Chapter 14

The invisible ring

 Monday April 21th. Pool day. I do the first round in a terrific pace.15.03! Having used much - a bit too much - energy on the first round, I do not go full speed on the second round, but cruise along to obtain a comfortable 15.22.

            Back home I call a local car repair workshop to check if a pump has arrived. I need to replace a leaky pump in the clutch system of my old, battered car. The new pump has arrived, and the mechanic and I arrange for the repair to be done on Wednesday.

            I do the routine work an author has to do, which takes up a considerable part of my time. Check my mail and email. Today there is a sweet letter in my email inbox from a Christian woman named Wenche. She has read all the 43 chapters of my book ”Brev fra de troende”. She writes that I have been thorough in my research. She can easily understand that I am sceptical to eternal life.

            ”But perhaps,” writes Wenche, ”it is not so important to believe in eternal life...Our roads to faith and how we grasp religious questions are as different as people are different, I think. There is no key answer here. I find God generous. Some try to find belief in the life and doings of Jesus, others need the faith in eternal life, and others try to go to the roots; where was the first Church.”

            Then comes a piece of advice that I underline with my red ballpoint pen: ”To look at others, how they came to faith, only make us confused.”

            Wenche has learned that I am to discuss with Hans Fredrik Dahl about ”Raddiser og Gud” (Radicals and God).

            ”We need,” writes Wenche, ”that people speak together in the public space about religious subjects, that we ask questions, disagree, but keep on with the dialogue. That happens, in my opinion, too seldom.”

            Wenche finishes by wishing me improvement of my health, for which I thank her here. She has learned that my test results have been fine, and writes: ”Det er supert!!” (”That’s superb!!”).

            More often than not I feel that I do not deserve the consideration people bestow on me.

            The Norwegian author Henrik Wergeland (1808 – 1845) proudly wrote: ”The love of the people is my reward.”

            I dare not write the same. It would be to say far too much. But I really feel humble when reading such a letter as Wenche’s, and I feel gratitude.  

             I have got mail from my contact person in the Catholic student group in Oslo, Anniken Marie Johansen. She is a student of religious history and lives at Katarinahjemmet where I am to speak on Thursday. She tells me that Katarinahjemmet is named after Katarina of Siena. In her mail she gives me a link to a website operated by The Catholic Church of Norway where I can find a lot of information about saints.

            I go outside and sit in the sun. It is so hot that I have to undress. Finally I sit in my underpants only. Summer in Norway in late April!

            But now, with my clothes off, I feel fat and ugly.

            The hormone treatment I underwent made me put on weight. I am ten kilogrammes heavier now than in April last year. I have got a stomach of the kind we Norwegians call a beer stomach (”ølmage”), even if I do not drink beer. This weight increase bothers me a lot, vainglorious as I am. I really want to get rid of some of those kilos before the bathing season starts. This is a concern I share with a lot of people all over the Western world.

              I should concentrate on spiritual matters, but the bodily matters pop up to the surface in my consciousness too often, which I think is also the case with many other Westerners.

            When the sun goes down I go inside and study ”The Penguin Dictionary of Saints”, the chapter about Katherine of Siena. The book’s author, Donald Attwater, calls her a mystic, and writes:

 Katherine Benincasa was the youngest of the many children of a Sienese dyer. She was a lively good-looking girl, but resisted her parents’ efforts, not always gentle, to get her to marry; about 1367 she became a tertiary sister of the Dominican order, living at home and spending much time in prayer. A long succession of raptures and other spiritual experiences are recorde of her, culminating later in the pain of the stigmata, but without visible lesions.

The pain of the stigmata is the pain Jesus felt when he was nailed to the cross. On the cross at Golgata the letters INRI were written. I undertand this to be an abbreviation for of the Latin words Iesu Nasaret Rex Iudaeum, Jesus of Nasareth, King of the Jews. INRI, I have thought, was written in a fit of irony by Pontius Pilate.

             Attwater goes on:

 She attracted the attention of Siena, and a group of people gathered round her, priests and laity, noble and simple, young and old, including an Austin friar from England, William Flete.

These were her ’family’ or ’fine troop’, the ’Caterinati’, members of which accompanied her on her subesequent travels and with her were the occasion of some spectacular conversions of evil-doers.

The spectacular conversions laid the foundation for Katherine’s status as a saintly person. She then threw herself onto the world scene.

 Katherine’s concerns in wider public affairs began in 1375, when she sought to mediate in the armed conflict between Florence and other communes and the papal government.

Florence (Firenze in Italian and Norwegian) was the city of birth and the hometown of  the great poet Dante Alighieri, who died there in 1321, 26 years before Katherine was born in neighbouring Siena.

            Her eager wish to mediate brought Katherine abroad, to France.

This took her to Avignon and Pope Gregory XI, whom she implored to carry out his wish to leave France and return to Rome. He did so, but at his death in 1378 his successor, Urban VI, was at once opposed by a rival pope.

 A fight, there, between two popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome.

 This began the ’great schism’ that rent western Christendom for forty years. Katherine threw herself into the struggle on behalf of Urban, tirelessly dictating (she had never learned to write) fiery and intransigent appeals for his cause to churchmen and civil leaders everywhere.

Urban called her to Rome and often consulted her; but there was no support for her impassioned advice, even from the members of her ’family’, and amidst the general turmoil she died.

