The Circle, the River, and the Bridge: Symbolic Imagery from The Dialogue of Catherine of Sienna

Introduction

            Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) was a woman devoted to her God and her Church. Deeply moved by the corruption of the Church in her time, Catherine dedicated her life to holiness and piety. After learning how to read and write, she began working on The Dialogue in December of 1377 finishing it in October of 1388.[1] Her writing style is dense and full of imagery. This style challenges the 21st-century reader who is attracted to 280 characters and a limited attention span. However, with effort, the work put into reading The Dialogue pays off with rich imagery describing profound theological truths.

            The book consists of Catherine asking God questions, with the bulk of the work reflecting (in first person form) God’s answers. Catherine starts her Dialogue with four petitions to God: “”The first was for herself; the second for the reformation of the Holy Church; the third a general prayer for the whole world, and in particular for the peace of Christians who rebel, with much lewdness and persecution, against the Holy Church; in the fourth and last, she besought the Divine Providence to provide for things in general, and in particular, for a certain case with which she was concerned.”[2] This essay will concentrate specifically on three symbolic images she uses in God’s answer to her prayer for the world. First, a look at the perfect circle with the human as the tree growing in the middle of that circle. Second, a brief overview of the river which leads, third, to the bridge over the river.

A Tree Growing in the Middle of a Circle

            For Catherine, the essence of the Christian life came down to the virtues of love, humility, and discretion. These virtues were superior to acts of penance:

“For these virtues demonstrate that the will is dead, and continually slays its own sensuality through the affection of love of virtue. With this discretion, then, should the soul perform her penance, that is, she should place her principal affection in virtue rather than in penance. Penance should be but the means to increase virtue according to the needs of the individual, and according to what the soul sees she can do in the measure of her own possibility.”[3] (emphasis mine)

She used the imagery of a circle and a tree to explain the significance of staying true to these virtues. “It is, as if a circle were drawn on the surface of the earth, and a tree, with an off-shoot joined to its side, grew in the center of the circle. The tree is nourished in the earth contained in the diameter of the circle, for if the tree were out of the earth it would die and give no fruit.”[4] The circle is symbol of perfection. With no beginning and no end, it is complete unto itself. The tree, the human soul, is stationed within that perfection. Roots growing deep within the circle allow the soul to bring forth fruit of not only love, but also of “true self-knowledge which is contained in Me (God).”[5]

            The tree then “feeds itself on humility, bringing forth from its side the off-shoot of true discretion, in the way that I have already told you, from the heart of the tree, that is the affection of love which is in the soul, and the patience, which proves that I (God) am in the soul and the soul in Me.”[6] The symbolism points to the need to remain in union with God and His virtues. One cannot know oneself apart from being rooted in God and thus living out His virtues. It is the essence of self-knowledge.

            Works and deeds have a place within the Christian life to be sure. However, they are the means, not the end. A foundation of a life built on works (penance) does not draw upon the nourishment of God. They are “finite, since they are done in finite time, and also because it is often profitable that the creature omit them, and even that she be made to do so.”[7] Further, “if she takes them as an end she will be obliged, some time or other, to leave them, and will then remain empty.”[8] Only by staying rooted in the virtues of God, can the soul grow as a strong tree and bear the fruit of love.

The River

            When the soul becomes uprooted and moves out of the circle, Catherine then uses the imagery of a river. The Bridge, which we will be discussed below, is the way to life in the circle. However, the soul that decides (for it is by free will that the soul chooses to be in the circle) to “go under the Bridge,” ends up in the river where:

“no one can travel that way without drowning; thus have come to pass the sins, and the condition of the world. Wherefore, if the affection is not placed on the stones, but is placed, with disordinate love, on creatures, loving them, and being kept by them far from Me (God), the soul drowns, for creatures are like water that continually runs past, and man also passes continually like the river, although it seems to him that he stands still and the creatures that he loves pass by, and yet he is passing himself continually to the end of his journey—death!”[9]

By choosing to be outside of God, the soul then sees all that they love pass right by them. Never does the soul enjoy the fruits of love, but only tastes the reality of death. Therefore:

“…those who voluntarily drown themselves, themselves, and at the baseness to which they are fallen by their fault, from which cause, they have first become weak, and this was when they conceived mortal sin in their minds, for they then bring it forth, and lose the life of grace. And, as a corpse which can have no feeling or movement of itself, but only when it is moved and lifted by others, so those, who are drowned in the stream of disordinate love of the world, are dead to grace.”[10] (emphasis mine)

            The origin of the river is through the corruption of the sin of Adam.[11] The only way the soul can account for this corruption is paying a dear price for it. Death is the only way the soul can pay for the guilt of sin. God knew that humanity could not regain rootedness in the perfect circle of His presence. Humanity, on their own, will choose the way of the river, the way of death. The virtues of love, humility, and discretion will elude the soul while the soul remains on the outside. Fruit of the tree cannot be produced while the soul travels the road of the river.

