We are curious about mystics who experience ecstasies and visions. But we tend to regard them as psychologically unbalanced persons. However, when we get to know a genuine mystic like St. Catherine dei Ricci we must abandon our stereotypical view.
Catherine was a very competent woman who trained nuns and governed a convent for many years. She taught and advised religious and laity with obvious wisdom. She also delighted in nursing the sick. Her contemporaries and modern scholars alike judge that she was psychologically healthy. And Catherine received some most unusual mystical phenomena, including the stigmata.
At age 13, Catherine entered the Dominican convent at Prato, Italy. As a young nun she became mistress of novices and at 30 she was elected prioress for life. She became famous for her sound teaching, much of which she communicated in letters to nuns, priests, and laity. Here she addressed a “summary of Christian perfection” to a young nun:
1. We must force ourselves to detach our heart and will from all earthly loves, except for the love of God. We must love no fleeting things. Above all, we must not love God selfishly for our own sakes, but with a love as pure as his own goodness.
2. We must direct all our thoughts, words and actions to his honor. And by prayer, counsel, and good example seek his glory solely, whether for ourselves or for others, so that through our actions all may love and honor God. This second thing is more pleasing to him than the first, as it better fulfills his will.
3. We must aim more and more to accomplish the divine will: not only desiring nothing special to happen to us, bad or even good, in this wretched life, thus keeping ourselves always at God’s disposal, with heart and soul at peace. But we must also believe with a firm faith that Almighty God loves us more than we love ourselves, and takes more care of us than we could take care of ourselves.
Let us always remember, never doubting, that it is the eternal, sovereign, all-powerful God who does, orders, or allows everything that happens. Know that nothing comes to pass without his divine will. If, through his mercy, this conviction becomes strongly impressed upon our wills, we shall easily take all things from his sacred hand with well-contented hearts, always thanking him for fulfilling his holy will in us.
For 12 years, from 1542 to 1554, Catherine received an extraordinary ecstasy. From noon on Thursdays through 4 p.m. on Fridays, she experienced in a trance the events of Christ’s passion. Although unconscious, her bodily movements coincided with his—she stood solemnly at the scourging, bowed to be crowned with thorns, extended her arms to be nailed to the cross, and so on. The stigmata, the imprints of Christ’s wounds, also marked her body. Inconvenienced and embarrassed by these phenomena, Catherine said that they came—uninvited—from God. In 1554 she and her nuns prayed that the ecstasies would cease, and they did.
Catherine died in 1590 after patiently suffering a long illness. The church canonized her not because of her mystical experiences but for her heroic virtue and perfect union with Christ.
The mystics have the special role of talking to us of God’s love and of helping us to glimpse something of the reality still hidden from our eyes. They are called “mystics” simply because they have had a particularly vivid experience of the Christian “mystery.” They are our safest guides in helping us to look into the reality beyond the reality.