Hunger and Thirst: Suffering with Christ in Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Kolkatta
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Hunger and Thirst
Suffering with Christ in Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Kolkatta

Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Kolkatta were both women mystics who had great desire to cooperate with Christ in the salvation of others. Catherine talked about her "hunger for souls," while Teresa spoke of "satisfying the thirst of Christ." As they grew in union with Christ, both came to see the suffering in their lives as a sharing in Christ's suffering. Despite these similarities, the spiritual experiences of Catherine and Teresa are profoundly different. Since they are from different countries and centuries, one would expect to find some differences in their experiences, but what is fascinating is that their differences deepen the closer they grow to the same crucified God. As Catherine matured spiritually, her suffering came to flow directly out of a compassionate vision of the world—thus from light and not darkness. In contrast, Teresa endured a prolonged "dark night" until the end of her life.1 Both identified with Christ on the cross, seeing their sufferings as a participation in his. Their differing experiences raise questions about mystical experience in its relationship to Christology. Does mystical experience, particularly that of the dark night, follow a characteristic path? To what extent is this path a deepening identification with Christ? If so, was Christ's experience one of clear knowledge or of darkness? [End Page 18]

Catherine is a doctor of the church in her own right, with a precise teaching on the path of spiritual growth. Her way is compatible with that of St. John of the Cross, but emphasizes God's freedom in shaping his relationship with every soul. Although Teresa's experience is a significant variation on the path that Catherine describes, several principles Catherine offers suggest points of reconciliation. With the help of Aquinas's Christology, it can be shown that both women share in different aspects of Christ's sufferings in accord with their differing missions.

1. Catherine of Siena's Life and Vocation

Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century Dominican tertiary, possessed a passionate and energetic nature. She was a Dominican through and through who spoke and lived the primacy of wisdom over will. One of Catherine's most characteristic statements is "upon knowledge follows love." She experienced her deepest sufferings and joys as flowing from mystical knowledge of God.

Catherine dedicated her life to Christ around the age of seven after receiving a vision of Christ. At the age of sixteen, having refused all offers of marriage, Catherine received the habit of the third order Dominican Sisters of Penance. This meant that she became a member of the Dominican family, but did not take public vows or live a strict community life.2 Catherine spent the next three years in intense prayer and penance, rarely leaving her room in her parents' house except to attend Mass.3 During this time, Catherine experienced periods of extraordinary closeness to Christ as well as periods of spiritual dryness and temptation.

This time in Catherine's life culminated with a mystical betrothal, in which Christ gave her a ring that remained visible to her throughout her entire life. Bl. Raymond of Capua, Catherine's spiritual director and biographer, reports that when Christ gave Catherine the ring, he exhorted her to faith and promised her strength to overcome her enemies.4 The presence and significance of this ring precluded [End Page 19] any further experience of spiritual darkness for Catherine. As a miraculous token of God's loving support, it signified and ensured that she would never be without some tangible experience of God.5

It soon became clear that Christ had given Catherine this token as a promise to support her in the mission to which he was calling her. Catherine was sent to bring the love and wisdom of God first to her family, then to Siena, Italy, and eventually to the papal court in Avignon. Catherine feared a loss of intimacy with Christ when she was sent out to her family. Raymond records Catherine "crying bitterly" when first told to leave her room. She asked...