April 28 – Wednesday of last week – was the Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint, mystic, reformer, and Doctor of the Church. I wanted to post about St. Catherine last week, but I was swimming in book edits.
On Catherine’s Feast Day, I noticed the quotations everyone was posting, especially this one: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” This is surely Catherine’s most popular saying today. We see in it an encouragement to fulfill our destiny and bring our unique spirit to the world. Very good. Except this isn’t what Catherine said. Not exactly.
The quote we know is a paraphrase from one of Catherine’s letters to a nobleman named Stefano di Corrado Maconi, one of her disciples. For a long time, she tried to persuade Stefano to enter the monastery because she saw his spiritual depth. She also needed his practical help. In a letter, she asks him to use his influence on the Sienese government to support Pope Urban VI against the antipope (Clement VII). At the end of the letter, she says,
If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.
Setting fire to Italy is no small thing. Italy was Catherine’s and Stefano’s primary sphere of influence. But she adds the words “and not only yonder,” by which she perhaps means the larger Christian world as well.
Stefano is to light this fire by being who he “ought to be.” But not on his own. Reading Catherine’s letter, it’s clear that Stefano should be who he ought to be in Christ. He needs to be filled with the remembrance and love of God and so embrace his true identity. He is to do this in two ways. First, he needs to stop monkeying around about his faith. Catherine quotes the time Jesus warned Christians about being lukewarm:
I, Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood: with desire to see thee arise from the lukewarmness of thy heart, lest thou be spewed from the mouth of God, hearing this rebuke, ‘Cursed are ye, the lukewarm! Would you had at least been ice-cold!’
And second, Catherine urges haste. Stefano seems to be dithering in his support of the Church and in what Catherine believes to be his true vocation. She writes her letter to him with an urgency that I love. I read her words as if written to us today. The time is short, she seems to say. The day draws to a close. And I —you, we—are called to step into being who we are in Christ. Don’t be lukewarm! Be on fire for Jesus! Be filled with gratitude. God needs us, so let’s get to work. Now!
Being who we are in Christ is no small thing. It is, in fact, one of our biggest tasks in life. The world needs what we, each of us uniquely, have been gifted. It needs our God-given passions. It needs our fire. It needs us to illuminate our little spheres of influence, “and not only yonder.” But to set our Italys on fire, we need first to be filled with the fire of the Spirit. We can’t do it on our own.
It was only after Catherine died that Stefano embraced his vocation and became a Carthusian monk. How about us? Will we dither? Or will we embrace our God-given fire? Why do we delay? The time is short. The world is waiting.