14th Century Self-Improvement? Self-Knowledge, Self-Care, and Acceptance presented by St. Catherine of Siena

Self-knowledge, self-care, and being non-judgemental are themes running through much of the conversation in The Dialogue.

Catherine uses religious figures of speech in her writing, like Margery Kempe and George MacDonald. Don’t let the religious style fool you into thinking The Dialogue is only for Roman Catholics or is too religious to have any therapeutic merit, however.

Google either the saint or her work, and aside from the usual from Britannica and Wikipedia entries, the only articles you’ll find are from Christian publications. You’d never suspect for a moment The Dialogue has modern ideals regarding self-improvement. 

Defining Self-Knowledge as a Spiritual Practice

She has […] become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and cloth herself in it.

St. Catherine of Siena
Suzanne Noffke, translator

Self-knowledge itself is foundational to nearly everything in The Dialogue.

Today, we would define self-knowledge as of self-awareness. When we practice modern self-awareness, we are acutely aware and present of our bodies, emotions, feelings, and sensations. From what we now know about our connection between mind and body, this is a very correct definition of self-knowledge.

However, Christianity has a notoriously neo-Platonic bend to it. Meaning that more often than not, it focuses on separating the “flesh” from the “spirit.” So, you’ll often find figures of speech which refer to bodily punishment in order to set the spirit free.

So what does Catherine mean by self-knowledge? 

It’s more spiritual knowledge than a physical awareness. For Catherine, self-knowledge is knowing how God manifests in you. Knowing God in you helps you to love and understand God. You know God, therefore, by knowing yourself. 

Self-knowledge also means you are aware of your own deficiencies. Therefore, if you know where you are spiritually weak, you know where you need to improve.

Does Catherine condone bodily punishment as part of her gaining spiritual knowledge? Well, we know she practiced austerity throughout her life, including some pretty severe periods of fasting. We also know it was the common attitude of the time and it continued to be a common attitude right into the 2000s. Whether that was fasting, abstaining from sex, or not taking part in certain “secular” activities, the ultra-religious across all faiths have had an element of bodily punishment and abstinence.

That doesn’t mean, however, we must take the same view. A little fasting may be beneficial, but that doesn’t make it a spiritual requirement.

Spiritual Self-Care: Cultivating Virtue

She knew that she could be of no service to her neighbors in teaching or example or prayer without first doing herself the service of attaining and possessing virtue.

St. Catherine of Siena
Suzanne Noffke, translator

What does self-care look like in the 14th century? Well, it looks like being a good person, according to Catherine. That is, of course, what she means by “possessing virtue.”

Where we differ from the 14th-century saint, however, is in how we come by virtue and that’s where the idea of self-care comes into play. Today, there is more focus on external work: being active in the community, running marathons for charity, volunteerism, donating time and money to worth causes, and speaking out about injustice on social media.

Catherine, however, talks about attaining virtue for herself before she does anything for anyone else. How does someone do that?

In her own life, she spent a lot of time away from society—she ministered to those around her—but she also took time to minister to herself whether that was spending time in contemplation, withdrawing from the world to cloister herself in a traditional monastic environment, or spending time in a holy trance, known as ecstasy.

Catherine prioritized spending time in meditation, self-evaluation, and prayer. She wasn’t active in the community 100% of the time.

Spiritual self-care in the modern world can look like many things. It can look like pausing in the middle of the working day to meditate, unplugging from social media, or turning off your phone before you go to bed. Taking spiritual care of yourself is also politely saying “no” when someone asks you to volunteer for something when you’re already overbooked. Yes, that includes your religious institution too.

It’s nothing new: 14th and 15th century mystics did the same thing!  

Non-Judgement Should be a Standard Practice–Not an Acceptation!

Yet I do not want you, dearest daughter, to impose this rule on everyone. For all bodies are not the same, nor do all have the same strong constitution; one is stronger than another.

St. Catherine of Siena
Suzanne Noffke, translator

Seeing a 14th century Christian saint come out and say that you shouldn’t judge others might be a shock. But, there it is in black and white. 

Catherine was known for her austere life. She could fast for long periods of time among other things. The passage quoted specifically tells Catherine not to expect everyone to practice the same austerity because not everyone is physically capable, nor it is the right course of action for everyone to take.

Now, it is tempting to look at that viewpoint and claim she was being condescending. She isn’t. Her 14th century reasoning is that God knows each individual person. She does not and it would be most incorrect for her to every try to take God’s place. 

So if a fellow Christian does not fast as often, or expose themselves to plague as boldly, then it does not mean that they are any less devoted to God than she.

Translate this to the 21st century, and the advice would take on a distinct form. For instance, take reducing plastic consumption. One person stops using all single-use plastics. Another decides to only purchase natural fiber clothing. Who is correct? Who is more virtuous?

The answers would be both and neither. Each one is choosing a way of battling the problem that works for them and which resonates with them. Saying one matters more than the other, or that one is more virtuous than the other, is just as judgmental as saying that someone isn’t very religious because they don’t go to enough religious activities.

Applying the 14th Century to the 21st

How does Catherine come to some startlingly modern conclusions? We know she had no formal schooling, and, for a while at least, had to dictate The Dialogue and all her letters because she could neither read nor write. I think the answer here is two-fold, and both are worth some consideration on our part. 

1) Catherine learned from everyone around her. She may not have had formal schooling, but she was eager to learn, and she wasn’t ashamed to be a learner.

2) Meditation and contemplation were daily practices for her. She knew, as we now know, that self-knowledge is best gained when we’ve stilled the outside world and have only ourselves.  

Self-knowledge led to love of both herself and of God. Love led to developing virtue and the ability, therefore, to love and minister to others. Regardless of religion, that is a great aspiration for us all.

How will you cultivate your own self-knowledge today? How will you take care of your spirit? How will you practice acceptance? Let me know in the comments below or drop a message on one of my social channels!

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10 thoughts on “14th Century Self-Improvement? Self-Knowledge, Self-Care, and Acceptance presented by St. Catherine of Siena

  1. Meditation is a huge thing for me—in all its many forms, from actual meditation, to journalling, to exercise. I feel that the more we spend time on looking inwards, the more we will have to offer the outside world. But that’s just me being woo-woo. This was a super interesting post indeed. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, if woo-woo worked for Catherine of Siena, then it should work for the rest of us mere mortals! And she wasn’t the only one… Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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