1 John 1:5-2:2/Psalm 36:5-10/Luke 12:22-24, 29-31
St. Catherine of Siena
Oscar Wilde has said somewhere that we ought not to destroy legends. It is through legends that, as he put it, “we are given an inkling of the true physiognomy of a man”—or woman. Even if not strictly factual, legends reveal something of the truth about a person. Since we are profoundly social in nature, the energies we generate in those around us are part of the truth of who we are as human beings.
So, here is a legend about St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast we keep today. Catherine happened to be in Rome, when she fell ill and died. There were people from her home town of Siena in Rome at the time, who wanted to return her body to Siena for burial. They were afraid that they would never be able to get her body past the guards. And so, they removed her head from her body and put it in a bag. When they left the city with this bag, they were, indeed, stopped by guards, who insisted on seeing what was inside. Opening the bag, they saw that it was, miraculously, full of rose petals. When the people of Siena returned home, the rose petals were gone. In place of the rose petals was St. Catherine’s head. End of legend.
If you go to Siena today, to the Basilica of San Domenico, you can see Catherine’s head on display in a glass reliquary. And with very little assistance from the mortuary arts, as far as I could tell when I was there about twenty years ago.
Be that as it may, Catherine Benincasa was deeply religious from a very early age and given to mystical visions. She consecrated her virginity to Christ at the age of 7, a decision she clung too, even when it was strenuously resisted by her parents. She eventually overcame family concerns and affiliated with the Dominicans as a third order lay sister. She served heroically as a nurse among the poor, even during a time of plague. She is also remembered for her interventions in church politics during the time of the schism, when there was one pope in Rome and another pope in Avignon. She died in Rome from a stroke at age 33 in a state of paralysis and physical exhaustion, possibly exacerbated by her extreme asceticism.
Catherine was, of course, extraordinary—extraordinary enough to inspire such extraordinary measures at the time of her death, extraordinary enough to inspire such legends around these extraordinary events.
But as extraordinary as Catherine’s life and work were, they were the manifestation, they were the embodiment of something quite ordinary: the love of God. There is nothing more ordinary than the love of God. God is love and God is ordinary.
There’s a word that comes up three times in our Psalm this evening. It’s a great big word in Hebrew, one that I keep coming back to in my own devotions and in my preaching. The Hebrew word chesed. It can be translated different ways. “Your love, O Lord (your chesed) reaches to the heavens.” “How priceless is your love, O God.” How priceless is your chesed. And, “continue your loving-kindness to those who know you…” Continue your chesed. In other Psalms chesed is translated “steadfast love” or “mercy”. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy (his chesed) endures for ever.” Mercy, steadfast love, loving-kindness, love: it’s all chesed.
Psalm 136 uses the word chesed in a very emphatic way. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.” His mercy, his chesed, his loving-kindness, his love endures forever. And, for emphasis, this is repeated twenty-six times, once in each verse. A closer translation would be, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his loving kindness is always and everywhere.” L’olam in Hebrew: always and everywhere—all time, all space. L’olam. The loving-kindness of God is always and everywhere. Always present, everywhere present, to the edge of the cosmos and beyond, to the edge of time and beyond. Always and everywhere, ever-present to us and for us—and in us and through us. Which is to say, ordinary. Permeating all time and all space. Perfectly and completely ordinary.
The saints we commemorate have manifested this ordinary thing, this ordinary love of God, in some extraordinary ways, even heroic ways. It is right and good to remember these people. But there is a danger, or at least a temptation in the veneration of saints. The temptation is to recognize sanctity in these powerful personalities, but fail to see our own. To celebrate the saints’ manifestation of the loving kindness of God, but to fail to celebrate our own. We can be so dazzled by the heroic and spectacular deeds of the saints, that we forget that we have, within us, the very same thing, this absolutely ordinary thing we call the love of God. Whatever the saints have, we also have. I think they’re just more aware of it. The loving kindness of God is not something “out there” to strive for, but something “in here” to become aware of.
We all, each and every one of us, embody this love, this profoundly ordinary thing, in countless ways. It may be spectacular or heroic. More likely, for most of us, most of the time, it is in simple, homely ways. The smile, the gracious gesture, the thoughtful word, the modest gift, the gentle courtesy, the listening ear—even these ordinary, everyday things are motivated by “the love that moves the stars” [Dante].
Such an ordinary thing, loving-kindness. So “always and everywhere”. So, so ordinary. Ordinary sanctity. Ordinary loving-kindness. The chesed of God. L’olam. Always and everywhere. The loving kindness of God. It’s in the air we breathe. In the ground we walk on. It courses through our veins. It courses through the stars and everywhere in between. “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens.”
The loving kindness of God. It’s so always and everywhere. It’s so here. It’s so now. It’s so you. It’s so you and you and you.
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