Note 6: Catherine of Siena: Formulating Identity by Talking through God. 6/5/99
One of the most bizarre documents, from a native American point of view, ever to have emerged in Eurocentric discourse is the one known as The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin. The text was produced in 1370 in Siena, Italy by St. Catherine of Siena who dictated it to her secretaries while in a profound state of ecstasy. As often as not, the words themselves are not Catherine's but God's, since He was supposed to have used her as a spokesperson for His divine message. While certainly not an everyday occurrence, there is a history of the Word of God being transmitted directly through the voice of a human mystic to the world at large. Usually a person hears God's voice and reports to others what the Divinity had to say but, in this particular case, Catherine spoke the Word directly in what was thought to be God's actual voice, apparently, while her secretaries wrote down what He/she said. Hence, in quoting material from the Dialogue, the quotation marks represent by enclosure God's voice, not Catherine's.
An important point to take note of here concerns the concept of authority as it applies to medieval literary production. Chaucer, for instance, was always inclined to reproduce in altered form a work that had been written by someone else, usually a classical author whether well-known or obscure. The authority of the work, how it was received by his contemporary audience and the respect it garnered, then, rested, not with Chaucer himself, but with the reputation the original author had managed over the years to attain. Chaucer and Catherine, of course, were contemporaries, with Chaucer beginning work on the Canterbury Tales roughly 17 years after Catherine produced her Dialogue with God. Since the authority behind the literary production resided directly in the voice that originally produced the words of the text, Petrarch, for instance, in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, and God, of course, in Catherine's Dialogue, one was expected to perceive the value of the text at least partially in terms of how well and faithfully the redaction reproduced the original. Drawing then from two separate traditions, the general view of textual authority current in the Middle Ages, on the one hand, and the religious tradition of recording the actual Word of God, on the other, Catherine played the authority of her text to the highest level of veracity one could achieve at the time. Mikhail Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, would argue that Catherine's text, even while claiming to be a dialogue, is actually based on the precepts of monologic discourse because the authority behind it takes the form of direct commandments from God, against which there cannot be any meaningful rejoinder. There is only one voice in Catherine's work--the Voice of God. The fact that the church sanctioned her Dialogue, if only because she was not burned at the stake as a witch, and later canonized her, means that the hierarchy accepted what she produced as having been inspired by God.
Many other things can be said here about the circumstances of how this dialogue came into existence. Pope Gregory I, according to Algar Thorold, who translated the Dialogue from Italian to English in 1907 (London: Kegan Paul), took the position that heathen ritual and ceremonial activity should be incorporated into Christianity, albeit with the utmost care of course, because the familiarity thus achieved between the old and the new would make it easier to convert heathens to the Christian faith. An important aspect of all animistic practice is the idea that the medicine-man or shaman periodically enters a state of profound ecstasy as a means of communicating directly with the spirit world. In every curing ritual the shaman consults with the spirits in order to learn how to treat the ailment afflicting his/her patient. One can say that the shaman is possessed by the spirit of the entity who has agreed to assist him/her in the effort to cure the ailment. Shamans have even been known to give voice to the spirit who possesses them. In animistic practice, of course, the voice usually belongs to an animal who is the totem of the clan to which the patient or medicine-man belongs. Voicing the animal acts as a sign to the patient and the community at large, all of whom are involved in the ritual, that a successful journey to the spirit world has been accomplished and that the curer will likely return with a proper solution to the problem facing the tribe.
What is obvious to me, since I have some experience with the act of spirit possession myself, but what may not be obvious to good Christians and true, because shamanistic activity is always already perceived by them to be not only profane but also inherently evil, the work of the devil as it were, is that Catherine of Siena's ecstasy is as much one thing as it might be the other. The similarity between shamanistic practice and what Catherine did herself put her at risk of being perceived as a witch and could have resulted in her swift and utter demise. In other words, the only difference between what happened to her and what has happened to countless medicine-men and shamans for thousands of years, is that she, and her auditors, claimed she was possessed by God Himself, while your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, shaman never claimed more elaborate cloth than to be speaking for this or that totem animal spirit. A profound difference exists here between one thing and the other of course. Not to dwell on it for too long a time, but the difference is that the evil shaman never claims more than being in touch with a spirit-power, an animal, as it were, that comes to him/her only as to an equal, while the good Christian and true claims union with God, the Father Almighty, who surpasses understanding and is the Absolute Creator of all known and unknown reality. I do not question Catherine of Siena's goodness, and she was reputed to be altogether compassionate and admirable, but what I cannot comprehend is where she, and those around her, came up with the arrogance to assert that her human voice was the voice of God. A shaman would never claim such lofty accomplishment. Such a thing would be unthinkable.