The Devil has a part to play in humanity’s choice to go the way of the river. He “invites men to the water of death, that is, to that which he has, and, blinding them with the pleasures and conditions of the world, he catches them with the hook of pleasure, under the pretense of good, because in no other way could he catch them, for they would not allow themselves to be caught if they saw that no good or pleasure to themselves were to be obtained thereby.”[12] Because the soul is blinded by the corruption of Adam, the soul cannot discern the good. Self-love (selfish love) drives the lust for earthly pleasures. Humanity makes attempts to relieve themselves from the pain and struggles of this life by the River. However, that choice leads to more pain and eventually death. Humanity had little hope to enter into the perfect circle and develop deep roots. Instead, God had to build a Bridge.

The Bridge

            God had to intercede into this problem of the river. Humanity wanted to go the way of the river. Humanity could not enter union and fellowship with God (the circle) on their own merits and work. The Bridge had to be built in order to solve the problem. This Bridge is Jesus. “Wherefore I have told you that I have made a Bridge of My Word, of My only-begotten Son, and this is the truth. I wish that you, My children, should know that the road was broken by the sin and disobedience of Adam, in such a way, that no one could arrive at Eternal Life.”[13]

            Catherine describes how the Bridge is part of God’s design to repair the broken road (a life spent apart from God in sin). However, this Bridge could not come from humanity, but from God Himself. There had to be a unity between God and humanity:

This was necessary, in order to reform the road which was broken, as I said to you, in order that man should pass through the bitterness of the world, and arrive at life; but the Bridge could not be made of earth sufficiently large to span the flood and give you Eternal Life, because the earth of human nature was not sufficient to satisfy for guilt, to remove the stain of Adam’s sin. Which stain corrupted the whole human race and gave out a stench, as I have said to you above. It was, therefore, necessary to join human nature with the height of My nature, the Eternal Deity, so that it might be sufficient to satisfy for the whole human race.[14] (emphasis mine)

            The Bridge has three steps which are symbolic of different states of the soul. Jesus, in satisfying the price of sin on the cross displayed these three steps “of which two were made with the wood of the most Holy Cross, and the third still retains the great bitterness He tasted, when He was given gall and vinegar to drink. In these three steps, you will recognize three states of the soul.”[15] The first step is the feet of the soul which represent affection. Jesus’s feet were pierced for the love of those he gave His life. The second step is his side, which was pierced which “manifests to you the secret of His Heart, because the soul, rising on the steps of her affection, commences to taste the love of His Heart, gazing into that open Heart of My Son, with the eye of the intellect, and finds It consumed with ineffable love.”[16] The third step is the Mouth where peace can be found that relieves the soul from the “war” of sin.

Conclusion

            I have just briefly touched upon the deep symbolism of The Dialogue. The images of the circle, river, and the Bridge portray the theological truths that call for repentance and revival. Catherine’s time was filled with a corruption of the Bride of Christ. She was keenly aware that reformation had to take place. That call for reformation through The Dialogue gave the leaders of the church much to consider. Would they choose the river of death, or choose the Bridge of life which lead to perfect knowledge of who humanity is when they are in Christ? It is a question that not only should the Church corporate ask, but each Christian must ask themselves.


[1] Mary O’Driscoll, ed., Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth Compassion for Humanity, Reprint ed. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2005), 89.

[2] St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (Castletown, Baronius Press, 2015), 2.

[3] Ibid, 19.

[4] Ibid, 21-22

[5] Ibid, 22.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 24.

[8] Ibid, 25.

[9] Ibid, 43-44.

[10] Ibid, 51.

[11] Ibid, 31.

[12] Ibid, 72-73.

[13] Ibid, 36.

[14] Ibid, 38.

[15] Ibid, 40.

[16] Ibid.

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