|St Catherine of Genoa|
|by Richard Lang
"My Me is God, nor do I recognise any other Me except my God Himself."
--St Catherine of Genoa
St Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) was born to an aristocratic family in the great Italian seaport of Genoa. From early on she was attracted to the spiritual life. At 13 she applied to join an Augustinian convent, but was refused because of her age. Soon after this her father died and her elder brother, to improve the family's position, arranged for her to marry Guiliano Adorno, member of an affluent Genoese family.
This was an unhappy marriage at first - Guiliano was unfaithful and financially irresponsible. Ten years on however, in 1473, life changed for Catherine after she experienced a profound spiritual conversion. She began going out into the streets of Genoa, caring for the poor. Giuliano then experienced a conversion too. Reconciled, Catherine and Giuliano moved into a small house near the great Pammatone Hospital in Genoa, and began working there for free. In 1479 they moved into the hospital, and in 1490 Catherine was appointed Director, a post she held until 1496. During her Directorship the disastrous plague of 1493 hit the city. Four-fifths of the citizens who had remained in Genoa perished. Later that year Guiliano died.
After relinquishing the Directorship Catherine continued working at the hospital. During her final years she spoke about her spiritual experiences. These teachings were later written down by her admirers and transmitted in two treatises, On Purgation and Purgatory and The Spiritual Dialogue. Catherine died in 1510 after several years of declining health.
Catherine of Genoa followed the spiritual path of service. She gave her life to caring for the poor and sick. But she also followed the path of Self-knowledge. She awoke to who she really was, realising that her innermost being was God. This awakening was the source of her compassion.
Awakening to our identity with God is the profoundest thing that can happen to us. It is realising that the Source of the world is within, closer than one's breathing. What a staggering realisation. Deep down we are really God. (And of course still human. These two aspects of our identity continue to co-exist, until we die.) The realisation of who we really are is so immense, so incomprehensible, that it's impossible once and for all to get used to it. Every so often it creeps up on one again, inspiring wonder, joy, gratitude...
Realising her innermost identity inspired in Catherine a profound love for and commitment to her fellow men and women. This makes sense, for awakening to who one really is, which is pure spirit or awareness, is also seeing that this spirit is unseparate from others. There is no dividing line between spirit (or God, the Self, Buddha Nature, the Beloved - choose whatever name you like) and the world. The person before you - in Catherine's life, the poor and the sick - is yourself. This is not just a nice idea - it is self-evident, the simple truth. Identifying with the imageless Godhead - seeing that one really is the imageless Godhead - means seeing there is nothing separating you from anyone.
This truth is at the heart of Christ's teaching. (It was Christ who inspired Catherine.) Christ's realisation was "I and my Father are one" - which St Catherine also experienced first-hand. (This experience is within everyone's reach - it is everyone's birthright.) From this flows a powerful implication: "Love your neighbour as yourself." We might justifiably add: "Because your neighbour really is yourself."
Catherine was a special person. Not all who awaken to their true nature serve the poor and sick. But we need not compare ourselves to her and judge ourselves lacking. When we look within we find the same Godhead she found - in all its power, glory and wisdom. And our lives, like Catherine's, also unfold uniquely from this inner Fountainhead - in just the right way for us.
As we continue awakening to our true nature, and surrendering to it's guidance, so, little by little, we come to trust it more deeply.
St Catherine said: "My Me is God, nor do I recognise any other Me except my God Himself." Recognising this, we discover an astonishing, healing truth - our neighbour's face is our own.