Saintly Connections: Catherine of Siena and Birgitta of Sweden

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sigrid Undset was a Catholic convert, Third Order Dominican, and a Norwegian. As a fellow convert, lay Dominican in formation, and Scandinavian, and as a huge fan of her novel Kristin Lavransdatter, I feel as though Undset and I might have been friends - or, at least, I would have been her adoring fan girl and she'd have tolerated my enthusiastic adoration in a spirit of Christian charity.

My husband gave me Undset's biography of St. Catherine of Siena for Christmas, and finally, for Lent, I've been able to read it. Catherine of Siena does not disappoint. Undset's knowledge and love of medieval culture and her novelist's eye gives a richness to Catherine and her story that I suspect few other storytellers have achieved.

Catherine was graced very early in her life with mystical visions and heroic holiness, and as is the case with lifelong saints, some hagiographers have difficulty finding and showing the inner conflict that makes a character (I'm speaking in a literary sense now) interesting to the reader. But Undset finds both the inner and exterior conflict of Catherine's life and crafts her story as only a gifted novelist can.

One interesting connection Undset makes is between Catherine and St. Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden. These two women never met, and yet Undset devotes half a chapter to the role Birgitta plays in Catherine's drama. Birgitta was noblewoman and a visionary, and bringing both her spiritual understanding and her political acumen to the fore, she fearlessly worked to convince the Avignon popes to return to Rome. Unfortunately, Birgitta did not achieve success in her lifetime; instead, she paved the way for Catherine, who inherited her mission:

. . . before Birgitta had closed her eyes in death the Sienese virgin had taken her work upon herself, and it was Catherine's destiny to carry it out. She was to be the master tool in the hand of God to bring St. Peter's successor back to his home besides the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul. (pg. 139)

This is the novelist's bird's-eye view, seeing connections between the pieces of the story where the characters themselves can not. This ability allows Undset to see the spiritual connection between the two. It's a saintly connection, and I think it's just awesome.

I've enjoyed Catherine of Siena so much that I've decided to give a copy away. If you're interested, let me know either in the comments box (if I don't know you personally, leave some sort of contact info, like your Twitter handle) or via email (the link is at the top right corner of the website). I'll draw a name this coming Monday, 3/21, and send it out right away. Thanks to Amazon Prime, it should arrive on your doorstep just in time for the Triduum.

St. Catherine, pray for us!

Update 3/21/16: And the winner is... Heidi K.! Congratulations!