What made her a saint? Attwater explains:

 St Katherine of Siena was in the line of St Hildegard, and of Bridget of Sweden (with close asssociates of whom she was in touch), but here has perhaps been a tendency to exaggerate the importance of her political and social activities. Her greatness ultimately resided in her personal faith and holiness, and in her passionate concern for the salvation of mankind.

 Her writings are here for us to read (if life had not been so terribly short):

 Many of her letters survive, throwing much light on her spirited and candid character; those to Pope Gregory are a curious mixture of respectfulnes and outspoken familiarity. Among her correspondents was that free-lance soldier from Essex, Sir John Hawkwood. Her dictated Dialogue, a rather unsystematic work dealing with man’s religious and moral problems and duties, is an Italian classic (Eng. trans., 1898). St Katherine was named a doctor of the Church in 1970.

 What did the saintly Catherine write to Hawkwood, the soldier of fortune? I don’t know, and probably shall never know.

            What does it mean that she became a ”doctor of the Church”? I don’t know even that much. When it comes to saints, I’m a barbarian.

            But I try to improve, and start reading about Katarina in her section of the Norwegian Catholic’s saint website. It is a long and detailed section, of which I can only present a few glimpses.

            I read about Katarina’s marriage to Christ. While there was a carnival going on i Siena (in 1366 or 1368), Katarina was kneeling in prayer in her room.

            ”Then the Saviour showed himself to her, accompanied by his holy mother and a

heavenly host (”himmelsk hærskare”). The Virgin Mary lifted her hand and held it up to the Son, who placed a ring on it and made Katarina his wife...The ring continued to be visible for her, but invisible to others.”

            The invisible ring.

            I do not doubt that Katarina saw a ring where no others could see it. Human imagination can be very strong. And to me, the disbeliever, that is what the story of the invisible ring is all about; human imagination.

            I cannot believe in this ring, and this marriage, as anything else than the fruits of  the imagination of a very religious young woman, who had lived in the seclusion of her room for years, praying much an speaking little, being silent, seeking to come in touch with the divine spirit.

            Then, on the 1th of April 1375, came the invisible stigmata. Katarina was kneeling in meditation in the small curch of Santa Cristina and looked at the crucifix.

             ”Suddenly five beams, red as blood, bored through her hands, feet and heart, causing such intense pain that she fainted. Like Francis of Assisi she was stigmatized, which means that she got the five wounds of Christ. These wounds she had for the rest of her life. While she was alive, the wounds were only visible to herself.”

             The invisible wounds.

             ”But after her death the wounds were visible to everybody, just like what happened to the holy Hosanna of Mantova.”

             Strong faith, incredibly strong imagination; that is what this story tells me about Katarina and her followers.   

            I am not writing this to mock her, or to mock the Catholics of today. I don not want to mock anybody, not Christians, not Jewish believers or Moslems. But I have to speak my mind. And in my rational mind I cannot see the the invisible.

            But the visible wounds after her death? I know this sounds harsh, but I cannot see any other explanation than that the five wounds of Christ were inflicted upon her by believers. Those believers may have thought that what they did was to obey God’s instructions. I do not doubt their faith in what they did. I do not doubt anybody’s faith in the incredible. But I myself, I cannot have such faith.

             I learn from the text on the website that Katarina wrote a letter to Sir John Hawkwood, who was a hired soldier commanding forces fighting and causing havoc in the Italian states. She begged Hawkwood to use his military capability in the Crusade against the pagans in the Holy Land.

            She went to Rome and fought a bitter battle to establish unity in the Church. But in the end she gave up, and decided to give her life as an offering to God to save the Church. She fasted, and in January 1380 she stopped drinking water. She suffered a physcial breakdown.

              In the last period of her life ”it seemed to the people who surrounded her that she was fighting ’demons’ who mocked her for her fiasco and claimed that she had followed her own will and not the will of God.”

            She suffered a stroke, and died in Rome on April 29th 1380.

            The body of Katarina was shown for three days to enormous crowds. Then, according to the religious custom of Medieval times, her body was partitioned and the parts sent as relics to various cities.

            Pope Urban gave his permission to separate the head from the body. Three fingers were given to Venice. The head was sent to Siena.

             It is still there, in Siena, in a marble shrine in the Cappella di Santa Catarina in the church San Domencio. On the website of the Norwegian Catholics a photo of Katarina’s mumefied head is shown.

              The remains of her body were buried in a sarcophagus in the church Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.

             She was canonized in 1461 by Pope Pius II. Over the years more relics were removed from her grave and given to the order of the Dominicans all over Europe; a hand to Rome, the left foot to Venice, a rib to Florence, a shoulder blade to the Dominican sisters in the Magnanapoli monastery in Rome.

             What astonishes me, is that this practise of body relics did not die out with Medieval times. As late as in 1855 the grave was opened. Two relics consisting of bones, skin and golden threads from the cloth Katarina was buried in were sent to England. There they are kept in shrines at the monasteries St Dominic’s in Stone and St Catherine’s in Bow near London.

             I read that ”the finger which received the mystical ring” is kept in a monastery at Pontiniano in Florence.

             The sarcophagus has not been opened after 1855.

             In 1866 Pope Pius IX proclaimed Katarina patron saint (”skytshelgen”) of Rome. In 1939 Katarina of Siena and Francis of Assisi were proclaimed by Pope Pius XII as patron saints of Italy.

             Until 1999 Europe had three patron saints; Benedict, Kyrillos and Methodios. In 1999 Pope John Paul II proclaimed Katarina, Edith Stein and Bridget of Sweden patron saints of Europe.  


       Chapter 13

Chapter 15