Letter of St. Catherine to a Carthusian monk

Today the Church celebrates St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a saint who has a special connection to the Carthusian Order. She wrote at least twelve letters to several Carthusian monks who received spiritual advice from her. One of these letters — written to a carthusian monk on the island of Gorgona — is included in the readings for today's Matins (readings 1 to 8). This is what we would like to share with you today.


Dearest and very loved son in Christ gentle Jesus, I Catherine, slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you living in the house of self-knowledge, where you will learn every virtue. Without such knowledge you would be living in every sort of evil, irrationally. But you could say to me, “How can I get into this house, and how can I keep living there?” I will tell you. You know that without light there is nowhere to walk but in the dark, and the darkness will make us stumble. In such darkness you would not be able to recognise what you need along the way. We are all pilgrim travellers, set on the road of the teaching of Christ crucified. Some walk by the way of the commandments, in ordinary charity. Others go the way of the counsels, the way of perfect charity, but without cutting themselves off from the commandments.


In this house of self-knowledge you discover your chief enemy, who would like to make you stumble, your selfish sensuality cloaked in selfish love. That enemy is surrounded by a host of vassals, two of whom are the constant companions of selfish sensuality. One of these is the world with its vanities and pleasures. The other is the devil with his deceits and all his annoyances and deceptive imaginings. Our sensual will leans toward these and gladly finds pleasure in such imaginings no matter how the devil presents them. These principal enemies have many servants, all of whom stand ready to make you stumble, unless the light gives you the discernment to do something about it. So reason takes the light of most holy faith and goes into the house to take control of selfish sensuality. For she knows that this sensuality wants and seeks nothing less than her death. And so she rises up energetically and draws the knife of hatred for that sensuality and of love for true solid virtue, and with it she kills the enemy.


After this your enemies cannot make you stumble. The just Lord does give them license to knock at the door, but he allows this so the guard will be more alert and wisely stay awake instead of falling asleep on the bed of apathy. He also wants to see whether or not this house is sturdy, so that if it is found not to be so, you will have reason to reinforce it, and in the light will see what it is that makes it sturdy and lasting. Once you have seen what that is, take firm hold of it. And what is it that makes us strong and enduring? Continual humble prayer made in the house of self-knowledge and of knowledge of God's goodness to us. This sort of prayer has humility as its foundation, humility learned in this same house, the house of self-knowledge. We are clothed in the fire of the divine charity discovered in our coming to know God when, in the light, we see how indescribably much we are loved by him. This love is proved and guaranteed in the first creation, where we see that we were created out of love in the image and likeness of God. And in the second creation we see that we were created anew to grace in the blood of the humble spotless Lamb.


There are three ways we can understand prayer. The first is continual prayer, to which everyone is obligated. This is true holy desire grounded in charity for God and our neighbour, by which all that we do for ourselves or for our neighbours is done for God's honour. Such desire is constantly praying; I mean, the movement of charity in what we do is praying continually before our Creator no matter where we are or when. What fruit do we derive from this? We receive a calm tranquillity within, the tranquillity of a will in harmony with and submissive to reason, a tranquillity that finds nothing a stumbling block. It is not hard for us to bear the yoke of sincere obedience when we are given burdens to carry and manual work to do or are asked to serve our brothers as occasions and circumstances demand; or when we would like to be actually praying and have to do something else. This is the sort of prayer the glorious apostle Paul invites us to when he says that we should pray without ceasing.


There is another sort of prayer. This is vocal prayer: saying orally the Divine Office or some other prayer one might wish to say. The purpose of this sort of prayer is to lead into mental prayer, and this will be its effect if it is well grounded in the first sort of prayer and if you persevere in practicing it, always urging your mind to concentrate on, offer, and be receptive to the movement of charity for God rather than to the sound of the words. And walk wisely: when you sense that your spirit is being visited by God, put words aside, except in the case of the Divine Office, which you are obligated to say. And here is how you will reach the third sort of prayer, mental prayer: by lifting your mind and desire above yourself to consideration of God's affectionate charity and of yourself. There you will come to know the teaching of truth when you taste the milk of divine sweetness flowing from the breasts of charity. The fruit and effect of this is the unitive state, where you become so united with God as to see yourself no longer in reference to yourself but to God, and your neighbours in reference to God, and God in terms of his infinite goodness.


Now you know what makes us persevere staunchly in the house of self- knowledge, and what it is that leads us there, and where we find it. I have said it is the light that guides us, and that we find it in the teaching of Christ crucified. And it is prayer that locks us in and keeps us there. This is the truth. So, dearest and very loved son, I want you to live continually in the house of self-knowledge so that you will be able to fulfil the vow of holy obedience into which you have recently entered. There is, in fact, no other way you could keep that vow. Once the enemies have been put out and the chief enemy, our sensual will, is dead, this house is filled and beautified with the virtues. I want you to pay attention to this, for it wouldn't be enough for the house to be empty and not filled up again. This is the cell I want you to carry about with you in whatever you have to do around the island and everywhere else. Never leave it, whether you are in choir, in the refectory in the assembly, or at work; in whatever you have to do, stay locked within it.


I want you too, when you are actually praying, always to direct your understanding to consideration of the movement of God’s charity rather than to whatever gift you may seem to be receiving from God, so that your love may be pure and not mercenary. As for your physical cell, I want you to be there as much as obedience allows, preferring to be embattled there rather than at peace elsewhere. For the devil makes use of this trick with solitaries to make them weary of their cells. He sends them more darkness and struggle and harassment in their cells than outside so that their cells will come to terrify them, as if the cell were the cause of their evil thoughts. I don't want this to make you turn back. No, be constant and persevering. Never be lazy, but use your time for prayer, for holy reading, and for manual work, keeping your memory always filled with God so that your soul may not be taken over by idleness.


I also want you to judge everything in terms of God's will, so that you will not fall into disliking and gossiping about your brothers. And I want you to be really distinguished for ready obedience – not now and then or in half-measures but completely. Never resist the will of the rule or of your superior, but make yourself a mirror of observance, a mirror of the Order's customs, doing your best to observe them even to the point of death. Consider yourself contemptible and of no account, killing your selfish will and disciplining your body with the mortification dictated by the rule. I want you to try hard to bear in charity the words and actions that sometimes seem unbearable – either because of the devil's deceit or because of your own weakness or because they are in fact unbearable. In this and in everything else put up a good fight, and so live by Christ's word, that the kingdom of heaven is for those who do violence to themselves.


The Letters of Catherine of Siena, transl. Suzanne Noffke, vol. IV, p. 48-54. In: Lectionary for Maitins - Year A - 29 April - Readings 1-8 (Saint Hugh's Charterhouse 2021)