Catherine of Siena to the Class of 2015

The commencement season is upon us, and TV news and social media will feature clips of commencement speakers’ funniest, snarkiest, most political,and yes, most inspiring lines. I have never been asked to give a comment speech, but I can imagine how difficult it is. How do you say something inspiring that doesn’t sound like a cliché? How many people actually listen to the address in this day and age of smart phones loaded with Facebook, Twitter and Candy Crush? If it were me, I’d go with Catherine of Siena! What, you might ask, does a young woman who lived in the 14th century have to say to the graduating class of 2015?

If Catherine were living today, she might be introduced as someone on the front lines of the Ebola fight, in the way she was on the front lines of caring for those dying of the Black Death. She might be singled-out for her contributions to peace building in the Middle East for the way she made contributions to peacemaking in Italy in her time. In 2015, she would be cited for being one of the most influential women in the Catholic Church who is in Pope Francis’s inner circle, as she was both a confidant and consultant to Pope Gregory XI and Pope Urban VI. It is Catherine who is credited with keeping the Church from schism following the move of the Papal court to Avignon.

Catherine would be described as the epitome of a missionary disciple as Pope Francis envisions it. Catherine was a joyful woman, who witnessed to the joy of the Gospel in every part of her life. Catherine saw the failures of the Church, was horrified—once even quoting the Gospel of Mathew calling the hierarchy a “brood of vipers” (Mt. 23:33). And yet, Catherine loved the Church for knowing it was instituted by Christ. Catherine discovered in the midst of living in the world how to nurture a deeply contemplative life. Though she desired to spend her day in adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus called her out into the chaos of a community touched by the plague and a church rocked by scandal, and she discovered Christ was with her in the “cell” of our soul.

catherine%20of%20sienaWhat would Catherine say to the Class of 2015? To their delight, she would be short and to the point. Catherine would say “Be who God made you to be and you will set the world afire.” In Catherine’s experience, she learned that she was most herself and her most effective when God was her reference point. In fact, she once wrote that separation from God ends in confusion. In Catherine’s book called The Dialogue, God shares with Catherine this image of how united his sons and daughters are to him.

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. Now, consider, in the same way, that the soul is a tree existing by love, and that it can live by nothing else than love; and, that if this soul have not in very truth the divine love of perfect charity, she cannot produce fruit of life, but only of death. It is necessary then, that the root of this tree, that is the affection of the soul, should grow in, and issue from the circle of true self-knowledge which is contained in Me, who have neither beginning nor end, like the circumference of the circle, for, turn as you will within a circle, inasmuch as the circumference has neither end nor beginning, you always remain within it. “This knowledge of yourself and of Me is found in the earth of true humility, which is as wide as the diameter of the circle, that is as the knowledge of self and of Me for, otherwise, the circle would not be without end and beginning, but would have its beginning in knowledge of self, and its end in confusion, if this knowledge were not contained in Me. (Dialogue, 10)

Happiness, Catherine would say, is found in a life of integration. Happiness is found in relationship with God, the one who knows you best, and rooted and nourished by this love, a life lived pursuing truth and serving the good of our community. Catherine would confidently say that with God, you, the Class of 2015 can change the world!

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Have You Any Wool?



We have sheep. Six of them. Three ewes, two little ewe lambs, and one ram (which we affectionately call Rambo).

It is true what they say about sheep They are stupid. They will follow the sound of your voice, especially if they think you have food. They are, in fact, better behaved than goats. They will wander off – they need boundaries for their safety. And they need a shepherd to take care of them. The Gospel reading on the Good Shepherd is a beautiful story of how much God loves us, taking care of us because we really need to be taken care of. Having sheep of our own, I have come to appreciate this Gospel more and more. While I do see my own need for Christ in the way our sheep need us, I am becoming more and more aware of how foundational that Good Shepherding is.  

Next week, we will have our annual sheep shearing on the farm. It is an amazing thing to watch a skilled sheep-shearer in action. Our shearer says, “You need to shear a thousand sheep to know how to shear a sheep,” and he has sheared thousands. It takes him less than five minutes to shear one animal. Then my work begins. You see, I spin their wool into yarn. It is this process of making yarn that has deepened my appreciation for My Shepherd.

Once the sheep is sheared, the fleece needs to be washed, picked, carded (or combed), made into rovings, drafted, spun, plied, skeined, soaked, and hung to dry. Each step is

Washing Rambo's fleece

Washing Rambo’s fleece

dependent on the previous step being done well. The shearing needs to be done in a single swipe in order to maintain the longest length of each fiber. If this is done poorly, then the fibers will be too short to spin, and the fleece is useless. When the fleece is washed, it needs to be torn into small sections before it is put in the soapy water. If this is done poorly, the fleece will get all matted together, and it will be useless. The picking process is where the fibers of the fleece are gently pulled apart from each other to prepare it for carding, which is the process of combing the fibers so they are all going in the same direction. If the picking is done poorly, the fibers will cling to each other in the carding process and not comb well. If the carding is done poorly, the rovings will not draft well, which makes spinning the wool very difficult, often resulting in lumpy yarn, which makes for messy hats and mittens.

As I work my way through this process, I am keenly aware that what I do in the moment will have consequences for the next stage. But I am even more aware of how dependent each step is on the previous one, going back to the shearing, and further back to the tending of the flock. The quality of the fleece is dependent on how well the sheep had been cared for in the field. What kind of pasture did they have to eat? Was their hay of good nutritional value? Were they protected from predators? Was the field relatively clean (do you know how hard it is to get a sticker bush off a sheep’s back!)? The care of the shepherd for the sheep is foundational to the flourishing of the fleece. 

And the care of My Shepherd for me is foundational to my flourishing as a human being. The journey of my spiritual life has been a process of shearing and washing and picking and carding – a process of cleaning up and straightening out my life so that my soul can proclaim the greatness of the Lord! In the midst of the “picking” of life, we can get caught up in what is in front of us, and forget the foundation of love we have been given to accomplish each task. The Good Shepherd has given us all the love we need to complete the task at hand, and shows us what the final outcome should look like, which is nothing less than the image and likeness of unconditional Love itself.

I want to become a beautiful skein of yarn that the Lord can use to make others warm in His Love!

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College Online. She lives on the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in northeastern Pennsylvania.