Friday, February 26, 2021

Lenten Book Club Week 1 - Of haircuts and Mantellates...

Hello everybody and welcome to the first installment in our book club series for Lent 2021, I am SO EXCITED!


Today we are set to reflect about Part 1 (technically called Book 1 within the text), which encompassed the first 7ish chapters. I was worried that maybe these chunks would be too much for me to read in a single week, and that maybe we would have to modify the schedule. Um, that is not a problem at ALL as it turns out, πŸ˜‚ and I absolutely sped through this section! I LOVED it, and cannot wait to chat with you all about it!

OK, so Book 1. We are in the 14th century with St. Catherine, who is age 19, and living at home with her family. St. Catherine comes from a big family, I knew that she was youngest of 25 children, although I didn't realize that so many of them had sadly passed away as infants, it sounds like. The book mentions her having, I believe, 13 living siblings. When the story begins, we find that her mom is very concerned with finding her a husband and marrying her off. I suppose that was the 14th century equivalent to lying awake at night with your stomach in a knot worrying about your shy teenager not socializing enough, and learning to drive next year. 😳 But I digress. Mom wants Catherine to get married, but Catherine does not want any part of getting married. She is a very devout young woman, has had a very close relationship with Jesus her whole childhood, and wants to dedicate her life to Christ and the Church.

The opening of this book was so poignant to me, because I related to both of these women in different ways. The mom is being a bit pushy, to be sure, and her daughter is now a grown woman who can make choices for her vocation on her own. But at the same time, as a fellow mom, I empathized with her desire to see her daughter safe and secure in a good situation for her life going forward. Her other children got married, that's the known route. Plus women didn't exactly have an easy time of things back then; that scene description of the festival time leading up to Lent, and the out of control behavior, gave me chills. 😒Having a husband would provide Catherine with some manner of protection against the lecherous element of society. But I also understood Catherine's desire to make her own decisions, and to honor the calling she had to a more religious life. It would be a change from the traditional process for young adults at that time, but change is necessary sometimes to help us to thrive and grow. 

And so that early scene with the mom talking about how beautiful Catherine's hair is, and how that will lure in a good husband, gave me a strong sense of foreboding. πŸ˜‚ And indeed, at first opportunity, Catherine procures a pair of scissors and cuts off her hair. And I was on her side for this! She's a grown woman, she can wear her hair as she pleases. At the same time, the scene at the sauna? 


Sorry Catherine, I'm with your mom on this one, no deliberate walking into scalding steam!!!

But to her credit, her mom does acquiesce, with some help from the dad, to allow Catherine to follow her desire to join the Mantellates, a group of laywomen who devote themselves to the teachings of St. Dominic. Although they do not live in community, they worship and pray together, work together on community service, and generally follow a religious rule that they developed for themselves. Granted, the mom was hoping that the group would reject Catherine's desire to join as she was significantly younger than the other, often widowed, members, but no matter. The mother superior is pretty skeptical, but ultimately Catherine's piety wins them over. She is accepted into the group, and her family welcomes her to continue to reside in their home as she lives out her religious vocation with the Mantellates. 

Immediately, of course, she encounters some drama. :-0 Some of the other members are jealous of her devoutness, and generally insecure about how different she is from the rest of them. So young, and yet seemingly goes into ecstatic fainting spells after receiving the Eucharist. Her confessor is consulted, and he backs her up: she's not faking this, she's genuinely experiencing something, or at the very least, truly believes that she is experiencing something divine. Here too, I can see both sides. One does have to be cautious about supernatural phenomena, and I can understand that the group was concerned that Catherine may either be having visions that weren't from God, or was experiencing something physical and not spiritual. She is asked to receive the Eucharist only once per month to keep these little episodes to a bare minimum, and this sacrifice is a huge one for Catherine, but she accepts it without question.

When we leave off at the end of Book 1, Catherine's family is talking over the dinner table about shenanigans with the pope moving between Rome and Avignon, and Catherine receives a call to leave her home and go out to serve Christ in a new and different way. OOOOOOoooooo! I can't wait to read Book 2! 

I am absolutely loving this book! What are your thoughts on part 1?!


  1. Wow! The book just grabbed me right from page 1 and I literally couldn't put it down until I'd read the entire first part. Never heard of this author before, and now I will probably chase down his other saint book, the same way I do when I discover a new author.

    It's true that Catherine didn't really have much say, at the age of 15, as to what her future should be. But she did find a way to head off the all-but-certain betrothal that was only a day away by cutting her hair. When I read about her catching sight of the scissors next to the blue dress, I first thought that she would take the scissors to the dress itself! Very clever of her to accomplish what she set out to do by destroying something not expensive or irreplaceable.

    I liked two scenes from this section in particular. One is where she shows Fra Tommaso and Fra Bartolomeo that the Lord has taught her to read -- and understand! -- Latin, but she doesn't know individual letters. She knows the words because the Word Himself has taught her. Amazing! The other is when she has visions of the temptations of the world on Shrove Tuesday and successfully begs Jesus to give her the faith to resist. She then asks Him where He was when the visions were tormenting her. His answer? "In thy heart." Catherine later tells Sister Alessia and Sister Francesca: "I could see at once that He is right, as He always is right, even when we do not understand Him." Something worth remembering, indeed. Looking forward to reading Book 2!

    And a bit of good news: my prayers were answered! I finally got a job -- and it's full time, with benefits! Nine months of unemployment finally coming to an end :-)

    1. Hi Dianne! I thought the SAME THING at first about the dress! And I was like: "uh oh!" but then the revelation about her hair was one of those moments where one wonders how they didn't see that ending sooner! And YES about the languages, I had forgotten about that part! That's truly amazing, right?

      oh my goodness, I'm so thrilled to hear this, CONGRATULATIONS!


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