Catherine of Siena and the Covid-19 Pandemic
Some thinkers like Slavoj Zizek, in his most recent book, aptly entitled the Pandemic! COVID 19 Shakes The World, compared our present lot to a post-apocalyptic scenario in a doomsday movie. However, some of us are not fortunate enough to be just mere watchers, some of us are called even forced by these unprecedented times to be actors. Actors who are now referred to as front liners in this crusade against an invisible foe. They do not have the privilege or the luck to be at home and enjoy the safety of an all too comfortable quarantine. The mandatory isolation now referred to by the privileged as an opportunity for self-improvement and soul searching. However, the same is not true for those whose work depends on a meager daily salary, far from soul searching, the despairing search for the next meal is on the top of their to-do list.
This quote, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now” that was uttered by Martin Luther King Jr., has re-echoed once more, as we face the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are also movements that rephrase the quote, by saying, “We are not in the same boat, and we are just in the same ocean”. This is because as we find ourselves in the ocean of this pandemic, we realize that some are in a yacht, some are in make-shift rafts. The analogy of the similar boat situation is not applicable after all, if not insensitive to the travails of those who struggle to keep afloat.
The place of discourse has shifted. From the streets, protests are now voiced out on social media platforms. After all here in our country, the pandemic has ceased to be a solely medical dilemma but exposed problems that have political undertones. Calls for national outcries are being inspired via one Facebook posts, one twitter thread shared a thousand times, or a trending photo on Instagram is all that it takes. To speak truth to power has become easy. Appealing for accountability is at the ease of one’s smartphone. Such phenomena have exposed the citizens to a plethora of a digitalized protest, a form of social media activism.
We have activism at the very core of our national history. Our heroes have fought for our identity and sovereignty. From the Himagsikan of 1896, to the Philippine-American War, we are a nation that does not go down without a fight. We have also our share of modern-day peaceful revolutions, EDSA I is of recent memory wherein the Filipino ‘peacefully’ spoke truth to power, and took down a dictator. Without an attempt for a historical criticism of the events aforementioned, it is actually possible to trace that active protests is the very roots of our being a nation, it runs in our blood. Thus, the protest of today, digitalized it might be is not a new phenomenon after all.
However, what I am afraid of is that we might be caught in the ideologies that we are frequently exposed to. Without discounting the efforts of those who are at the frontlines of activism, even those who are new to the cause, even to those who claim to be neutral, what I am proposing is simply to look at our motivations. As we question the policies which are in fact questionable, let us not forget to look at the mirror and ask pertinent queries to the person we are looking at. In this sense, our witness, our protest, our cause becomes more genuine and potent. The last thing we want to be accused of is hypocrisy. Living a double life. An activist life from without, and a passive apathetic within.
We need not look far, we can revisit our Christian roots, or as former Dominican Friars, we can revisit our rich Dominican heritage. We, former Dominican brothers, might want to listen to one of the famous sisters in the Order that might have something to say, after all, she is at the forefront of dialogue in her time. Who I am alluding to, is no other than Catherine of Siena. Catherine of Siena as we all know is a Doctor of the Church. Doctor in this sense is not referring to the medical profession but to the teaching vocation. After all the Latin word doctor points to the act of the teacher. Perhaps, Catherine of Siena might teach us something, as we listen to what she can say to our postmodern world and might even offer aid as we re-imagine our post-COVID 19 situations.
Encounters with Catherine, Encounters of Catherine
I first encountered the works of Catherine of Siena back in our days in the Novitiate in Manoag, Pangasinan. She was introduced to us through a series of Modular Classes with the Dominican sisters from various congregations. It is quite fitting since Catherine’s teachings were first heard by what she would refer to as her famiglia, a band of men and women who can be considered followers of the saint from Siena. She was even aptly called Mama by some members of such a group. The library then was filled with classical books on theology and spirituality. There was even a signed copy of the Prayers and Dialogue, autographed no less by Suzanne Noffke, perhaps one of the foremost scholars of Catherine. It happened that she visited the Novitiate and apparently was able to give classes to the brothers on the writings of Catherine.
There we find Catherine, always in medias res, in the middle of things. She was there amidst the political and ecclesiastical concerns of her times, offering a voice, a witness springing forth from the abundance of her contemplation. Still, Catherine had her moments. Moments that can remind us that this saint, once struggled like all of us, being pushed in the midst of conflict. Suzanne Nofke narrates this in the introduction of her translation of the Dialogue:
“The feud between the city-state and the papacy worsened, and in the spring of 1376 the Signora of Florence sought the help of Catherine’s influence in winning release from the interdict under which had been placed by Gregory XI, a situation that put them at a severe economic disadvantage.”
After such encounter, Catherine did try to persuade and plead the cause of the Signora, but the Signora who vowed to follow the demands of the reconciliation did not give her side of the bargain so to say. Instead, she ‘disowned’ Catherine and even sent new ambassadors to plead the cause. There Catherine realized that she ought to focus on her larger concerns, which are, the crusade, the reform of the clergy, and the return of the Papacy to Rome.
We also find ourselves in the middle of conflict and perhaps there is also a call for redirection, a rethinking, even a reimagining of the active role that we ought to play as we engage with the world. Laypersons as we are, we are called by the church to engage with temporal realities, still, we are warned we are not to be caught up with secular affairs. Instead, try to look at them with the lenses of faith. Perhaps, Catherine might offer us some thoughts to start with from her magnum opus, the Dialogue.
