist, writer, and violinist. Her exquisite painting of “Saint Ursula and Her Maidens” is still on display at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Venice to this very day! She hand-painted the illuminations of her own prayer books, even depicting the likes of Mary Magdalene and Francis of Assisi. As the patron Saint of artists and writers, I would love to see her original works in person one day.
Christmas Eve is a special time for any devout person, but one particular December 24th, Catherine was gifted a powerful vision where the Blessed Virgin Mary came straight up to her and placed infant Jesus gently in her arms, entrusting him to her completely. Catherine experienced many visions, a lot of them gruesome and of the demonic variety. She witnessed the crucifixtion, the last judgement, and other devilish tricks in all their bloody and gory details, tormenting poor Catherine in ways only people who’ve had true nightmares and night terrors can attest to. These plagues led her to write the “Seven Spiritual Weapons,” detailing her inner experiences and eventual successful struggle against depression.
Born into privilege, young Caterina de' Vigri grew up as a noblewoman/lady-in-waiting, attending to Parisina Malatesta d’Este, Niccolo III d’Este’s (the Marquis of Ferrara) budding wife. While education on the court was not advanced, especially for a woman, there is evidence suggesting that Catherine developed her intellect through tutoring from the court librarian. But when Niccolo had his wife and illigitemate son executed for an incestuous affair, that was Catherine’s final straw with the noble-life and effectively said “I’m out,” heading directly for the religious lay community at the age of 13 before ascending to the monestary several years later. There she could sufficiently develop her intellectual and artistic abilities without further disruption or hesitation.
Catherine’s call to the religious order was strong and filled with love and obedience. If the monastery of the Order of Poor Clares was a highschool, she would have been voted “most humble,” known for her piety, purity, and modesty. She found great solitude and tribute to God in small tasks such as daily laundry and bread baking. In fact, there is a miracle associated with her bread baking that I love, because it seems like such a small miracle to not burn the bread (spoiler alert!), but such a relatable one nonetheless. The story goes that Catherine put the loaves in the oven to bake when the bell rang for mandatory prayer service. She looked at the oven, made the sign of the cross, and said, “I commend you to our Lord.” She was not in a position to return to her post until five hours later; at the very least expecting the loaves would be a pile of hard blackness, or the kitchen would be totally destroyed. To her utter surprise, the bread came out of the oven a perfect steaming pile of risen dough, ready to devour. I don’t know about you, but next time I am struggling in the kitchen, you bet I am going to make the sign of the cross and say “I commend you to our Lord!”
A charismatic teacher, devoted nun, dedicated artist, and spiritual overseer of those entrusted to her, the humble but self-depricating Catherine of Bologna became the abbess of the Order of Poor Clares. Her daughters stood over her death bed mourning the loss of their beloved mother, wondering if another miracle could materialize. Shortly after Catherine was naturally buried (without a coffin) in the churchyard, rays of light protruded from her resting place and a sweet aroma floated through the air like the heavenly baked bread of kitchen miracles long ago. Miraculous cures surrounded those who attended her graveside and requested her celestial assistance, the sick and suffering were healed. Catherine’s curious fellow nuns exhumed her body 18 days after her initial burial, freeing her from the consecrated ground, her body incorrupt. They say that the silk veil covering Catherine was bathed in sweat and a piece of skin dangled from her foot. One of the sisters pulled at the piece of skin and blood oozed forth like that of a living person. Her body became a shrine of devotion and several years passed when one of the nun’s had a vision of Catherine requesting to sit upright in a chair. From then on, her mummified body has been seated on a golden throne, clutching an ornate cross and bible, under a crystal shrine, skin darkened from over 600 years of oil lamp and candle soot.
You can ring the doorbell at the church of Chelsea della Santa in Bologna and be granted witness to the featureless face of Saint Catherine. Her beloved violin hangs near her throne, and the walls around her are adorned with the bodily relics (fingers, toes, and a skull crowned with flowers) of other Saints and holy figures close to the church.