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Observations placeholder

Saint Catharine of Genoa – The Heat of the Mystic



Type of Spiritual Experience


Friar Herbert Thurston was a Catholic priest, a member of the Jesuit order and an historian.  He wrote extensively on Catholic mysticism and psychic phenomena and was a member of the Society for Psychical Research.  He was also widely read on this subject.  He is described as ‘an honest skeptic’., and once said ‘the role of Devil’s advocate is a thankless one and does not make for popularity’.

A description of the experience

Friar Herbert Thurston - The Physical Phenomenon of Mysticism

…. the case of St. Catherine or Genoa, thanks in large measure to the very learned and painstaking study of Baron Friedrich von Hugel, has been brought to the notice of many English readers for whom the ordinary Saint's Life offers little attraction. St. Catherine was a mystic of the seraphic type, and perhaps nothing more beautiful has ever been printed about the love of God than is to be found in the utterances and writings attributed to this noble Genoese matron. Assuming for the moment the authenticity of the whole content of the Vita e Dottrina di Santa Caterina da Genova, which was first published in 1551, we find that the book abounds in references to the extraordinary physical state into which Catherine was frequently thrown by the intensity of her consuming love. Quite at the beginning, and in reference to her "great fasts," which lasted from 1476 to 1499, it is stated that, for twenty-three lents, and as many advents, the Saint took no solid food at all, but occasionally drank a glassful of a beverage compounded of water vinegar and pounded salt.

When she drank this mixture it seemed as if it were thrown upon a red-hot flag-stone and that it was at once dried up in the great fire which was burning within her. An astounding and unheard of thing! For no digestion, however healthy, could bear a drink of this kind fasting, but she declared that the interior sweetness she experienced was so great that even this unpalatable beverage gave refreshment to her body.

I omit chance references which seem to point to some similar state of suffering which recurred at intervals during the intervening years.  What is certain is that in her last sickness, which continued from January to September 1510, she was over and over again the victim of sensations of intense burning. For example:

On one day she was stabbed with a still sharper arrow of the divine love. . . . The wound (ferita) was so poignant that she lost speech and sight, and abode in this manner some three hours. . . .

She made signs with her hands of feeling as if it were red-hot pincers attacking her heart and other interior parts.

Later on there was a day when she suffered such an intensity of burning that it was impossible to keep her in bed. She seemed like a creature placed in a great flame of fire, so much so that human eyes could not endure the spectacle of such a martyrdom. This anguish lasted a whole day and night and it was impossible to touch her skin because of the acute pain which she felt from any such touch.

But this was by no means all. 'We are told a little later of another attack (assalto)-

This was so violent that her whole frame seemed to be in a tremble, especially her right shoulder (which appeared as though severed from her body, and similarly one rib seemed to be forced out of its place with so much pain, anguish and racking of muscles and bones, that it was a terrible thing to look upon, and it seemed impossible that a human body could endure it).

The source of the experience

Saint Catherine of Genoa

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps