(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Catherine begins The Dialogue by discussing the intimate relationship of truth and love, then goes on to discuss the beauty and dignity of each person who becomes perfect in proportion to union with the Creator. She then makes four petitions to God: for herself (to be permitted to suffer so as to atone for her sins); for reformation of the Holy Church; for peace in the world, and for the entire world in general; for the effects of Providence in everything, but particularly for a special intention. She indicates that she is relying on God’s promise to Saint John and others that God will show himself to those who love him.

There is a brief reply from God to the first petition. She is told of the need for infinite desire in relation to works even though they are finite, because sin done against God is sin done against the Infinite Good. So God wishes infinite grief in his creature concerning her own sins and through the sorrow she feels for sins that she sees committed by her neighbors. However, she is promised that the pain she feels through love will nourish rather than dry up the soul.

God then explains in some detail what the role of the neighbor is in regard to a person’s spiritual development. Pride destroys charity and affection toward the neighbor and is the main source of every evil. When we deprive a neighbor of that which he or she ought to be given, a secret sin is committed. God gives each person a special virtue that draws to the soul all others bound by love. However, unless we make our act of love through God, it is meaningless. The virtues such as faith, patience, benignity, kindness, fortitude, and perseverance are then extolled. It is discernment or holy discretion that is the light of all the other virtues, Catherine is told.

Thus end what some call the prologue and the section titled (not by Catherine herself but by later editors) “The Way of Perfection.” The next series of chapters—and here the lead of those editors is followed—is called “Dialogue.” Here the future saint lists three petitions to which God gives a short reply. These petitions correspond roughly to the second and fourth petitions of the prologue (Church reform and the role of Providence in all things). Catherine seeks mercy for God’s people and for all aspects of the life of the Church, to its very core. She is concerned with all grace that is manifested through material things and temporal experiences. To this God answers by reminding Catherine that the world has already received the great gift it needs for redemption and that is Christ, the Redeemer, himself. However, this gift brings with it a tremendous responsibility of which we must be aware.

Catherine implores God to be merciful to the entire world. He says, in return, that selfish love is a poison that can undermine all, and he recalls to her that he is the God of all, of the evildoer as well as of the good. Then the fourteenth century mystic asks specifically for grace for her spiritual director, Raymond of Capua (later her biographer), and God tells her of the way of truth, using the metaphor of Christ as bridge. He also speaks of the twofold vineyard, which is composed of the individual’s soul and the Church. For spiritual growth this vineyard must be nurtured by all who wish to serve God. This “dialogue” section closes with praise rendered divine love and Catherine’s expressed desire to learn more about Christ as the necessary bridge. “I remember that you wanted to show me who are those who cross over the bridge and those who do not. So, if it would please your goodness to show me, I would gladly see and hear this from you.”

The heart of the book follows and has been signified as “The Bridge.” Christ, the only begotten Son, is the bridge that spans heaven and earth. This, God says, is one result of the union that he has made with man, the creature fashioned out of clay. The approach is in three steps: Two were made with the wood of Jesus’ cross. The third—which still retains its bitter taste—is the gall and vinegar he was given to drink. These three steps symbolize the states of the soul, and they are likened to the Crucifixion experience in this account. In the first step, when the soul lifts her feet from the affections of the earth, she strips herself of worldly vice. As a result of step two, the soul is filled with love and with virtue. In the final step she tastes the peace of God.

The Bridge is built of the stones of true and sincere virtues. On the Bridge is an inn where food is given the travelers. Those who go over the Bridge go to eternal life, while those who travel beneath the Bridge go to everlasting death. These latter suffer four pains: the deprivation of seeing God, the worm of Conscience, the vision of the Devil, and the torment of a fire that burns but does not consume. Those who make spiritual progress pass from a state of imperfection (acting in servile fear) to arrival in the state of perfection (filial love).


(The entire section is 2045 words.)

The Dialogue Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cavallini, Giuliana. Catherine of Siena. New York: G. Chapman, 1998. A solid overview of Catherine, with coverage of her writings, her search for truth, her Christology, and her politics. Chronology, bibliography, index.

Gardner, Edmund G. Saint Catherine of Siena. London: Dent, 1907. Covers the background as well as the life of Catherine through a study of the religion, literature, and history of fourteenth century Italy.

Hilkert, Mary Catherine. Speaking with Authority: Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today. New York: Paulist Press, 2001. Examines Catherine in the context of modern women’s issues. Bibliography.

Luongo, F. Thomas. The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Counters the notion of Catherine as isolated mystic and considers her in a sociopolitical context—including the Black Death, social revolutions, Florence versus the papacy—by examining her letters and juxtaposing her words to those of contemporary political and social movements. Bibliography, index.

Noffke, Suzanne. Catherine of Siena: Vision Through a Distant Eye. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996. The author, a Dominican of Racine, Wisconsin, considers Catherine as a rare authoritative woman of her time, the first to be published in one of the emerging Italian vernacular dialects. Part 1 covers her theology and spirituality; part 2 presents resources on her person and thought, her world, and others writings in English. Annotated bibliography.

Raymond of Capua. The Life of St. Catherine of Siena. Translated by George Lamb. New York: Kennedy, 1960. The first biography of the saint, written by her confessor, who shared many of her experiences.