Dialogues of Catherine, Dialogues with Catherine
One of the early works on the saint was by a certain Morcelliana said, “To divorce the mystical from the history of the saint-like Catherine would be to empty her of personality”. At the core of the saint’s public ministry was her deep relationship with God. Her vivid encounters with God were recorded in the form of conversations. One of the works attributed to her was fittingly referred to as Dialogue. In such work, one is ushered into a conversation between a lover (God) and a beloved (Catherine).
There are arguments whether Love or Truth is the main theme that runs throughout the Dialogue. Both are correct. As Noffke said, “For Catherine God is la prima dolce verita (gentle first Truth) and God is pazzo d’ amore (mad with love) and essa carita (charity itself).” Catherine lived her life by striving to live by the demands of both Truth and Love, which in a sense points to the very nature of who God is. Thus, her life was a life inspired by an intimate relationship with God. Her involvement with church and state affairs are but outpourings of that loving encounter.
Catherine knew where to start. She started with herself and in her relationship with her Creator. As she said at the beginning of her dialogue: “She could be of no service to her neighbors in teaching or example without first doing herself the service of attaining and possessing virtue.” (Dialogue 1). Nevertheless, hers was not a silly introspection or a privileged soul searching, in knowing herself through the knowledge of God, he is lead to the truth that one is not alone in this world, in fact, one is judged according to his or her relationship with her neighbor. In the second part of her Dialogue, which is referred to as the Way of Perfection she has this to say about the relationship of a person to her neighbor: “I would have known that every virtue of yours and every vice is put into action by means of your neighbors.” (Dialogue 6). This maybe is a good foundation of the proposal in the Introduction of her translation of the Dialogue, to see Catherine as a Social mystic or a Mystic Activist.
From Social Media Activism to Social Mysticism
“Every scandal, hatred, cruelty and everything unbecoming springs from this root of selfish love. It has poisoned the whole world and sickened the mystic body.” (Dialogue 6). There is an outcry because the nation is outraged. How come that there is still room for selfish motives amongst those who are in power amidst a global pandemic? The very persons who are tasked to help their constituents are the ones adding insult to injury. We asked for policies that can mitigate fears, but instead what is rushed is a law that terrorizes. A law that targets critics and activists, those who question the powerful. A pandemic is still in our midst. Covid-19 wreaked havoc and continues to do so because of policies that favor the few, the powerful and the rich. It is overwhelming, social media activism seems to be a viable answer, or at least a starting point to hold accountable those who are supposed to serve the interest of the public.
“This lack of charity for me and for your neighbors is the source of all evils, for if you are not doing good you are necessarily doing evil.” (Dialogue 6). Social Media activism seems to be a viable option, for the young and the old. Both generations are having their fair share of what can be termed as a digital protest. In there, their involvement in issues on a national scale is seen in their critical posts, questioning the government. Without demeaning the power and vibrancy of a united people to promote societal change, some of them are just joining the bandwagon. It is very easy to put #JunkTerrorBill, #BlackLivesMatter, and end up not knowing what the trendy hashtags are all about. A more concerning tendency is that it is a form of feel-good activity that satisfies the actual need for societal involvement. Even a kind of personal or communal guilt cleansing that as long as I am involved in the social media discourse, I am already doing something for my nation, and my guilt of not being involved is cleansed. Not to discount the power of social media and its influence in the awakening of national consciousness, but we have to go deeper than social media activism. Social media is all about appearance, in there, one can portray one’s self as a person involved in the causes of the nation without knowing who or what is the one fighting for.
“But beyond a general love for all people, she sets her eyes on the specific needs of her neighbor and comes to the aid of those nearest to her according to the graces I have given her for ministry.” (Dialogue 6). At times what we are tasked to do might not cause us to trend in social media platforms. A teacher struggling to learn the complication of online and blended learning, so as to provide knowledge for her students, does a revolutionary act, albeit a secret and underappreciated one. He or she is going against ignorance, one student at a time. A parent who struggles to keep the household clean and her sons and daughter nourished and fed are going against apathy by setting an example of care and affection. A father who tries to provide for the needs of her family, risking his life every day, walking his way to work so as to be able to give something substantial to the family is an activist. He is protesting against selfishness by manifesting self-sacrifice. A nurse who happens to be a mother of a young child, risks her life being at the hospitals tending to those who are recovering from the virus. She is also fighting another battle, she is struggling as she cannot come close to her young child. What a statement, what a witness to self-sacrificing love. These persons aforementioned most of the time does not make it to social media platforms. What they do might be simple but their motivation is as profound as it can get. They struggle, but that is also their protest, their activism is doing what they are supposed to do with love and dedication even though only a few is are of it. They do not simply do it for a show.
Catherine is referred to as the practical mystic. Her brand of mysticism does not dwell on mere abstractions of God, on speculations about charity, but rather her prayers and encounters with the Divine made her involved in the affairs of her society. In doing so she did not only reminded people to love God but set an example that to love God is also to love one’s neighbor. She did not only preached about Truth and Love, she practiced it.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” St. Catherine of Siena. Perhaps, Catherine of Siena’s example is a reminder that whatever we do should be motivated by a genuine love for our neighbor, which is proof of our love for God. It might sound simple to think about, the real challenge lies in applying it. The task is to go beyond social media activism and open ourselves to our very own brand of social mysticism.