We must bring to prayer a great confidence that we shall be heard; for there are many graces which God inspires us to ask, and which we do not obtain by reason of our timidity.
-St. Catherine de Ricci
A Christian mystic is gifted by God with a state of soul raised to higher forms of prayer – to extraordinary heights of contemplation. St. Catherine de Ricci was a true mystic. God graced her with extraordinary favors in her prayer life, so much so that one might think she was too inapproachable in her daily life, yet this was not the case. In true Dominican fashion, she generously shared with others the fruits of her contemplation, though she spent most of her life inside the walls of her convent as a Third Order sister.
Born to a prestigious family in Florence and given the name Alessandra, her tender piety toward God began at a very young age. At the age of three, when other children would be playing, she would be found in remote corners of the house, praying. At the age of five, like other children of well-to-do families, she was sent to a Benedictine monastery for her education. Her aunt happened to be the abbess of the monastery and noticed little Alessandra’s devotion to God – she would spend hours in prayer before an image of our crucified Lord, with tears streaming down her face. Her aunt hoped she would one day enter the monastery there, but Alessandra wanted a more austere life.
She returned home and prayed. Then one day, two sisters of the Dominican third order monastery of St. Vincent’s came to the door, begging for alms. Alessandra questioned them about their life, in particular how they kept poverty and silence. Then, with permission from her father, she went to St. Vincent’s for a ten-day visit. She was so impressed, she wanted to stay, but her father refused and dragged her home.
Soon after, Alessandra became gravely ill. In prayer, she begged God for the grace to be healed, and to serve out her days on earth as a Dominican sister of St. Vincent’s. God granted her prayer and eventually her father relented.
Already, Alessandra was receiving many mystical graces in prayer, but she kept them to herself. But to her sisters, she appeared slow and dumb. She was often late to community exercises and her work was poor. Not guessing the true nature of the situation, they were about to ask her to leave. Alessandra heard of this and went to each of her sisters, begging them to not expel her. They relented and she was clothed in the habit, being given the name Catherine, yet still thought of her as a useless sister. It wasn’t until after she became ill with extreme pain and suffering, which baffled the physicians, then miraculously recovered two years later, that her confessor made her reveal to him the true nature of her spiritual life and made her promise not to keep anything from him in the future.
The extraordinary visions and graces St. Catherine was given by God throughout her life were numerous and centered around her devotion to the Passion of Jesus. For a twelve years, she experienced ecstacies every week during which she witnessed Jesus passion, beginning on Thursday at noon and ending on Friday afternoon. For twenty-eight hours, nothing could pull her out of her ecstasy. At one time, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her and gave her a canticle consisting mostly of verses from the Psalms and centered around the Passion of Christ. To this day, this Canticle is still solemnly chanted in Dominican churches, particularly on the Fridays in Lent. Catherine had in her cell a large wooden crucifix; our Lord would often speak and stretch out his hands to her from this crucifix while she was at prayer.
Yet it would be a mistake to compartmentalize her life and not consider her daily activities. Eventually, she was given positions of authority in the convent – subprioress, then prioress. Humbly and with obedience, she accepted these charges, but lived out her leadership as a servant and example to all. For how could she expect others to obey the Rule if she was lax in following its prescriptions herself? If a sister committed a fault, she was firm in her correction. Yet, if she had occasion to correct a sister during the day, she always made a point of speaking a kind word to that sister before bed. She was zealous for the observance of choir duties – before office, she would scan the ranks and if a sister was missing without reason, she would either send for her, or go search for the absent sister herself. She led her community in the keeping of rigorous silence and poverty; yet she also saw the intense work the sisters completed to support their life was not healthy, so she procured more stable means of income that allowed the sisters more time for prayer and rest. If a sister was ill, she would visit them daily; if the sister was near death, she made sure to keep part of the night watch. A true spiritual mother to all, she was gentle with timid, full of kindness and sympathy for those in trouble, and firm and severe with the haughty. Having a gift for being a patient listener, no matter how much she might want silence and solitude or have other pressing convent business, she always welcomed every sister who came to her door with a smile and never showed impatience with long-winded discussions.
News of her mystical experiences and graces spread far and wide and many people came to her for advice and direction. She guided her sisters and many others as her spiritual children. With the firm tenderness of a true mother, she would admonish, advise and guide them, though her heart remained always united to Christ Jesus.
What can we possibly learn from St. Catherine de Ricci, who lived a life so full of God’s extraordinary graces? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us why God’s secrets and such extraordinary favors from heaven are given to only a few: first, because of the greatness of these secrets and graces; second, because of their extreme dignity; and third, because most people are too worldly-minded and unfit to receive them. If we want to scale the heights of heaven, if we want to receive the grace of complete union with God and see Him face to face, it begins as St. Catherine began – in humility, abandoning the self to God in times of plenty and suffering, and keeping focused on Him. Jesus showed us the way – by living the passion and death of Christ with love for our Heavenly Father and His will, we have the promise of the Resurrection.
St. Catherine de Ricci, pray for us!