Christ Crucified our Bridge: the spiritual teaching of St Catherine of Siena.
Catherine puts forward Christ Crucified as a bridge. It is seen ‘horizontally’ as getting us across a river, saving us from being swept away in its powerful current and it is also seen ‘vertically’ as connecting earth and heaven. As we journey through life with Christ we also journey towards Heaven. In both cases Christ Crucified rescues us from the river which is understood as sin and even life in hell.
Although there is a visual focus on Christ crucified, the Christ we are called to encounter is also referred to as Risen, and Ascended and giving us the Spirit. In short, we encounter the whole mystery of Christ, from the moment of the Incarnation onwards, if represented most strikingly through his form on the cross.
Catherine draws attention to us meeting him at three specific points as we mount the cross and ‘ascend’ his body. These are his feet, his side and thus his pierced heart, and his head and especially his mouth. The order is significant and points not to the order of events in the crucifixion of Jesus – if so we would end at the heart – but to steps in our Christian journey.
Thus encountering Christ at his feet is what we do when we turn from sin, or, in her imagery, pull ourselves out of the river of sin. We are particularly aware of the damage sin has done to us and want to escape this. We have sorrow for sin on this basis and turn from vice. We also commit ourselves to Christ and to God’s way, in a way nailing ourselves there, as Jesus is nailed. We see that Jesus suffered to save us. She sees us as servants of God, characterised significantly by fear.
We can then move up to the heart or breast. Here we encounter the love of God and experience it. She sees us entering the heart of Jesus and abiding there, in its ‘cell’. She also sees us as being nourished by the love of God and God’ s mercy as though Christ is breast-feeding us with this love as a mother looks after her child. Here we come to know both the extent of God’s love and mercy for us and a true knowledge of ourselves, including our dignity but also sin, in the light of this. This is real self-knowledge. We conceive the desire for virtue and she characterises us as friends of God, more intimate with God than before.
We then move up to the face of Jesus and particularly to his mouth. We receive his kiss and peace but also hear his words. These form and instruct us in wisdom but also commission us to go out on mission with his mind and attitude to bring his love and salvation to others. As Jesus said “ I thirst” we too are to thirst for souls. Virtue is now produced concretely in us as we are sent out. It is here that she sees as children of God, most intimate with God and most like God as well. We have both increased trust, generosity and also boldness, to go with added responsibility.
Overall, suffering has changed. We have moved from seeing (some) suffering as resulting from our own sin, to being moved by the suffering of Jesus for us, to being willing to suffer to bring others to encounter Jesus and enter into salvation.
This progression can be seen as stages over time through life. But she stresses it can happen quickly, especially once we have reached the feet of Jesus, and at other times Catherine suggests that people move back and forth, between these dynamics of a complete encounter with Jesus. Each can be deepened. I will end by suggesting that once we have begun to encounter the whole mystery of Christ, Catherine’s proposed encounter with Christ Crucified, our bridge to God, can form part or our regular, even daily, spiritual life.