Biography, Blog, Women's History

Catherine was the original breaker of the glass ceiling

WHN Admin.

Shelley Emling, a senior editor at The Huffington Post, has provided the following questions and responses that highlight some of the issues associated with her biography of Catherine of Siena.


Catherine went years without eating scarcely anything. Today, many would say she was anorexic. What do you believe?Setting the World on Fire cover

Modern anorexics often don’t like the way they look. They refrain from eating in order to be thin. They look at themselves in the mirror and see someone who is overweight. Catherine and other women like her are often called “holy anorectics.” For them, fasting wasn’t about looking a certain way. Fasting was about suffering and being at one with Christ when he was on the cross. It was about making restitution for sins. The beliefs underlying their fasting were very different from the beliefs underlying the fasting of modern anorexics.

What are the cons when it comes to writing a secular book about a saint? What are the pros?

I think when you write a secular book about religion you are always in danger of offending someone. I tried to be careful not to. People grow incredibly emotional when talking about saints. It’s hard to satisfy everyone when you are writing about a topic that is cared about with such passion. Meanwhile, here are definitely many pros. I was able to learn so much more about the Catholic faith. The history of the papacy is fascinating – and its endurance astounds me. I was inspired to read more about Pope Francis. I am so much more in awe of him now after learning about the popes of the past – especially the ones during Catherine’s time.

What do you make of Catherine’s relationship with her mother, Lapa?

I believe the two were always quite close, even though Lapa was forever exasperated by her daughter’s independent streak. I like the way Catherine was – in some ways – just an average daughter. For example, she often wrote her brothers, chastising them for not stepping up to the plate and taking better care of their mother. Lapa always made it clear that Catherine was her favorite child and she grew incredibly depressed when Catherine was away from home. When Catherine died in Rome, Lapa lobbied harder than anyone to have her daughter’s head brought back home to Siena. And that’s where it remains to this day.

Why was Catherine’s head severed from her body and brought back to Siena? Isn’t that bizarre?

In the history of the Catholic church, exhuming bodies after burial isn’t all that unusual. For example, the body of another famous Catherine – St. Catherine of Bologna – sits to this day upright on a throne behind a glass case inside the Church of the Saint in Bologna. Upon canonization, the bodies of many saints have been disinterred so that their bodies can be divided up and turned into relics.

What was it like for women during the Middle Ages?

The structure of society in the Middle Ages prevented women from buying property, holding office, or even taking care of their own finances. Girls did not go to school. They were expected to marry by the age of 12 or 13. Women were so subservient to men that you’d be hard-pressed to find many in those days with the courage to even look a man in the eye when talking to him. Women were not allowed to marry without their parents’ consent. Once they were married, they were under the control of their husbands.

Catherine called out even the pope for misbehavior at a time when men held sway in all matters. What do you think it was about Catherine that allowed her to get away with this?

Catherine was able to call out even the pope because she did so both humbly and appropriately. She was successful because it was always evident that she was motivated not by selfish desires, but by her desire to advance the interests of the Catholic church as a whole. According to Catherine, what she wrote came directly from God; she was only the messenger. The fact that she wasn’t burned at the stake is because the church hierarchy accepted and truly believed that what she said and wrote did indeed come directly from God.

Why do you think Catherine seemed so jealous when the prisoner Niccolo was beheaded?

She was jealous because – in her mind – Niccolo was being martyred, and Catherine had desired her whole life to be a martyr. To her, that was the greatest sacrifice one could make. She had the greatest admiration for Catherine of Alexandria and others who were beheaded martyrs. Catherine lived a life of self-sacrifice and wanted nothing more than to die a martyr. She wanted to offer herself as a victim in exchange for the salvation of the church.

How do you think Catherine of Siena’s life might inspire and instruct people of faith today?

I think that when people of faith today read about Catherine, and how she stepped up to care for those with leprosy and suffering from the plague – with no thought for her own well being – they will be inspired to care for the sick and elderly in their own communities. When they read about how she reconciled a fractured church during a violent era, they will recognize the rifts that exist today, such as the rifts between more conservative Christians and more liberal Christians. We live in fear of terrorism. People in the Middle Ages also feared war and unrest. I believe that how Catherine handled herself – with grace, resolve and fearlessness – will inspire people to behave in the same manner today.


Shelley Emling Author: Setting the World on Fire
Shelley Emling
Author: Setting the World on Fire




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