(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The son of an Austrian diplomat and a Scottish gentlewoman, Friedrich von Hügel spent his childhood and youth mainly on the Continent. His marriage to Lady Mary Herbert, a recent convert, drew him into English Catholic circles, among whom he established himself as a moderating influence.

A prolific writer, von Hügel became interested in Catherine Fiesca Adorna (1447-1510), known to history as Saint Catherine of Genoa, in 1884 when he picked up a copy of her life and teachings at the British Museum. However, fourteen years elapsed before he published a small book on questions suggested by her life, and another ten years before the present two-volume The Mystical Element of Religion appeared. Why, one might ask, was this relatively minor saint chosen as the subject of such a monumental work? Among the reasons that the author puts forward are that she represents not the Middle Ages nor the Counter-Reformation from which the more notable mystics have come, but the high tide of the Italian Renaissance; she was never a member of a religious order and owed almost nothing to spiritual directors; and she was highly intelligent and able to interpret her own experience in the light not merely of Scripture but also of Renaissance Platonism. As has been said, she was the perfect heroine for a Victorian novel and Hügel was the complete Victorian.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Introduction,” sets forth the three elements that the author believes are essential in a religion that is to meet our needs. The first or historical element corresponds to the needs of childhood, which demand that religion be founded on fact and embodied in a social institution. The second or intellectual element corresponds to the needs of youth, when the argumentative and reflective capacities come into play and eventuate in a system of doctrine and a view of the world. The third or experimental element corresponds to the needs of maturity, when belief and reason ripen into volition and action, and when religion is felt rather than seen and argued about. The author returns to these elements in his conclusion.

In part 2, “Biography,” Hügel takes up the life and teachings of the saint and the beginnings of her official cultus. As a beautiful girl of sixteen, Catherine was married by her aristocratic family to Giuliano Adorno, the wealthy but irresponsible scion of a rival clan. The marriage was unhappy. However, ten years of loneliness and of frantic activity went by before, in a moment of transport, “she was drawn away from the miseries of the world; and, as it were beside herself, she kept crying out within herself: ’No more world; no more sins!’” For four years she lived as a penitent, giving herself to menial tasks among the poor, wearing a hair shirt, and moving with downcast eyes, seemingly dead to all around her. Meanwhile, Giuliano had suffered financial ruin and had become a convert, and they moved from their palace to a humble house near the great hospital of the Pammatone where they ministered to the sick and the poor. Later they moved into the hospital, living without pay and at their own expense. Catherine served as matron for a number of years, including the plague year 1493, during which she caught the fever as a result of kissing the lips of a dying woman. In 1497 Giuliano died, and Catherine, although still living within the hospital, was gradually forced by illness to give up her work. During these last years of her life, she had a small following of disciples; these, when she died, arranged for her to be buried, not beside her husband as she had desired, but in the pilgrimage church of San Nicolo.

It is to two of these disciples that we owe the Life and Doctrine, published in Genoa in 1551, but based on material gathered by Ettore Vernazzo (1470?-1524), a notary who helped Catherine during the plague and who devoted the remainder of his life to charitable work, and Don Cattaneo Marabotto (1450?-1528), a secular priest who was Catherine’s confessor for the last ten years of her life. Vernazzo’s daughter Battista (1497-1587), an able and saintly woman, seems to have taken the work in hand and given it final shape. According to Hügel, only a small part of the book is narrative, the rest being discourses by the saint; and although it contains brief passages that must have been recorded when they were spoken, most of the book is secondary so that the whole is “largely insipid and monotonous.” The two “works” usually attributed to Saint Catherine are from the same hands: The Treatise on Purgatory is a seventeen-page excerpt from the Life and Doctrine, and the Spiritual Dialogue is a composition of Battista Vernazza designed to systematize the teachings found in the Life and Doctrine.

Apart from the desire to record her teaching, Catherine’s biographers were guided by two main interests. One was to put divine favors on record. These were not many. On one occasion, when asked by Vernazzo to narrate graces shown to her, she replied that it was impossible to describe her interior experiences and that “as to exterior things, few or none had taken place in her case.” Still, it was reported that she would lie on the ground for hours in a state of trance, that during her fasts (forty days twice a year) her stomach rejected food, that she could tell unconsecrated from consecrated wine, and that the hand with which Don Cattaneo blessed the elements had for her a sweet odor. The other main concern was to put in a favorable light certain of Catherine’s departures from conventional piety: that she took Communion daily, that she went for years without confessing to a priest, that she did not take advantage of indulgences, and that she would not pray to saints. Both of these concerns were important in the eyes of the cult that grew up soon after Catherine’s death, notably after her body was found not to have undergone decay.


(The entire section is 2437 words.)