Examining the Dialogue itself does provided a few clues toward understanding how a person could be induced by social pressures and cultural expectations to aspire to such exalted claims. God says, through Catherine of course, that
"Man is placed above all creatures, and not beneath them, and he cannot be satisfied or content except in something greater than himself. Greater than himself there is nothing but Myself, the Eternal God. Therefore I alone can satisfy him, and, because he is deprived of this satisfaction by his guilt, he remains in continual torment and pain."
In the context of Christian hierarchical ideology, a perfectly traditional and orthodox example of which we find articulated here, Catherine of Siena allows the voice of God to explain the mechanism of human desire toward fulfilling a basic lack ("I am flawed and not perfect like God") by seeking and achieving union ("but if pain and torment drive me enough I can become like He is") with divinity. If this formula is valid, should one not also assume that animals, because they are inferior to (wo)man in exactly the way that (wo)man is inferior to God, suffer a terrible "torment and pain" to become like we are? The proof that reveals the lie of this absurdity is the often repeated hierarchical corollary that animals do not possess a soul capable of allowing them to aspire to a higher or greater level of being in the great chain of descending value and worth which defines all living things. Only (wo)man has the capacity to recognize her/his own depravity as separation from God and to be driven as a consequence to seek union with that which, by definition, she/he can never be or become. The thing that strikes me as most odd, and most human in its articulation, is the assumption that every (wo)man necessarily desires to be God. That idea seems strange because God created His human creatures to be inferior to Himself, by definition as it were, but gave them, apparently, the capacity to desire to become more than human, which in itself turns out to be one primary definition of original sin, since God complains in Genesis that his disobedient creatures have sought, by eating the forbidden fruit, to "become as one of us, to know good and evil" (3:22). The entire structure of this ideology comprises a formula, as God Himself says, that can only lead to the kind of resentment against the other, animals first because of their pre(in)scribed inferiority and then to other people who are not equal to the Christian because of a different ideology, which always already ends in the impulse to commit genocide against the unbeliever.
God formulates this ideology through Catherine's Dialogue in an extended discussion of original sin, and its consequences, in the following terms:
"Thus he came to transgress My obedience imposed on him, and became My enemy. And I, with My humility, destroyed his pride, humiliating the divine nature, and taking your humanity, and, freeing you from the service of the devil, I made you free. And, not only did I give you liberty, but, if you examine, you will see that man has become God, and God has become man, through the union of the divine with the human nature. This is the debt which they have incurred -- that is to say, the treasure of the Blood, by which they have been procreated to grace."
The idea that one incurs a debt, to "the treasure of the Blood," in the process of being made free "from the service of the devil," from original sin, lacks so little logical sense that one might just as well say that becoming free is the same as being incarcerated. Of course, if it is true that God has make (wo)man God by making Himself (wo)man, a concept as twisted in its logic as anything else expressed here, even if it is an epitome of Christian theology, then the "union of the divine with the human nature" might be worth the price of giving up one's freedom for the sake of the crushing debt of being forgiven for something that is only humanly natural in the first place. The idea that (wo)man becomes God's enemy by her/his disobedience, a fact and/or condition that is punished by eternal death, only makes it that much easier for the people in the dominant class to punish the ones who are beneath them in a similar fashion for the same crime of disobedience. Catherine has God put this concept in these terms:
"And the flesh immediately began to war against the Spirit, and, losing the state of innocence, became a foul animal, and all created things rebelled against man, whereas they would have been obedient to him, had he remained in the state in which I had placed him. He, not remaining therein, transgressed My obedience, and merited eternal death in soul and body."
If God can condemn (wo)man to eternal death for acting on a desire placed in her/him by God in the first place, then it seems only logical to assume that (wo)man can inflict the same punishment on any of her/his underlings who seem to be disobedient to human law and commandments. The idea that (wo)man's disobedience to God created a state in which flesh entered a state of war against spirit, causing all other "created things" to rebel against humanity, and that this crime "merited eternal death in soul and body," establishes a sequence of causes and effects that has no essential ground whatsoever in anything that can be called real, on the one hand, and implies that (wo)man has the right and duty to punish the disobedient in nature for their rebellion against her/him, on the other. Like Father like Son, one supposes, (wo)man can punish with "eternal death in soul and body" everyone and everything that is perceived as being rebellious. Christ's ultimate function as Judge at the Second Coming is always described in these essentialistic terms.
