Writing as an Act of Charity
The newsfeed on Facebook (or any social media) is a troubling place. News of bombed planes, war in Gaza, murdered clergymen, and school shootings have all claimed prominent space over the past couple months as I scroll through my newsfeed. To quite literally add insult to injury, people post and comment on Facebook in a degrading, self-righteous, and outright obnoxious manner. Most people accompany the news of violence in the world with violence in their words.
Saint Catherine of Siena, who was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy, and died in 1380 in Rome, lived under surprisingly similar circumstances, minus the social media. The world was in chaos around her. Europe felt the sting of the Western losses in the centuries of Crusades, yet still rallied troops to fight while the Islamic forces progressed closer and closer. Meanwhile, England and France were in the early years of the devastating Hundred Years’ War. The Black Death claimed anywhere from a third to half of the population as it returned at regular intervals each decade, and widespread famine due to a Little Ice Age ravaged those who survived (for reference, another Little Ice Age impoverished France shortly before its bloodbath of a revolution in the eighteenth century). The Pope had left Rome for Avignon, where he and his court lived under the excesses and the political influence of the French crown. Meanwhile, the Papal States were in a constant state of conflict and disarray. If people today claim it seems like the world is going to end, imagine what those living in the fourteenth century thought.
In the midst of plague, famine, violence, and corruption, Saint Catherine of Siena embraced a life of public charity. She joined a tertiary order of the Dominicans and ministered to the sick and starving. In her later years, her ministry developed more in the direction of political and ecclesiological issues, as she counseled political prisoners and personally visited France to convince Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. Considering she was an uneducated laywoman who died at the age of 33, Saint Catherine left an incredible mark on the history of Europe and the Church. Her mystical treatise Dialogue on Divine Providence overflows with her teachings on charity, and these teachings teach us much today as we live in a violent world.
Most importantly, Catherine stressed the practice of charity in the ordinary life. She firmly believed all Christians, and not just vowed religious, were called to love God and love one’s neighbor. Because of the demands of marriage, children, and business, not all people could devote their lives to cloistered life and grand acts of charity, so Catherine called them to practice the virtue of charity through everyday acts of love of neighbor.
As evidenced in her Dialogue and her prolific correspondence, Catherine engaged in writing as an act of charity. She claimed she learned to write miraculously, as God appeared to her in a vision and Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Thomas Aquinas taught her to write in a dream. Regardless the nature of how she learned to write, Catherine eventually could write in her vernacular Italian by her own hand, despite her lack of any formal education. And write she did: she wrote to popes, kings, queens, nobility, clergy, and townspeople, instructing them in the practice of charity as the manner of living the Gospel. Even when she was displeased with their actions (such as she was with the pope), she always wrote in a manner that conveyed her love of them. Her words demonstrated God’s love and her love of others for God’s sake, both in content and tone. As fiery as her admonitions became, she always reminded her recipients that she was praying for them.
This is what we can learn from Saint Catherine. Like those who lived in her era, we are shaken by a tumultuous world. It becomes easy, especially with the perceived anonymity of the computer screen, to lash out at others.
Sometimes our lack of charity comes when we believe we are defending the truth against those who we perceive as wrong. I am sure you, my dear readers, have witnessed nasty disputes on Facebook, Twitter, or blogs between Christians of different denominations. I am as guilty of this as any of us (Lord, have mercy). Yet our words, as Saint Catherine emphasizes, must be filled with infinite desire of God and love of neighbor. Our words act as our personal witness to our Christian life; if we are called to live a life of charity, should not our words be endowed with charity?
Let us learn from Saint Catherine, then. Even when we are angry at someone and believe they are in the wrong, let our writing (especially online) become an act of charity, that is, an act of love towards our neighbor. Gentleness and mercy may not win arguments, but they will win souls. Christ instructs us in the Gospel to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, so let us pray for one another as we discuss the differences in our faith and opinions. We can use our written words to invite others into prayer with us, rather than express contempt. As persecution of Christians intensifies in certain parts of the world, let us stop persecuting each other with our words and instead lift one another up with words of encouragement. The little word, when endowed with charity, can work great wonders in the world – just look at the impact of the words of an uneducated, young Italian woman from six hundred years ago.