A Holy Narcissa: St Catherine of Siena
By Br Bede Mullens, O.P. | Narcissism can be one of the pitfalls of a false self-knowledge. St Catherine of Siena suggests a way by which a true knowledge of self can lead us to love of God.
A handsome young lad sits to take some rest from his forest-scavenging. After a doze in the warm air, he thinks to wet his dry mouth; he looks about – sees the pool he desires, fresh sprung from a brook. And as his hands cup the water unthinking to his mouth, he starts and wides his eyes. He motions to the beauty in the water, as if to stroke the tender cheek or the soft lock, but meets with no solidity. Just the cool spring. Still he is transfixed, and he gazes upon the spot an hour, two hours, and then his new-found love takes leave as night approaches.
Day after day, Narcissus returned to that place; day after day he gazed, but whenever he put forth a tender hand his love withdrew. So Narcissus grew wroth, and rebuked his love: “Why do you shy away, why do you reject me? Have ever I tried to strike you, or done you any wrong? No, but I only want to love thee.” The image did not reply, and slipped away again at nightfall.
One day a splash was heard in the forest, and a cry of lament arose among the nymphs. “Gone, Narcissus is gone, fair lovely Narcissus, who visited our brook day after day!” Forward he had lunged to the water – history does not relate whether to kiss the object of his passion or, raging, to strangle his elusive lover, but Narcissus was consumed by the waters, drowned and deceived by the beauty of his own reflection…
At the Fonte Branda, one of the great medieval fountains of Siena, one can lean over the low wall to see as in a mirror the reflection of one’s face on the water’s dark top. The experience must have been familiar to St. Catherine and her friends – one can imagine families taking children to look at themselves in the deep, slowly-pulsing waters. In any case, it is a favourite image in Catherine’s letters.
Yet Catherine was no Narcissus. She loved the water-top, not for her own reflection (though it is said she was in her way a striking beauty). “If we are wise,” she remarks, “we are moved to love the fountain before we love ourselves.” Narcissus never looked beyond his own image to the water that held it. Had he done, he might have realised that he had fallen in love with vanity; had he done, he might have learned to love something other than himself.
When Catherine looked into the fountain, she was reminded of that calm sea which is the divine Being. We could not appreciate our reflection without the water; we cannot appreciate our being, if we do not recognise the one who gives it to us. And God is not just a space or a medium in which our being is held; more than the water, he gives content to our being too – for we are made in his image and likeness. So it is only by discerning the water (the divine being) that we get a true sense of our own image in it. The way to true knowledge of self is knowledge of God, and vice versa.
Since Catherine’s is a way of realistic seeing, rather than a self-deceit, it necessarily throws up at some point an unwelcome sight. This deep water does not hide our defects. But under the suspended surface, pours through a fresh and living stream, the means to wipe away our grime. We do not have only our own fair looks to go on; more important is the sustaining presence of God in our lives, who holds us in being despite our sinfulness, and never leaves us without the resources for repentance, self-correction and transfiguration to a happier state.
Concretely, this transformation is always worked out more or less messily in a relationship with the Son and his incarnation. “We discover and see and experience the blazing furnace of his charity, the means by which God gave us to ourselves and later united the Word with us and us with the Word, when he took on our human nature. That charity was the strong bond that held him nailed fast to the cross.” Christ is the one who, though in the form of God, put aside his beauty, so that there was no comeliness to be found in him. But because he dived for true love into our nature which had been made ugly, God has raised him up to great glory: he is the fairest of the sons of men, and graciousness is poured upon his lips, since God has blessed him forevermore.
Christ offers to share his beauty with us, and to bring forth in each of us, the works of his hand, the beauty he meant for us. If we let him, we shall find ourselves forever rejoicing not in our own lonely company, but with God and all the saints. We shall then learn the meaning of the saying, “If a man love his life, he shall lose it; but if he loses his life for my sake, he shall surely save it.”
Image: Narcissus by Caravaggio (1571-1610), via Wikimedia Commons