Furthermore, it is really difficult, at least for me, to envision a state of existence in which all created reality remained in a condition of obedience to (wo)man's dominant and domineering greed. What exactly does it mean to say that a wild, natural animal, on the savannahs of Africa say, would have remained "obedient" to (wo)man if she/he had not first been disobedient to God? The only thing I can think in answer to this question is that fourteenth century Christians perceived a human past in which animals behaved like domesticated sheep and willingly herded themselves into a slaughtering ground so that their human masters would not have to work at all, or in any way whatsoever, to feed themselves. Even sheep don't kill themselves to become food for humans. Desire for such a "perfect" state of affairs, which is literally impossible to achieve because it stands in contradiction to the simple facts of any human historical reality, cannot create anything except a profound state of frustration and resentment in anyone who embraces a belief that such conditions once defined what it means to be human. Arguing, furthermore, that Eden was then lost through an act of human disobedience to God's will, which redefined (wo)man's essential condition into one of supreme depravity, supreme alienation from a naturally innocent state, and that it can only be regained through God's willingness to forgive (wo)man's transgression through an act of ritual suicide, making (wo)man God all over again, raises this discourse to a level of absurdity that borders on the insane.
Making the supreme goal of human existence the achievement of eternal life, which Christianity has always advocated, may have transformed it from an also-ran cult in competition with many others in the ancient world, since the prospect of living forever has an irresistible appeal as a commodity to a consciousness that can only experience itself as wholly temporal and mortal, but the price that has been paid for that preposterous pursuit, not by the dominant class, of course, but only by the other, stands the world on its head by devaluing what is natural in order to exalt what is not. Catherine employs the image of the flood (Noah's?) to make God's point:
"And, as soon as he had sinned, a tempestuous flood arose, which ever buffets him with its waves, bringing him weariness and trouble from himself, the devil, and the world. Every one was drowned in the flood, because no one, with his own justice alone, could arrive at Eternal Life."
Reducing reality to sin and depravity in its only skin, as the world, the flesh, and the devil, as she does here, in order to argue that true, and hence divine, justice alone can carry the depraved to "Eternal Life," seems somehow so cynical, so degrading, that the true wonder of the world is that a philosophy based on such ideological banality could have survived confrontation with any reasonable view of the human condition at all. One can only assume that an absolute fear of death, coupled with the profound arrogance to believe that any mortal thing ought to survive forever, and against all reason as it were, generates so strong a hope for the impossibility of its realization that no one exposed to its seduction can resist its pitch. God, the eternal salesman, in Catherine's voice, puts it this way:
"And so, wishing to remedy your great evils, I have given you the Bridge of My Son, in order that, passing across the flood, you may not be drowned, which flood is the tempestuous sea of this dark life. See, therefore, under what obligations the creature is to Me, and how ignorant he is, not to take the remedy which I have offered, but to be willing to drown."
Sure, and who would be willing to drown were it possible to escape not having to? The problem, however, with this view of life's reality, is simply that it is not real at all. How easy it is to give "this dark life" up simply because it is a "tempestuous sea" that cannot be, and never has been, the way the Myth of Eden describes it. And in exchange for freely giving up any connection you might have to reality, all you need do is recognize the "obligations" that God's "remedy" for "your great evils" confers upon you. This view of the human condition truly is one that sees only the darkest aspects of human life, sees them with such clarity of purpose to enslave the human spirit to an artificial hierarchy of power relations, with the Almighty myth of God at the top, that no one inside its ideology has ever been able to escape its seductive degradation.
The most frightening aspect of this ideology, of course, is the implied habit demanded of the blessed, those who are willing to accept the notion of their own worthlessness in comparison to God's own and absolute eternal value, that they must develop, promote, and accept, with respect to those who refuse to believe that nothingness made eternal is somehow a desirable end to human life, a willingness to bring the unbeliever to justice, a justice, of course, characterized as "an eternal death in soul and body." That this end is what Christian belief demands, that it will accept nothing more and nothing less than "eternal death" to the unbeliever, is as clearly stated here as it can be. If that does not sanctify genocide against the other, against the unbeliever, who is always already defined as other, then nothing can and nothing does. Making it an article of Christian faith only insures that most people will believe the myth in order to avoid being thrown off the bridge that carries their nothingness to glory in the false consciousness of not drowning in the sea of your own "great" evil. The greatest evil of all is refusing to kill the unbeliever when called upon by Christian duty to do so. If you doubt that, ask the Kosovars how they have been getting along lately at the hands of good Christians and true in the context of a Greater Serbia.
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