Introductory Note:

Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa (1347-1380) was born in the Fontebranda district of Siena, Italy, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. She was reared in a poor but devout Catholic family in an age of class feuds and religious wars. At the age of seven she vowed her virginity to God, and at fifteen she cut off her hair in defiance of her parents’ efforts to see her married. At eighteen she became a Dominican nun and began to live in solitude and silence, going out of her room only for mass.

At twenty-one she decided to return to her family and spend her life helping the poor, serving as a nurse in homes and hospitals. Even though her fame spread from poor beggars to powerful popes, she managed to maintain a deep interior life of silence and devotion to God. Catherine was called upon to help settle political disputes and social unrest until her death in 1380.

A popular form of religious writing during the Middle Ages involved the use of a metaphor to portray the spiritual life. Ladders and castles and dark nights—all have been employed as ways of describing the indescribable. In the following selection, Catherine adopts the metaphor of a “bridge,” using it as a way of describing the work of Christ and the way to heaven. Modern readers who are “literal” minded may find it obscure. She wrote of things that defy words; therefore we would do well to read her work with our heart as well as our mind.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

The Bridge

(Then God the eternal One responded to her soul): I want to describe the Bridge for you. It stretches from heaven to earth by reason of my having joined myself with your humanity which I formed in the earth’s clay. This bridge has three stairs. Two of them were built by my Son on the wood of the most holy cross, and the third even as he tasted the bitterness of the gall and vinegar they gave him to drink. You will recognize in these three stairs three spiritual stages.

The Feet of Affection

The first stair is the feet which symbolize the affections. For just as the feet carry the body, the affections carry the soul. My Son’s nailed feet are a stair by which you can climb to his side where you will see revealed his inmost heart. For when the soul has climbed up on the feet of affection and looked with her mind’s eye into my Son’s open heart, she begins to feel the love of her own heart in his consummate and unspeakable love. (I say consummate because it is not for his own good that he loves you; you cannot do him any good since he is one with me.)

Then the soul, seeing how much she is loved, is herself filled to overflowing with love. So, having climbed the second stair, she reaches the third. This is his mouth where she finds peace from the terrible war she has had to wage because of her sins.

Divinity Kneaded into the Clay of Humanity

At the first stair, lifting the feet of her affections from the earth, she stripped herself of sin. At the second she dressed herself in love for virtue. And at the third stage she tasted peace.

So the bridge has three stairs, and you can reach the last by climbing the first two. The last stair is so high that the flooding waters cannot strike it — for the venom of sin never touched my Son.

But though the bridge has been raised up so high, it still is joined to the earth. Do you know when it was raised up? When my Son was lifted up on the wood of the most holy cross he did not cut off his divinity from the lowly earth of your humanity. So though he was raised so high, he was not raised off the earth. In fact, his divinity is kneaded in the clay of your humanity like one bread. Nor could anyone walk on that bridge until my Son was raised up. This is why he said, If I am lifted up high I will draw everything to myself” (John 13:32).

Drawn by Love

When my goodness saw that you could be drawn in no other way, I sent him to be lifted onto the wood of the cross. I made of that cross an anvil where this child of humankind could be hammered into an instrument to release humankind from death and restore it to the life of grace. In this way he drew everything to himself: for he proved his inspeakable love, and the human heart is always drawn by love. He could not have shown you greater love than by giving his life for you (John 15:13). You can hardly resist being drawn by love, then, unless you foolishly refuse to be drawn. 

I said that, having been raised up, he would draw everything to himself. This is true in two ways: First, the human heart is drawn by love as I said, and with all its powers: memory, understanding, and will. If these three powers are harmoniously united in my name, everything else you do, in fact or intention, will be drawn to union with me in peace through the movement of love, because all will be lifted up in the pursuit of crucified love. So my Truth indeed spoke truly when he said, If I am lifted up high, I will draw everything to myself.” For everything you do will be drawn to him when he draws your heart and its powers.

What he said is true also in the sense that everything was created for your use to serve your needs. But you who have the gift of reason were made not for yourselves but for me, to serve me with all your heart and all your love. So when you are drawn to me, everything is drawn with you because everything was made for you. It was necessary, then, that this bridge be raised high. And it had to have stairs so that you would be able to mount it more easily.

Excerpts taken from Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, Editors. HarperCollins, 1993.).

Photo by Ronaldo de Oliveira on Unsplash

Text First Published June 2005