Excerpt from Temporary Saints, by Mark Warhus, 2014
“Now picture this. It’s 10 years later. You’ve done well. A nice practice, a stylish office, your clients bring you nothing more difficult than mild neurosis and eating disorders. Maybe you even teach at a university. Then one day a family comes to your clinic. A mother and father asking you to help their daughter. These are plain working people, without your sophisticated insights into the dynamics of personality. Still, you can see they are distraught, and you ask what the problem is.
“‘It’s our daughter,’ the mother begins, ‘she’s mad, she’s locked herself into her room and won’t come out.’ ‘She’s not that bad,’ the father says. But the mother is at the end of her rope. ‘It’s been going on for years,’ she cries. ‘First I thought she would grow out of it, but it just gets worse. When she was a little girl it was prayers all the time, morning noon and night. I asked her what she’s doing and she tells me she’s talking with God. Imagine that, just seven years old. I couldn’t believe it. I asked her what God tells her. That he loves me, she says. Which is nice, the kind of thing you learn in Sunday school. Then she tells me she is going to be God’s bride, that God wants her to dedicate herself to Him and never take a husband. Seven years old! She can’t decide to become a nun. No, I said, you’re too young. Think about your family, think about having a family of your own. Then she tells me she has no family but the family of God. That she will dedicate her life to Jesus.
“‘Doctor, she spends weeks in her room. She says she’s praying. We hear noises at night, voices with no one there. She won’t keep herself clean, and she won’t eat.’
“‘She eats,’ the father says.
“‘A piece of lettuce, a spoonful of soup?’ the mother says. ‘It’s like she wants to keep herself starved. I can’t stand it anymore; I say to her, look at yourself, what are you doing. Don’t you want to grow up and find a nice young man? Have a family? That’s when she goes crazy. She screams that I don’t know God’s will, that I am lost to Jesus. And she grabs the scissors; right in front of me she starts to cut off her hair. She just chops it off in big pieces shouting ’corruption, corruption.’ Since then she hasn’t come out of her room. We’re ready to do whatever we have to, Doctor. Help us save our daughter.’
“That’s when the couple turns to you. What would you say?”
The students sat quietly for a few seconds. First one, then another began to respond.
“I would tell them it may take a long time to help their daughter and recommend a good hospital where she could be committed,” one offered.
“I would want to get a complete physical work up, put her on a nutrition program, and start looking at the possibility of one of the bi-polar diseases,” said another.
“Have her parents sign the commitment papers. Admit her to the nearest psych hospital, strap her down and pump food into her. And don’t let her up until she’s on a pharmacological regime that controls her behavior.”
Michael held up a hand. “All your solutions are based on the premise of changing the girl’s behavior. Your aim is to get the young lady to conform to her parents' and society’s concept of normal behavior, rather than trying to understand her perceptions.
“It may interest you to know that in the fourteenth century a little girl who acted just like this grew up to become St. Catherine of Siena. And the visions, fits, and anorexia her mother was so worried about were just the beginning. By the time she was in her twenties, Catherine claimed to have experienced a mystical marriage to Christ, with the Blessed Virgin in attendance no less. In another vision she claimed that Christ exchanged His heart with hers. To overcome the temptations of the flesh she kept herself on a minimal diet while undertaking work with the poor and sick of the city. This was in the time of the plagues, so there was more than enough pestilence to keep an army of Catherines busy. To overcome disgust she is said to have swallowed the pus from a person’s festering wound. And all this time she was having visions, experiencing fits of ecstasy, and was truly convinced that God was revealing His divine will to her.
“Unlike your modern remedies of restraint, drugs and control, the fourteenth century embraced this woman. Catherine of Siena was recognized as a saintly woman from the beginning of her public life. She acquired followers and she helped convince the pope to return the papacy to Rome. Her dedication and mysticism revitalized the faith of thousands. She was canonized less than 100 years after her death. In 1970 she became one of the first women to be declared a Doctor of the Church. And, her head is still on display in Siena. All in all she was rather an influential person.
“Luckily for her, Catherine lived at a time when her experience of reality was considered a valuable addition to society. As you indicated, today she would be diagnosed as an extreme case of abnormal personality. But it’s important to remember that abnormality is a relative thing. In Catherine’s day society’s mind was open enough to include her in its reality.
The head of St. Catherine of Siena displayed in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena. Also on display are several of her fingers and the noted cord with which she would flagellate herself. The rest of her body is kept at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.