When preaching about one of the Doctors of the Church, I usually make it a point to clarify the distinction between a physician and a saintly wise person raised up by God for the illumination of the hearts and minds of the faithful. The medical physician is concerned with things of the body; the holy learned with things of the Body of Christ. Health as experienced by mortals motivates those given to medicine; immortal happiness is the province of those who devote themselves to the science of God.
St. Catherine of Siena indeed fits this description of a Doctor of the Church, whose feast we celebrated just last week and today is her Octave Day. It is my intent here, however, to illustrate how the efforts of those dedicated to the supernatural understanding of man affect as well the natural circumstances in which man finds himself on earth. A medical doctor's expertise gives him no competence in diagnosing the needs of the soul, but a Doctor of the Church should be heeded if one would live the good life not only in Heaven, but also on earth. To shun the wisdom of God is to gain neither beatitude nor material comfort. The Doctors of the Church know that man is not merely of the spirit, but is embodied that the Spirit may have a home in the world.
A story is told of St. Catherine (in the wonderful book by Louis de Wohl, Lay Siege to Heaven) of an encounter she had with a wayward Franciscan priest. As most people are aware, Franciscans are supposed to live lives of radical poverty. This particular Franciscan had a peculiar take on poverty. He owned much, lorded it over others, and had an overweening pride in his intellectual capacity. Such seemed to St. Catherine to be rather incongruous in one called to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. Unfortunately, this son of St. Francis left his interview with St. Catherine not convinced that he was in need of instruction or correction.
As he left her presence, he offhandedly asked her to keep him in her prayers. She humbly and obediently assured him that she would. Within hours of his departure, the Franciscan had an overwhelming sense of a spiritual crisis. He felt pursued by what a later poet would call the Hound of Heaven. The next day the Franciscan returned to St. Catherine and asked in desperation what she was doing to him.
"Why, praying for you. Isn't that what you asked of me?"
The Franciscan knew at once that he was in the presence of great sanctity. He took the key to his apartment and gave it to his assistant with the direction to bring back his Breviary. All else in the rooms was to be sold and the proceeds given to the poor. The Franciscan went on to lead a life devoted to prayer, preaching the Gospel, and holy poverty. Such is the power of prayer.
There is a regrettable misconception that prayer is some kind of last resort. It is, in this mindset, the final act of desperation when all else has failed. Not infrequently, such an approach to prayer results in fruit that resemble the spirit in which it is offered: unsatisfactory. Man is unsatisfied with what he gets because he has not satisfied God by how he asks. Man in his niggardly prayer permits no room for God's enormous bounty.
Prayer is not something to be done instead of something else. Often it is the only thing that is asked of us. Always it is to proceed our thoughts, words, and deeds.
We come to God in prayer, not because we're ready to try to see if He is up to the challenges of our lives after our own efforts have failed. We come to God in prayer confident that in all things His will is to be obeyed. It is in prayer that we are able to discern His will, to recognize His voice when He calls, to imitate Christ our Savior whose love for His Father was expressed countless times in prayer. On those occasions when something more than prayer is asked of us by God (and prayer as our only responsibility is perhaps more common than we realize), the actions that God has in mind for us will be revealed after prayer, we will be encouraged to perform them during prayer, and we will give thanks after the fact by prayer.
St. Catherine was a woman devoted to contemplation. Her contemplative prayer bore many kinds of fruit. She was mystically espoused to Jesus. She was given the astounding gift of exchanging hearts with Jesus. She experienced ecstasies in receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
In addition to this she was devoted to the Church with a constant, zealous love. She gathered souls around her hungering to seek sanctity with her. She counseled those seeking spiritual guidance. And she was able to advise, beseech, and even rebuke the Pope without sinning against obedience, humility, or charity. Prayer gave St. Catherine an amazing ability to bridge the chasm between the heights of Heavenly rapture and the world wracked by sin in the heart of man.
Her favorite and best prayer to accomplish this is the very thing we are experiencing now, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In the Mass she - and we - know the profound treasure of the Sacrifice of Christ offered on Calvary. In the Mass Jesus feeds us with His Body and Blood. In the Mass we are pledged salvation by God, and we pledge to God our hearts, minds, souls, and strength in love. The prayer of the Mass is an act of love between God and His children, while at the same time being the obedience of His children to His Son's command, "Do this in memory of Me!"
We begin our day with daily Mass or our week with Sunday Mass with the realization that we are to obey God in all things. This is a matter not only of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass culminating in very Real Presence of Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity faithfully and worthily received, but of extending our obedience through the day and through the week. As the day and the week progress we should be asking ourselves, "Is this what I prayed for this morning or last Sunday? How am I obeying God in this action in keeping with the prayer we offered in the Mass? Where is the presence of Jesus allowed to show forth His power now as He did when He gave us His Presence in the Consecration?"
As the time between Masses goes by, we should be hungering for the next opportunity to receive our Lord as food for eternal Life. St. Catherine hungered for this food so much that she wanted nothing to spoil her appetite for it. She would go weeks or longer taking no meals, living only on the Living Bread.
In a similar way, we should think, say, and do nothing that would spoil our appetite for Jesus - or the appetite of anyone else. Sin fills us with an emptiness that leaves no room for Christ. We need to avoid the occasions of sin that make us forgetful of Christ and Him crucified, that obscure His presence in our brothers and sisters around us, that make us unworthy to receive Him when He makes the offer of Himself at Holy Mass. When we do fall, we need to purge ourselves of the emptiness of sin through Confession and penance, so that once again we are open to the graces of the Mass.
Constant prayer will bear fruit in us that allows us to remember Christ in all things and at all times and in all people. Constant prayer will enkindle in our hearts a love prompted by the Holy Ghost that makes us ravenous for the Body of Christ in the Eucharist and zealous sons and daughters of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Constant prayer, particularly the prayer of the Mass, will transform us in such a way that our being in the world will become the means by which the world is transformed. It is our prayer that the world hears the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. That Kingdom, established by Christ and consummated in His Crucifixion, is destined by God to be the place where all things are made new.
The old news, the age-old news, is sin and death. What is truly new is that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death and cast out the rule of satan from the world through the power of Baptism in the Cross. The greatest change, the deepest healing described and prescribed by St. Catherine and all of the Doctors of the Church is the new Life that comes with Faith in the power of the Cross. Wounds inflicted by hatred and unbelief are healed, sorrow from sin and suffering is comforted, orphans of Adam and Eve are given a new Home with Blessed Mary as Mother and God as Father. The prognosis of the world in the grip of satan is the grave; the prognosis discerned and declared by the Church in her saints, especially her Doctors, is that in Christ man has hope of life - a life of faith on earth and eternal life in Heaven.