“How to Grow in Trust according to St. Catherine de Ricci, OP”
Br Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP, 2/4/10
When the Lord Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, he challenges them to a radical trust in Divine Providence. Jesus instructs them to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts” (Mk 6:8). Now, this call to trust in Divine Providence applies to all aspects of life. Whether concerning our material needs and wants, our success, our reputation, or whatever else pertains to our well-being, God calls us to trust in his Providence. Yet often it’s difficult to trust and to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone in these areas—at least for me. Put my neck on the line? No thanks! Even when we have a good sense that it is God’s will, it’s not easy to extend ourselves to this extent, where we are forced to depend on God’s special Providence.
So this evening, I wish to look to St Catherine de Ricci and see what this 16th century mystic, prioress, and spiritual director might have to offer us in this regard. In a letter, she claims that the entire spiritual life culminates in a trustful abandonment to Divine Providence (#17). For, this surrender enables us to embrace and accomplish God’s will perfectly. In very Dominican fashion, St. Catherine then looks behind the divine will to God’s wisdom. She speaks of Him who “is wisdom itself, [who] in the government of the universe…can’t go wrong” (#17). Or as the Scriptures say, Divine Wisdom orders all things sweetly (Wisd 8:1). Ultimately, St Catherine finds the basis for her trust in God’s goodness. She says, “The all-powerful God loves us more than we love ourselves and takes more care of us than we do of ourselves” (#17).
St Catherine evidently enjoyed a strong trust in God—she is a Saint after all. And her biographers note that she always had a remarkable serenity of soul. So, practically, how did she come to have such a trust in Divine Providence? Well, judging from what most marked her spirituality and from a letter, a decisive factor was her devotion to the crucifix (cf #36). This was her secret. It’s something very basic and simple, so much so that we might not give it a second thought. But her meditation on the crucifix went hand and hand with her great trust in Divine Providence. Already by the age of seven, St Catherine was spending hours each day praying before the crucifix. And from the time she entered the Dominicans to her death, the same crucifix remained by her side at each step in her trustful surrender to God.
God apparently used her meditation on the crucifix, to pour out his grace and bless her with a great trust in his Providence. For on the Cross, we see one of the worst situations in which a man could ever find himself in this life. Yet even in the midst of this tragedy, this unjust murder, this horrible human suffering, God remains in control. And the Resurrection that follows is a witness to what God can bring out of the most dire circumstances, when his will and his glory is put before all else. Christ’s death and resurrection remains the prime example of Divine Providence.
St Catherine’s meditation on the crucifix involved the whole Paschal Mystery. Shortly after she began to mystically re-live Christ’s Passion, it’s precisely the resurrected Christ who appears to strengthen her. And elsewhere in a letter, she praises the kind of prayer that connects Christ’s Passion to his nativity, to his resurrection, and to the coming of the Holy Spirit (#24). So when Catherine gazed upon the crucifix, she perceived all the mysteries of Christ’s life, as if gathered together and channeled through the Cross. She perceived God’s providential love made present and active in history. She grew in trust as she gazed upon the wounded Savior who loves us and cares for us more than we do ourselves. In a note, St Catherine told her fellow Dominican sisters, “[Go] before the crucifix…[and] form a better picture in your mind of the true Bridegroom, who has shown you so much love” (#18).
This devotion to the crucifix is the practical means through which God moved St Catherine beyond her comfort zone to a radical trust in his Providence. And on her deathbed, the Saint bore the fruits of her lifelong devotion. As she passed on to her eternal reward, she extended her arms in the shape of the Cross. She had learned well from her Lord this cruciform gesture, an embrace of God’s will to the end. Finally, the words of an earlier prayer were fulfilled, “I pray to him that I may be his…and let whatever he wills come of it, for I abandon myself always into his arms” (#22).
Sources: St Catherine De’ Ricci: Selected Letters. Ed. Domenico Di Agresti. Oxford: Dominican Sources, 1985.
For biographical information see Agresti’s introduction in the above work and also Dominican Saints by Dominican Novices (Rockford IL: TAN, 1995.)